Summer is vacation time, when school is out and the road is beckoning. But, despite the best attempts of the tourism industry, a combination of ecological disasters and empty wallets has put the kibosh on many traditional summertime destinations. With that in mind, DailyFinance set out to find the best values for budget travelers who need to get out of Dodge but can't afford to spend a fortune. With low prices, well-established tourism infrastructures, and exotic cultures, our list of the ten best vacation bargains is the perfect place to start when the siren song of distant climes calls you to the road!
To determine the best budget travel destinations, we started with the Penn World Table, an analysis of purchasing power parity that was developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. A measure of the comparative prices for goods and services in different countries, the Penn World Table identified 55 countries where goods were least expensive -- around 20% or less than their comparative prices in the U.S.
A good vacation requires more than cheap prices, so we filtered out countries that are at war, restrict travel to Americans, or don't have a tourist infrastructure. While our final list skews a bit toward Southeast Asia, we found some options that should appeal to the traveler who wants to try a variety of settings.
1. Vietnam: Yes, it's halfway around the world and, yes, tickets from New York City start at roughly $1,000. But if you can get to Vietnam, the cheap prices and extensive attractions will make the trip more than worthwhile. Home to five UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as dozens of beaches and national parks, the country has something for everyone. Moreover, with good hotel rooms starting in the $5 range and many meal options under a dollar, it's hardly surprising that more than 4 million tourists travel there each year.
2. Argentina: With hotel rooms starting at roughly $12 per night, Argentina has a lot to offer the budget traveler. The capital, Buenos Aires, is known for its cultural offerings, while the rest of the country offers a mind-boggling variety of natural attractions. For beach lovers, there are oceanside resorts like Mar del Plata, while ecotravelers might enjoy a visit to the pristine waterfalls of Iguazu National Park. Those who prefer colder conditions can hit the slopes in Las Leñas, or even travel to the Las Glacieres ice field, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. And, for those who want to travel to the end of the earth, Ushuaia claims the distinction of being the southernmost city in the world. Given the numerous options, it's not surprising that the land of Eva Peron has annual tourism revenues of more than $25 billion.
3.Laos: One of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, Laos' cheap exchange rate and growing number of tourist options make it a great choice for travelers who are watching their wallets. Whether trekking to the 2,500 Buddha sculptures of the Pak Ou Caves, touring cheap backpacking attractions in Vang Vieng, or gazing on the guilded beauty of Ventiane, visitors to Laos will find a reasonably-priced and beautiful country that isn't overrun with tourists. Hotel rooms start in the $2 range, and there are numerous meal options available for less than $5. However, Laos isn't all fun and games: the State Department warns travelers about unexploded ordinance left over from Laos' civil war; if you go there, be sure to stay on the beaten track!
4. Rwanda: While its 1994 genocide thrust it into the world's newspapers, Rwanda has spent much of the last sixteen years transforming itself into a model for developing countries. Visiting the famous Parc National de Volcans -- where Dian Fossey did her research into mountain gorillas -- costs a steep $500 per person, but there are numerous budget options for nature-lovers; basic accommodations are $8 to $20 per person. Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes, offers an extensive seashore, largely untouched by tourism, and several of the smaller lakes have budding resorts. Animal watchers will love Nyungwe and Akagera national parks, where they can see hippos, giraffes and other animals in their natural habitat. And for those who want to learn more about the Rwandan Genocide, memorials in Kigali, Nyamata and Ntarama give a deeper understanding of the tragedy.
5. Bangladesh: The $110 charge for an entrance visa is pretty steep, but once you've paid the price of admission, Bangladesh is a penny-pincher's wonderland. With mid-range double hotel rooms starting in the $8 range, finding a cheap place to stay shouldn't be hard. When it comes to food, street meals are under a buck and outstanding meals can be had at some of the country's best restaurants for around $8 per person. As far as attractions, Bangladesh is home to a rich fusion of Muslim and Buddhist culture, and its natural attractions like the world's largest mangrove forest and extensive beach resorts exist alongside bustling cities and serene temples.
6. India: While it isn't the cheapest option on this list, India is eminently reasonable, with daily costs hovering around $60 for a couple traveling together. The country, the seventh largest in the world, offers an incredible range of flavors, colors and cultural attractions; luckily, its extensive rail network makes intercity transportation convenient and reasonably priced. For example, fares from Delhi to Calcutta range between $9 and $90, depending upon the speed of the train and the quality of the seat. Food is cheap, although it pays to be choosy about vendors; food poisoning could easily ruin your trip.
7. Indonesia: Every year, the world's most populous Islamic country draws more than 6 million tourists, who pour more than $7 billion into the economy. It's not hard to see why: outdoorsy travelers are drawn to Bali's beaches, Java's surfing and Bunaken's diving options, while the more culturally-minded are attracted to the archipelago's mix of Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic heritage. Both groups can take advantage of Indonesia's incredibly cheap prices: street meals routinely cost less than $1, and even nice restaurants top out at around $10 per person. Hotel rooms start at around $10 per night.
8. Paraguay: For American ecotourists who want to stay fairly close to home, Paraguay offers a wide array of interesting and exciting options. Within its borders, visitors can travel to unspoiled wetlands, a huge tropical savanna region, beautiful rain forests and extensive grasslands. Hotel options are generally under $10 per night and all-you-can-eat buffets run around $4 per person, so the travel dollar goes a long way. Unfortunately, tourists interested in cultural options may be a little bored: while the capital, Asuncion, has a few museums and cathedrals, there isn't really much to justify the $750+ airfare.
9. China: Home to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Gobi desert, and the factories that made most of the items in your home, China is a cultural and commercial wonderland. While its recent decision to float its currency may translate into higher prices, the Middle Kingdom is likely to remain a great tourist bargain. In many areas, bargain hotel rooms hover in the $15 range, and $2 meals are not uncommon. Flying within the country can be expensive, but China has an extensive, reasonably-priced bus and train system, making it possible to travel around without breaking the bank. Besides, with low-priced overruns of name-brand clothes flooding the Chinese market, you could save enough on your wardrobe to finance your entire trip!
10. Egypt: A prominent tourist attraction for centuries, Egypt is most famous for Cairo, home to the great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. However, the country also has a variety of outdoorsy options, including beach resorts, scuba diving, oases and temple towns. Budget hotel rooms cost around $25, although cheaper options are available, and a mid-level restaurant meal costs around $7.
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