Tim Leffel On The World’s 21 Cheapest Countries

tim leffel author of world's cheapest travel destinationsTim Leffel’s mission is to help skinflints like me find travel destinations they can afford. He traveled around the world on a shoestring with his wife three times and decided to write a book about the world’s cheapest countries after realizing that there was no single resource out there for travelers looking for bargain destinations. The fourth edition of his book, “The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune,” is due to be released in January and Leffel maintains a blog devoted to the cheapest travel destinations on the planet.

I had a chance to check out the forthcoming edition of Tim’s book and it’s packed with data on how much you’ll spend in the 21 destinations he profiles, along with insightful and sometimes hilarious advice on where to go and how to travel. (“I have a daughter and I have taken her abroad to eight countries now, but I am not yet ready to take her on crappy third-world buses, pumping her full of malaria pills, exposing her to aggressive deformed beggars, or trying to ward off touts while simultaneously keeping her occupied.”)
%Gallery-173113%For example, he informs readers that a beer in Nepal costs the same as an ounce or two of marijuana or a finger of hash; double rooms or suites in private homes in Bulgaria go for $5-20 per person; and a full three-course meal in Bolivia can be had for as little as $2. I caught up with Leffel at his home in Tampa this week to talk about the world’s cheapest travel destinations.

boliviaYou just returned from Bolivia. A lot of people consider that to be one of the cheapest countries in the world. Do you agree?

I agree. It’s probably the best deal in South America. In the Americas, Nicaragua might be a bit cheaper, but they’re neck and neck. But it’s hard to compare, it depends on what you’re doing, where you’re staying. And for Americans, Bolivians have reciprocal visa fees, so you have to cough up $130 at the airport just for the pleasure of walking out of the airport.

Do the costs in Bolivia vary from region to region? A lot of people don’t like to stay in La Paz because of the altitude.

Not really, but the altitude in La Paz hit me hard because I was coming from Florida – sea level. I felt like crap when I landed at the airport in La Paz, but then I got on a connecting flight to Sucre, which is lower and felt better. But then I went to Potosi, which is more than 13,000 feet, and had a pretty rough headache for a day or two.

Coming from the U.S. can you avoid La Paz?

No, but you can get out of there cheaply. My flight to Sucre was only $67.

What makes Bolivia so cheap?

Meals are cheap. Accommodations are reasonable and transportation costs are very low because Venezuela subsidizes their fuel. Buses cost $1.50-$2 per hour depending on the class of the bus. A set meal of a few courses, a soup and a main dish and a drink or dessert is a couple dollars. Two to three dollars in a basic place, or more if you are in a nice restaurant, but even in those places the prices aren’t bad at all. Alcohol is cheap. It’s a cheap place to party.

Give me an idea for what mid-range accommodation goes for in Bolivia?

I had a pretty nice room with private bath and hot water for $8.50 that was quite comfortable. Then I paid $32 for a full-blown hotel. For $20-35 you can usually get a decent mid-range hotel room pretty much anywhere. Bolivia is a poor country and there isn’t much domestic tourism so there isn’t much competition. In Potosi, the most expensive hotel in town was about $70 but most were in the $20-40 range.

Sucre is especially nice. It’s a beautiful old colonial city like you see in a lot of Latin American countries but much cheaper than a lot of other places.

Do you consider Nicaragua to be the cheapest country in Central America?

Yes, but Guatemala isn’t very expensive either. Honduras is quite cheap on the mainland but most people are there to visit the islands, which are more expensive.

nicaraguaBut Nicaragua’s become quite a trendy destination. Aren’t the prices going up there?

Really only in Granada. That’s where people with money go. But even there, you can go out and get a really great meal for $4 and you don’t have to look hard for deals like that – they’re right there in the center. It’s also one of the cheapest places to drink I’ve ever seen. As long as you drink rum or beer they make domestically.

Ometepe is a really good deal; almost any of the small towns are very cheap. It’s a wide-open blank slate. There isn’t much tourism besides Granada and San Juan Del Sur. But that’s still mostly a surfer/backpacker hangout too. There are a few nice hotels, but the bulk are hostels and cheap guesthouses. It’s a cheap place to eat, surf and party. The drawback is that it isn’t real comfortable to get around – you’re mostly on chicken buses.

You mention cheap drinking. Bulgaria has very cheap beer and wine. It’s on your list of cheap destinations as well, right?

Yes, I was just there for the first time in April. I loved it. It was gorgeous and there were very few tourists. It’s incredibly cheap to eat and drink there and the food there is very fresh and good.

rila monastery in bulgariaI love Bulgaria but I haven’t been there in a while. How are the prices now?

I think it’s the cheapest country in Europe. Accommodation may be a little cheaper in Romania and maybe even Hungary because there isn’t as much competition in Bulgaria. A lot more people have opened budget-oriented places to stay in Romania in recent years. But I think overall Bulgaria is still cheaper.

Other than Romania and Bulgaria any other cheap countries you like to visit in Europe?

The other two I have in the book are Hungary and Slovakia. I used to have Turkey in the book but it’s gotten too expensive.

I lived in Hungary five years ago when the forint was much stronger and it didn’t seem cheap then, but now it’s reasonable?

Yes, I was there four years ago and it seemed much cheaper on my recent visit. Part of that is more competition among hotels but the forint is also much weaker.

Any other countries like Hungary where the currency has gone down, giving travelers a bargain opportunity?

The euro has gone down and a lot of the non-euro countries in Europe have currencies that have gone down as well. The dollar is also doing well against the currencies in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. But countries like Brazil and Chile have become much more expensive for Americans, because of the strong economies in those countries.

Before we leave Europe, I found some great bargains in the Greek islands this year too. Is Greece in your book?

No, but I’ve heard from a lot of people that prices have gone down there but maybe not as much as they expected, given what’s happened to the economy there. But it’s still a better deal than most of Western Europe and that goes for Portugal too, which also has good prices.

Let’s move on to Asia. Lots of cheap countries there but are there any that stand out?

Most of the countries I surveyed stayed about the same since the last edition of the book came out in 2009 except Thailand, which got a little bit more expensive. Their currency has gotten a bit stronger and stayed there. But I still think that Thailand is a terrific value.

cambodiaOf those three countries, which is the cheapest?

Cambodia is the cheapest and Laos is pretty close. Cambodia is a little easier to get around but I couldn’t believe how crowded Angkor Wat was.

When you travel with your wife and 12-year-old daughter in Southeast Asia, do you stay in very cheap places?

We are more mid-range travelers when I travel with my family. Our budget was $150 per day for the three of us, including everything. It was just a three-week trip and we stayed in hotels, most of them very nice ones, for $40-50 per night. You can get a fantastic room that is like the equivalent of a Hilton or Marriott here for that price. A lot of times that was also for a family suite or a place with three beds. In Cambodia, we paid $44 per night for two connecting rooms. And that was for a very nice hotel with breakfast included, hot showers, and maid service every day.

Any other countries in the region that you like?

Malaysia is a great value too. You get a lot for your money and the food is great. It’s more expensive than those countries but the infrastructure is better too. Indonesia is a great value as well, depending on where you are.

Even in Bali?

Even in Bali. It isn’t as cheap as it used to be but you can still get very reasonably priced hotels. But it’s getting polluted and crowded there.

How about the Middle East?

I just have Jordan and Egypt in the book. The region is such a powder keg. Jordan is a great deal. Egypt – who knows what’s going to happen there, but it’s certainly cheap. And it’s probably going to get cheaper too because they are so desperate for tourists to return. You can find a four-star hotel in Luxor or Aswan for $50-60 per night. There are deals galore if you want to go to Egypt.

How about Africa?

I just have Morocco and Egypt in the book. There’s a backpacker route along the east coast of Africa that is fairly reasonable if you stick to that path but the real trouble is that it’s hard to get around both comfortably and cheaply.

moroccoWhat about Morocco?

Prices have gone up there but it’s still a good country to visit on a budget. The prices are comparable to Eastern Europe. You can get a good deal on a hotel, and good food too.

What would you spend if you went to Morocco with your family?

Probably about $150 per day to be pretty comfortable. If you want a beautiful, atmospheric hotel though, you’d pay about $60-80 per night – you don’t find the same screaming bargains there that you would in Southeast Asia. Backpackers can find places to stay for $10-15 per night, but they might find cold showers and squat toilets too.

So for Americans, it’s pretty expensive to get to a lot of the cheapest countries. Of those that we can fly to cheaply, what are the best options?

Latin America. I have Mexico in the book as an honorable mention because the coastal resort areas aren’t that cheap but the interior is. Central America is pretty reasonable and you can find pretty good deals to Ecuador as well. My last flight there cost about $600 round trip.

How did you decide to write this book?

I went around the world with my wife three times. We were teaching English and I was writing stories as well. There was no good guide to figure out what countries were the cheapest; we just figured it out by trial and error. There was nothing out there, so I started working on it when we had our daughter because we were staying home and not traveling. I put it out and it did well, and then we put out a second edition and that did even better, so we’ve kept it going and we started a blog too. I also run a few other websites like Perceptive Travel, and Practical Travel Gear.

nepalWhat other very cheap countries do you write about in the book?

Nepal and India. Nepal is probably the cheapest place in the world. And India is pretty close. Indians are seen as wealthy by the Nepalis, so that shows you that it’s all relative.

Do you think these countries want to appear in your guidebook or are they not that keen to attract budget travelers?

I don’t think most of them are that thrilled to be in the book. No one wants to be perceived as a cheap destination. But some of these countries are smarter about it than others. Thailand did a study a few years back and found that backpackers spend more in aggregate than other travelers but just over a longer time period, so once they crunched those numbers they realized they did need to attract those people.

And it’s not just young backpackers looking for cheap places to stay. I’m married with two kids and I’m still looking for cheap places to visit!

I know! I’m in my 40s and I meet all kinds of people who want to get the most out of their vacation time so they go where they can afford.

[Photo credits: Tim Leffel, Cavallotkd, globalmultiplelisting, Mike Behnken, and Ahron de Leeuw on Flickr]

Photo Of The Day: Egyptian Sphinx

Thanksgiving is a holiday that embraces traditions. It only seemed appropriate then to close out this long holiday weekend with an image of that most-iconic of Egyptian historical landmarks: the Sphinx. This image was taken by Flickr user robert vaccaro. I like the shot’s side-profile perspective and the nice contrast of sandy rock with clean, blue sky. It’s a simple yet classic image that’s well framed and eye-catching.

Taken any great photos on your trip to Egypt? Or maybe just during your visit to Cairo, Illinois? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user robert vaccaro]

Mental Math: Easy Rules Of Thumb For Converting Currency

Being in a new country is full of enough culture shock – trying to remember how many dollars to the krona doesn’t need to be part of it.

After all, constantly whipping out a calculator (well, a cellphone) and spending five minutes trying to figure out if that sandwich is really a good price is a waste of your valuable vacation time.

To make things easier on you, here are some basic rules of thumb to help you guesstimate the exchange rates in a sampling of different countries.

It’s important to note that currencies fluctuate all the time, so these rules of thumb should not be used as actual foundations for financial transactions. They were based off the most recent exchange rates as of midweek on the week of November 5, 2012. If you actually want to know what the exchange rate is for a given country, look it up. And if you want to know again a week later, look it up again.

These rules of thumb are intended to help you quickly do the mental math required to figure out if, yes, that sandwich is a good deal. Or, when you withdraw 400 pesos from the ATM, roughly how much you’re taking out in US dollars.

Disclaimer: this post is admittedly America-centric, but the reality is that’s my perspective as a traveler. I hope this will help others as it’s helped me.

Asia
China: Divide all prices quoted in yuan by about 6 for a dollar estimate.

Japan: Divide all prices quoted in yen by 100 and then tack on about 25% for a dollar estimate.

India: It’s slightly more than 50 rupees to the dollar.

Thailand
: Roughly, divide the prices you see in bahts by about 30 and you’ll get the dollar value.

South Korea: Divide Korean prices by about 1,000 for the USD estimate.

Europe
Eurozone: Add a 25% premium to all the prices you see.

UK: Multiply pound prices by 1.5 and then round up to guesstimate the dollar amount.

Switzerland: Roughly 1-to-1 with the US dollar.

Russia: Divide prices by about 30.

South and Central America
Mexico: Divide the prices you see by 13 for a sense of the USD price.

Guatemala: Divide prices by 8.

Belize: Cut the prices you see in half.

Colombia: This one’s a little tricky. First, divide the Colombian price you see by half. Then divide by 1,000. If you’re lazy and on the go, that’s very rough. For a slightly cleaner conversion, do that and then add back 20%.

Argentina: Divide Argentine prices by about 5.

Ecuador: Trick question. Ecuador uses the USD as its currency, so no conversion needed.

Dominican Republic: Divide prices in the D.R. by 40 for a sense of US equivalents.

Jamaica: Divide prices by 100 and then add back about 10%.

Africa & Mideast
South Africa: Divide prices by a little less than 9 for the US equivalent.

Kenya: Divide by 100, and then add back about 15%.

Morocco: Like for South Africa, divide by a little less than 9.

Israel: Divide by about 4 to estimate the US price.

Turkey: Divide by 2 and then add back 25%.

Egypt: Divide by about 6.

Oceania
Australia: For estimating purposes, roughly 1-to-1.

New Zealand: Take a 20% discount on the prices you see.

[Image credit: Flickr user Images_of_Money]

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said to “divide by half” rather than the correct “divide in half” or “cut in half,” and has been amended.

Egypt Reopens Important Tombs At Saqqara


Despite facing political turmoil, authorities in Egypt have been forging ahead with renovations of key archaeological sites. Last week saw the renovation and reopening of two important tombs, the Serapeum and the tomb of Akhethotep & Ptahhotep.

The Serapeum dates to 1390 B.C. and was a tomb for holy bulls. I visited in 1991 and the memories of the gloomy underground corridors and giant sarcophagi are still vivid in my mind. It was closed in 2001 due to water leaking inside and shifts in the earth that threatened the underground structure.

The tomb of Akhethotep & Ptahhotep housed a father and son who were both high officials for the last two pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty around 2375 B.C. The double tomb is brightly painted with scenes of religious rituals, agriculture, hunting, and children playing.

Both tombs are at Saqqara, 30 kilometers south of Cairo and the site of Egypt’s first pyramid.

Authorities plan to open five more tombs soon. The government has spent millions of dollars on this work and hopes to lure back tourists who have been scared away by the recent unrest.

Check out this video from the Chinese-American NTD Television for some striking visuals of these two ancient tombs.

The Travels Of Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost ArkOne of the greatest characters in movie history makes his way to Blu-Ray Disc today when “Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures” is released for the first time. The new box set lets us join the legendary globetrotting archaeologist as he goes in search of fortune and glory in a number of far-flung locations spread out across the planet.

Watching the Indy movies as a boy, I was mesmerized by all the exotic locations he found himself in and vowed that one day I would follow in his fictional footsteps. I too wanted to stroll through bustling marketplaces, visit ancient ruins and explore remote landscapes. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some of the same places that are depicted in the films. Luckily, I didn’t have to battle supernatural forces, secret cults or Nazis to do so.

Just exactly where has Indy’s adventures taken him? Here is a list of the key locations that he visited in the course of the four films.

Peru
Our first introduction to Henry Jones, Jr. came at the beginning of 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which opened with the adventurer leading an expedition deep into the Peruvian jungle in search of a lost golden idol. He returned to Peru in 2008 with the release of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which gave us a glimpse not only of ancient Inca ruins but also the famous giant geoglyphs known as the Nazca Lines.

You can replicate Indy’s adventures in Peru by visiting Inca ruins yourself. Places like Machu Picchu, Sacsahuaman or Ollantaytambo may no longer be hidden in the dense jungle, but they are still impressive archaeological sites nonetheless. Flights above the Nazca Lines are a popular option too, as those strange glyphs depicting monkeys, humming birds and other animals that can only be seen from the air continue to bewilder even in the 21st century. Of course, the Amazon Rainforest is an amazing destination in its own right and Peru offers some unique ways to experience that remote and iconic place too.Ama Dablam in NepalNepal
Indy’s stay in the Himalayan country of Nepal was a brief one. He only stopped by long enough to pick up his erstwhile partner Marion Ravenwood while searching for the Lost Ark. But your visit shouldn’t be as short, as the country has some of the best hiking in the world and Kathmandu is one of the most unusual and colorful cities you’ll ever see. Make the hike to Everest Base Camp, trek the Annapurna Circuit or visit the famous Chitwan National Park, which is home to wild tigers, elephants and rhinos. Adventure is around every corner in Nepal.

Egypt
Our intrepid hero made his way to Egypt in search of the fabled Lost Ark of the Covenant but there is still plenty of history for us to discover there as well. The Great Pyramids at Giza, the Sphynx and the Temple of Hatshepsut can still inspire awe, while a visit to the legendary Valley of the Kings and Queens is akin to stepping 5000 years into the past. Watch the Egyptian countryside drift by on a classic Nile cruise and drop by Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo to check out the more than 120,000 items that are on display there. That’s more artifacts than even Indy himself could hope to collect.

China
In his second big screen adventure, 1984’s “Temple of Doom,” our good Dr. Jones began his escapades in Shanghai, China, where he had a somewhat less than successful encounter with Chinese mobsters. Your visit to that ultra-modern and bustling city doesn’t have to be quite so chaotic, however. Start with a visit to the Shanghai Museum, which is one of the best in the entire country, before heading over to Dongtai Road to search for hidden treasures of your own in the quaint antique shops. Discover a slice of serenity while escaping the busy city life in Yu Yuan Garden, then stroll the Bund, Shanghai’s famous waterfront district along the Huangpu River.

India
Leaving China behind, Indy found his next adventure in a remote region of India where he managed to not only recover the legendary lost Sankara stones, but also free a group of children enslaved to an evil Thugee cult. Rich in history and culture, India is a country that has something for nearly every kind of traveler. The northern region is bounded by the high Himalaya, making it a great destination for trekkers and backpackers, while the southern coastlines feature breathtaking beaches along the Indian Ocean. While there, you can learn the secrets of yoga from a master, visit ancient Hindu temples, explore national parks inhabited by tigers and elephants and so much more. Don’t forget to drop by the famous Taj Mahal either. It may seem like a tourist cliche, but some places are considered classics for good reason.

The Lost City of Petra in JordanJordan
In “The Last Crusade,” which was released in 1989, Indiana Jones and his father went in search of the Holy Grail, ultimately discovering it inside the famous archaeological site of Petra, located in Jordan. You won’t find a single trace of the Holy Grail anywhere near Petra (believe me, I looked!) but the city remains an amazing destination. History buffs will find it more than lives up to the hype, as do the amazing Roman ruins of Jerash in the northern part of the country. Jordan’s capital Amman is a vibrant, energetic city that has much to offer in terms of culture and nightlife while the Wadi Rum desert and Dana Nature Reserve are the perfect escapes for those looking to shed the trappings of modern culture instead. Complete your visit with a relaxing float in the Dead Sea, located not far from some of the most important religious sites to both Islam and Christianity.

Other Destinations
These are just a sampling of some of the exotic locations that Indiana Jones visited throughout the course of the films. He also traveled to Arches National Park in Utah, as well as Berlin and Venice in “Last Crusade” and dropped by a nuclear testing facility in the Nevada desert in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” In between his thrilling adventures, Indy also managed to find time to teach archaeology at Marshall College, located in Bedford, Connecticut. The college may be fictional, but you can still stroll its hallowed grounds as Yale University served as the backdrop.

While “Crystal Skull” wasn’t as well received by critics and fans as the previous films in the series, rumors persist of a potential fifth Indiana Jones movie. If so, it’ll be interesting to see where Indy ends up next and what new destinations he’ll add to his passport in the process.