Tim 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.
You 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.
But 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.
I 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.
Of 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.
What 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.
What 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]