I’m often asked how I managed to travel to 24 countries in 12 months on a $35-a-day budget. It was actually easier than you’d think. For starters, I backpacked exclusively, staying in cheap hostels and hotels. I budgeted carefully, but most importantly, I went to countries where I knew my dollar could streeeeeeeeeeetch. In India, it’s possible to live well for as little as $10 – $15 a day (of course, well being entirely subjective!). Below are five countries where value, exchange rates and inspiring travel plays in your favour. Here are some choice destinations for bucket list backpacking on a budget.
Besides the colour, the food, the characters, the temples and the sheer exhilaration of India, the fact that you can eat and sleep for well under 70 AED a day makes it an obvious destination for backpackers on a tight budget. There are plenty of established routes around the country for backpackers to follow, making it easy to make friends and find transport. My own route took me from Mumbai to Goa to Delhi to Rishikesh to Dharamsala. It was just a fraction of the country, but given the savings in costs, I could spend longer in India than in most countries on the planet. Consider that a lunch plate (thali) of delicious curry will cost as little as $2, and you get a sense of just how far your dollars can take you.
It’s the poorest country in South America, and yet it has some of the continent’s most breath-taking landscapes. Hop on the Gringo Trail to the world’s highest navigable lake, Titicaca. Or explore the winding markets of dusty La Paz, the world’s highest capital. There’s rich history in the silver mines of Potosi, or head south to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt desert. In this otherworldly landscape, you’ll find bright red and green mineral lakes, flamingos, llamas, rock formations and steaming volcanoes. Everywhere you look is a photograph. Landlocked Bolivia might be the poor man of the continent, but it is a treasure for the traveller.
Central America has stabilized since the 1980’s, both economically and politically. Today, the region offers great value for the budget conscious traveller. Guatemala is very cheap, but I love returning to Nicaragua. The country has beautiful beaches, some unusual activities (volcano boarding, anyone?) and all the cobblestone colonial charm you’ll find in other, pricier Latin American countries. Managua does not have a fierce reputation of other capital cities in the region, and backpackers will relish swimming under the stars in the warm fresh water of the Laguna De Apoyo.
Southeast Asia offers plenty of bang for the backpacker buck. Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have tremendous value, but landlocked Laos is a true jewel. Poor yet friendly, unassuming yet beautiful, the country has its challenges – roads, funny money, infrastructure – but offers wonderful rewards too. The Buddhist temples and monks of Luang Prabang sparkle, the capital of Vientiane is a modern city evolving, the Plain of Jars has history and mystery, and Vang Vieng has become nothing short than a backpacker Cancun. Floating down the Mekong River on a rubber tube for hours is a lazy way to pass the day, and with its rock bottom prices, there’s no rush to move anywhere else in a hurry.
Western Europe is expensive. Head north to the Baltics however, and you’ll find the charm of Europe – the cobblestone, the cafes, the medieval churches, high cheek boned locals and beautiful rolling countryside – all for a fraction of the price. Lithuania, cheaper than Estonia or Latvia, seems like a country waiting to be discovered. The food is excellent, its history rich, its people friendly, yet attractions and accommodation are at a discount price. While it has joined the European Union and adopted the euro, prices remain low, even in the bustling capital of Vilnius. Once you head into the countryside, which remains almost completely undiscovered by Western tourists, you can find fantastic hiking, biking, and historical trails. With a proud yet tragic tradition of standing up to the Nazis and the Soviets, history buffs will be in their element too.