Friday, December 9th, 2016

What Are High Value Travel Destinations?

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What makes a travel destination a high value destination?  This is something that I’ve been trying to define for the past few years, and I feel like I’ve finally got it:

Value is figuring out what is important to you in a destination — the things you want to experience the most, the trade-offs you can live with, and where you want to splurge — then comparing destinations that offer what you want, eventually figuring out which destination gives you the most for your money.  

First of all:

A value destination is not necessarily a cheap destination.

If cheapness was the most important attribute, my list of value destinations would be Laos and Cambodia. That’s it.  And while I fiercely love those two countries, I’d classify them both as “you get what you pay for” destinations.  Cambodia is strewn with garbage; Laos has very rough overland transportation; flush toilets are rare in both countries.

Value goes far beyond prices.

Take the cheapest place in the world I’ve ever visited: Tat Lo, Laos.

Tat Lo's Lake

In Tat Lo, in the heart of the Bolaven Plateau of southern Laos, I had my own riverfront bungalow with a balcony for $2 a night and a sit-down dinner cost me less than $1.

But consider that my bungalow had a shared squat toilet and the shower barely spat out a few drops of cold water.  The village’s only internet was accessed on desktop computers from the 90s for a whopping $3 an hour.  You can get there by bus or motorbike, but bus travel in Laos can be delayed, problematic, and quite uncomfortable.  Additionally, I worried about getting sick or injured in a place where the only decent clinic was hours and a border crossing away.

Tat Lo was a nice place to visit, and it was dirt cheap, but I would never consider it a high value destination.

Alternately, let’s consider an expensive destination: Paris.

Marais Boulangerie

Paris is one of the most expensive cities in Europe — but there is nowhere else in the world remotely like Paris.  Every moment of every day is steeped in beauty, romance, and the unique Paris character. Simply walking down the street and gazing at the architecture is a unique Paris experience.  Buying a baguette at a boulangerie is a unique Paris experience.  Riding the metro and seeing an accordion player step into your car is a unique Paris experience.

So while you’ll pay high prices for lodging, food, and attractions, it is absolutely worth it.  I’ve been to other cities in France (including Lyon, the closest thing to Paris) and I can assure you it’s not a France thing — it’s a Paris thing.  No other destination could serve as a credible alternative to Paris.

Yellow Gamla Stan

Few destinations have that unique defining character, however.  I found Stockholm to be gorgeous, pristine, and something out of a fairy tale, but it didn’t really have anything that was so unique to Stockholm that I’d shell out tons of money to return.  I’d much rather visit Prague, another gorgeous, fairy tale city (albeit not quite as pristine), and pay a third of what I’d pay in Stockholm.

So where are other high value travel destinations in the world?  Here are my picks:

Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market

Northern Thailand

While Southeast Asia offers high value for money in general, the absolute best value is in northern Thailand.  The amenities for Westerners are fantastic (quality accommodation, tons of restaurants, great wifi, English speakers), the healthcare is excellent, and prices are much lower than in Bangkok and the beaches.  Additionally, northern Thailand prices are only slightly higher than Cambodia and Laos, but there is much better infrastructure.

Some of my Chiang Mai-living friends pay less than $200 per month for a nice studio apartment with wifi and cable.  The street food and night markets are amazing and they never pay more than $2 for a meal. Northern Thailand in general is home to great mountain treks, animal sanctuaries, and adventure activities, as well as yoga, meditation, and massage courses, and things are even cheaper in the countryside.

Image: chop1n

Budapest

In my mind, Budapest is one of the best value cities in Europe.  Budapest is majestic with grand boulevards, wonderful architecture, and a fascinating history.  There are also unique experiences like the city-wide thermal baths, which are cheap, cultural, and fun.  My biggest surprise was that Hungarian food was so delicious, especially the epic cakes and chestnut-filled desserts!

If you’re looking for a beautiful and culture-filled city in Europe, you could spend $50-150 per day on a bare-bones to mid-range budget in London or Amsterdam or Barcelona.  Or you could go to Budapest and spend $30-100 per day without taking a step down in quality.

Table Mountain Flowers

South Africa

What stood out to me right away is that prices in South Africa were less than what I’d pay in Europe and North America on everything from sandwiches to luxury tours.  The exchange rate is one reason for that.  This is a country where you can get quality hostel lodging for under $10, and luxury hotel stays cost hundreds of dollars less than what a similar stay in the US would run you.

Excluding safaris, which really belong in their own category, I found South Africa to be most similar to Australia and New Zealand in what it offers as a destination: people go for spectacular scenery, adventure activities, overlanding, and lots of day trips and tours.  In South Africa, it will all cost you much less: for example, tandem paragliding will cost you around $190 in Queensland, Australia; $170 in Queenstown, New Zealand; and just $100 in Cape Town.

Douro Valley

Portugal

I always tell people that the best value in Western Europe is in Portugal.  You still get to experience what makes Western Europe great — fascinating cities, lovely architecture, castles, beautiful small towns, beaches, rural scenery, great wine — for much cheaper than what you’d pay in France, Italy, or even Spain.

In Porto, I stayed in the absolute best hostel of my life, Gallery Hostel, for 20 euros a night.  That would be at least 30 euros in any of the aforementioned countries.

Iceland

Iceland

Expensive Iceland is on this list?  Absolutely.  Where else can you find a milky blue lagoon, glaciers, a wide variety of waterfalls, geysers, natural hot springs, active volcanoes, AND a rift where you can snorkel through freezing cold, bright azure waters, all within a two-hours of a rocking city?  Where else can you find such excellent tourism infrastructure that allows you to see all these natural wonders with ease?

Iceland may be on the pricey side, as are all the Nordic countries, but you get so much beauty and convenience for your money.  And it’s still far less expensive than what you’d pay in Sweden or especially Norway.  That’s what makes Iceland a high value destination to me.

City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia

Finding True Value

True value, however, is subjective to what you want out of your travels.  One of my friends will stay in hostel dorms to save money so he can eat sushi several times a week.  (A good destination for him?  Berlin.  Cheap dorms, quality sushi.)  Another of my friends always stays at the coolest luxury hotels in town, but goes to dive bars where you can drink for less.  (A good destination for him?  Lisbon.  Lots of nice hotels and super-cheap drinks on the streets of Bairro Alto.)

One of my friends is a museum nut (she loves the free museums of London and DC); I like to spend the bulk of my time going for long walks, taking photos and enjoying architecture (you can see why I love Paris, Granada and Edinburgh!).

Think of what is most important to you and find a place that allows you to indulge your interest for less.  Now, that is true value.

Comments

38 Responses to “What Are High Value Travel Destinations?”
  1. What a great perspective on travel! I’m putting Budapest and Portugal on my bucket list now. I also like the idea of living in Northern Thailand for so cheap!

  2. This is a great way to decide what’s important to you while traveling! I would add a few more value destinations: Argentina (wonderful country and culture for less than expected prices), the Baltic States of Europe (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — again, you get great bang for buck), the larger cities in Poland (Krakow, especially – for similar reasons to Budapest), and Malaysia (especially when compared to expensive Singapore!)

    • Love the list, Katie! I thought about Buenos Aires, because when I went four years ago, things cost approximately one third of what they would cost in Boston — but I’ve heard from people who have been more recently that it’s now very expensive.

  3. Amanda says:

    Great picks! I’m totally with you on Budapest and Iceland especially!

    I would also probably add in Slovenia. Even though it’s on the Euro, it’s definitely more Central/Eastern European than Western when it comes to the prices and how crowded it is. Another great destination for people who like pretty scenery and nice cities but don’t want to pay ridiculous prices.

  4. Interestingly, we would agree with you on Iceland. You CAN do it relatively inexpensively and enjoy all that it has to offer at the same time. Our personal choices> Czech Republic (NOT Prague) and Guatemala. Both have so much to offer in exchange for very little money.

  5. North Sumatra in Indonesia is a decent value destination, Lake Toba especially. Food and accommodation are among the cheapest anywhere and many (if not most) places have wifi these days. It’s not especially fast, but it works. Transportation is only slightly better than Laos though, but much cheaper.

  6. Alice says:

    Well put! The view on Value is subjective. What I consider a great value is seeing the history of the places I visit, so I would probably be like your friend and take advantage of those free museums! Haha! Great destination picks!

  7. Julika says:

    Great picks! I wholeheartedly agree on Budapest and Prague, both of which are incredibly gorgeous, very walkable, full of exciting art and culture, but still very cheap. I’m also with Amanda to include Slovenian cities like Ljubljana on this list.
    And Portugal is still so unbelievably underrated! I’m convinced that there is no other country in Europe with a more heavenly affordable combination of exciting history, stunning beaches, amazing architecture, great food, a crazy wild partying scene, and the nicest people ever!

  8. Danielle says:

    Why the random pic of Valencia?

  9. Great post. I have always believed that cheapest does not necessarily mean best value. Whats the point of a $2 room if you hate squat toilets. Its always better to spend a little more for a better experience in my book.

    Thanks Kate, really good insight.

  10. Sara says:

    We found Croatia to be really good value (granted, we were traveling in the off-season). But I’m glad we got there before they switch to the euro, theoretically sometime this summer!

  11. Vanessa says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Value is not the same as cost! It’s about getting your best possible value for your limited time and money. Cheap places can lack value. Expensive places can have tons of value. I call it a coffeecan philosophy – you’ve been saving those coins forever, tossing them in the piggy bank, waiting to get the time off to travel. Why get bad value for your time and money? http://www.turnipseedtravel.com/1/post/2012/11/coffeecan-financing-200-challenge.html

  12. Pal says:

    You made me think, which is always good ;). It feels so natural in a way, but almost impossible explaining, defining it. It has to be related to the feeling of satisfaction as you say, basically leaving with the feeling that it was money well spent. For instance, a few days on the Galapagos are not really cheap compared to the rest of South America, but do you leave the islands as a richer person inside? Absolutely.

    By the way, for now almost the entire South America feels like high value if I apply this thinking, at least for me. But now I’m all confused, thanks ;).

    Anyway, great post and nice for my old Hungarian heritage seeing Budapest making your list too.

  13. Amy says:

    Have you been to Bordeaux, Kate? Anything I found that I liked in Paris (aside from the Eiffel Tower, bien sur!) , was there in Bordeaux. But better because it was cheaper, better weather, cleaner, more “French” and less jammed with tourists. And it’s got both one of the best wine regions in the world on its doorstep and fantastic beaches (the biggest sand dune in Europe, as every Bordelais will insist on letting you know) within easy bus distance. It’s actually sometimes called Petit Paris because the houses are so similar in style as well, so you have the same beautiful streets too.

    Even if you decide you still prefer Paris, you should definitely check out Bordeaux!

    I would agree that Chiang Mai is great value for money. I’d add Genova to the list too. It’s a great city, amazing beaches and the Cinque Terre/Portofino/Santa Marguerita next door, in a great location for vising other gorgeous cities (Milan is also great value for money, but not if you just want tourist stuff- it’s a city to live in).

    • Alex M says:

      I agree about Bordeaux–and my friends and I rented a car and just drove around southern France where we found quite a few quintessential French towns. Tons of places to buy baguettes, hear music, talk to French people.

      Chiang Mai is on my list for this year!

    • I haven’t been to Bordeaux yet, Amy, but you make it sound wonderful!

  14. For me Cambodia is actually a high value destination. Yes there may be parts with lots of rubbish, but people mustn’t forget that this is a post conflict country and it has only been peaceful since 1993. It takes time to recover from 30 years of civil war, and rubbish collection is probably the smallest problem the Government is facing. But for me Cambodia is well on its way and is truly opening up to tourism much more now. Cheap accomodaton and food, beautiful scenery, deserted beaches and awesome sights incl. Angkor Wat.

  15. New York is a great high value destination. While the accommodation might be expensive, the food is relatively cheap & tasty and most of the joy you get from New York is just from walking around and BEING in NYC!

    How do you think Budapest would be for long term living? Say 3-6 months?

    • Very true, Bethaney! Hmmm — I think I might get a bit bored toward the end to live in Budapest for THAT long, particularly if I didn’t travel much during that time, but everyone’s different — perhaps you could give it a shot.

  16. Great article, Kate. On a first time visit to your site, I’m impressed! That photo of South Africa had me hooked for starters. I’d love to go there. Budapest is probably more realistic for me, but I can wholeheartedly agree with you about Portugal. Porto and the Douro are good living by anyone’s standards. (We stayed at the B & B, but I heard great recommendations for Gallery- I believe it was fully booked when I looked) In the Algarve you can still find great beauty and value if you go east, but don’t tell too many people- I like the peaceful life.

  17. When I first saw this I thought you had mentioned Northern Ireland not Northern Thailand and I was shocked… Doh.
    It’s good to read about other places in Europe that you consider less expensive. I’ve spent such a long time in the past trying to find somewhere cheap to go and ended up in Madrid.. Which sucked.
    Also great to learn more about SE Asia. Everything I’ve come to know about it is actually through this blog.

  18. Becci says:

    Great point about Paris! I didn’t spend all that much money there because I was just wandering around getting all dizzy over the lovely food, men and music! And all with a 3 euro bottle of red to top off the evenings 🙂

  19. Laura says:

    While I generally agree with most on your list, I will ask the broader question – if the “value” of a destination is your driver, you are probably traveling for the wrong reasons. Instead, focus on the place you want to go for its own reasons (Paris) and then focus on value within that place. We have remarkably good value alternatives in Paris and Rome, and yes, even Iceland. But we let the place inspire us for what it was, not for the lack of damage it would do to our budget. Perhaps it’s just a different mindset.

  20. Love this piece! I totally agree.

  21. Sam says:

    I definitely agree about Budapest. Actually, I’d also say that Lisbon reminded me quite a lot of Budapest, and part of that was it being a high value destination. I haven’t travelled anywhere else in Portugal, but if the capital is that good value, the rest of the country must be even better. I also really like that you included Iceland here. Definitely good value for what you can see and do there!

  22. Triptease says:

    We love your site, Kate. Thanks for the tips and great photos!

  23. I have a real feeling that New Orleans would make it onto this list, the ambience apparently is incredible.

  24. Betti says:

    it all depends where you are coming from 🙂
    living in Yangon now, Bangkok is extremely high-value on the occasion of each and every visa run we get (every 10 weeks).
    but Yangon itself would be high value because of the uniqueness of the experience of travelling in Burma.
    the experience of Singapore is almost priceless if you have been in SE Asia too long and would appreciate a bit of neat, tidy, organised and English-speaking for a couple of days, just for the sheer contrast. and Singapore is also one of a kind.
    for me, any island or beach with a walk-in from the sand reef suitable for snorkelling (as opposed to having to take a boat ride) tops the list. otherwise I would never pay more than 40 dollars for accommodation in SE Asia.
    usually I put a ceiling on the accommodation cost, and I take whatever fits into that budget. if it’s a nice place with aircon, hot water and tv for 15 usd in Bangkok, I take that. or a dorm bed in Singapore for the same.

  25. Chris says:

    I keep it simple for the most value : where I really want to go but have never been. So that has Madrid and Vietnam high on my list. I didn’t realize Portugal was so affordable!

  26. Hi Kate McCulley,

    Thanks for sharing a useful information. That was an excellent article i ever read!!!!! And also images are looking awesome… Once again thanks….

    Regards,
    Dinesh

  27. Wow loved this article. There are definately some places on here that I would not think of–iceland and portugal. As a college student I also headed for the cheapest countries, now I will have to rethink!

  28. Sher S says:

    I feel exactly the same way about Prague and Paris! They’re my 2 most favorite cities in the world! I just got back from Budapest and agree that it’s a very high value for your money spent. SO much to do without spending a lot. I LOVED the pastries we bought from the central market hall and chicken paprikash – my favorite dish ever!

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