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8 exotic but cheap vacations

8 exotic but cheap vacationsFrom Peru to Malaysia, there are still fascinating places a couple can travel in style -- even lavishly -- on $100 or less a day. MSN columnist Liz Pulliam Weston reports.

The weak dollar has made travel abroad increasingly painful for most U.S. travelers, who tend to herd to a small number of European destinations: typically the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany.

Budget-minded tourists can cope by scouring the Internet for bargain flights, squeezing into no-star hotels and subsisting on cheese and crackers eaten on a park bench. Or they could consider getting a little more adventurous and traveling to where their dollars still go a long, long way.

Where we went in 2004:

Europe 43%

Caribbean 20%

Asia 17%

South America 9%

Central America 7%

Middle East 4%

Africa 2%

Australia 2%

How does a beachfront bungalow for $10 to $20 sound? Or a seafood dinner for $2? Or admission for two to a museum for less than a buck? Or (if you like luxury) one of the finest hotel rooms in the world, for less than $200 a night?

All this is possible if you break out of the Grand Tour circuit and consider some of the many great travel bargains in other parts of the world.

I asked Tim Leffel, author of "The World's Cheapest Travel Destinations," to pick out eight dollar-stretching countries, including some that would be good for school-age kids. (We agreed that traveling to developing nations with infants and preschoolers is a bit dicey, both for the kids' health and the parents' sanity, although people certainly do it.)

Airfares to these countries from U.S. cities range from a few hundred bucks to $1,000 or more. (You can get an idea of current fares at MSN Travel.) Once you're there, though, you'll spend far less than you would in more developed nations, and often less than you'd spend feeding, entertaining and sheltering yourself at home.
The possibilities are endless
Argentina: Imagine a country with stunning scenery, exciting nightlife, world-class food and wine -- and now imagine it on sale for two-thirds off. Once the most-expensive country in South America, Argentina's economic collapse and subsequent currency devaluation created bargains that are unlikely to last forever, so consider traveling soon. Leffel said budget travelers can get by on $25 to $35 a day, but those willing to spend a bit more -- say, $50 to $100 for a couple -- can feast on gourmet meals and stay in great hotels. Dinner, by the way, is typically served at 10 p.m. and signals the start of partying into the wee hours, which is why Leffel sees Argentina, and especially Buenos Aires, as a better bet for singles and couples than families.

Honduras' Roatan Island: Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras has "postcard perfect" beaches and plenty of expatriates (American and otherwise), which means it's more expensive than the mainland, Leffel said. Still, it's a good value by Caribbean standards and isn't plagued by the street crime and violence that characterize much of the rest of the country.

"The mainland of Honduras has a reputation of being unsafe," Leffel said, "but the island of Roatan is much calmer and is one of the most reasonable places on the planet to get certified as a scuba diver."

Rooms run anywhere from $10 to $200, and a gourmet meal might set you back $15. In the off-season, you may be able to find a dive package that includes steeply discounted or even free hotel rooms.

Malaysia: Malaysia is more westernized than other bargain Asian countries and is, in Leffel's view, "one of the best choices in Asia" for traveling with children. "It's easy to get around, there are plenty of cuisines to pick from, and you can usually drink the water," he notes. "A lot of people speak English and there are also a lot of attractions in a relatively small area."

Malaysia offers beautiful beaches, exotic jungles, colorful temples and some lovely train rides (although "comfortable and efficient buses go almost everywhere," Leffel said). The daily price tag for a bamboo bungalow, meals and snorkeling equipment might be as little as $15 for a couple, with daily costs for food and lodging about twice that in the cities.

Mexico: If you stay away from the overpriced resort towns -- Acapulco, Cancun, Los Cabos, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta -- Mexico can still offer great value for your money. A budget-minded couple can travel comfortably on $40 to $75 a day, while midrange travelers might spend $60 to $150. Another bonus: Flights from the U.S. are still relatively cheap. "There are plenty of beach options for kids and, alternatively, most will enjoy the Copper Canyon train trip (in north central Mexico)," Leffel said. "For couples or adult groups, I would advise people to spend some time in the pretty colonial cities: Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Oaxaca, Merida or San Miguel de Allende. The latter gets a lot of tourists and prices are higher because of all the expats, but the others are more mellow and hotel rates are excellent. All are in the middle interior except for Merida, which is in the Yucatan, four hours west of Cancun."

Morocco: This northern African nation "is practically rowing distance from Europe," in Leffel's words, yet a world away: exotic marketplaces, ancient fortresses and the wail of the muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer five times a day. Get out of the big, chaotic cities of Tangier and Marrakech as quickly as possible, Leffel advises, and head for the uncrowded beaches, beautiful mountains, cedar forests with their Barbary apes and old towns on the Sahara's edge. "The cities can be maddening after a while, but older kids will love the camel rides, desert walks and mountain hikes," Leffel said. A budget-minded couple can get by on $30 to $50 a day, while those looking for more creature comforts might spend $40 to $80.

Peru: The Incan ruins of Machu Picchu are the country's biggest tourist attraction, but there are plenty of others, including Amazon rain forests, colonial cities, whitewater rafting and mountain trekking. "Adults enjoy the low prices and wealth of sightseeing opportunities," Leffel said, "while kids will enjoy all the animals and colorful Andean costumes."

With the exception of a few gustatory oddities, like roasted guinea pig, "most of the food will be recognizable to children, including plenty of pizza," he said. Meals tend to cost $1 to $2 in local restaurants, or $2 to $5 in places catering to tourists. Midrange travelers might pay $20 to $50 a night for lodging in the Lima or Cusco, but elsewhere the rates are typically lower.

Thailand: Here's where even the most frugal traveler might want to cut loose for a night or two, since even the most amazingly luxurious, five-star hotel rooms routinely go for $200 a night or less (a couple of examples include the Oriental, routinely named as one of the best hotels in the world, and the Four Seasons). Otherwise, budget travelers can live on $15 to $25 a day, and beachfront bungalows can be had for $20 or less. Thailand "truly has something for everyone, from backpackers to jet-setters, honeymooners to families with kids," Leffel said. "Stunning beaches and snorkeling/diving, sailing, hiking, elephant rides, floating fruit markets, historic sites and glowing golden temples." And don't forget the shopping; custom, handmade suits with tailored shirts run $80 to $150.

Turkey: People who visit tend to rave about this nation that straddles Europe and Asia, and Leffel is no exception. He calls it "one of the greatest countries in the world for sightseeing" and "one of the best values on the planet," despite prices that have crept higher as tourism expands. Roman ruins, Ottoman palaces, Byzantine art, ancient churches and eye-dazzling mosques will keep your days busy in the cities, while the coast includes plenty of resorts that cater to families. Kids will go nuts over the weird, alien landscape of Cappadoccia with its strange rock formations and underground cities (you can even spend the night in a cave room for about $4). Turkey's a good country to visit with a mid-range budget, and $60 to $100 a day will buy two people nice hotel rooms and three good restaurant meals a day. Turkey's also a good bet for women traveling alone, since females are rarely hassled on the street.
Tips for the budget traveler
If you're thinking about visiting one of these countries, or one of the many others that offer great value for your dollars, consider the following tips:

If you only have a week off, consider Latin American destinations. You can get to many Central American destinations with a four- or five-hour flight. Even South American cities that take longer to reach will still be in the same general time zones as the U.S., so you won't lose a day (or more) to jet lag. Latin Americans are still pretty friendly to Americans, and you probably already know at least some Spanish: hola (hello), gracias (thank you), una cerveza, por favor (a beer, please).

If you're visiting Asia, consider an around-the-world ticket. You can get a flight to Bangkok from Los Angeles for about $800. For $1,099, Air Brokers International allows you to add stops in India and Europe. For $1,349, you can add Hong Kong and Singapore to your itinerary. The more time you have, the better, but I once visited London, New Delhi, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Taipei in 11 whirlwind days.

Turkey and Morocco can be exotic, budget-saving breaks in a more expensive European vacation. These two countries are a relatively short hop from more traveled European capitals, and you'll be stepping into a far more exotic (and affordable) world. Other less-expensive possibilities: Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic.

By Liz Pulliam Weston
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