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Bargain travel on a budget: 10 cheap, dream destinations

During these difficult times, we're all dreaming of some much-needed R&;R in the sun. While you might not be able to escape just yet, here are some of the bargain getaways we'll be planning once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and we can travel again.

It’s no good bagging a bargain flight if you burn through your spending money on the first round of cocktails. And as global economies work to recover from the fallout from COVID-19, it’s likely that our budgets will be more squeezed than usual while we plan our next holiday or two.

Ticking the budget box is about more than cheap flights. You need to go where you can sleep and eat for as little as possible, too.

We can help. Here are 10 of the cheapest countries on the planet, from Caribbean bargain beaches to heavenly street food that’s cheaper than chips. When the world is ready to travel again, they should be top of the list.

1. Nicaragua

The largest country in Central America, Nicaragua is a real show-off. Untouched beaches, wild Pacific waves, beautifully preserved towns, no fewer than 19 volcanoes and idyllic islands galore. Then there are its brilliant hotel bargains, such as Granada’s highly rated El Almirante from £61 a night.

Much of the country’s 550 miles of coastline is delightfully quiet even at the height of global travel and, with the calm Caribbean to the east and the surf waves of the Pacific to the west, there’s something to suit every type of beach dweller. But there’s plenty to see beyond the pristine sandy stretches.

Discover the immaculate architecture of capital city Granada and the colourful murals of Léon, dive with hammerhead sharks off Little Corn Island, and hike up the twin volcanoes of Isla de Ometepe in Lake Cocibolca (known locally as ‘The Lady’s Breasts’). You can even try a spot of ash surfing down a crater like Cerro Negro. Beat that for a holiday anecdote.

2. Laos

Laidback Laos has remained surprisingly untouched by mass tourism, so visitors can explore the emerald paddy fields, brooding jungle, and remote villages in relative peace. You can’t get closer to the country’s culture than in a village homestay, where tourists are invited into local family homes to share meals and activities and sleep under the same roof for as little as £10. Even better, the money goes back into the community.

If that’s not your bag, a hotel such as the Khampiane Boutique Hotel in Laos’s largest city Vientiane, will cost around £12 a night. Lustworthy landscapes aside, Laos is paradise for adrenaline junkies, who can get lost in river caves, zip line over the jungle or tube down the Namsong River. Those in need of some zen can tap into the spiritual life of Laos with a spot of yoga or a spa treatment.

3. Turkey

History, culture, and practically guaranteed sunshine… where better to find all these than in Turkey? First stop: Istanbul. Try street food speciality Balik Ekmek or a catch-of-the-day fish sandwich, then visit the Hagia Sophia, a 1,500-year-old complex used as a church by the Byzantine era and then a mosque by the Ottomans. Entry costs around £10.40 or you can buy a five-day Museum Pass, which gets you into 12 sites and provides discounts for lots more.

Aside from its epic historical significance, Turkey boasts endless golden beaches along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, where a traditional gimlet sailboat cruise is a must. Another highlight can be found inland in the village of Pamukkale, where you can channel your inner Roman with a dip in the thermal pools for about a fiver.

Wherever you decide to lay your head, you’re sure to get a warm welcome at the many friendly guesthouses, such as Istanbul’s ornate Buyukada Cankaya Hotel where rooms cost around £44 a night.

4. Belarus

There’s more to Belarus than its dodgy Eurovision entries, as more tourists are discovering thanks to the recent lift on costly tourist visas. You can now travel to this former Soviet republic visa-free for up to 30 days.

Make the trip to the post-Stalinist capital of Minsk and you won’t fail to be struck by its imposing architecture, such as the KGB’s looming ex-HQ, but you might be surprised to find this is also a modern European city where the streets are lined with galleries, sushi bars, and reasonably priced hotels. A stay at the Belarus Hotel, around £37 a night, is worth it for the pool alone. 

Beyond Minsk, Belarus offers 16th-century castles at Mir and Nesvijk, picture postcard villages, and four national parks, including the lake district of Narochansky. It’s douze points from us.

5. Cambodia

Cambodia is steadily growing in popularity not only with gap-year backpackers but also grown-ups who want an ‘authentic’ adventure, with the bonus of five-star digs for less than the cost of a Travel Lodge back home. Take Palm Village Resort and Spa in Siem Reap, where traditional Khmer-style houses cost from £18 a night. There’s even a free tuk-tuk service, providing a hair-raising yet joyous way to get into town.

Cambodians are famously friendly and you’ll be welcomed with wide smiles at the cafés and eateries, which serve bowls of chicken broth and noodles for a few quid.

For a touristy but essential Cambodian experience, set your alarm and don your elephant-motif trousers to watch the sun rise behind the world-famous Angkor Wat temple, the most iconic sight at the vast Archaeological Park. With 72 temples to get around, it’s worth taking your time with the £51 three-day ticket rather than the £30 one-day pass. 

6. Nepal

It’s hard to match the raw beauty of this compact country flanked by China and India. With the snow-capped Himalayas providing the backdrop to rugged mountain scenery, dense jungle plains, hilltop villages, and 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s hard to believe it’s also one of the cheapest countries to visit in the world.

Nepal is brilliantly set up for independent travellers with organised hikes, such as the famous Annapurna Circuit, offering a once-in-a-lifetime adventure alongside hot meals and beds at traditional tea houses.

Wildlife lovers should head to Chitwan National Park to see tigers and elephants up close, but avoid the luxury lodges and stay at nearby Sauraha where a private double room can cost £4 a night.

Crazy capital Kathmandu can be a shock after the serenity of the countryside, but once you’ve readjusted, stroll around the historic centre with its pavilions and pagodas, feast on delicious street food for about a fiver a day, and stay in perfectly lovely hotels, such as the three-star Alliance Hotel-Boudhanath Stupa for around £17 a night. Don’t mind if we do.

7. India

From the teeming bazaars of the old quarter to the soaring skyscrapers of New Delhi – not to mention lip-smacking eats for mere pennies – Delhi is an electrifying place to start your Indian adventure. Indeed, many travellers use it as a launchpad for the famous Golden Triangle, made up by the three most visited cities in northwest India. The other two are Agra, home to the iconic marble Taj Mahal, and Rajastan’s capital Jaipur, famous for its colourful bazaars and Mehrangarh Fort.

There are organised tours, but hiring a car with a guide is cheaper and way more fun. When it comes to digs, you can find clean and comfortable hostels for around £6 a night, while a double room at a hotel, such as the three-star Hotel Le Roi, will cost around £22. Find more ideas for things to do in Delhi with our guide.

8. Vietnam

Staggeringly beautiful and with some of the best food in southeast Asia, Vietnam is still a cheap travel destination despite its popularity. If you’re prepared to rough it, you can get by on £10 a day, including a guest house, food, transport and a few beers (a pint of Vietnam’s most popular brew, Bia Hoi, costs as little as 20p).

But at around £20 for a decent double room with air-con, the swankier options are affordable, too. A double at the three-star Hanoi Serenity Hotel 2 costs around £17 a night. Fill up on delicious street food of salty broth and fresh rice noodles for £1-2 before exploring the sights.

If you’re up north, check out Hanoi, which retains its French flavour with patisseries baking croissants to rival Paris’s finest next door to authentic pho noodle soup shacks. The Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake, is an oasis of calm where locals practice tai chi at sunrise. Down south? Sample Vietnamese rural life in the mountain resort of Da Lat, where the iconic rice terraces are worth stopping by to take a look.

9. Bolivia

The cheapest country in South America, Bolivia is a budget traveller’s dream. High-energy capital La Paz is a whirlwind experience. Hop on the ‘subway in the sky’ cable car for dizzying views, then wander along Calle Jaen, home to some of the city’s best-preserved colonial buildings, whitewashed façades, and ornate black-grilled balconettes. You can find good budget accommodation here for around £15 a night, or try something like the homely three-star A La Maison.

From La Paz, head to Lake Titicaca, where you can dine on the freshest trout cooked however you like by locals in kiosks along the shore on Copacabana for less than £3. Or take a boat to Isla Del Sol and hike across it to admire the views over the lake.

Food in Bolivia costs next to nothing. Look out for almuerzo (set lunch), which includes soup, a main course, and dessert for as little as £1. If you’re going to treat yourself to one more costly excursion, make it a jeep tour of the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. This amazing sight, known as the world’s largest mirror, is not to be missed. Read more about Salar de Uyuni, plus 9 more incredible places to visit around the world.

10. Honduras

If you’ve always wanted to go to the Maldives but don’t fancy remortgaging, fret not. Honduras has swathes of white sand beaches without the honeymooners’ price hike. In fact, travelling here will set you back less than £25 a day, with mega cheap eats and hotel rooms averaging a measly £10. Consider the three-star Eco Hotel Shanghai La, with a pool, gardens, and bar, from £24 a night.

Honduras is a fantastic choice for learning to scuba dive on the cheap, with courses offered at really competitive rates. Head for the pristine beaches along Honduras’s northern coast, which are ideal for snorkelling, too. On dry land, check out the bustling port at Puerto Cortes, then get out to the picture-postcard seaside town of Omoa and the beautiful colonial city of Comayagua, with its quaint Spanish houses and packed historic town centre plazas. Bag a traditional Honduran baguette or bistek (steak) sandwich from a nearby cafe for less than £4 and picnic in the nearby Parque Central.

All prices are correct as of 4 May 2020 and are subject to change and availability.