Fly to the Cluster and Save Big Time
A trekker on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.
Planning an around-the-world journey can seem overwhelming: you’ve got to figure out what vaccinations you need; you have to decide what to pack for an entire year; plus you have to wrap up your affairs at home.
Many people work on plans for weeks or months before realizing that their budget doesn’t match their ambitious plans.
Unless you have a fortune, you can’t afford to spend the whole trip in expensive “first world” countries. Destination choices have a bigger impact on your travel budget than anything else—far
more than your around-the-world flight deal, where you stay, or what you eat each day. And if you are worried about money the whole time you’re traveling, you probably won’t enjoy the experience very much.
The first rule of affordable around-the-world travel is to spend a good portion of your time in areas where you don’t have to worry much about money. Even a budget traveler can easily blow $100 per day in Western
Europe or Japan. To spend $100 per day in Laos would require staying at a very fancy hotel, eating at the most expensive restaurant in town, and ordering French wine with lunch and dinner. Otherwise, $20 a day can set you up rather well.
Unfortunately, many first-time around-the-world travelers base their itineraries on some smorgasbord of unrelated countries. They act like the world is an all-you-can-eat buffet with 193 items and they must try as
many as possible. These travelers end up rushing around and spending a lot of time in transit instead of really getting to know places and the people.
So the second rule of affordable travel is to arrange your trip by clusters: choosing groups of countries in the same region instead of stringing together a dozen flights to carry you to widely-separated spots on the
Go for the Clusters
If you fly into one country in a cluster, you can visit many others overland without having to shell out for more flights. Plus you have the flexibility of staying longer in one country or moving on sooner depending
on how things turn out. You are not locked down to a rigid itinerary.
In general, traveling around the clusters listed here will cost a fraction of traveling through the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, or Western Europe. Even in the cheapest countries, however, there are
resort areas built to accommodate consumptive tourists with fat wallets: places like Cancun in Mexico, Agadir in Morocco, Sharm-el-Sheik in Egypt, and Kemer (near Antalya) in Turkey. Avoid these spots unless you are hankering for a place
just like home—with prices to match.
Cluster 1: Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is undoubtedly the most popular part of the world for shoestring travelers, and justifiably so. Collectively, the whole area is a terrific value.
You can move around almost effortlessly through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. If you have the desire and the time, you can travel between all of these places without
ever getting back on a plane. You could easily spend a year just in this area and still only get to know a fraction of its stunning diversity of cultures, religions, and landscapes.
There are beaches, jungles, volcanoes, lagoons, mountains, crater lakes, and river deltas. You will stay at postcard-pretty beaches so perfect that you can’t believe you’re paying $5 a night and not $500.
Below the water, there are hundreds of prime spots for diving and snorkeling.
Cluster 2: Eastern Europe and Turkey
Prices are up all over Europe largely because of the decline in the dollar’s value, but Eastern Europe is still a relative bargain. You get old-world architecture, good beer and wine, and interesting cities
without prices that will make you gasp. You also avoid the hordes of package tourists, apart from a few select cities and beach resorts. The best bangs for the buck are in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, though the Czech Republic is
still a great value if you get out into the smaller towns. However, in all of Eastern Europe prices have shot up about 30 percent for Americans in recent years. So be sure the guidebook you are using was researched after 2003.
In Turkey, prices have stayed more stable and there’s even more to see, including more Roman ruins than in Italy, plus the Ottoman sights and the Byzantine ones, and the strange rock formations of Cappadocia.
Cluster 3: Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria
Getting to Morocco from any of the other countries in this cluster requires a flight, but overland transportation will cover the rest. Each of these countries stands out for its wealth of attractions squeezed
into a relatively small area.
All the major sites of Egypt are along the Nile. View thousands of years of history, from Alexandria down to Aswan. And if you get “templed out” you can head to the Red Sea coast for some of the best diving
and snorkeling in the world. Jordan is the home of Petra, one of the world’s greatest open-air museums, filled with buildings carved into the rocks. It is also the site of the bizarre Dead Sea, interesting desert castles, and the
Roman ruins of Jerash. Few travelers fit Syria into their trip, but those who do rave about the unparalleled hospitality and the architecture of Damascus and remote ruins. (Syria can also be reached overland from Turkey.)
Morocco is the land of casbahs, winding alleys and souks, desert oases, and much more. Apart from the famed cities of Fez and Marrakesh, there is plenty more to see; Morocco’s topography ranges from the rolling
Sahara desert to the cool Atlas Mountains.
Cluster 4: Latin America
For residents of the U.S. and Canada, Latin America is a natural first or last stop on a journey around the world. You can get to any capital in Central or South America in a day; you don’t have to deal
with jet lag; and learning Spanish is a whole lot easier than learning Czech or Vietnamese. On top of all this, most currencies in the region are closely tied to the dollar so sudden price jumps are rare.
While few of the countries in Latin America are quite as cheap as the bottom rung in Asia, you won’t need a lot of dough in Guatemala, Bolivia, Nicaragua, or Ecuador.
Peru, Argentina, and the islands of Honduras are a bit costlier; so is Mexico—especially in the resort areas. In any of these countries, however, you can travel for one-fourth to one-half what you would spend
in the U.S., as long as you steer clear of the package-tour spots.
You know the highlights: Argentina includes the very European and stylish city of Buenos Aires and the remote landscapes of Patagonia. Peru was the land of the Incas. The Mayans left their footprints in Honduras, Guatemala,
and Mexico. The spine of the Andes mountain range runs the length of South America, and there is no shortage of jungles and beaches. Throw in deserts, salt plains, the Amazon, colonial cities, canyons, waterfalls, and a long coral reef.
There’s no end to what you will discover.
Cluster 5: India and Nepal
The title of “cheapest destination in the world” fluctuates with exchange rates, but India and Nepal are usually in the running. In these countries, you can still find $1 hotel rooms in some areas,
a 50-cent meal almost anywhere, and train prices that Europe hasn’t seen since the 1950s.
These are the ultimate budget destinations. A shoestring backpacker can stuff a few essentials into a backpack and travel around in one of these countries for two or three months on $1,000.
Some say that India is a “love it or hate it” destination, but it’s not uncommon to feel both ways the same day. The poverty and poor sanitation are very real, but so are fantastic sights, dazzling
splashes of color, and some of the best deals on the planet—though sometimes you’ll wonder what planet you’re on.
There are so many highlights in India that it takes months—or several trips—to do the region any justice. Nepal has the stunning Himalayas, interesting Hindu and Buddhist architecture and temples, and wildlife
reserves filled with rhinos and elephants.
As for geographic variety, there’s plenty: white-sand beaches, jungles, deserts, endless plains, hillside tea plantations, and a big section of the Himalayas. The cities range from magical princely kingdoms to
the teeming craziness of the big cities. You’ll experience many mental and emotional states here, but boredom won’t be one of them.
You can eat every meal in restaurants in India and Nepal and still spend less per day than you would on one sub sandwich at your local deli. Places where the locals eat cost next to nothing, and even restaurants serving “Western” food
will usually have plenty of choices under a dollar.
Buy a “Skeleton”
Many around-the-world travelers spend more than they have to on flights because they try to buy a plane ticket for nearly every stop on their planned itinerary. Some people plug their itinerary into the ticket
system for one of the big airline alliances (One World, Star Alliance, or SkyTeam) and find that they are over the maximum on mileage. Or they wind up spending far more than they had planned.
If you must buy tickets ahead of time, rather than purchasing as you go, you can save a small fortune by just buying a very basic around-the-world ticket that will get you into the clusters. Then you can go overland
or buy short-hop flights locally when needed.
For example, an itinerary that goes from New York to Hong Kong – Bangkok – India – Europe and back to New York will often cost less than $1,500 through a consolidator. One that has only three or four
additional stops can easily top $3,500. That $2,000 in savings will pay for a lot of 1-way flights, train tickets, and bus rides to get from country to country.
With the plethora of budget airlines out there, especially in Asia and Europe, it doesn’t make much sense anymore to book a lot of tickets in advance on a “legacy airline” carrier partnership.
By buying only the basic structure in advance, you avoid being locked into plans that may change once you are on the road. To see which budget airlines serve which cities on your route go to www.whichbudget.com or indie.bootsnall.com.
TIM LEFFEL, a regular columnist for Transitions Abroad Magazine, is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He is also
editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.