How To Stretch Your Dollar

It’s very rare that someone doesn’t want to travel. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who’s just like, “No thanks. I don’t need to see any more of the world. I’m good right here.” And if I did, I’m honestly not sure I’d believe them. The desire to see the world is universal… even when it goes dormant.

When it comes to someone not traveling, it usually boils down to one cause: finances. And while that’s absolutely a valid reason not to quit your job and travel the world (that idea seems trite and unrealistic for the average American, anyway)… earning USD does make you part of a very privileged few. Your greenbacks have far more purchasing power in many places outside the good ol’ USA. And considering the rising cost of, well, basically everything: vacation destinations with a favorable exchange rate are extremely attractive.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of some ultimate dollar-stretching destinations worldwide, plus included our best budget travel tips and hacks to maximize your enjoyment and minimize spending.

PART I — DESTINATIONS TO STRETCH YOUR DOLLAR

Panama Stretch Dollar Budget Destination
Melanie Gordon

As a rule of thumb, your dollar will go further if you spend it in “up and coming” areas of any country. AKA the cities, hotels, and restaurants that are just off the main tourist trail. If you see mega-resorts, you can expect inflated prices. Also, doing your own “self-guided” tours as opposed to joining organized tour groups will save you a lot. But in these destinations, a skilled tour guide is often affordable and well worth the cost.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is an absolute fixture in the backpacking community; street food is commonly $1 and there are tons of hostels for $10 or less. It’s not hard to chill on the beaches in the Philippines, eat your way around Vietnam, and balance the nightlife-to-island ratio of Thailand on a shoestring budget (like $25 a day). Singapore is not as cheap but mainland Malaysia is.

For luxurious digs with more bounce for the ounce, check out this list of luxury hotels in SEA for under $100 a night. Isaac and Tatiana (@willtravelfortacos) say traveling slow is their best tip for stretching your dollar in South East Asia. And visiting countries like Vietnam, where two meals with Saigon beers is 10 bucks, will help you out, too. The travel Youtube couple spent $82 a day during their month and a half in Thailand, and $113 a day for a month in Vietnam, Indonesia, and The Philippines — all while staying in cushy Airbnbs for around $24 a night. They call their travel style “bougie on a budget” and we love that.

If you consider splurging on dining a priority while traveling, $30-50 for a nice dinner and multiple cocktails for two can be a nightly thing in Southeast Asia (depending on the country and your level of Michelin Star taste, of course). And while you could order a floating breakfast in Bali and go to that one IG famous swing with the rentable dresses, maybe we can give that island a break for a little while? There are plenty of other less-traveled parts of Indonesia, like Lombok, so check out this resource for ideas.

Best Time to Visit:

For Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines, go during the dry season of November – April. In Indonesia, April – October is best.

Activity Average Prices:

Central America

Nicaragua Budget Destinations
Melanie Gordon

If you’re looking to unplug and immerse yourself in raw nature, Central America will not disappoint. And compared to Southeast Asia, you’ll notice considerably fewer tourists; it’s a bit of a chiller vibe. Every Central American nation has an exchange rate in favor of the USD, but in general, your dollar will stretch less in Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama City (the rest of Panama isn’t so expensive).

There’s a wide selection of (pretty) nice hotels and Airbnbs for $50 a night all over Central America, but there are not as many “luxury on the low” options in comparison to SEA. If you want to treat yourself to a chic hotel stay in Central America for under $200, countries like Nicaragua are a great option. Here’s my favorite beachfront hotel in Nica.

Street food in Central America is cheap ($1-5) and tasty (think: pupusas in El Salvador, fry jacks in Belize, and Guatemala’s shuko hotdog). The beer is cheap too, a buck or two at a restaurant or $.50 cents in stores. General restaurant dining is anywhere from $5-20 a plate, depending on the country. Central America has a high food value when it comes to fresh seafood. In Panama, I get a plate of fresh peel & eat shrimp in red sauce plus sides for $10. Fine dining is more than possible for around $100 for two including cocktails (check out this list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants).

Best Time to Visit:

The dry season (Dec – April) is the best time to visit Central America since it won’t be rainy. But if you ask me, the wet season months are better, with more greenery and fewer tourists.

Activity Average Prices:

  • Volcano boarding in Nicaragua is as low as $25-30.
  • Entrance to Tikal National Park in Guatemala is just $20.
  • The unmissable ATM cave tour in Belize is $125 here but can be booked cheaper through a hostel.
  • Arenal Volcano National Park in Costa Rica is just $15 to enter.
  • Check out this surf camp in Nicaragua for $499/week and this surf camp in El Salvador for $511/week.
  • Scuba dives as low as $35 on the Honduras islands of Utila and Roatan, where an Open Water cert can be as low as $250.

South America

Peru Destinations Budget South America
Melanie Gordon

Culture, cuisine, landscape, history… South America has it all. But it’s a HUGE continent and there are definitely some countries that are more affordable than others. If you want to get the most bang for your buck, think about what you want to do and then select a country from there. For example, for wine tastings, look to Argentina instead of Chile (Argentina is one of the most affordable wine destinations in the world). Read up on this article before you go. As opposed to visiting the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, try Bolivia or Colombia. Peru is a very affordable country worth visiting for its trekking opportunities alone (and Machu Picchu, duh). Santa Marta, Colombia also has great beaches and surfing and partying go hand in hand in Montañita, Ecuador.

Finding a wonderful modern hotel under $50 in South America isn’t hard. It’s also easy to find decent ones for around $20. A perfect example of stretching your dollar for luxury in South America is this 5-star hotel which is just over $100 a night in La Paz, Bolivia. The continent over, meals average about $5-15 at local restaurants and $3-5 at true mom-and-pop places. In places like Rio, Brazil, a meal jumps to around $15-20. For cocktails, the average bar or restaurant will have a nice selection around $5, higher in capital cities and fancy spots. Again, check out Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants because you can totally splurge on upscale dining, too.

Best Time to Visit:

Again, South America is big — so there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the best time to visit. Generally, with countries near the equator like Peru, May to September is preferred. While March through June is great for sunshine and warmth in Argentina. The best time to visit Patagonia is between November and February. For a full rundown on the best time to visit South America, this is your resource.

Activity Average Prices:

  • Entrance to see the epic Iguazu Falls in Argentina averages $20.
  • The Tayrona National Park entrance fee is $12.
  • Machu Picchu entrance fee is $40 online, but getting there requires a train ($55+ one way) and bus ($24 round trip).
  • A street food tour in Cartagena is $40.
  • Any organized tours in the Galapagos Islands will be over $1,000 but the experience is worth it if you scuba dive or snorkel.
  • Most Tigre Delta Tours from Buenos Aires are under $100.
  • You can do an entire 3 day tour of Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flat and Colored Lagoons which includes meals and lodging.

U.S. National Parks

Of course, we’d be remiss not to include some of the 63 beautiful U.S. National Parks on this list. But be sure to make your reservations well in advance, folks!

To limit crowds and protect the integrity of the land, more national parks are opting for reservation systems. Included are the beloved Rocky Mountain National Park, Yosemite National Park, Zion National Park, and Glacier National Park. Click here for a full list of the U.S. national parks with no entry fees. Believe it or not, there are even a handful of entrance fee-free parks, year-round: Great Smoky Mountains, Redwood, Hot Springs, Congaree, Great Basin, and Channel Islands. And by the way, on Veteran’s Day and National Public Lands Day (the fourth Saturday of September), all parks forgo their entry fees.

The ultimate tip comes from our very own Emily Hart, who says “The best thing you can do to save money for National Park travel is to buy an America The Beautiful Pass. For just $80 a year, it grants you access to over 2,000 Federal Recreation Sites, including all National Parks with an entrance fee. With some parks charging up to $35 for entrance fees, if you visit 3-4 parks per calendar year, you will likely not just make back your money but save along the way.”

Best Time to Visit:

This one might sting, but if you want to utilize your dollar on a national park trip, visiting during the summer is not going to help you out. I know, bleak! We’re not saying you need to go in the dead of winter, just consider shoulder season travel! Hotel stays and entree fees will be lower and so will crowd surges. Major bonuses in our book!

If you’re camping, the end of August through early October or February through April (in warmer destinations) will be good months for saving some coin. If you plan to stay in park lodging, winter might be a really beautiful time to visit for snow-capped mountains and late-night whisky-splashed hot cocoa by the fireplace (and no lingering fear of freezing in a tent).

Check out our list of which parks to visit in each month of the year — it’ll help you plan ahead now.

PART II — General Budget Travel Tips

Budget Travel Destinations Tips
Melanie Gordon
  • Travel in the off-season! When there’s less demand, prices for everything from lodging to activities and food decreases. It’s basic economics!
  • This is obvious to most, but make your own food! Head to a local market and buy what’s in season. It’s cheap and fresh.
  • Airbnbs are typically more wallet-friendly than hotels for slower travelers, offering extended stay discounts and personal kitchens.
  • Plan your flights well in advance and book using credit card points.
  • Try volunteering or house-sitting and head to this article for the details.
  • More on travel credit cards here.
  • Our best summer travel budget tips are all here.
  • Here’s how you can save money and maybe even earn a little while traveling.

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