Of course, “top-notch guest services” is subjective. You could stay at a five-star hotel where the concierge is snooty and there’s constant construction, whereas you could find a gem of a two-star hotel where you’re treated like royalty by a warm, welcoming staff. That’s why it’s so important to value guest reviews over star ratings. Guest reviews give you an indication of what it’s actually like to stay at the hotel.
Why: Traveling through Central Asia is, in many ways, the ultimate adventure. The infrastructure, though slowly modernizing, isn’t quite there yet, but the scenery and culture are unmatched. I loved every minute of Uzbekistan—the blend of Persian and Soviet influence, the culture, the food, the magnificently preserved religious sites in Samarkand and Bukhara, sleeping in a yurt camp under the stars — it all made for an experience I’ll never forget. Uzbekistan is also fantastically affordable, after you’ve paid the visa fee ($160 for United States citizens). Most hotel stays are under $100, save for the brand-new Hyatt Regency Tashkent (roughly $240 a night), which is worth the splurge. I highly recommend using a company like Kalpak Travel to help you book your trip, as independent travel can be a bit tricky in Uzbekistan and they’re experts in this region.
Why: Oaxaca de Juarez is one of the most beautiful destinations to travel to in Mexico. Colorful markets, charming architecture, cobblestone streets, fun festivals and delicious food are just part of the attraction. Stroll through Oaxaca’s main square, the Zócalo, and relax at a café, people watch and be entertained by dancers and singers in the evenings. Just a few minutes walk from the square is the Mercado Benito Juárez, where you’ll find embroidered goods and straw baskets. Continue walking the pedestrian street called Calle Macedonio, where you’ll find art galleries, cafes, shops and boutique hotels. Visit the Santo Domingo de Guzmán church and monastery that dates back to 1555. Don’t Miss the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, where you can see the treasures found on Mont Alban — the skull covered in turquoise, carved jaguar bones, gold jewelry and ornaments for a nominal fee. Hungry? Stop by at the food market 20 de Noviembre, where you’ll find piles of fried grasshoppers (chapulines) and Oaxaca cheeses, tamales, meat-filled tortillas, tlayudas, chocolates, coffees and seven types of mole. Get a taste of local dishes at food stalls for under $5 or free Mezcal tastings at Mezcaloteca. It’s easy to find your way around this town, but if you prefer to join a guided walking tour, contact Enjoy Oaxaca — they offer several tours from city tours to day trips to see Mont Alban, Mitla Ruins, Hierve el Agua bubbling springs and the petrified waterfall, as well as cooking classes and many festival tours including the Day of the Dead. Where to Stay? There are several boutique hotels and quaint B&B’s in town. You can reserve a room at Parador San Miguel Oaxaca for as low as $86 per night.
Most hotels with a website will have a short presentation of each room as well as of the features that are offered for free. It is possible for some vacation packages to have various restrictions. As a future guest you should always ask before hand what exactly is included in the price and what is not included. If there is a specific aspect you’re worried about, such as free internet access or tipping the staff, it is better to ask as to avoid embarrassing situations at the end of your stay.
Why: Colombia isn’t usually thought of as a value destination, but due to the strong U.S. dollar, it has become one of the most compelling destinations in the world for those willing to venture off the beaten track. Travelers in the know are loving Barichara, one of the most beautiful small colonial villages in the Andes. Stay at Casa Barichara for under $200 a night and dine at El Carambolo, a quaint B&B rich with personality and the perfect fit for those searching for authentic, Colombian hospitality. Though not a typical tourist destination, Barichara is perfect for adventure travelers who enjoy activities like paragliding. A trip to Barichara can be paired with the town of Salamina, where travelers will find quirky architecture and a renowned coffee production, and/or the vibrant city of Medellin, which boasts music, museums, nightlife and friendly people.
Why: Peru’s northern beaches are an excellent option for budget travel, and Trujillo is no exception. The vibrant coastal city is awash with warm-colored colonial façades dating back to its status as a colonial powerhouse, and it offers excellent cultural and adventure activities, as well as upscale restaurants that are surprisingly affordable ($10-15). Accommodations are also very inexpensive; for example, the four-star Costal del Sol Wyndham can run as low as $65. Trujillo is home to the former capital of the Chimú people, the behemoth archaeological site of Chan Chan. Its Spanish-influenced architecture and bohemianism were an inspiration for the illustrious author Cesar Vallejo, and it continues to keep traditions alive by hosting prestigious events such as the month-long Marinera Dance Festival. For some action under the sun, check out the famous beach Huanchaco, Latin America’s first designated world-surfing reserve. Watch wave chasers in their caballito de totora boats and cool off with a plate of fine ceviche at its birthplace. Trujillo flies under the radar for tourists who focus on Cusco and Machu Picchu, but with its rich heritage — in addition to year-round sunshine, delicious food, vibrant dance and beaches — you’ll have plenty to write home about.
While hotel prices might be cheaper in underrated locales, you do need to be aware that flight prices might be more expensive – and possibly at less convenient times with more stops – if it’s not a common route. For example, an August flight from Minneapolis to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil might cost around $857, but a flight at the same time from Minneapolis to La Paz, Bolivia costs $1,177. The distance is nearly identical, though most flights to La Paz require at least two (and, in many cases, three) stops, whereas there are flights available from Minneapolis to Rio de Janeiro with only one stop.
Why: Manaus in the north of Brazil is a short flight from Miami and provides multiple economical options in one. It is a top destination for adventure travel or a sedate wildlife and photography sojourn or a serious eco-tour. Although it's a city of 1 million inhabitants, Manaus is mainly famous as the gateway to the Amazon rain forest. Comfortable, modern hotels like the Caesar Business Hotel start at $63 year round. Aside from visits upriver in the rainforest, Manaus offers sites ranging from the local Amazon tributary, the Rio Negro and the fabled Renaissance-style Manaus Opera House/Amazon Theatre. For an up-close look at wildlife, including endangered species, there is a free, small zoo at the Hotel Tropical. A biologist heads up this state-certified rescue center that has elusive deep-rainforest species, from jaguars to the lovable 120-pound capybaras. The Bosque da Ciencia (Science Center) is a popular open-air wildlife park just outside the city of Manaus. Local species roam freely in front of strolling tourists. Day-trip options include short visits to the rain forest as well as the Presidente Figueiredo Waterfalls and Gruta do Refugio do Maroaga, a cave filled with marine life and bats. Traveling in the rainy season provides an even better value, and the weather is no hindrance to boating and spotting a wide array of tropical birds, pink dolphins and a feisty piranha or two.
Using a website like Hotels.com or TripAdvisor, set your minimum guest rating level high (start with four stars and above) and be open to hotels at any star rating. Once you’ve eliminated all but the highest-reviewed hotels, sort by price from low to high. As long as the hotels on the list have a reasonable number of reviews – around 100 or more – it’s a fair bet that the hotel makes the best of whatever amenities they have.
Just how cheap is it? The food and accommodation aren’t fabulous bargains -- but, oh, the shopping is. In the tourist town of Victoria Falls, a hostel bed or a hired tent will cost you $15 to $20 per night, but I scored a carved stone necklace from a street vendor for the sandals I was wearing. Bartering is common at flea markets and on the streets, where second-hand clothes -- shoes, baseball caps, and sportswear (think basketball or soccer shirts) -- have real buying power. Fill your suitcase with gently used gear and exchange it for jewelry, handmade crafts, and souvenirs like devalued trillion dollar notes.
Some of the best cheap vacation packages include trips to Asia and Australia. Have you always wanted to explore the outback? Guided tours are the best way to experience the continent like a true outdoor adventurer. From India to Vietnam to China, excursions in Asia will leave you awestruck and satisfied. Who wouldn't feel like an explorer after visiting the Taj Mahal and trekking through bustling Hong Kong?
Up in Tennessee, “Music City” is calling your name, and you can’t help but listen! This country music city feels like a small town—and its siren call resonates with those looking for simpler times and Johnny Cash cover bands. You can spend your Nashville vacation taking in performance after performance at the Grand Ole Opry, but leave time for the art collection at the Parthenon at Centennial Park.
This is Mother Nature at her best. Take a bus to explore 27 mammoth waterfalls as well as emerald Dominican jungle and local wildlife. A guided walking tour of the first seven waterfalls is around $6 (it costs extra if you want to see more of them), or you can spend more to explore them by Jeep. Word to the wise: Bring your bathing suit and bug spray.
Package vacations are a great choice for effortless traveling, as they are quick and easy to book and ensure that everything will be taken care of for you. For example, if your flight is canceled, it’s the travel provider’s job to find a new flight for you. You can rest easy knowing that your vacation will be stress-free and you are protected in case of changes to your itinerary.