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.
Why: Made up of 15 islands and less than 100 square miles, the Cook Islands are everything you’d hope to find in the South Pacific — lush tropical beauty, vibrant reefs and a Polynesian vibe that is both traditional and modern. Its rich Maori culture is still very much intact and hospitality exudes through the friendly locals. Think: Hawaii half a century ago, but with 21st century conveniences like WiFi. Take your pick on where to stay — you’ll find reasonably-priced luxury alongside Airbnbs, beach shacks alongside boutiques, all with a rustic, island-chic appeal. The largest island, Rarotonga or “Raro,” is made up of rugged mountains, unspoiled beaches and the national capital of Avarua, where you’ll find boutique hotels, quaint shopping, rare pearls, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, coffee shops, a distillery that makes banana vodka by coffee pot and even a Friday night party bus. The island is easily accessible by bus and being only 20 miles in circumference, you can easily conquer the entire island in a day. Note to Type A travelers: Bus timetables are on, well, island time. Aitutaki Island to the north, is home to what many refer to as the world’s most beautiful lagoon, thanks to its crystal clear turquoise waters, coral reefs and sandy islets that allow for world-class snorkeling and scuba diving. When visiting the Cook Islands, it's not to be missed.
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.
Chosen By: Emily McNutt, associate editor at The Points Guy, where she is responsible for reporting on travel news across a range of topics — from aviation to loyalty programs, general travel news and credit cards. At TPG, McNutt is not only an expert in the travel and points and miles space in the newsroom, but also puts that expertise to work by reviewing aircraft products for the site. With a lifelong passion for travel, McNutt has visited more than 40 countries.
Why: You’ve heard of the French Polynesian islands of Bora Bora and Tahiti, but there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Mo’orea. Why? Well, it’s known as “The World’s Most Beautiful Island You’ve Never Heard Of.” And that is great for the wallet! You can find great deals on Airbnb starting at $40 a night and five-star hotels at $200. For example, the InterContinental in Bora Bora averages at $1000 a night, while the Intercontinental Mo’orea is around $250. The water is warm and crystal clear, providing you with a lot of free fun. If you want to do more organized tours, Tahiti Legends and Tahiti.com offer many at $50 per person. Like most French Polynesian islands, food is expensive, but there are many grocery stores on the island that sell sandwiches for as low as $3. If you want to splurge on a romantic dinner, many restaurants offer free shuttle service to and from hotels. The best part? Mo’orea is really easy to get to from the U.S. It’s a quick 30-minute ($15) ferry ride from Papeete, Tahiti, whose airport offers direct flights from many cities in the U.S.
Northern California also has many riches and wonders to offer. Nothing beats the morning mist swathing the Golden Gate Bridge during a San Francisco vacation. Be sure to hike at Batteries to Bluffs Trail and take in the expansive ocean views. If you’re craving sparkling pools, shimmering night skies, and majestic mountain scenery, instead of bay views, spending your vacations in Palm Springs is the way to go. Hollywood’s Waiting Room for Heaven is the ultimate desert playground for people-watching and wandering through art galleries.
It’s worth noting that if the original price isn’t always posted for these types of deals, so you may not know exactly how much you’re saving (or if you’re saving at all). And while Groupon does post the percent savings (and it’s often 50% off or even higher), some critics point out that the “original” prices for Groupon deals and other discount sites are occasionally inflated to make the deals look better.
Just how cheap is it? Dirtbag backpackers can get by on less than $30 per day, easy. Dorms in La Paz, the sprawling capital, are as low as $5 a night. Lunches cost $3, and including rice, a main (usually meat), and soup. Buy some llama print sweaters to take home at $10 each, and spend $20 to cram onto a bus to the next city. A three-day tour in the damn Amazon jungle will set you back just $200 (bring a headlamp and expect to lounge in hammocks next to baby tarantulas).