What I’m Reading: The World’s Cheapest Destinations

leffelbookAs someone who is just starting to research honeymoon options for her upcoming wedding, my friend and mentor Tim Leffel’s new book couldn’t have come out at a better time. (Seriously–two artist-teachers trying to get married while still inviting the family is expensive enough–add on a honeymoon and, well, let’s just say we’re not exactly hoping for 5-star resorts on this particular trip). Instead, we’ve been thinking about how we can discover and enjoy a new place together while not completely starving ourselves or resorting to desperate money-making measures in the process. After all, I don’t want to end up doing on my honeymoon what I ended up doing in Spain after misbudgeting my summer’s savings and spending, well, a lot of it in the first month–helping my roommate make and sell beaded necklaces in- between our classes at the university. (Though we did meet some unusual characters on those long afternoons sitting on a blanket on those cobblestoned streets of Valencia). However, for our honeymoon, I’m envisioning something a little bit less…artisan-focused. We’d also like to, you know, enjoy a nice bottle of champagne, sleep in a warm bed, and spend time together without worrying about our safety, our money, or our sanity.

Here’s where The World’s Cheapest Destinations comes into play. In all honesty, I’m actually not a veteran of this book–the new 4th edition has been my first. Opening the book, though, it’s pretty easy to see why it’s made it through four printings: On the first page, Tim asks us if we’d like to find out where a $100-a-day vacation budget makes you a splurging traveler instead of a tightwad.

Yes, in fact, I would. After all, what traveler–even a budget one?–wants to be known as a tightwad?

Truthfully, as anyone who has met me knows, I am already a huge advocate for traveling cheaply, though the process didn’t come easily for me. I’m actually a pretty horrific budgeter (just ask my fiancee, who thankfully does the finances in our house). When I plan for a trip I’m paying for, this is my modus operandi: I scramble to save up what I can, I buy a plane ticket, and then I just…go, hoping, of course, that I’ll get through the trip before the money runs out. Despite my first monetary snafu in Spain, though, I’ve actually done pretty well with this strategy: I lived in Colombia for half a year on less than $400.00 a month, I spent a summer volunteering in Malta for a monthly stipend of $200 (however, I should add that this wage did include free lodging and a nearly inedible imitation-tuna sandwich for lunch 5 days a week), I traveled in style around Europe for a month on less than $1,000, I traveled up and down Taiwan for 10 days spending as much of my $2,000 travel stipend as I could (and even with fresh lobster lunches, 7-star hotels, lots of cocktails, and taking taxis and trains everywhere, I only ended up with a total bill of around $800). I’ve done this in everything from hostels to 5-star resorts to rickety old tuk-tuks to swanky air-conditioned taxis. Of course, I realize that this doesn’t make me an expert on budget travel, and for me to claim to be one would be an act of pulling the wool over my own eyes; however, my point is that it can be done. And that a bad salary does not equal staying put.

Traveling cheaply in any country, though, takes practice–and a lot of patience–to learn. Learning the literacies it takes to travel cheaply and safely isn’t easy, and Tim knows that. It can be a lot more complicated than booking an all-inclusive stay at a fabulous resort–and if you’ve never done it before, it can be pretty intimidating. With this in mind, the first chapter of Tim’s book is devoted to quelling the counter-arguments, the ruffled feathers of those who might pick up the book and think “this book doesn’t apply to me because….” followed by one of these time-tested defenses: It’s too expensive. I don’t speak any other languages. It’s probably really dangerous. You’re a paid travel writer. I don’t know how to set up travel ahead of time. It’s going to cost way more than I think it will. I’ve got kids. I’m a vegetarian. I’m an LGBTQ traveler. There’s got to be a catch. By refuting all of these claims before even getting to the countries he’s highlighting, proving each one of these statements to be an excuse more than a legitimate reason, the first chapter will sound all too familiar to seasoned travelers and just a bit unsettling to novice ones. For after reading it, what else can you do but move forward and see what else he’s got to offer?

The rest of the book is divided into geographic regions: Asia, Africa/Middle East, Europe, and Americas. (It appears Australia and Antarctica did not make the continent cut). Each section is then sub-divided into countries. Prices are estimated in $USD, not, as Tim is careful to say, because he’s being a snooty American, but because he knows his audience–mostly people in the U.S.–will appreciate the conversions as they compare possible places to visit. (I certainly appreciated his acknowledgement as well as his understanding that some people might see this as privileging the dollar over using local currency).

To give you a quick idea of what a chapter might look like, I flipped through and first landed on Malaysia. The chapter opens with a quick overview of the fact that Malaysia has been more expensive than Thailand or Vietnam for quite some time, but still warrants being on the list because everything is rather reasonable compared to other Asian countries like Japan. Then, there is a list of accommodation options, food and drink options, and transportation ideas. Each chapter ends with a useful bulleted list titled “What Else?”. In Malaysia’s “What Else,” for instance, Tim makes sure to mention that the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur is only 60 cents, that good snorkeling equipment will cost between $2-$5 per day, and that travelers should note that the news is still highly censored and that news-seekers should jump online instead of trying to buy local newspapers. In the end, I feel introduced to this Asian country in a way that feels brutally honest and down-right realistic. And as someone who tries her best to fall in love with places on her own terms, it’s not always easy to take other people’s stories as truth; and yet, with an ethos like Tim’s, I’m not only inclined to take his word–I totally trust it.

Throughout the book, you will sometimes read things like “Cambodia has gone from basket case to bucket list status in less than a decade.” While  Cambodia’s waning “basket case status” is certainly subjective on some counts, I must admit: I admire his courage to write how his own perspective has shifted over the years. If you’re up for a wry sense of humor and aren’t put off by the occasional unabashed assessment, The World’s Cheapest Destinations is not only an easy read and a money-saving Bible, but also a veteran traveler’s look at places that many travelers in the U.S. tend to leave off their dream lists.

Now in its 4th edition, there’s a reason this book keeps coming back every few years–the entire book reads like a old friend telling you all the best secrets for cutting costs while you’re traveling. After you pick up this book, you’ll probably want to head out anyway, passport in one hand, backpack in the other, because most of these places are cheaper to wander around in for a month than staying home and going out to dinner a few nights a week. What Tim’s book does that other books only hope to do is inspire people who are open and curious to do something a little braver, a little more out of the ordinary…to check out, say, that beautiful beach in Indonesia rather than sitting at home this summer and buying that new carpet they’ve had their eye on. After all, while both will still be there after the summer, only Indonesia will welcome you comfortably for under $50 USD a day.

So now that I’ve read through The World’s Cheapest Destinations, honeymoon planning, where shall we begin?

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If you’re tech-savvy, you can snag the Kindle copy for $8.99, or if you’re less tech-savvy or just love the feeling of a paper guidebook in your hands, you can get it here on Amazon for $15.95.

Thanks for all the time-saving, money-saving, stress-saving traveling and writing advice over the years, Tim–and thanks for the book!

Kristin

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