Months in the making, Budget Travel's annual list of the hottest budget destinations focuses on destinations that are as fun as they are affordable. Some of our picks (like Estonia's capital, Tallinn) are up-and-coming, while others (like Dublin) are classics that have recently dropped in price. Best of all, we don't just tell you where to go, we also share the ideal season to visit, where to stay, and what airlines to fly to maximize your savings. Wherever we send you, the key is in the timing: right now.
Why in 2011: Ireland's banks are struggling—the country recently accepted a $112 billion bailout from the European Union—but the economic turmoil has an upshot for tourists: kind prices. Exchange rates have improved by 7 percent over last year and lodging prices are the lowest of any major city in Western Europe. In fact, scoring a bed in Dublin costs 7 percent less than it did in 2009. Restaurants are similarly well-priced; even the Michelin-starred Chapter One is offering a four-course, pre-theatre menu for $65—a bargain when you consider that a full meal is $105. And transportation is equally cheap: Dublinbikes, the city's cycle-share program, rents out bikes for $2.50 for three days, and rides clocking in at 30 minutes or less are free. Even the $13 tax levied on Dublin International Airport travelers will soon be slashed to $4 in an effort to boost tourism.
Best time to visit Dublin: Travelers swarm the capital during July and August, but a June trip offers nearly the same weather without peak-season prices (temperatures average 64 degrees). Plus, the month is packed with events like Bloom in the Park, a massive garden show; Taste of Dublin, and Bloomsday; a celebration of Ireland's literary patron saint—James Joyce.
Price check: If you're set on a warm weather trip, a recent search for June found round-trip, nonstop tickets for $746 from New York (Aer Lingus); one-stops from $727 from Chicago (Scandinavian Airlines) and $1,163 from San Francisco (Continental).
Where to stay: The three-star Harcourt Hotel, located in the former Georgian home of George Bernard Shaw, is centrally located and has 104 rooms. Harcourthotel.com, doubles from $91
Why in 2011: As Portugal liberalizes—it became the sixth European nation to OK gay marriage in May 2010—its capital is transforming into a hotbed of dining, shopping, and art. According to Hotel.com's 2010 Hotel Price Index, Lisbon is the third city in the world (after Warsaw and Marrakech) where luxury comes cheapest: on average, a five-star hotel room rings up at a mere $153 a night. Plus, four-star hotel rates have fallen 5 percent since 2009. In spite of its much publicized money woes, the country has beefed up infrastructure in recent years, spending millions of dollars to improve highways and Lisbon's public-transportation system ($5 buys you a one-day metro pass). Best of all, because Lisbon is a major European hub, flights are abundant. U.K. budget airline easyJet will open a base in Lisbon this winter, so even if you can't fly direct from the U.S., you can score a cheap connecting flight from lots of European cities, like London and Barcelona (even now, one-way flights to Lisbon from London start at $44).
Best time to visit Lisbon: Spring. The country's climate is similar to southern California's, which means going in May lets you skip summer's crowds without compromising on warm, sunny weather (temps average 70 degrees). It's also the month that outdoor festivals kick into gear, including IndieLisboa, a popular 11-day event devoted to independent Portuguese films.
Price check: A recent search for flights in May found direct round-trip fares from New York starting at $838 on Continental and one-stop, round-trip flights from Chicago from $758 on Iberia; $844 from Miami (Air Europa); and $904 from Los Angeles (British Airways).
Where to stay: Restored in 2010, the four-star LX Boutique Hotel has five floors, each devoted to a different local theme. Our favorite is the second, which honors Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa with book-stocked berths. Lxboutiquehotel.com, doubles from $106
Why in 2011: Two decades ago, this tiny republic was in the clutches of the Soviet Union; now it's a full-fledged member of the EU (it adopted the Euro on January 1) and it's fast becoming one of Eastern Europe's vacation hotspots. Long eclipsed by nearby (and much pricier) destinations like Helsinki and St. Petersburg, Estonia's capital offers everything from stunning architecture (in particular, the cathedrals in the medieval Old Town) to funky restaurants (one to try: Cafe VS, an Indian restaurant set in a dance club) to raging nightlife (liquor is dirt-cheap; a shot of Estonian vodka averages $1.75, and a bottle of domestic beer generally costs $2.50). On January 1 Tallinn kicked off a yearlong schedule of 7,000+ events—concerts, dance festivals, museum exhibits and more—to celebrate being crowned a 2011 European Capital of Culture. Plus, increasing flight capacity means airfares are likely to decrease—Estonian Air will double its flights to London in March and discount carriers EasyJet and RyanAir are boosting their number of trips to Tallinn.
Best time to visit Tallinn: Winters are cold and dark, and summers are packed with tourists, so your best bet is to visit in May or June, when temperatures typically hover in the 50s and 60s and it doesn't get dark until after dinner.
Price check: A recent flight search found May fares starting at $817 for one-stops out of New York (Finn Air) and $931 from Atlanta (American Airlines); a two-stop flight from San Francisco rings up at $1,031 (American).
Where to stay: Built in 1874 for a German nobleman, the von Stackelberg Hotel is still fit for royalty with its original limestone walls, heated bathroom floors and free Internet. Ask for the Zen Room, which features soothing bamboo decor and a private Jacuzzi. Vonstackelberghotel.com, doubles from $102
Why in 2011: Houston is home to Texas's biggest shopping mall at 2.2 million square feet; 56,000 acres of green space; and the third most Fortune 500 companies in the country, but when it comes to prices, the U.S.'s fourth-largest city is all about scaling down. Hotel rates have dropped 5 percent since 2009 and four-star rooms are going for $96 according to a recent Hotwire report. And while the city has 8,000 restaurants and a growing culinary scene—local restaurateurs Bryan Caswell and Monica Pope both snagged Best Chef nominations from the James Beard Foundation—good grub doesn't require a splurge. The typical meal in Houston runs $32.50, more than $2.50 cheaper than the national average. Plus, the city is flexing its cultural muscle (the Houston Zoo just unveiled its African Forest exhibit), and encouraging tourists to explore to their heart's content with the Houston CityPASS, which offers access to any combination of six attractions—Space Center Houston, Houston Aquarium and Museum of Fine Arts included—for $39 (a bargain when you consider that a similar pass goes for anywhere from $64 in San Francisco to $79 in New York).
Best time to go to Houston: The best odds for T-shirt weather and minimal rain are in late spring (April, May) and mid-autumn (October, November), but even in January, the coldest month, temperatures rarely dip below 63 degrees.
Price check: Nonstop, round-trip flights are easiest to come by in April: $157 from Denver (Southwest), $220 from Palm Beach (Continental), and $261 from Baltimore (Southwest). One-stop fares start at $209 from Chicago (AirTran) and $299 from Burbank (American Airlines). Southwest is generally a good bet, as they serve Houston nonstop from 33 U.S. cities.
Where to stay: Housed in a century-old bank, Hotel Icon brings a lavish, Euro-style vibe to downtown Houston. The 135 rooms start at $159, but if you book 14 days in advance and stay two consecutive nights or more, the hotel will shave off 20 percent. Hotelicon.com, doubles from $159
Why in 2011: Forget drug lords and violent political rebels—that's old news. Colombia is not only safe, it has mass tourist appeal thanks to attractions ranging from gorgeous colonial cities to Caribbean beaches to Amazonian jungles. In the first quarter of 2010, tourism in Colombia grew 10.8 percent from the same period in 2009, thanks in large part to an 11 percent reduction in airfare. (Colombia recently opened its runways to low-cost carriers like JetBlue and Spirit, as part of an effort to attract U.S. travelers). More ships are also sailing through the country's ports—ocean cruises increased 16.2 percent in the past year, and several major lines, including Royal Caribbean and Princess, are offering itineraries that dock in Cartagena. Plus, hotel deals abound after a construction boom across the country—the result of tax breaks and a strengthening economy. Of the 4,700 new rooms this year, nearly half of them will be in Bogotá, where a crop of trendy boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs has popped up.
Best time to visit Colombia: The tropical climate means warm weather year-round, so the biggest damper is rain. Precipitation varies across the country, but in the more populated Andean region (which includes the cities of Bogotá, Cali and Medellín), December through March is the dry season. Unfortunately, ideal weather coincides with peak tourism levels, so try April, when crowds—and prices—have thinned and rain hits only sporadically.
Price check: Flights from Miami are a steal in February; non-stops start at $299 (LAN Airlines). One-stop trips are necessary if you leave from New York and Los Angeles, but fares on Spirit are relatively cheap: $357 and $437, respectively.
Where to stay: Booking a room at Celebrities Suites is kind of like crashing at your friend's cozy studio—if your friend is a total pop culture freak. Every room in this hotel is dedicated to a different star, from Charlie Chaplin to Bob Marley. Celebritiessuites.com, doubles from $149
Why in 2011: Shanghai is one of the best values in China right now. Last year's World Expo ushered in a $45 billion facelift that outfitted the city with new roads and subway lines and made it one of the easiest cities for non-Chinese-speakers to navigate. As part of the building-spree, over 100 hotels were added to the city, and now that the Expo is over and demand for rooms has decreased, the city is flush with bargains; room rates fell as much as 47 percent from October to November 2010, and five-star hotels slashed prices to an average of $197, down from $334, according to Chinese travel website Qunar. Plus, Shanghai is one of the few cities in China that offers easy access via high-speed trains to nearby destinations such as Nanjing and Hangzhou—home to several ancient Buddhist temples and the scenic West Lake, respectively.
Best time to visit Shanghai: The window for enjoying prime weather while avoiding tourist throngs is pretty small, but the sweet spots are late March, when temps average 55 degrees, and late October/early November, with averages between 62 and 73 degrees. Rooms during non-peak times can be as much as 62 percent cheaper compared to peak season.
Price check: A recent check of round-trip nonstop airfares for March started at $845 from Los Angeles and $898 from New York (both on China Eastern Air); one-stop flights started at $1,011 from Chicago (Asiana Air) and $1,041 from Atlanta (Korean Air).
Where to stay: Opened in 2007, the stylish Eton Hotel is proud of its eye candy: Each room offers a view of the high-rise-packed skyline in Shanghai's Lujiazui financial district. Etonhotelshanghai.cn, doubles from $117
Why in 2011: The oil spill scared many tourists away, but the Gulf Coast is ready for business: the area's 1,680 miles of white-sand shoreline have been spruced up and its kitchens restocked with local shrimp. The average daily rate at regional hotels is down between 12 to 43 percent since 2009 depending on the destination, and tourism levels aren't expected to rebound until late 2011, which mean deals abound. Keep in mind: there's more to do than just sunbathe. In November, Biloxi unveiled its Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, a 12-years-in-the-works project dedicated to Mississippi potter George Ohr (admission is $10). Golfers should tee up at Kiva Dunes in Gulf Shores, Alabama, ranked one of the top three public greens in the state by Golf Magazine (18 holes cost $78 after 1pm). For sun worshippers, Florida's Panama City Beach averages 320 blue-sky days per year and is easier to reach than ever thanks to a new, $318 million airport opened in May of last year. Plus, you can feel awfully good about ordering that third Piña Colada—your money is helping rebuild the region.
Best time to visit the Gulf Coast: Winters in the Gulf Coast can be downright balmy with temperatures averaging in the low 60s, so chances are you'll catch some rays regardless of the season. That said, go in April or May, before the summer humidity sets in. Avoid June to November—it's the dreaded Atlantic hurricane season.
Price check: Airports in Panama City, Biloxi, Mobile, New Orleans, and Houston cater to the Gulf cities, so fares depend on where you visit. Our advice: Fly into the pristine, LEED-certified Panama City Beach airport (on Southwest in April, nonstops are $196 from Nashville, and $234 from Houston and Baltimore) and road trip to the other coastal hotspots: Gulf Shores is 127 miles away; Biloxi, 215 miles.
Where to stay: Hotel Magnolia in Foley, Alabama is a restored historic landmark with a wrap-around porch and lots of antebellum charm; a stay here includes breakfast served on china. Thehotelmagnolia.com, doubles from $100
Why in 2011: Finally free from more than 25 years of civil war, Sri Lanka has a goal: to get 2.5 million visitors between now and 2016. (Its tourism department even declared 2011 "Visit Sri Lanka Year.") The lush, pear-shaped island off the southern tip of India doesn't have to work hard to be attractive—it's known for its coconut trees, wild elephants, and daydream-worthy beaches. The country is also pulling out all the stops to draw visitors; a second international airport opened last year in Hambantota (the first is in the capital city of Colombo), and the country plans to build 30,000 hotel rooms over the next four years; with supply being so robust, rates are likely to take a dive. Several western countries, U.S. included, have had travel advisories for at least a year, and only recently lifted them in the spring of 2010. Airlines around the world are also reinstating service, which is likely to lead to even more fare drops. Don't forget that U.S. currency is mighty here: less than $1, for example, buys you a classic, Sri Lankan lunch of fish curry.
Best time to visit Sri Lanka: Avoiding monsoon season can be tricky because the rain hits different regions at different times. If you're visiting the west or south coast (which includes Colombo), December to March is best. One caveat: Tourists tend to storm during this period, which drives prices up; also, Sri Lanka is co-hosting Cricket World Cup matches in February and March, so traffic will spike even more. Try early April, which marks the tail end of the dry season.
Price check: As a rule, two-stop flights are the cheapest, and it's no different in March. Round-trip fares with two stops start at $1,040 from New York, $1,242 from Chicago (both Gulf Air) and $1,301 from San Fransisco (Cathay Pacific). Just be sure to pack a pillow—you're in for a 24+-hour trip.
Where to stay: Built by British businessmen in 1864, everything about Colombo's Victorian-inspired Galle Face Hotel is picturesque—especially the panoramic ocean views from nearly every room. Gallefacehotel.com, doubles from $126
Why in 2011: Jamaica is already one of the most affordable Caribbean destinations—hotel rates in Ocho Rios and Montego Bay average less than $200 a night, far less than you'll find in neighboring islands like the Bahamas, St. Lucia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Now the island is on track to become even more wallet-friendly thanks to a new international airport that opened near Ocho Rios in December and a recent resort boom that flooded the island with 3,000 new hotel rooms (consequently, hotel deals such as resort credits and free nights can be found by the dozen). It's also more accessible this year: Six new direct flights to Jamaica were added in 2010, connecting the country to 16 U.S. cities, more than any other Caribbean island. Cruise arrivals will also get a bump with the launch of Historic Falmouth Jamaica, a new port of call on the island's north coast that opened this month (January). Affordability and accessibility spell popularity—visitor numbers have been jumping steadily since 2009, and Jamaica's Tourism Board is gearing up for 2 million travelers this year, its largest crowd to date.
Best time to visit Jamaica: Low season, which starts in mid-April and wraps in mid-December, offers the top bargains. The flip side is the weather: rainy afternoons are common in May, June, October, and November. Avoid July through September, which is hurricane season.
Price check: Even in July, flights aren't cheap. Still, Spirit Airlines seems to have the monopoly on bargains in this case. The best deal is a round-trip nonstop ticket from Miami for $253; other direct flights run $334 from New York and $348 from Chicago (all on Spirit).
Where to stay: Ditch the resorts and head to Jake's Place on Treasure Beach, an under-the-radar string of fishing villages along Jamaica's southwest coast. The boho-chic hotel is run by Jason Henzell, whose dad directed the 1972 classic The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff. Islandoutpost.com/jakes, doubles from $105
BANFF, ALBERTA CANADA
Why in 2011: Rising out of Alberta's Rockies, this all-season tourist favorite spans over 2,564 square miles and is credited with some of North America's best slopes, not to mention hot springs, bike trails, and golf courses. The fact that their 125-year anniversary was last year is a technicality they've conveniently chosen to overlook as they continue to celebrate in 2011 with cheap lift tickets (rates haven't increased since 2007 and will remain static this year) and the low 2010 price of $10 for park entry. Perhaps Alberta's 6.5 percent drop in visitors in the past couple of years is also a motivating factor behind the specials.
When to go: Prime ski season is December through March, but if you're a true snow bunny who would rather jump moguls than sip hot cocoa in the lodge, visit in April, when the slopes are less packed and daylight lasts for 12 hours. Dig hiking and biking? Try September, when the aspen trees are at their most golden.
Price check: Recent non-stop round-trips for March started at $343 from Las Vegas (WestJet) and $440 from Seattle (Alaska Air). One-stops were going for $442 from Orlando (Delta) and $479 from Philadelphia (United).
Where to stay: Deer Lodge is centrally located, charmingly rustic—cast-iron radiators and brass fixtures adorn the rooms—and has the perfect après-ski draw: a rooftop hot tub that overlooks Banff's Victoria Glacier. Crmr.com/deer-lodge.php, doubles from $119
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