Tim Leffel, author of "The World's Cheapest Destinations," answered your travel questions
Tim Leffel: Greetings everyone. I'm a travel writer and author of The World's Cheapest Destinations, as well as Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler's Guide to Getting More for Less (out in August). I've been around the world three times and travel outside the country a few times a year: alone, with my wife, or with her and my daughter. But let's talk about YOUR trips!
Sterling, VA: I am looking to book a honeymoon to Bali in September of this year. What is the best way to get a good deal on all inclusive packages with meals, activities, and airfare? I seem to be finding good deals on accomodations but airfare seems to be very expensive. Thanks!
Tim Leffel: That's a long plane trip, first of all, almost as far as Australia. But I am guessing you are seeing higher airfares right now just because it's the beginning of summer--prime travel time for Americans and Canadians. As we move closer to September, prices should fall. Bali is indeed one of the best deals on the planet in terms of accommodation, so that will likely be a great deal no matter what and standards are very high. Don't get too tied to the idea of getting an all-inclusive package: meals are a terrific bargain everywhere on the island so it will be a paltry percentage of your budget. It's fun to just pop into different restaurants while you're out exploring and you'll get a better variety. Budget Travel Magazine often lists some attractive packages to Bali, as do the usual travel booking sites, but if you don't see one that suits, my advice would be to sign up for a fare alert with Travelocity and set a target price you're willing to pay for plane tickets. When it drops below that, you'll get an e-mail automatically. Then you can split your hotel time between different locations on the island. Another option is to look into a round-the-world ticket or a circle-the-Pacific ticket. If you keep going and make another stop or two, it can be as cheap or cheaper than just coming straight back. Check out these agencies: http://www.airtreks.com/index.html
Hopewell Junction, NY: Tim, IS there a cheap destination in Europe?
Tim Leffel: With the dollar taking a beating against European currencies, cheap is a relative word. Eastern Europe is still far cheaper than Western Europe though, especially if you avoid the tourist-magnet cities of Krakow, Prague, and Budapest. Get out into the countryside and spend time in lovely Czech or Hungarian towns outside the capitals. Or go to Bulgaria, or Romania--they are still a comparatively great value. Or head to Turkey, which has one foot in Europe. In these places you can manage to spend less than you would at home instead of double what you would at home.
Detroit, MI: I've heard that Central and Eastern Europe have been raising their prices for tourists now that most are joining the EU. Is there a way to get local prices instead of tourist prices? Which countries are better for this?
Tim Leffel: It's not necessarily that they are charging tourists more, though there's sure to be some of that. It's just that as they align more with the EU, prices tend to edge up closer to what they are in the rest of the continent. Also, Americans are going to pay more as the dollar loses value against the euro.
The countries that are still a ways out from joining the EU are the best bet, especially Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey.
Bowling Green, KY: With the U.S. dollar's exchange rate being so bad against the euro, where are the best places for Americans to travel internationally? Which ones are still good bargains for us? I am planning a trip for two weeks in spring '07.
Tim Leffel: The dollar could strengthen by the spring, but I wouldn't bet on it. Fortunately, a lot of countries have their exchange rate pegged to the U.S. dollar, either officially or in practice. Ecuador and Panama actually use our currency as their own, so no worries there. Most of Latin America is pretty stable in terms of exchange with the dollar, through Brazil and Chile bounce around. Much of Asia is also stable, including China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and India. So the short answer is to head to Asia or Central/South America. Or Mexico.
Georgetown, DE: I'm thinking about visiting Malaysia with my 7 year old daughter in October. Can you recommend some places and activities that are safe and interesting for a child?
Tim Leffel: Malaysia is in my World's Cheapest Destinations book and it's one of the best choices in Asia for a child. It's easy to get around, there are plenty of cuisines to pick from, and you can usually drink the water. A lot of people speak English and there are also a lot of attractions in a relatively small area. Georgetown, on the island of Penang, is a nice city, with colorful Chinese and Indian temples. There are beaches nearby, and even prettier ones on the opposite coast. (The Perhenthian Islands are some of the most beautiful I've ever seen--and I've seen a lot!)
Comfortable and efficient buses go almost everywhere, but this is a good place to take a train trip or two. You may want to venture into the Camaroon Highlands for some mountain air and hiking. With so much water around, there are plenty of boating and snorkling options. If the time is right, you can go on river rafting trips. All this will cost a fraction of what it does at home. You'll probably want to limit your time in Kuala Lumpur though--there's a limit to what you can see and do there. Malaysia is a very safe country--safer than nearly anywhere in the U.S., so don't worry.
Hartford, CT: Where is the best place for a single, budget conscious 40 year old woman to go on a week long jaunt? I can leave from either JFK/Newark or Hartford. I would like to go at the end of August (I have some flexibility). I would like to stick my toes in the sand or the culture!
Tim Leffel: If you only have a week, you don't want to venture all the way to the other side of the world. So I would recommend going somewhere between Mexico and the top of South America. A relatively short flight, no jet lag, and your U.S. dollars are still worth a lot on the ground. Most of the Mexican beach resorts have become almost U.S. satellites though, so don't expect much culture unless you distance yourself from the resort strips. Plus that time of year it's hurricane season, so the Yucatan area is dicey. If you are an adventurous type who speaks a bit of Spanish, Nicaragua, Panama, or Ecuador would offer nice beaches, good prices, and a place that's definitely not just like home. If culture wins out over a beach, the colonial cities of Guatemala or Mexico might be the ticket instead. If you go to Grenada, Nicaragua, you can sort of have both: the city is on a large volcano lake with boat trips to islands, plus the Pacific beaches aren't far away.
If you don't mind sitting on a plane a little longer, being in Cusco, Peru for a week would be an enriching break. You have to go through Lima though, which cuts into your time. If you just want a mindless lie-on-the-beach vacation, the Dominican Republic is the best deal in the Caribbean.
So many choices--and all a good value--but if you can fly out of JFK, you have lots of flight options (and sales) at your disposal. Subscribe to e-mail alerts like those from TravelZoo and Sherman's Travel and watch for deals. If something pops up for cheap, go with the flow and make it an adventure!
New Rochelle, NY: My husband and I are thinking of doing some kind of African Safari..are there any shots that we are required to get before we can travel to Africa? Thanks
Tim Leffel: It depends on where you go. You'll usually need a typhoid shot and you should be up to date on your standard boosters. Some, but not all, safari countries require a yellow fever vaccination. Consult the official web site or guidebook for the region you end up choosing.
Stamford, CT: I'm trying to plan a trip for the middle of August. I would like to spend a week at a spanish language school. I'm thinking Central America, Mexico or Carribean. I've been to Costa Rica so I think I want a different country. I'm looking for a non-touristy place. Also I'm looking for a place with other things to do (beach, sightseeing, etc.) I'm try to go to an inexpensive country and would love to stop in LA for a weekend to see my son. I work so would love to be able to fly out to LA on Friday and fly out on Sunday and start class on Monday. Homestay would be preferable. Thanks.
Tim Leffel: To research language schools, my highest recommendation goes to a magazine I write for regularly, Transitions Abroad. They have a terrific web site with what has to be the widest collection of language school advice and listings anywhere: http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/study/language/index.shtml
There are some more links here under "learning": http://www.worldscheapestdestinations.com/id17.html
You can do an immersion Spanish study week with a homestay almost anywhere in Latin America. Guatemala is known as the best value, but if you want to avoid tourists you probably don't want to do one in Antigua. There are plenty of other options in Guatemala, however, as well as in cities in Mexico and Central America that are closer to the beach or in historic cities with sightseeing opportunities. The cost is rather insignificant no matter where you go--far less than the airfare to get there usually--so browse around and see what looks interesting to you. If it's not a well-known school or you haven't read about it in an article, you may want to ask for references.
Sheldon, IL: Where can I take a family of five for a beach all-inclusive vacation including airfare the week after Christmas for around 1,000.00 per person?
Tim Leffel: The key phrase there is "the week after Christmas." That is THE peak time of the year for all-inclusive beach vacations. Because of that, I would get in touch with whatever travel agents in your area take out those big Sunday newspaper ads and get on their radar. My guess is that the best deals are going to be in Mexico or the Dominican Republic, but you never know who will be cranking up the sales.
Whatever you do, spend the extra to upgrade to a suite, a villa, or adjoining rooms. It will be money well spent. This is a time when I wouldn't try doing it all online. Get a human to work it out so everything will be right.
Cincinnati, OH: My husband and I are planning a trip to New England in August. We are flying into (and out of)Boston and rent a car. We plan to cover Boston (2 nights), the coast of Maine to Bar Harbor, New Hampshire (White Mountains) and Vermont all in 9 nights total. Is this too aggressive? Do you have any suggestions for choosing less expensive accomodations in general and around Portland ME specifically? We would like to experience a few of the famous New England Bed and Breakfasts.
Tim Leffel: I would suggest picking two or three places you really want to visit and not try to see and do everything. Otherwise you'll be spending much of your vacation in a car and won't get to enjoy those nice inns where you stop. Fortunately, the distances aren't all that great between some of those locations and the drives are scenic, especially in Vermont.
There are a staggering number of B&Bs to choose from in New England. You can often find guides in your local library, plus there are plenty of web sites that will let you sort by location. Here are a few of them: http://www.bnbfinder.com/
Once you've narrowed down your choices, I would suggest perusing the hotel review sites and guidebooks to see comments. The visitors to the Fodor's forum (http://www.fodors.com/forums/?lid=Forums&lpos=top_nav ) often provide good advice as well. Just act like an Olympic judge when you read online comments: throw out the high and low scores, then use the rest to get an accurate picture.
Philadelphia, PA: I am planning a trip to Bangkok next year and was wondering which of the night markets and floating markets are the best. I read a lot that Patpong is overly touristy. I want to avoid the over touristy markets and go somewhere more authentic. I was at Chichicastenango in Guatamala and that was awesome, a real look at the people and culture with some tourists but not a lot. Obviously the wats and the temples are touristy, that can't be avoided and that's fine. What are your suggestions on the places that are off the beaten path? Thanks!
Tim Leffel: It's been a few years since I've been in Bangkok, but here's a good web site with excellent current advice: http://www.travelfish.org/
It's not easy finding a floating market that's not touristy because really it's the tourists that keep them going. The weekend market in Bangkok has a lot of tourists, but they are outnumbered by the locals--much like Chichicastenango, so that's worth checking out regardless.
Fort Collins, CO: I recently visited Costa Rica and was surprised that the locals were charged a different (lower) price than tourists for food, beverages, and gift items. Are there ways to avoid this?
Tim Leffel: I feel your pain. I am going to Argentina this summer and am paying a much higher price for internal flights than the locals pay. It's annoying and unfair, especially when it's official policy. You see this a lot in former or current communist countries--it's the "soak the rich foreigners" concept. These practices don't usually stand the test of time, though, as we've seen in Vietnam. Eventually it starts hurting the tourism growth and you see a lot of anger in visitor satisfaction surveys and travel articles. So the practices start going away because it's hurting business.
In Costa Rica, however, there's a lot of "dumb money" floating around because of all the American investors and retirees who own property there. Costa Rica has become one of the most expensive places in Latin America because they've done a good job at marketing to retirees and bringing in hordes of free-spending vacationers--even though their neighbors offer similar attractions at a better price. If you went to Panama or Nicaragua, you wouldn't see this two-tiered pricing so much.
The only way to really avoid this, besides skipping the offending country entirely, is to bargain hard for souvenirs and avoid restaurants geared to tourists. Don't be afraid to walk away if you're being overcharged. If enough people vote with their wallet, things will change.
San Juan Capistrano, CA: After reading your wonderful review of best kept hotels of Costa Rica my husband and I would like to plan a trip there. We have two boys ages fourteen and four. Most of the hotels featured don't include any activities for kids so I was wondering how it would be traveling there with them?
My boys like the water so that would be great but are they family friendly? Do you recommend me booking everything on my own to save money or should I use a travel agent. I am quite adventurous and love researching and trying to find the best deal. We absolutely love your magazine and I am on your website all the time trying to decide where to go. Thank you very much. Lynley P.S. it seems like CR would be a cheap destination for our family, yes?
Tim Leffel: This article is a little old, but it's a good one about traveling to a nature reserve in Costa Rica with kids. Lots of good links: http://www.gonomad.com/family/0204/costaricafamily2.html
Here's another one, covering more ground:
I would suggest booking the hotels and maybe transportation in advance (on your own), but working the rest out after arrival. If you book the adventure tours with a U.S. agency before you leave, you're going to pay a lot more to cover marketing and commissions. If you're the type who likes to have everything set up before you arrive, however, the peace of mind could be worth it. Just keep in mind that the best-laid plans are often fouled by weather when you're dealing with jungles, volcanoes, and beaches. Don't preplan too much or you'll be committed to tours that might not work out.
As for hotels, a beach and a pool are often enough to entertain a child or two, especially if you are doing jungle excursions and the like. One major thing a day is probably enough. There are some recommendations in the above articles though.
Unfortunately, Costa Rica has not been a cheap destination for quite a while--it is the most expensive country in Central America, battling with the coast of Belize to attract the wealthy Americans on a too-short vacation. But the tourism industry is more developed there than in neighboring countries, so in exchange for higher prices you will find it easier to get things scheduled and taken care of, especially if you don't speak Spanish.
Waukon, IA: I will be traveling to Norway next year, possibly in May. I know it is an expensive place... any way to enjoy the country but keep the costs down? I will be traveling from LaCrosse, WI or Cedar Rapids, IA My niece who will be 18 and myself will be traveling together. I do use hostels at times. Thanks, Nancy
Tim Leffel: Scandinavia is one of the most expensive regions in the world, unfortunately, but although your destination has the greatest bearing on costs, there are certainly plenty of other variables under your control. Going in May rather than over the summer should help, first of all. Try to take public transportation most or all of the time if you can; renting a car and buying gas there will really hurt the budget. Use a guidebook that is geared more to independent travelers, such as Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, when searching out hotels and inexpensive places to eat. If you have any friends, relatives, or friends of friends there, seek them out by e-mail for advice. The inside scoop is usually best when it comes to dining and finding local bargains. There's bound to be plenty you can do for free.
If you can spend part of the time in an apartment rental or a room with a kitchen, that would help reduce costs at times. Camping is another option. If you are sociable and aren't put off by the thought of staying with strangers, there are organizations where you can arrange to stay with kindly hosts in the country. I'm a host at GlobalFreeloaders and Hospitality Exchange and have had good experiences. They're free to join, so it might be worth checking out.
The best would be to set up a home exchange with someone, but the chances of finding a Norway to Iowa exchange are admittedly not too great.
Bethlehem, PA: My husband, 14-year old son, and I want to go from Paris to Amsterdam on July 12th or 13th 2006. What is the cheapest way to do this without us driving? Thanks!
Tim Leffel: The cheapest way is probably by bus, on a carrier such as Eurolines. http://www.eurolines.com/
For a tad more, you can take the train and probably get there faster. http://www.raileurope.com/us/index.htm
For both options, your son's ticket will be a discounted one. Don't rule out budget flights though. These days, inter-European flights can be a great deal--as long as you don't carry too much luggage. To see who flies on which routes, go to the following: http://www.whichbudget.com/
Auburn Hills, MI: Since you have visited many of the world's cheapest destinations-name one of your favorites and tell us why?
Tim Leffel: I have different favorites for different reasons. It's hard to top Indonesia for pure variety and value for the money. Nepal took my breath away every day. I have a fond spot in my heart for Turkey because the Turks are the friendliest, most hospitable, most full-of-life people I've ever met and I lived in Istanbul teaching English for a while. I like Mexico so much I bought a little casita down there. But who knows, I may have a new favorite after my next trip...
Murfreesboro, TN: We are getting married in November. We would like to take our honeymoon the week of Thanksgiving. We'd initailly planned on NYC, we want to see shows, museums, etc, not really beachie people. NYC has proven to be way more expensive than planned. Any suggestions?
Tim Leffel: I was just there in the fall and can assure you that NYC is definitely the most expensive city in North America, mostly because hotel costs are in the stratosphere. (Though a trip to Orlando is almost as bad.) It will be even worse for Thanksgiving week.
There are a lot of other great cities to choose from however, and all of them offer lower prices. It won't be deathly cold yet in Chicago, Montreal, or even Quebec City. You could go to the northwest and tour Portland, Seattle, and/or Vancouver. If Congress is not in session, you can probably get a decent deal in Washington, D.C. Or go the opposite direction and be warmer in Miami. It's hard to match New York for vibrancy, but most large North American cities have a wealth of museums and culture on offer these days.
Brentwood, TN: What are the best sources to locate affordable (1 star and two star) but clean hotels, rooms with bath, in Venice, Italy for a couple in their 30's traveling in September 2006? Thank you.
Tim Leffel: Many people have come to rely solely on the Internet for info, when good old guidebooks will often do a better job. If you have access to a good library, see if you can check out several different guidebooks for Venice. If not, settle into a comfy chair in a large bookstore and browse the different ones to see which is the best match. Then buy it. Guidebook writers have to be very careful about which places they recommend and they get lots of feedback if they steer people the wrong way. After you've narrowed down the options you can see if there are reviews posted on sites such as TripAdvisor, VirtualTourist, and IgoUgo.
Also, if you're not the super-organized, every minute scheduled type, you may just want to reserve the first night or two and then have the option to move elsewhere if you find something nicer after arrival, either on your own or asking around. There should be ample availability since you're not going in the summer. Those who play things by ear are often happier with their lodging choices, especially at this budget range, because they can inspect the room before saying yes.
Lompoc, CA : For our 60th anniversary, we plan to pay for a celebration with our three progeny, their spouses, and three still at home grandchildren, plus three other adult family members, 14 total. Any suggestions?
Tim Leffel: Wow, that's ambitious, but it sounds great! Without knowing more about you or what you want to do, here's my limited advice. First of all, you probably need to rent a huge house or several houses close together, at least part of the time. Otherwise you're jamming people into hotel rooms, which means less space and more money. You need a kitchen or two, a deck or a pool, and room to spread out. Check sites with a large database of listings, such as VRBO.com, vacationrentals.com, and cyberrentals.com. That is, unless you are planning to go the all-inclusive route, which could make sense and eliminate some planning hassles, but again will probably cost you more.
Depending on where everyone is coming from, you should probably stick to a location that's relatively easy to get to, with flights under a few hours. I'm guessing with that many schedules involved, this party is not going to go on for weeks...
Seattle, WA: My wife and I, ages 62 and 65, are planning an around the
world trip. We must go to Bangkok for a wedding on Jan. 22, 2006. We want to make a stop in India and Must stop in Nairobi for two weeks, then we want to go on to Madrid and back to Seattle. What would be some good stop overs in the
journey and how much should we budget for economy class airfare? Thank you, Larry
Tim Leffel: Scroll up a bit and see the Bali question for agencies that sell round-the-world tickets. I would base your stopovers on your research rather than trying to make your itinerary fit extra stopovers. The flights vary quite a bit depending on airports.
Greensboro, NC: My wife and I would like to go to Montenegro in June 2007 would like to cruise a bit on a small boat 8-10 passengers and maybe rent a car and drive inlandetc Whoshould we contact to plan and get information
Tim Leffel: The Bay of Kator is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a great departure or arrival port. Here's a good article about the area from a British paper. telegraph.co.uk/travel/
Montenegro just voted for independence, so you're smart to go now before the hordes of tourists flood in as they have to neighboring Croatia. Montenegro's official tourism site contains extensive listings for the area and should provide some good leads on cruise operators: http://www.visit-montenegro.com/
Many of the cruise companies operating in the area seem to be based in Croatia. Here's one company that offers a large selection of different boat tours: http://www.clubadriatic.com/
I would suggest hiring a car and driver rather than renting a car. Roads in Montenegro are not exactly in tip-top shape and a local will know the routes and signs. You can easily set this up locally after arrival and if you're good at bargaining, it will probably cost you the same or less than renting a car¿with no insurance charges.
David Farley wrote a useful article on Montenegro for Budget Travel last year, complete with specific prices. budgettravelonline.com
(Farley, co-author of Travelers' Tales Prague, also wrote a Bulgarian coast article for a travel narrative site I edit, Perceptive Travel http://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/0306/farley.html)
Tim Leffel: Thanks for all the great questions, and for tuning in! I'm sorry I couldn't answer everything that was submitted. You can always catch up with me on my blog at http://travel.booklocker.com/