For many destinations in the Northern Hemisphere, the summer months of June through August see the largest crowds and most staggering prices. However, in-the-know travelers can avoid the added buzz and expense by seeking out low-season and under-the-radar locales toting better price tags. To make the most of your travel budget this summer, read on for our list of the best budget-friendly destinations around the world.
For a Florida break without the high price tag of Miami, Fort Lauderdale is a solid pick. The city has largely shed its former reputation as a spot for hedonistic college spring breaks. Today, it draws visitors for its activities surrounding fun in the sun, historical sites and a refined restaurant scene. Despite this shift toward the upscale, traveling to Fort Lauderdale in the summer continues to be a value, due to the greater likelihood of hurricanes during this time (and smaller crowds).
You don’t need a beachfront hotel to enjoy some of the finest beaches on Florida’s Atlantic coast. A number of public beaches — Fort Lauderdale Beach, Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea — have earned Blue Wave certification for their cleanliness. Though it might not match the bustle and glamor of South Beach, there are plenty of bars and restaurants along the waterfront catering to families as well as younger, late-night crowds. For some cheap eats, there is plenty of casual Caribbean and Latin cuisine on offer. Seek out Jerk Machine’s Jamaican specialties and roadside Nuevo’s Cubano’s.
The Fort Lauderdale area also features numerous trails and preserved areas to spot the local flora and fauna. The Secret Woods Nature Center’s nature trails, butterfly preserve and interpretive center make for a great nonbeach activity with the kids. Farther south, you can hike for free at Anne Kolb Nature Center. Keep an eye out for fiddler crabs and ibis in the mangrove wetlands. A day trip to Everglades National Park is more feasible in the first half of the summer, before the onset of hurricane season. Check the weather report for thunderstorms and keep an eye on the heat index, which often creeps above 100 degrees in this inland swampland.
Our Fort Lauderdale hotel pick: Ocean Beach Palace Hotel and Suites (oceanbeachpalace.com)
The American capital has an impressive list of free and affordable attractions to enjoy this summer. For starters, the city’s roster of free museums offers fascinating history, world-class art and a welcome escape from the sweltering midday sun. For example, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is a must-see for contemporary art, while the National Museum of African Art and Freer Gallery showcase centuries of art and artifacts. A favorite with families and adults, the National Museum of Natural History features incredible displays of dinosaur bones and Egyptian mummies. Meanwhile, a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provides harrowing insight into the mass atrocity through personal stories and artifacts. Another powerful experience awaits at the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. Visitors make their way through history as they ascend the museum’s four floors, starting with the slave trade on the ground floor and ending with Barack Obama’s two terms as president and the Black Lives Matter movement. Though these museums are all free, it is advisable to reserve a timed ticket via the museum website. Aside from its many museums, the city is home to a multitude of other landmarks that are free to visit, such as the Library of Congress, Arlington National Cemetery and the United States Botanic Garden.
Beyond serving as the nation’s capital, D.C. has a thriving cultural and food scene that often gets overlooked. In northwestern D.C., Georgetown is known for its upscale boutiques and colonial architecture. Strolling around these historic lanes and onto the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail, however, won’t cost a dime.
Summer in D.C. welcomes a range of festivals as well. The annual National Capital Barbecue Battle, held in June, shuts down a section of Pennsylvania Avenue as pitmasters from all 50 states and local D.C. favorites compete for the national title. Attendees can enjoy mouthwatering samples, watch celebrity chef demonstrations and much more. Another foodie favorite, Truckeroo, sees dozens of food trucks congregate in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood each Friday. Before heading over, snag a spot on the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture park lawn for their Jazz in the Garden concert series, which runs every Friday from 5 to 8:30 p.m. until Labor Day. Between the metro and Capital Bikeshare’s 300-plus stations, you’ll be able to cover plenty of ground during the day without resorting to an Uber or taxi
Our Washington, D.C., hotel pick: Hyatt Place Washington, DC / US Capitol (bit.ly/2XSzXRp)
Bulgaria’s urban spaces and natural landscapes offer a multitude of experiences at a bargain compared to neighboring Greece and nearby Croatia. A room at a beachside resort will only set you back $40 to $60, while an upscale stay in the capital can be had for around $100. Meanwhile, a hearty meal at a local tavern costs 8 to 10 Bulgarian lev (roughly $5 to $6).
This Balkan nation packs medieval cities, rugged mountains and one of Europe’s most underrated coastlines in an area smaller than Pennsylvania. Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, displays its many influences through its architecture: Ottoman mosques, stark Communist-era monuments and Greek Orthodox churches. Many of the city’s top cultural attractions, such as the golden-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Serdica archaeological site, can be visited for free. Unbeknownst to many visitors, Bulgaria is a large wine producer. You can fill your own bottle of local vintage at Sofia’s streetside markets for just a few Bulgarian lev. Try the Pamid (a classic, fruity red wine) or Dimyat (a white wine best enjoyed chilled on a hot summer day).
Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv, is an affordable and manageable stopover on the way to the Black Sea, with tickets costing around 15 Bulgarian lev and bus trips lasting two hours. In 2019, the city was designated as a European Capital of Culture, with nearly 500 events scheduled for the calendar year, including art installations, concerts and food festivals. An added perk: Most of these events are free. Exploring this ancient city by foot and absorbing its history is a must. The city’s well-preserved Roman amphitheater, which dates back to the second century, can be viewed for free from overlook points above. However, it’s worth paying the five lev to visit the restored site, which was only rediscovered after a landslide in 1972.
The country’s natural areas offer plenty of free and low-cost attractions as well. Hiking buffs should head to the Seven Rila Lakes, located just two hours south of Sofia. A network of trails winds past the lakes, each of which are connected by a series of streams and waterfalls. Heading to the Black Sea, Bulgaria’s 235 miles of coastline boast an impressive number of sandy beaches and vibrant cities, namely Varna and Burgas. Don’t worry about pregaming for a night out at Varna’s beachside bars and clubs, as local beers cost just two to three lev.
Traveling to Bulgaria from North America will require a connecting flight at a major hub, such as Frankfurt or Vienna. Once in Europe, however, connecting flights to Sofia can be had for as low as $200 to $250 round-trip. Overland connections from larger European capitals, like Belgrade, will stretch your budget even further at $25 for a one-way ticket.
Our Bulgaria hotel pick: Hotel Marvel (hotelmarvel.bg/en/hotel.html)
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
The Angkor empire’s former capital, known today as Siem Reap, offers savings on hotels and fewer crowds for summer travelers. Cambodia’s rainy season runs from late May through November, causing most visitors to arrive during the dry season (December through February) when temperatures are lower. For this reason, rooms at boutique hotels can be had for as little as $20 to $30. The rainy season is far less ominous than it sounds, with most days bringing brief afternoon showers that break the midday heat. Beyond seasonal hotel discounts, Siem Reap is a considerably affordable destination, with street food costing as little as $1 to $2 and gourmet Cambodian entrees ranging from $8 to $15. Be sure to try creamy, coconut-based fish amok and any dish with Kampot pepper.
Another benefit of visiting Siem Reap during the summer is the dramatic drop in crowds and pushy tour groups. Nothing kills the atmosphere quite like jostling for space beside Angkor Wat’s serene reflection pond. Angkor Wat refers to the temple complex as a whole, as well as an individual temple. Aside from this iconic landmark, there are thousands of other temples to explore. Other popular sites include Ta Prohm, where massive tree roots have encased the nearly thousand-year-old ruins, and Bayon’s grand, smiling stone-faced towers. To further escape the crowds, check out Banteay Srei’s red-hued, ornate carvings and Ta Nei, a secluded temple located down a sandy path just north of Ta Prohm.
If you’re traveling from outside of Asia, you’ll have to make a connection at a major hub, such as Seoul or Shanghai. Though this presents a significant cost up front, planning an extended holiday will allow you to see the savings on accommodations, food and experiences. In search of the best deal, consider flying to Bangkok and making the seven-hour bus journey to Siem Reap.
Our Siem Reap hotel pick: Diamond D’Angkor Boutique (diamondangkor.com)
Central America’s largest country has yet to come on the radar of retirees and expat escapists like Panama and Costa Rica. For those eager to get off the beaten path, Nicaragua holds a wealth of attractions that can be had at a fraction of the cost of its neighbors, especially during summer. From May through November, Nicaragua experiences its rainy season. On the Pacific Coast, this usually consists of dry mornings and afternoon showers, allowing for ample time to beachcomb, surf and explore. On the other hand, the Caribbean side, known as the Mosquito Coast, sees more severe rainfall and harsher storms, especially in September.
Keeping these summer conditions in mind, it’s advisable to orient your trip around the Pacific Coast due to its fairer weather and more reliable infrastructure. Situated on the southwestern coast, San Juan del Sur functions as Nicaragua’s top surf destination and maintains a lively nightlife scene. Just inland, Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca in Spanish) is home to volcanic Isla de Ometepe. The figure-eight-shaped island is dominated by the Concepción and Maderas volcanoes. Concepción is still active and the taller of the two, at 5,282 feet, while Maderas is dormant and shrouded in thick forest. Wet conditions create a slippery and precarious hike up Maderas, making Concepción the better choice. The entrance fee to climb Concepción is a modest $3 for the eight- to 10-hour hike, while hiring a guide costs about $12 to $15 per person. On the way, you’ll pass through banana plantations and hopefully spot howler monkeys. Farther north, cosmopolitan León has loads of street art to peruse and plenty of cheap street eats. Although it’s Nicaragua’s most popular tourist town, a stay in one of Granada’s pastel-hued boutique hotels only costs $40 to $50, usually with breakfast included.
Nonstop flights from Fort Lauderdale to Managua during the summer are a steal at less than $300 round-trip.
Our Nicaragua hotel pick: Hotel Dario (hoteldario.com/en)
FINGER LAKES, N.Y.
Unlike Sonoma or Napa Valley, two notoriously pricey wine destinations, a trip to the Finger Lakes — located in central New York — won’t break the bank. Perfect for a family vacation or romantic getaway, the region is home to several state parks, most notably Robert H. Treman, Buttermilk Falls and Watkins Glen. Though parking requires a nominal fee, these parks maintain user-friendly trails that feature dozens of gushing waterfalls and deep gorges. To make a day of it, pack a picnic from Ithaca’s GreenStar Food Co-op or the weekend farmers market and cool off in the swimming hole below Enfield Creek’s Lower Falls in Robert H. Treman State Park.
The deep blue lakes and countryside here have plenty in store for leisure-seekers and adventure sport enthusiasts alike. Situated outside of Ithaca, Puddledockers offers canoe and kayak tours of Cayuga Lake. To explore outside of town, head to Boxy Bikes for electric bicycle rentals. The extra boost will come in handy while navigating the hilly terrain. More than 100 wineries surround the Finger Lakes, with larger concentrations around Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka lakes. The chilly upstate New York weather lends itself to the production of riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay. For starters, check out Glenora Wine Cellars, where you can enjoy a wine tasting for just $10 while overlooking Seneca Lake. The region boasts a number of reputable breweries as well, including Ithaca Beer Company, Abandon Brewing Company in Penn Yan and Young Lion Brewing Company in Canandaigua.
Our Fingers Lakes hotel pick: Best Western University Inn (bit.ly/2JwYZfK)
Sandwiched in the middle of the Baltic states, Latvia is a hidden gem typically left off standard European itineraries. Latvia’s frigid winters last well into March, making summer a far more pleasant time to immerse yourself in its Art Nouveau-laden capital, take a dip in the Baltic Sea and trek the pristine forested countryside. Plus, a comfy room at one of Riga’s boutique hotels can be had for $60 to $80, while a hearty meal at a pub goes for under $10 and local beers cost a dollar and change.
Latvia’s only true city, Riga, is the largest capital among the Baltic states. Riga’s Old Town earned UNESCO status for its stunning Art Nouveau architecture. Cobblestone lanes meander past the colorful facades, while Gothic church spires permeate the skyline. Your dollar will go a long way at the city’s Central Market, housed in five World-War-era zeppelin hangars. Indulge in Latvian treats, such as dumplings, pickled vegetables, smoked mackerel and biezpins cheese.
An easy escape from the city awaits at Jurmala, Latvia’s premier beach resort getaway. For just a few euros, you can take the train to white-sand beaches where Soviet government bigwigs formerly vacationed in opulent style. Although Jurmala experienced a downturn during its post-Communist transition, the seaside town has retained its charm and popularity among urbanites. At Cape Kolka, exceptional white-sand beaches can be enjoyed in solitude. The region was off-limits to civilians during its tenure as a Soviet military base, which has delayed development on this stretch of Latvia’s coastline.
Departing from New York, Riga can be reached via connection in Helsinki for under $700 round-trip. Though pricier than a domestic flight, budget-friendly Latvia makes a European vacation much more accessible this summer.
Our Latvia hotel pick: Rixwell Elefant Hotel (bit.ly/2xzOzX0)