Traveling on a budget isn’t especially difficult, provided that you’re willing to look at a variety of destinations — and take a great deal when you find one. Following the 2020 shutdown, the travel industry is pulling out all the stops to entice travelers back. In 2021, you can experience new cultures, lounge on exotic beaches, and sample the world’s finest culinary delicacies without breaking the bank. If you’re not sure where to start, this list should help you get your bearings.
We created this list by considering lodging, dining, and airfare prices for the destinations in question, using several major cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York) as departure points. We also looked at other factors that might affect travelers, including safety and availability of public transportation.
Remember, you can save significantly on airfare by using websites like Google Flights and Flightscanner or apps like Hopper to monitor prospective flights (and no, we aren’t getting paid for any of those mentions). If you’re patient enough, you’ll eventually find a great deal. Be sure to check out our article on cheap flights for more airfare tips.
With that said, let’s dive in. If you’re traveling in 2021, here are some budget-friendly destinations you’ll want to consider.
Airfare to Mexico should stay low throughout 2021, and given the American dollar’s strength relative to the peso, there’s never been a better time to head south.
Coastal cities like Cancun and Cozumel are always a safe bet for beachgoers, but don’t overlook Mexico City. Here, travelers can easily find accommodations for $100 per night and under, and gourmet restaurants like Pujol and Zanaya make Mexico City an essential bucket-list stop for foodies. While you’re here, stop by Museo Soumaya, a private museum with an extensive collection featuring the works of Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dali.
In general, travelers can safely spend time in major Mexican cities by taking basic precautions, but some states have elevated travel advisories; check the Department of State’s advisory page before booking your trip.
We’ve written about Vietnam in other articles, and it remains a tried-and-true option for budget-conscious travelers. Even in Ho Chi Minh City, travelers can find a plethora of hotel rooms for under $50, and if you stick with local restaurants, you can easily keep your food budget under $10 per day.
Airfare is also remarkably affordable; with a quick Google Flights search, we found fares from Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles for less than $700.
Consider heading to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its breathtaking landscapes, or rent a bike in Hanoi to explore the capital’s many landmarks (Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Hoan Kiem Lake certainly deserve some time). Wherever you go, you’ll find cheap accommodations, great food, and friendly locals.
Editor’s Note: Vietnam was also named as one of the top 10 best places in the world to retire. Find out more about retiring in Vietnam here.
While Baltic countries are generally affordable, Estonia is a perpetual entry on our budget travel lists. That’s partly because tourists don’t really know about it yet — Estonia attracted about 2.14 million foreign tourists in 2018, and that number wasn’t a significant increase from the previous year.
That generally means that you won’t have to fight the crowds, and you won’t spend too much of your budget on food or accommodations. You can find airfare to the country’s capital, Tallinn, for under $800 from most major American airports, and hotels are available from around $40 a night (less if you’re willing to book a private room in a hostel).
In Tallinn, be sure to take the free 2-hour walking tour of the Old Town district to gaze at the city’s enchanting architecture. You can also arrange brewery tours, enjoy remarkably affordable fine dining, or browse one of the city’s many art galleries. For more ideas, check out our guide to spending a day in Tallinn.
This former Soviet state is one of the cheapest European countries to visit. In 2018, former president Serzh Sargsyan resigned peacefully after popular protests, and the Armenian government is currently going through a period of positive political change. Apart from the Nagorno-Karabakh region on the country’s eastern border, Armenia is a safe place to travel, and its major cities are delightful destinations for cultural explorers.
Spend some time in Yerevan, where you can pay your respects at the Armenian Genocide Memorial. The core of the city is Republic Square, where travelers can visit the History Museum and National Gallery, but architecture aficionados will want to travel out to the nearby Zvartnots Cathedral ruins, about a half-hour’s drive from the city.
You’ll want to avoid Eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are still engaged in a conflict with the Ukrainian government. Coastal cities like Odessa and Lviv are perfectly safe options for travel; we found airfare to Odessa for less than $600, and lodging is available in the city for around $30 per night and up.
Odessa is famous for its beaches, but travelers should also check out the Odessa Catacombs, an enormous network of tunnels used by Soviet partisans during World War II. Aboveground, you’ll find an assortment of fine restaurants offering the best of Baltic fare; travelers can easily fill up for less than $10, though gourmet options like Sovremennik are certainly worth a little extra.
Quite a few South American countries deserve a place on this list, but Argentina is our top pick. In cities like Mendoza, travelers can enjoy world-renowned wines at restaurants like Azafran, which we’ve covered in another piece on the city. Be sure to carry plenty of paper money, since regularly changing currency rates can make electronic payments a hassle.
Airfare to Argentina can be expensive compared to airfare to other cities on this list (flights from Chicago averaged around $1,000), so if you’re planning on visiting, use the aforementioned flight-tracking tools to find deals. Once you arrive, you’ll find affordable accommodations for $20 per night and up, and you’ll be able to eat like royalty on a fairly slim budget.
Travelers often say that visiting Romania is like traveling back in time. That’s fair, to a degree; the Transylvanian countryside is littered with pre-Industrial villages, and you’ll see medieval architecture in nearly every major city. If that sounds appealing, good news: The prices are also a throwback. For under $700, you can easily find a flight to Romania in summer, and most cities have accommodations for less than $70 per night.
Most travelers will want to spend at least a few days in Bucharest, the country’s capital. Known as the Little Paris of the East, Bucharest has charming Bohemian architecture, numerous historic sites of interest, and fantastic shopping districts. Check out our guide to Bucharest’s hidden gems here.
Despite what you might have heard, American travelers can still visit Cuba — just not as tourists. The process for obtaining a travel visa is slightly more difficult than it was in 2018, but the United States government recognizes 11 authorized categories of travel, and dedicated adventurers can still find their way to Havana.
Of course, that could change at any time, so if you’re planning a Cuban vacation, you’ll want to go while it’s still possible. All U.S. flights must arrive in Havana, and the city is both affordable and beautiful. Excellent day-trip options from the capital are available as well.
A former Soviet satellite state, Bulgaria has developed its tourism industry substantially in recent years. Nearly nine million foreign tourists visited in 2017, and if you’ve always wanted to head to the Balkans, you’ll want to book your trip before that number grows.
Visit the capital city, Sofia, to see the Church of Saint George Rotunda, built by the Romans in the fourth century. The city also has numerous art galleries, bustling antique markets, and ancient Roman ruins. Our guide to Sofia can help you plan your trip to this often-overlooked capital.
If you’re looking for more of a traditional vacation experience, head to Varna, a seaside city with fantastic resorts, large public parks, and medieval cave monasteries.
Airfare to either city hovers around $700 from Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and accommodations are generally available for less than $60 per night (and yes, that includes seaside hotels in Varna).
We’re surprised to see Italy on this list, too — the country hosts record numbers of tourists year after year, but it’s still an affordable destination for American travelers, provided that you plan carefully. To avoid crowds and keep your expenses in check, consider traveling sometime between October and June.
Airfare to Rome, Venice, and Florence is fairly affordable year-round, with sub-$700 flights popping up from time to time. Unless you’re traveling for several weeks, pick one city and stick with it; many tourists overpack their itineraries, which can leave them fighting the crowds and overpaying for food and accommodations. Check out our guides to each of the cities (linked above), and don’t be afraid to explore.
For a less conventional vacation, consider heading to one of Italy’s beautiful small towns (and yes, we have a guide for that, too).