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Exotic but not expensive ... where?

By Tim Leffel
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2008
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As fast as you could say easy credit we've gone from frivolous to frugal, deluxe to downsized. When it comes to travel, it's not hard to get more for less - if you pick the right destination.

The dollar may have rebounded a little lately in relation to the euro and pound sterling, but a trip to one of Western Europe's capitals still feels like a shopping trip to Tiffany's. If $100 taxi rides and $50 lunches aren't your thing, head to a country where your dollars will go a long way. Here are some of the best deals on the planet right now, places that are easy for travelers and easy on the wallet.

Mexico
In August the peso was at 10 to the dollar. Now it's at nearly 13 That's a discount of more than 25 percent in a country that was already a deal. The resort areas of Cancún and Los Cabos are no bargains, though. To find the best values, visit the historic colonial cities and beach areas where Americans don't outnumber the locals and there's no Señor Frog's in sight. Think Puerto Escondido not Playa del Carmen, Mérida not Mazatlán.

Sample deals: a three-course lunch at a market stand in Guanajuato for $4; Hotel Maison Lafitte (maisonlafitte.com.mx/ing/ml_ eng.htm, Calle 60 No. 472, 011-52-999-928-1243), an evocative hotel in the center of Mérida, charges $63 a night for a double with breakfast and Wi-Fi; a round of Negra Modelos for five at nearly any bar, including gratis snacks, for $10.

Honduras
Visitors can find fabulous deals on scuba diving packages on Roatan Island. This Caribbean island sits next to the second-longest coral reef in the world, and every hotel seems to offer package plans no matter the season. The mainland is a bird-watcher's paradise and is home to Copán, one of the key Mayan sites in the Americas.

Sample deals: a half day of white-water rafting on the Cangrejal River for $35 through Jungle Lodge (www.jungleriverlodge.com/rafting.html, 011-504-440-1268), including transportation; a weeklong learn-to-dive package with room, breakfast, and transfers for $535 per person at Bananarama (www.bananaramadive.com, West Bay Beach, 504-445-5005); a cold coconut with a straw for 40 cents; and admission to the Copán archeological park for $10.

Guatemala
This is only a shade farther to fly than Mexico, but it is a truly exotic destination. The descendants of the Mayans still dress in traditional clothing in the villages surrounding stunning Lake Atitlán. The Spanish colonial buildings in the city of Antigua are older than anything left standing in our historic city districts. The sprawling archeological park of Tikal contains a dramatic set of Mayan ruins.

Sample deals: a taxi ride across Antigua for $4; a double room with a panoramic view at Casa del Mundo (www.lacasadelmundo.com, El Jaibalito, 011-502-5218-5332) on Lake Atitlán for $61; a week of private Spanish lessons including homestay starting at $175 at Centro Linguistico in Antigua (www.spanishcontact.com, Avenida del Espiritu Santo No. 6, 011-502-7832-1039); a zipline canopy tour near Tikal (www.canopytikal.com/inicio.html, 011-502-5819-7766) for $30.

Peru
Machu Picchu alone is worth the journey, but it's just the start in this value-packed country. Inca ruins are scattered all around the Sacred Valley, and Cuzco is one of the most attractive cities in South America. There is also hiking in the Andes, admiring colonial architecture on the streets of Arequipa, trips through the Amazon, boating across the highest lake in the world, and flying over the strange geoglyphs, the Nazca lines.

Sample deals: a flight from Lima to Cuzco for $77 on Taca (www.taca.com, 800-400-8222); a big traditional lunch and a beer at La Quinta Eulalia in Cuzco (Choquechaca 384, 011-084-224-951) for $7; entrance to the Inca Museum in Cuzco (103 Cuesta del Almirante, 011-084-237-380) for $1.50; the "matrimonial suite" for two at KB Hotel in Ollantaytambo (011-518-420-4091, www.kbperu.com/kbhotel.html) for $40 with breakfast.

Egypt
Despite having some of the world's best-known monuments, Egypt struggles to fill its abundant hotels. With less-than-wealthy locals far outnumbering the tourists, it's easy to find a bargain meal or a guide or taxi driver. Admission prices for the ancient pyramids and temples are reasonable, generally ranging from $3 to $13.

Sample deals: a first-class train ticket from Cairo to Luxor (www.egyptrail.gov.eg/docs/index.html) for $16; a Nile-view deluxe double at the 4-star Iberotel Luxor (www.iberotelegypt.com/luxor/index.htm, 011-20-95-238-0925) for $60 with breakfast; entrance to the Nubia Museum in Aswan (www.numibia.net/nubia/intro.htm, El Fanadek Street, 011-20-97-31-9333) for $3.61; a falafel sandwich at a Cairo street stall for 40 cents.

Indonesia
This Southeast Asian nation is one of the most diverse and attractive destinations in the world, with a long string of volcanic islands and a range of topography and culture. It's also one of the world's best bargains, with cheap hotels going for $5 a night, often right beside great snorkeling spots. Bali is the most developed island, but even there you can find plenty of deals. On Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, however, it's easy to branch out like an intrepid explorer or get pampered on the cheap in the most popular spots.

Sample deals: a double room at Metro Guest House in Yogyakarta, Java (www.yogyes.com/metro, Jl. Prawirotaman 2 No. 71, 011-62-274-37-2364), with pool and breakfast for $16; a five-day small ship cruise between Lombok and Flores islands via Komodo for $150 to $400 per person including meals (daily departures, book locally), a first-class train seat from Jakarta to Yogyakarta (infoka.kereta-api.com/jadwal_dan_tarif/) for $25; an hourlong massage for $8-$15.

Thailand
This is a popular destination for travelers of all budget levels, and deals abound whether you're a backpacker or a spas-and-shopping type. Thailand continues to be one of the best bargains in the world in terms of hotel prices and with a well-developed infrastructure, it's easy to get around and see what you want to see, be it historic ruins, Buddhist temples, or tropical beaches.

Sample deals: a standard double at one of the best hotels in the world, The Peninsula in Bangkok (www.peninsula.com/bangkok/en/default.aspx, 333 Charoennakorn Road, Klongsan, 011-66-2-861-2888), for $303 or less per night; admission to the main ruins in Sukothai (www.tourismthailand.org/attraction/sukhothai-64-3835-1.html) for under $1.20; a first-class sleeper accommodation from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (www.railway.co.th/english/index.asp, 011-022-22-0175, info@railway.co.th) for about $36; a one-day scuba diving trip with Phi Phi diving (www.phiphidiving.com/daytrips.htm, 269/24 Patak Road, Karon Beach, Phuket, 011-66-076-398-040) for around $63 including gear rental.

Czech Republic
In much of Europe, prices in the big cities are often double what you find in the countryside. This is especially true in Eastern European countries like the Czech Republic, where vacationers on quick weekend breaks have driven up hotel and restaurant prices in Prague. In the smaller towns and cities, however, the country is one of Europe's remaining great values. It's an enchanting destination where you find castles on a hill, some of the world's best beer for a dollar in a pub, and winding cobblestone streets without crowds.

Sample deals: an $89 double with breakfast at Mikulov's best inn, Hotel Templ (www.templ.cz/index.php, Husova 50, 011-420-519-323-095); fully equipped hybrid bike rental from Top Bicycle (www.topbicycle.com, 011-420-519-513-745) for $25 a day; sommelier guided 12-bottle tasting at the Wine Salon of the Czech Republic in Valtice (www.vinarskecentrum.cz/index.php, Národní vinarske centrum, o.p.s. Zámek 1, 011-420-519-352-072) for $19; a train ticket from Prague to anywhere in the country for $12 or less.

Iceland
This is a wild card, and it may not last. If there's a "go now" country on this list, Iceland is it. A year ago this was a very expensive destination. A few months ago the currency started sliding, then the country went into meltdown mode. Hotels and restaurants are literally one-third the price they were this summer. With direct flights on Iceland Air also on sale, this is the time to soak in the hot springs and pools, see the geysers, and hike the volcanic wilderness on the cheap.

Sample deals: deluxe double with breakfast at the four-star Reykjavík Hotel Centrum (www.reykjavikhotels.is/reykjavikhotels/centrum, Adalstraeti 16, 011-354-514-6000) for $127; an all-day soak at the geothermal Blue Lagoon (www.bluelagoon.com, 240 Grindavík, 011-354-420-8800) for $22; a 48-hour welcome card (www.visitreykjavik.is/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-10/12_view-85/, Adalstraeti 2, 011-354-590-1550) for $13 that provides free admission to attractions and public transportation.

Tim Leffel, author of "The World's Cheapest Destinations" (Booklocker.com, 2006) and co-author of "Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America" (Menasha Ridge Press, 2008), can be reached at leffel1@comcast.net.

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