Year after year, friends and family of the Budget Travel staff inevitably ask us the same question: "Where's the coolest and most affordable place to go next?" Luckily, we work hard to get at the right answers for them.
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Each year before the holidays, the BT team combs through piles of data regarding new flight destinations, airline prices, places aggressively building new hotels, cities experiencing cultural booms, currency charts, and other statistics to compile our list of the 10 best Budget Destinations for the upcoming year.
Some destinations were more interesting to us because they were so full of new and unique attractions (Northern Ireland!), and others were standby dream vacation spots that were suddenly more affordable than they've been in recent years (the Loire Valley, France). But the one thing they have in common is that they're completely accessible and ripe for exploring now. So read up, pick a place, and get planning!
Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
Even if Ko Phi Phi isn't familiar by name, you still might recognize its turquoise waters, leaf-blanketed limestone peaks, and signature longtail boats—the hallmarks of this island paradise off the coast of Thailand inspired wanderlust the world over when it was spotlighted in the film “The Beach.”
An archipelago comprised of two main islands, Ko Phi Phi was on the rise as a holiday destination when it was devastated by the tsunami of 2004. Eight years and a rigorous rebuilding effort later, it's now well on its way to becoming a luxury tourist spot. This year, hotel rates have dropped by 27 percent to an average of $151 per night, compared with a 13 percent increase in nearby Phuket.
Toronto is seriously having a moment. The cultural, entertainment, and financial capital of Canada has not only undergone a huge building boom, but also New York City exports are opening up here at rapid pace, like the new Thompson and Trump hotels, and David Chang's Momofuku empire.
But what makes it a great budget destination is that unlike the rest of the world, hotel prices didn't increase at all in the first half of 2012. Like any good bustling North American city, there are myriad cultural options to be found here, but because this is a harbor town off Lake Ontario, there are also plenty of affordable outdoorsy activities like hiking, biking, and canoeing. And because about half of the population was born abroad, the ethnic food scene is as good as it gets anywhere in the world.
Palm Springs, Calif.
With its towering namesake palms and countless pools, Palm Springs has long been heralded as California's desert oasis, where the stars and golf aficionados fled when they needed a little R&R. Now, with a 6 percent drop in airfares amid near-universal increases nationwide, it's also a refuge for bargain-seeking travelers.
If you've never heard of the Turkish Riviera, you're not alone—Americans have thus far rarely ventured to the southwestern Mediterranean coast of Turkey for holiday. All that seems likely to change this year for several reasons: Average hotel prices have significantly and notably dropped from last year (from $193 to $146, almost 25 percent), and in 2011 it beat New York City to become the world's third-most visited city by international tourists.
The word is out about this city that's part beachfront, part metropolis, and part ancient town. And even though many of the tourists here are of the incredibly wealthy European variety, the 5-star all-inclusive resorts on the beaches offer rates as low as $100 a night. More adventurous types will also get a huge kick out of the city's proximity to some of the oldest known architectural ruins in the world. The nearby Catalhoyuk Mound is one of the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites to date, existing from 7500 BC to 5700 BC.
Loire Valley, France
According to the 2012 Hotel Price Index, the historic wine and chateaux region known as the Loire Valley (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) saw a 19 percent price decrease in average hotel rooms, bringing them to $128—pretty good, considering going to France isn't generally considered a budget affair. And in November of this year, the Euro hit a two-month low against the dollar due to bailing out debt-burdened member nations. Bad news for Europeans, but it adds to your advantage when traveling right now.
The best way to see the area is to rent a car in Paris and drive 150 miles south until you reach the middle stretch along the Loire River. You'll want to be able to drive to the various vineyards—the fertile land is home to the regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, as well as Muscadet.
In the new hit ABC drama "Nashville," a political powerbroker describes his hometown as "a thriving, prosperous city, an industrial and cultural juggernaut." In other words, the home of the Grand Ole Opry is going a little heavy on the "grand," while easing up considerably on the "ole."
You might say life imitates art. This spring, a brand-new, $585 million, 118,000-square-foot convention center will open downtown, which will in turn help fuel the city's ongoing hotel construction boom.
But growth in Nashville isn't solely related to real estate. In a city known primarily for its "hot chicken" and "meat and three sides," chefs are helping to transform Nashville into a new culinary powerhouse, along the lines of Charleston. On the other end of the spectrum, buzzy food trucks are hitting the streets of hip neighborhoods like East Nashville and The Gulch.
Northern Ireland has been troubled for the better part of the 20th century, thanks to a bloody religious conflict. Peace has since been restored, but that didn't immediately skyrocket Northern Ireland to the top of travelers' bucket lists.
So how's the outlook in 2013? Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second city, became the first U.K. City of Culture (cityofculture2013.com). The 6th-century walled city will spend $25 million in new cultural programs designed to bring in tourism. Best of all, Northern Ireland is now easier (and cheaper) to get to: Beginning in fall 2012, EasyJet and Aer Lingus added more flights between Belfast and London, which is expected to increase competition with British Airways and thus further lower airline prices.
Since it split from the Czech Republic in 1993, Slovakia has remained a quiet hidden gem. But on the 20th anniversary of its independence, with one of the fastest growing economies in the EU, Slovakia finally seems ready for its close-up.
Slovakia's second city, Košice, shares the European Capital of Culture designation with Marseille, marking the first time a Slovak city has held the title. The well-preserved city, which dates back to the 12th century, will focus on the future. The city's 19th-century military barracks have been converted into Kulturpark, a creative district that will promote contemporary art, experimental theater, and modern dance.
Boracay Island, The Philippines
As tourism from east Asia and the United States grows each year, the white-sand beaches of this southeast Asian archipelago should move from your bucket list to your see-it-before-it's-overrun list—especially since Royal Caribbean made its first call to Boracay in October.
It’s rather remarkable considering that tourists never even set foot on Boracay until the 1970s. Now there are more than 300 resorts and hotels for visitors to choose from on this thin speck of prime oceanfront real estate (less than a mile wide and less than four miles long) and last year the area saw more than 900,000 visitors.
If it seems as if the Bahamas are an annual fixture on you-can-afford-to-go-here lists, well, they are—for good reason. From northernmost Grand Bahama, with its three national parks, underwater caves, and urbane nightlife, to the bustling port of Nassau, home to iconic Cable Beach and historic Bay Street lined with shops and cafes, the Bahamas remain a favorite "stylish steal" for savvy travelers
For a taste of authentic Bahamas cuisine, stop into Twin Brothers for mixed platters of local favorites like conch, snapper, and grouper.
See more photos of the top budget destinations for 2013.