Best value destinations for 2012

These days who isn’t looking for good value? Keeping your budget and a craving for an unforgettable experience in mind, the experts at Lonely Planet have released their top picks for world destinations that just might satisfy both.

Top 10 best value destinations for 2012

1. Northeastern USA
The great cities of America’s northeast — New York, Boston and Washington DC — might not strike you as being a bargain, but Lonely Planet says you can save big by taking advantage of the recent boom in budget bus companies. These buses, which connect with the three major northeast hubs — and also with also places like Toronto, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh — are a steal at about US$5 one way (and sometimes just US$1). Travellers can crisscross the region without the expense of booking a flight or renting a car. Plus the ride is touted as being comfortable and it offers free wi-fi. (Want to find out more? Check out Megabus and BoltBus.)

2. Japan
Compared to popular destinations such as London, Paris or New York, the attractions and accommodations in Japan are relatively inexpensive. According to Lonely Planet, you can find simple, Japanese-style minshuku guesthouses from about US$37. Even better, many attractions such as temples and botanic gardens are free — and others are almost free. For example, admission to the Tokyo National Museum is a fifth of the cost of the Tower of London.

As we know, Japan has had a tough year with the earthquake back in March, and the country is considering various incentives to boost tourism in 2012, like possibly giving away thousands of free flights starting in April 2012. (See Japan offering 10,000 free flights for tourists… maybe.)

3. Tajikistan
Lonely Planet likes this Central Asian nation for its stunning scenery and stability – as well as its affordable rates. The cost for hiring a car and driver for several days, for instance, is about US$300, which can take you on one of the world’s greatest road trips up the Afghan border and Pamir Highway. For another great trek visit the emerald lakes close to the Uzbek border.

4. Porto, Portugal
This charming town with its atmospheric narrow lanes, historical trams, village-like plazas and buildings decorated with azuelo tile is also a good deal. Not only is it connected with much of Europe via budget airlines, but accommodation in antique-filled inns with river views start at just US$37.75. While you’re there, check out the traditional wine district of Alto Douro (which is a few hours east of Porto) where you can cruise in a flat-bottomed boat and sleep in 200-year-old homes for about US$86.

5. Lesotho
Looking for something out of the ordinary? With its mountains, cannibal caves, dinosaur footprints and extensive pony treks, Lesotho — ‘the kingdom of the sky’ — offers a truly unique experience. (Forget the car; here you’ll get around by pony.)  Enveloped by South Africa, Lesotho is a far less expensive destination than its neighbour. For the best deals, Lonely Planet says to look at off-the-beaten-track Malealea, which is about 60km southeast of the capital Masuru. From here you can take multi-day treks into a massive mountain range and the extraordinary musk and orange-coloured landscape. Overnight trips, including a pony, food and a guide, begin at US$50 per day.

6. Iquitos, Peru
Booking a five-day Amazon cruise from abroad is not an inexpensive undertaking. In fact, it can run to US$3500 per person, not including flights. But Lonely Planet says you can cut your costs at least in half by dealing directly with the local outfits in Iquito — the world’s biggest city not reachable by road. You can venture into piranha fishing spots, watch pink dolphins in the wildlife-rich Allpahuayo Mishana National Reserve, and mingle with Amazonians in native villages. The best time to visit is October or November when it’s still dry but before the summer crowds. (For examples of trips on offer, go here.)

7. San Francisco, USA
It may be pricey to live there, but the city by the bay doesn’t need to break your travel budget. For instance, small boutique hotels near Union Square can be had for under US$100 — a fraction of what you’ll pay in New York or London. Dine cheaply on San Francisco’s ‘mission burrito’, which is stuffed with rice, beans and carne asada, and costs only US$5 in the bar-filled Mission District. And there’s much to see and do that is free or nearly free, such as walking the Golden Gate Bridge, exploring the Pacific beaches, and visiting vintage arcade Musée Mécanique and a host of free art galleries.

8. Ohrid, Macedonia
Budget-friendly Macedonia is known for its mountainous setting of vineyards, lakes and Byzantine churches. Beyond the lively capital of Skopje, the country’s spiritual heart is three road hours’ west at Ohrid — a picturesque town with a medieval castle looking over church-dotted hilly streets and the lush coastline of Lake Ohrid. While the view is certainly not hard on your eyes, it’s not hard on your budget either. Private rooms are available for €10 euro or less, or you could opt to stay in an opulent historic villas turned into B&Bs for under €50 (US$71.50). You won’t want to miss a tour of the lake coast, including Galičica National Park with its spectacular spots for hiking, boating and swimming. (Go here for info on local services.)

9. Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Vietnam is known for good value, mostly through package trips arranged in Ho Chi Minh City. Another option that is just as cheap, and perhaps more interesting, are DIY multi-day adventures to destinations like Ben Tre, Chau Doc and the floating markets of Vinh Long, as well as some less-known ones such as Ha Tien or Tra Vinh. You can tour the country via air-conditioned bus or hire moto-taxis as you go. (One advantage of the latter is the drivers often know ferry crossings on roads not on any map.) Boat trips go for US$5 to US$10, while most guesthouses run US$10 to US$25.

10. Mérida, Mexico
The Yucatan is known for its beautiful beaches — but the best place to experience the food, life and architecture of the ‘real Mexico’ is a few hours inland at the lively city of Merida. Here you’ll find historical homes converted into inns for the fraction of the cost of Cancún resorts. And you won’t want to miss the Spanish colonial centre of Plaza Grande with its 16th-century cathedrals and free art museums.  On weekends it becomes the scene of dance, food and parties.

Take a day trip to five Mayan sites on the public Ruta Puuc bus loop for about US$40, or head to the village of Celestún and hire a motorboats (US$17 per person) to see hundreds of pink flamingos in the mangroves. Mérida’s guesthouses are a great bargain, according to Lonely Planet, and rooms at Hotel Trinidad start at US$21.

Find out more about Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2012

Porto, Portugal. Photo © Paul Mckeown

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