“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” // Susan Sontag
But really, I want to travel everywhere. Once I first studied abroad in Rome, I wanted to go everywhere on my list all at once. After spending almost all of my money in London before even arriving in Rome (Kelsey and I were eating one actual meal a day and most attractions were free… I still have no idea where that money went!), I realized that London is one of those places that should be visited when you’re older with more money.
The more I travel, the more I realize that some places are better when you’re older and some are better when you’re younger. It seems that Europe and Southeast Asia are two of the most “trendy” places to travel, but they are also the two main hubs for backpacking. Backpacking = cheap, and most young people are broke. It makes sense.
Even though it’s tempting to spend your savings on traveling the world because you’re young and want to find yourself and don’t want to slow down because ~wanderlust~
you are young. and likely have many more years in front of you. You can still do all of that by traveling at a reasonable pace while still saving money and paying for important things like student loans, your insurance, rent, and groceries. Prioritize what you can afford right now. Checking something off your bucket list doesn’t mean you can’t return again later in life, but for now, check out these destinations while you’re young and broke:
Before you get too excited to leave the country, remember that there are 50 states to visit as well as Washington DC. You can get around easily on foot to see all of the important landmarks, like the Library of Congress, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the National Zoo, and the Smithsonian Museums all fo’ free. If you eat in the student areas, you can snag cheap meals. Besides, sightseeing is always free. Walking around and taking in the views — that’s priceless anywhere you travel.
With cheap airfare (at least from Chicago), Portland is an awesome opportunity to explore the west. To get around, you can use affordable public transit or rent a bike if you really want to live like the locals. There are so many parks, museums, and trails for you to enjoy the outdoors.
Unless you expect to spend all of your money gambling, Vegas is actually really cheap. Don’t expect to stay at Caesar’s Palace, but there are plenty of cheap hotels especially if you split with friends. Sightseeing and people-watching will keep you entertained for days, and there are pools galore. If you’re a girl (or have a group with at least 50% girls), you can get into any day- or nightclubs for free, typically with free alcohol. You can live it up like a bougie bish and still leave Vegas with money. Last summer, I went to a dayclub pool and some pretentious guy was actually tossing dollar bills in the air… and clubbers like us snatched up those babies like it was candy in a parade. I wish I was joking. While in Vegas, you’re also in close proximity to canyons. Even the Grand Canyon is only a day trip.
With its wild nightlife, New Orleans is another essential travel destination for twenty somethings. Still, there is plenty to do and see without drinking or spending much money. There are gorgeous parks to run or walk, and the downtown French Quarter offers so much sightseeing. If you’re a foodie, restaurants will be the main event anyway. As with any place, stay at an Airbnb for a more authentic visit.
Walking and sightseeing is always free, and Prague is a European favorite, especially for students studying abroad and twenty somethings wishing they were. You can eat for cheap with carbs and beer to fuel you throughout the countless parks, museums, and puppet theaters.
If a country’s economy sucks, remember that it’s probably very cheap to visit, and you’re also helping to improve their economy. Anywhere in Greece is gorgeous, so you can’t go wrong. Definitely visit Athens, but explore some of the Greek Islands if possible for a more local experience. Santorini, Mykonos, and Milos are my recommendations, but remember that not all beaches are perfect. Some can be very rocky, so plan accordingly. If you’re into Greek mythology, visit Olympia if you can. Eat all of the food and baklava, of course.
In Southeast Asia, the cost of living is so low that everything is cheap. Yes, you do feel bad that their standard of living is so low, but tourism helps grow their economy. Tip them well and be grateful. Bangkok is one of the largest cities in the world and one of the most exciting. The Grand Palace and Wat Pho are beautiful attractions you have to see, but expect long lines of tourists. Khaosan Road is overwhelming with scorpions on a stick, $5 fishbowls, and counterfeit apparel everywhere.
The Thai Islands shouldn’t be missed. Phuket is more touristy, and my personal recommendation is Koh Samui. Wherever you go in Thailand, you can’t go wrong — amazing food, amazing sights, amazing beaches, amazing spas (Thai massage – best ever and for DOLLARS!), amazing opportunities for adrenaline junkies, and all for cheap.
Vietnam can offer very different experiences depending on your location, but it’s all affordable an incredible. I visited Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam — the north and south are about as different as the north and south in the United States, but with even more tension! I recommend the Mekong Delta to see the floating marketplaces, the Cu Chi tunnels, and in the city, visit the War Memorials. There are also great rooftop bars and fun nightlife. In the north, you can visit Hanoi for a different experience. You’ve probably seen pictures of Halong Bay, and how could you not want to visit?
A piece of my heart was left in Cambodia, and I can’t wait to return to the Kingdom of Wonder. Phnom Penh is a more industrialized city similar to Ho Chi Minh City, but Siem Reap is more raw and developing. There are countless markets to explore the local areas, but the main attractions are the temples. Angkor Wat has the largest temples and is one of the New Wonders of the World, but the Tomb Raider Temples are wildly beautiful. A quick day trip can take you to the nearby floating villages and provide a peek at what life is really like for most Cambodians. After visiting the sites of the Killing Fields, you’ll realize what a lasting effect the Khmer Rouge left on Cambodia. As with other Southeast Asian countries, there are huge backpacking districts. Pub Street is New Orleans meets Panama City Beach — it’s ridiculously fun. Did I mention that the US dollar is the most used currency? I’m talking cheap.
India is also very affordable but with a much different culture from Southeast Asia. Since it is such a large country, you can choose to stay in the forests, the mountains, yoga retreats, beaches, ancient cities, or modern cities. Basically, anything you’ve ever wanted to do in life can be done in India, one of the fastest growing countries in the world. It’s also super easy to eat as a vegetarian.
Some of the cheapest flights are to Shanghai and you’re able to see the best of both worlds in China, both the old and the new. Explore by foot and eat the delicious street food. Of course, be safe with what you eat but it’s so cheap and so good.
Visiting Mexico does not mean you have to visit Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, or Los Cabos. There is more to Mexico than luxury resorts! You can still relax while eating tacos and drinking tequila, but consider exploring Mexico City. If you go to Cancun, definitely visit the Mayan Ruins at Chichen Itza! Be adventurous with scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, or horseback riding. Be safe, but don’t be too afraid to avoid the beaten path!
Quito is an awesome colonial city to tour inexpensively. You can eat a lot for little, and it’s one of the most popular retirement destinations. It’s not necessarily cheap to visit the Galapagos Islands, but how can you not?
You can embark on your dream Big Five safari without blowing your savings in South Africa. Capetown is gorgeous too with mountains, beaches, and forests. If you like nature, animals, beaches, hiking, historic battlefields, caves, or penguins, then yes, you should visit South Africa.
While Cuba isn’t the cheapest, it’s one of those places you should visit soon before it changes drastically. Since the Cuban embargo was lifted, Western influences are just now entering the country. Visiting Havana is like time traveling to the 1950s. Visit it soon because who knows what it will be like in a few years.
Australia is not at all cheap, but it is another place to visit while you’re young. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, thanks to climate change, so again, who knows what it will be like in the future? Start thinking ahead to when you can visit in the next several years to find out! Other than the GBR, you can still go camping around the country-continent for reasonable costs.
One final place to visit before climate change ruins it? Antarctica! Isn’t it weird to think that once we’re old folks, it may not exist anymore? With thinning glaciers and rising sea levels, the continent is changing rapidly everyday. Visit the penguins and see firsthand how climate change is affecting the world. 70 degree days in February might be awesome, but it’s hurting other places and many other animals. Even if it’s not cheap, it may be priceless.
Where do you recommend traveling while young and broke? Better yet, what’s next on your list to visit? Let me know in the comments or let me know on Facebook!
++ Mary K