Holiday travel: Cheap international vacations

| Scene Regular Features Editor
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Playa Marsella in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever considered exploring the sights of a new country? Did you dream of studying abroad but couldn’t fit it in your schedule? With the economic recession particularly hurting the airline business, international flights are now cheaper than ever. And, with Washington University’s long winter break coming up, now is a great time to think about going overseas. So if you’ve been dying to go on a real vacation and escape the St. Louis chill, or escape America all together, here are a few international locales to check out that won’t break your budget.

Morocco

Located along the Atlantic coast of Northern Africa, Morocco has a lot to offer any tourist—but especially tourists interested in exploring rich, new cultures. Due to its location, Morocco often feels more like the Mediterranean than like Africa. Northern Morocco boasts countless historic cities full of Roman and Islamic influences, lush valleys, and cooler temperatures. But as you move south, Africa emerges.

There is much to explore across all of Morocco’s different districts: Tangiers, Agadir, Marrakech, Casablanca, Ouarzazate and Tarfaya. For a taste of Morocco’s history and culture, Marrakech is a must. And while you’re visiting the city, I definitely recommend exploring the Majorelle Garden, which was bought by famous fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and has inspired many of his runway shows.

If you’re more of a beach person, not to worry—Morocco is a coastal country and boasts 3,000 miles of beachfront. Agadir in the south is the only resort area of Morocco and claims the warmest climate. During the winter months, temperatures tend to hover around 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Morocco’s tourism industry is growing, but it has not yet become an established tourist destination—which means lower prices! You can find nice places to stay without sacrificing comfort. Food and activities won’t cost you much either. Flights to Morocco vary in cost but start around $1,000. Be sure to dig around for the best price—and always call several airlines to ask about their package deals or seasonal specials before you book anything.

Nicaragua

If you’re looking for a great vacation involving beaches, delicious food, lots of local culture and low prices, Nicaragua is for you—particularly if you haven’t had a chance to travel outside America, and you’re looking for something a little closer than these other destinations.

Nicaragua is located right in the middle of Central America and is bordered by the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. I haven’t explored the Caribbean side much, but the Pacific coast is beautiful. I recommend staying in San Juan del Sur, a wonderful coastal town with white sand beaches, great markets and authentic open-air restaurants. Not too far away is Granada—a historical town with a quaint colonial feel—which is definitely worth exploring for a day or two.

Lake Nicaragua, a large lake located in southwest Nicaragua, is also closeby. And in the middle of the lake is Ometepe Island. The island consists of two old volcanoes, some of the country’s most beautiful beaches, and wonderful conservation grounds. I recommend taking a day to hike one of the volcanoes, which are covered in forests full of monkeys and rich wildlife. Ferries take people to and from the island several times a day.

If you don’t get a chance to make it to Ometepe, consider exploring Mombacho instead. This volcano surrounded by small farms and coffee plantations is right near the city of Granada and is a protected nature reserve. At the top of the volcano is a cloud forest, where there are countless nature trails. Here, tourists can spot rare flowers and birds, as well as spectacular views of Lake Nicaragua and the surrounding area.

Flights to Nicaragua can be as cheap as $600 in December and January, and it is easy to find places to stay with comfortable rooms for as little as $40 per night.

Thailand

Thailand is perhaps the most beautiful place I have ever been to. But there’s more to do than just sit on the beach staring into the ocean—try learning to scuba dive. Due to a surge in tourism, Thailand offers visitors numerous licensed diving instructors to choose from. With the clear waters and tropical fish, divers will never be bored here. To experience some of the world’s finest beaches, try visiting Phuket or Ko Samui.

If you’re down south, there are hundreds of small islands jutting out of the water right by the coast that are often full of beautiful caves and hidden beaches, perfect for a boating excursion.

Or you could always consider taking classes in Thai cooking, Buddhism or traditional Thai massage, all of which are very popular tourist activities. And don’t forget about Thailand’s fascinating museums, temples, World Heritage sites and hundreds of national parks.

Flights over winter break can be as low as $1,000, and you can find comfortable rooms for as little as $50 per night.

Vietnam

For another alternative vacation option, Vietnam is one of the most fascinating trips you can find. To really experience Vietnam, you must look at its military history.

Try checking out the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi. Or travel to Cu Chi, and take a tour of the remaining tunnels left over from the war. These tunnels, however, are certainly not for the faint of heart (or for the short of breath). There is very little breathing room along these super-narrow underground pathways. Yet if you can manage to squeeze yourself into one, you’ll see tiny underground rooms that were once people’s living quarters, operating rooms, dining rooms and bathrooms. Most tours of these tunnels also incorporate a brief history of the Vietnam War and a description of their war strategies and weaponry, including some gruesome booby traps.

For a change of pace, head to the Ngũ Hành just south of Da Nang. These mountains are named after the five elements: Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). But tourists have dubbed these the “Marble Mountains,” as huge amounts of marble and limestone are extracted from the hills. At the base of the mountains is a small narrow “road” full of stalls of marble carvers who sell their artistry to tourists at very low prices. And, of course, haggling is certainly acceptable here.

There are still beaches aplenty in Vietnam, if that’s what you’re looking for. A particularly interesting beach setting is Halong Bay, which consists of almost 2,000 islands extending out of the ocean, most of which house floating villages of fishermen, countless caves, lakes and small beaches, all perfect for a day of exploring.

Flights can be found for $1,500, and hotel rooms can be found all over the country for as little as $15 per night. But if you’re looking for the most comfortable setting at a cheap price, accommodations are often around $50.

  • James Tiber

    This is a fun article to read, and I enjoyed it. But the destinations are fairly exotic and out of the price range of a lot of us. I just wanted to mention that a way I can afford to travel abroad is to rent a budget timeshare (I use http://www.redweek.com) with several fellow students. They are cheaper than hotels and have more space and more privacy than guesthouses or hostels. Splitting the cost brings the rate way down, and we’ve been able to visit Spain, Portugal and France this way.

  • Inan Elmerini

    Morocco is well established destination for Europeans. Not for US Travelers as you might have noticed. I suggest you do a little more research on the destination.