“I was looking for an exotic place where I wouldn’t die,” says traveler Jeff Geller about his decision to travel to Vietnam for three weeks. His words, though blunt, sum up how many of us feel about planning our next travel adventure. We want to discover a destination that’s off the beaten path but is safe and can provide all the necessary tourist services.
If you’re looking for this kind of unique, yet safe, experience, you may want to choose a country that is emerging as a tourist destination for your next vacation. As an added bonus, these areas often offer a high-quality getaway at a low price. The country’s currency might be weak against the dollar, the lack of tourists may give travel providers little incentive to over-charge, or bargaining may be prevalent at hotels, shops, and markets.
We’ve identified three emerging destinations that are becoming more popular with American tourists but still feel exotic to the uninitiated. These up-and-coming vacation spots promise activity-filled trips and opportunities for savings. They are the Azores, Vietnam, and Nicaragua.
The Azores Islands are a Portuguese archipelago that Americans are only beginning to discover. Tourism is not a major industry there, so only a few airlines even fly to the main island of Sao Miguel. But travelers who do venture halfway across the Atlantic to these nine hidden islands can find a cheaper, more authentic European destination.
The volcanic islands have a lot to offer tourists. Towering peaks, crater lakes, and abundant whale watching create many opportunities for outdoors activities. Tea plantations, wineries, and seafood restaurants ensure a diverse epicurean experience. A penchant for bullfighting in Terceira reminds visitors that they are indeed visiting Europe, but the lack of tacky souvenir shops and busloads of tourists lends an air of authenticity to the area.
A trip to the Azores gives you the best of Europe on the cheap. Jayme H. Simoes, spokesperson for Azores Express (the U.S. arm of the national airline SATA), says that the Azores are “a good value within the Euro system.” Azoreans only have to pay half the V.A.T. (value-added tax) as their mainland compatriots so prices are much cheaper than in Portugal proper. Agriculture is a large industry on the islands, so most food is home-grown and not subject to the heavy import taxes that jack up prices on other islands. According to Simoes, “you can get a nice hotel for 60 euros, a nice dinner for two for 30 euros, and a rental car for 30 euros per day.”
The best months to visit the Azores are September through November. Direct flights to Sao Miguel on Azores Express start at $299 from Boston in the winter off season, and can be as high as $799 in the summer. The airline also offers flights to Terceira in the summer and package deals from October through April.
Given the turmoil in the country between the Sandinistas and the Contras in the 1980s, it’s no wonder that many Americans still see Nicaragua as a dangerous place. However, the United Nations now ranks the country as the second safest in Latin America, and tourism is slowly gathering momentum. The lack of tourist infrastructure means a vacation here requires some advance planning or the skills of a seasoned third-world traveler, but the adventure can be part of the fun.
Nicaragua attracts visitors with its colonial cities of Granada and Leon, its parks and volcanoes, and its beach resorts. Many come here to buy crafts, especially hammocks, which are cheaper than you’ll find in other countries. The high season is mid-November to mid-January and July through August, so the best time to visit is in the shoulder months of late October through November and the end of January, when the weather is nice but the crowds have thinned. Although new hotels are being built all the time, space is still limited, so it’s best to book early for peak-season travel.
Mike Newton, president and owner of Tours Nicaragua, explains that while you can certainly rent a car and visit the cities and beaches on your own, you’ll get the most out of your experience by hiring a guide. His company puts together itineraries for as few as two to as many as 10 people, and takes guests to artist workshops, on forest treks and canopy tours, and on sailing excursions that they’d have difficulty arranging or getting to on their own.
“Nicaragua is not necessarily a cheap destination,” Newton says. “People have a tendency to compare Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, you’ll find cheap package tours. Nicaragua is more expensive because the trip components are more expensive, such as private planes and trekking guides.” However, if you want to visit out-of-the-way places, the added cost of a tour or guide will also add value to your vacation experience.
You can always make up the difference in the money you’ll save on food, hotels, and souvenirs. “Food is cheap; a steak dinner with wine could cost $25,” Newton explains. Plus, the same hotel chain will cost less in Nicaragua than in the U.S. But no matter how much you spend, you’re guaranteed a vacation that’s off the usual tourist path.
When I approached my mother about visiting Vietnam during our recent trip to Asia, she said, “I’m a child of the ’60s. I can’t go on vacation to Vietnam.” She’s not alone in this sentiment. Many Americans view Vietnam as either a dangerous place or one where the locals are likely to treat them with hostility. Others worry about the lack of a tourist infrastructure. But as Vietnam turns its focus to tourism, improving hotels and building highways, and travelers report back on the welcoming nature of the Vietnamese, Americans are slowly beginning to view this Asian destination as a vacation option.
According to Jan Dodd, author of the Rough Guide to Vietnam, “the majority of people nowadays go [to Vietnam] for the sense of adventure and to discover a different culture, the scenery and the beaches, and the food. There’s also a tremendous vibrancy about Vietnam, and it has a growing reputation for its contemporary culture: art, fashion, music, and so forth.” Travelers seem to congregate in the northern city of Hanoi and the southern city of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and do day trips or overnight excursions to mountainous and seaside areas, such as Sapa, Halong Bay, and the Mekong Delta. Travelers traversing the country often stop off in Hue or Hoi An in central Vietnam.
Compared to the U.S., Vietnam is an extremely cheap place to travel. During his travels, Jeff Geller could get a clean room in a guesthouse for around $12 per night, a full meal from street vendors for $1 to $2, and a three-day tour from Hanoi to a nearby destination such as Halong Bay for under $100. Dodd reports that local buses are also cheap, though not always the most comfortable or reliable, and recommends traveling in a group to save money on accommodations.
Vietnam is a long skinny country, so the best time to visit the North isn’t always the best time to visit the South. If you’re planning to visit the entire country, autumn (September through December) and spring (March and April) are the best times to go. You might want to avoid monsoon season (May to November in the South, September to February in central Vietnam, and May to August in the North), although you might be able to negotiate a better deal on lodging during these off-peak periods.
Tourists should always be cautious when traveling—especially in developing countries, poor areas, or regions with little tourist infrastructure—even though the three countries mentioned are safe for tourism. Jan Dodd gives advice for Vietnam travel that is applicable anywhere you go: “You should always take sensible precautions such as not wearing flashy jewelry, not carrying too much cash, keeping an eye on your belongings, [and not leaving] valuables lying around in your hotel.” A little common sense can go a long way toward keeping you and your possessions safe, whether in a U.S. city or a foreign country.
For more tips on how to stay safe when traveling out of the country and where to look for country-specific advice and travel warnings, you might want to read our recent story on vacation safety. Once you’re prepared, you can focus your energy on having a unique and high-value experience in a country none of your friends has ever visited.