10 of the Most Surprising Budget Travel Destinations of 2015
From destination weddings to exotic international trips to attractions in every state, Cheapism.com sought out affordable places to travel in 2015 -- and found some with surprising appeal. Across miles of ocean or around the corner, here are 10 budget-friendly destinations that should be on frugal travelers' radar.
Costa Rica and Belize are popular choices for travelers attracted to inexpensive Central America, but Nicaragua is nipping at their heels. Adventure seekers can snorkel and surf from pristine beaches in San Juan del Sur and even "volcano board" down the side of Cerro Negro, an active volcano. Sightseeing, shopping, and dining come cheap in cities such as Managua, the capital, which is home to lush forests. Major hotels can be found for $60 to $70 a night. Smaller, often family-owned hospedajes, or inns -- somewhere between a hostel and a bed and breakfast -- often go for $30 or less a night.
Barbecue brings to mind places like Memphis, Austin, and Kansas City, but Men's Journal declared 2015 Alabama's year. The state also figured prominently in pop culture, with the release of Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" returning readers to the setting of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Oscar-nominated "Selma" bringing historical sites such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge to life. Head to Birmingham to visit the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the 1963 bombing (entrance by donation; daily tours for $5 a person). Across the street, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is the largest museum of its kind ($12 for adults; free or discounted for seniors, college students, and youth).
Impressive architecture and fascinating museums provide seemingly endless free or cheap sightseeing for visitors to Berlin. Airfare from the U.S. is reasonable for a trans-Atlantic flight, starting at $600 for a round-trip ticket, and the euro has fallen almost to par with the dollar. Germany's capital undercuts many U.S. cities for accommodations and dining. An abundance of churches, chateaus, cafes, and parks make Berlin a good destination for wedding events, as well.
For many American travelers, a cheap trip to Mexico means an all-inclusive deal in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, but small and colorful Oaxaca is world famous for its gastronomic culture and lavish street festivals. Mountain, valley, and coastal influences come together in this ancient city's inexpensive and highly rated food scene. Cheap restaurants line downtown streets, with coffee, tamales, and traditional foods usually costing less than $10. Nightly rates at the many hotels, bed and breakfasts, and private houses can be as low as $15, with 4- and 5-star hotels easily in the $50-to-$60 range per night.
Many of this world-class city's most iconic attractions are entirely free, from Grand Central Terminal to the Brooklyn Bridge to the 9/11 Memorial, which is helping revitalize Lower Manhattan. Central Park (also free) is one of the Big Apple's most visited tourist attractions, with its walking paths, picnicking, and photo opportunities. Even the Central Park Zoo charges less than $15 for admission. Summer visitors can take advantage of no-cost concerts and movies presented in parks throughout the five boroughs, and the free Staten Island Ferry floats right past the Statue of Liberty.
Millions of travelers flock to this city every year to appreciate landmarks including Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sophia, one of the world's oldest museums. Experiencing Istanbul's history and architecture (not to mention a steamy Turkish bath) isn't dirt cheap, but there are deals to be found. Instead of an overpriced Bosphorus cruise, take the ferry that plies the waterway dividing Europe and Asia. The Hanedan Hotel, which has earned a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, offers rooms for 30 to 50 euros (about $33 to $55), and Ortaklar, a famous restaurant, serves traditional meals for just a few dollars. Both are within walking distance of some of Istanbul's main attractions.
For a place with such a high cost of living, the Bay Area is home to some surprisingly cheap and free attractions. Sports fans can catch part of a Giants game for free from the waterfront promenade, a big draw as the team sought to repeat as World Series champions in 2015 (but ended up missing the playoffs). Art lovers appreciate street murals in the Mission District, and sightseers can get a panoramic view of the city from the Golden Gate Bridge. Also free: Golden Gate Park, which covers more than 1,000 acres of gardens, lakes, and monuments.
Although more than 2 million people visit the Alamo each year, there's no admission fee to enter "the Shrine of Texas Liberty," which features gardens and exhibits along with the historical offerings. Several structures dating back to the mission days of 1744 -- and, of course, the famous 1836 Battle of the Alamo -- are supported by donations and proceeds from the gift shop. The surrounding city of San Antonio has a host of other attractions with free admission, including the recently expanded River Walk and the Japanese Tea Garden.
If a European tour of medieval castles isn't in the budget, this may be the next best thing. The main attraction of Gillette Castle State Park, between East Haddam and Lyme, is a fortress-like mansion, the 24-room former home of famed actor William Hooker Gillette, completed in 1919. TripAdvisor reviews rave about the castle and the property as a destination enjoyable for all ages. Parking and entrance to the park are free, and admission to the castle costs $6 for ages 13 and up, or $2 for ages 6 to 12.
For decades now, full-moon parties and low prices have drawn backpackers to Ko Pha Ngan, an island in southeast Thailand. Despite its popularity, travelers can still rent a room for $20 or less and buy a delicious full meal for $4. Paradisiacal beaches are the backdrop for parties with pulsing beats, jugglers, and fire-eaters that attract tens of thousands of people, peaking on New Year's Eve. The numbers will only grow when the island opens a $28 million airport, due in 2016. To avoid crowds and markups, the Nomadic Matt travel blog recommends getting in several days before the full moon and booking a room upon arrival.