Nothing is more stressful than deciding you’ve finally earned that vacation, searching online for cheap city breaks and suddenly realizing that you can’t afford to visit the latest and greatest tourist destinations.
I consider my own travel budget to be mid-range, in that I’m not on a shoestring budget, but I’m not an heiress either, and I’m always looking for interesting travel options that I can comfortably afford.
Fortunately, I’ve learned that if you’re willing to be a little bit flexible with your itinerary, you can often find cities that are similar to the world’s top tourist destinations but that come at a much lower price. Depending on where you’re starting from, the following cities offer excellent cheap city breaks at a fraction of the cost of their more-famous neighbor.
From here forward, all of the estimated costs are in US dollars. They are based on a typical mid-range traveler who stays in a comfortable (but not luxurious) private hotel room, eats in sit-down restaurants twice a day, visits the most popular tourist attractions and occasionally chooses a taxi over public transportation. For backpackers and budget travelers, the price differential may be smaller (but my recommendation will still be cheaper!) and for luxury travelers the savings may be exponentially greater by choosing one of these cheap city breaks.
Skip Bangkok, Go to Yangon
In the bustling capital of Thailand, average daily costs can reach $125 per day. Travel 500 miles northwest to Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, and you can cut costs down to about $65 a day. Today, a city break in Yangon is like a visit to Bangkok thirty years ago, before it became heavily influenced by South Korea, Japan and the West.
Yangon’s authenticity will not endure forever, though, so visit while you still can. You can tour attractions like the monolithic Shwedagon Pagoda, see the exterior of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and ride the impressively slow, open-air circle train all the way around the city. If you’d prefer to get out of the urban jungle, there is a pagoda filled with pythons in a village on the opposite side of the river (my guide explains exactly how to get there). Plus, the city center offers authentic Burmese, Indian and Chinese cuisine and basic budget hotels are abundant on the blocks surrounding Sule Pagoda in the city center.
- The Best Hotel for Cheap City Breaks in Yangon – If you’re open to sharing a bathroom, I recommend Scott @ 31 Street, an upscale hostel in Central Yangon. They have well-designed dorm rooms (each bed has a privacy curtain, shelves and its own reading light) and a private triple room, plus there’s a fantastic coffee shop on the ground floor. If having a private bathroom is essential, check out 15 Street @ Downtown Yangon, an affordable central hotel where the staff are famously friendly.
- The Best Restaurant for Cheap City Breaks in Yangon – I’ve got the rundown on my favorite Yangon restaurants in my Yangon City Guide. Make sure you try the fruit plate at Rangoon Tea House and one of the curry dishes from Nilar Biryani.
Skip Singapore, Go to Kuala Lumpur
When I booked my flights to Singapore I knew it would be an expensive destination, but I don’t think I was prepared for exactly how much money I would spend during my brief stay. For example, I went to a Couchsurfing event at a low-key rooftop bar and paid $5 for a can of club soda! Another time, I grabbed an early dinner near my hostel at Clarke Quay, and the cheapest pint of beer on the happy hour menu was $15!
Thus, it doesn’t surprise me that the one-hour flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur is the busiest air traffic route on the planet! By switching your city break destination from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, you can reduce your average daily travel costs from upwards of $200 (seriously, hotels in Singapore are so expensive) to less than $75. Once you’re in Kuala Lumpur, there’s lots to see and do for very little money. It’s free to see the exterior of the Petronas Towers, to enter the main temple at the Batu Caves, to walk through the colonial Central Market and to window shop on the bustling Petaling Street. You could easily fill two full days in the city without spending a penny on entrance fees.
- The Best Hotel for a Cheap City Break in Kuala Lumpur – We need to talk about the DoubleTree Kuala Lumpur. For a mid-range traveler like me, a city break at the DoubleTree Kuala Lumpur is a small splurge worth absolutely every penny. For the price of a two-star motel in North America you can check in to a luxurious hotel room with sweeping views of the city below, take a dip in the rooftop outdoor pool and explore the city using the hotel’s direct access to the metro system. But that’s not the best part of staying at the DoubleTree Kuala Lumpur. The breakfast buffet is out of this world! It’s basically three entirely different restaurants – one Malay, one Chinese and one Indian – and you can walk through all three to serve yourself anything and everything that you’d like, including lots of made-to-order dishes. Waffles topped with chickpea curry? You can make that happen. Three varieties of spring rolls on a bed of chocolate chip muffins? No problem. If you have one hotel splurge in Southeast Asia, make it this one!
- The Best Restaurant for a Cheap City Break in Kuala Lumpur – If you splurged on the DoubleTree, you can keep dining costs down at my favorite fast-food restaurant in Kuala Lumpur: Simple Life. Here, you can try inexpensive vegan versions of traditional and modern Malaysian dishes, including exotic Thunder Tea Rice (lei cha) and spicy laksa soup made with tempeh. Simple Life has more than ten locations in shopping centers and food courts across the city (including KLCC).
Skip Dubrovnik, Go to Kotor
A visit to Dubrovnik will likely run you about $125 per day, and prices continue to rise as crowds of tourists descend upon their favorite Game of Thrones filming locations. Follow the coast sixty miles to the south and cross the border to Kotor, Montenegro, where you can reduce your daily budget by a third while escaping the worst of the crowds.
Like Dubrovnik, Kotor features a fortified old town filled with historic buildings, and is close to many beautiful beaches. The city abounds with affordable rental apartments, and an Italian influence can be felt at the numerous pizzerias and gelaterias around town. Entrance to the Maritime Museum and St. Tryphon’s Cathedral are affordable, and early risers can ascend 1350 steps to the top of the city’s fortifications before the gate agent arrives to collect the five-dollar entrance fee.
- The Best Hotel for Cheap City Breaks in Kotor – Old Town Hostel in Kotor is actually fairly famous on the backpacker circuit. Besides being the only hostel that I know of with a 700-year-old water spout in the kitchen, it also organizes great pub crawls, regional tours and comfortable transfers. Old Town Hostel has private rooms double rooms, dorms and even a fully-equipped apartment.
- The Best Restaurant for Cheap City Breaks in Kotor – The dining scene in Kotor is centered around fish and seafood, which I don’t eat (I’m a vegetarian). I didn’t have a chance to check out Ombra during my visit, but I’ve heard the food is good and they have both vegan and vegetarian choices.
Skip London, Go to Edinburgh
London’s reputation as one of the world’s most expensive cities precedes it. Fortunately, if you’re not interested in spending $180 per day for a middle-of-the-road London experience, you can head north to Edinburgh, Scotland, where mid-range travel costs are closer to $100 per day.
Edinburgh offers a more intimate experience for travelers, with a well-preserved medieval Old Town and an attractive eighteenth-century New Town. Edinburgh also is home to several castles and palaces, more than thirty museums and a great assortment of Scottish and ethnic restaurants (many of which permit you to bring your own beer or wine!). Once you’ve hit up the main tourist attractions, check out some of the alternative things to do in Edinburgh, curated by Lucy at On the Luce.
- The Best Hotel for Cheap City Breaks in Edinburgh – Did you ever have one of those “ooops, I bought too much contemporary art” moments? Me neither. But Alan Campbell did, and he decided to solve his problem by buying a hotel and using it to house his art collection. 24 Royal Terrace is a stylish boutique hotel where technology has been seamlessly incorporated into each room while still preserving the original features of the nineteenth-century rowhouse building. It all sounds so fancy, but prices are amazingly affordable (starting at $65!).
- The Best Restaurant for Cheap City Breaks in Edinburgh – The slogan at Roots Edinburgh is “where food doesn’t cost the earth” (although most of the ingredients come from it!). They have a rotating menu featuring at least three soups, one stew, one pasta dish and seven different salads every day. Keep an eye on their Instagram feed, where they share their most recent concoctions that are priced as low as £4.
Skip Prague, Go to Bucharest
While your typical visitor to Prague will spend about $85 each day, that costs drop by twenty dollars (to $65) in Romania’s capital city, Bucharest.
Sometimes called “The Little Paris”, Bucharest is packed with awe-inspiring architecture, traditional and contemporary art, and friendly locals who love meeting the relatively few foreign tourists who visit each year. Don’t miss the amazing Museum of the Romanian Peasant, the open-air Village Museum and a tour of the Parliamentary Palace, which is the world’s second-largest building. Romanian food is always cooked from the heart and rarely costs as much as a fast food meal in America, and there are many guesthouses and budget hotels around the city.
- The Best Hotel for a Cheap City Break in Bucharest – Check in to the trendy Omega House Hotel for a boutique hotel experience at a budget hotel price. There are dorm rooms in the basement, but the real star of the show is the art-inspired private rooms on the upper floors. The ground-floor coffee shop doubles as a co-working space if you need to catch up on emails or draft a blog post.
- The Best Restaurant for a Cheap City Break in Bucharest – It’s a little bit touristy, but it is an experience worth having in Bucharest: dinner at Caru’ cu Bere. This famous restaurant has been in its current location for 119 years and its Art Nouveau interior has been carefully preserved. You’ll be serenaded by traditional Romanian musicians and impressed by traditional Romanian dancers while you sample typical Romanian dishes like mamaliga (polenta) and iahnie de fasole (bean soup). Although the menu is meat-heavy, there are more than a dozen clearly-labeled vegetarian dishes. Don’t miss the delicious papanasi (fried doughnut balls filled with sweet cheese and drizzled with seasonal jam) for dessert. Book online to reserve your table.
Skip Lima, Go to La Paz
Lima, Peru caters more to business travelers than tourists, and prices often reflect that. If you’re looking for cheap city breaks in South America, I recommend that you travel inland to Peru’s neighbor, Bolivia, to find prices that are generally half of what you’d pay in Peru.
The country’s capital, Nuestra Senora de la Paz (usually just called La Paz), is situated at the bottom of a circular canyon that is surrounded by mountains on every side. While a mid-range traveler might spend $80 a day in Lima, as little as $40 goes the same distance in La Paz. Most of the city’s attractions are located in (or near) the historic center and don’t charge admission fees, including The Witches’ Market, the El Alto Market and the colonial Calle Jaen. Want to ride the city’s famous network of cable cars? You can buy a return ticket for less than one dollar! Plus, authentic Bolivian cuisine is varied and inexpensive, while dozens of families operate quaint, affordable guesthouses.
- The Best Hotel for a Cheap City Break in La Paz – I recommend staying at Babel Hostel, in the artsy Sopocachi district of the city center. Babel Hostel only offers private rooms, nearly all of which have private bathrooms, and guests rave about the delicious, home-cooked breakfast every morning.
- The Best Restaurant for a Cheap City Break in La Paz – In my opinion, the best place to eat during a cheap city break in La Paz is the Mercado Lanza in the city center. There are hundreds of vendors here, including dozens of food stalls that dish up everything from fruit salads to grilled meats. I ordered a mixed fruit smoothie, which was served to me in a glass that was almost as large as my torso (seriously!).
One Last Secret to Finding Cheap City Breaks
My favorite way to browse for cheap city breaks is to use Google Flights. Did you know that after selecting your starting airport you can set your destination as an entire continent (like Europe or Asia) to see all of the available flights to every airport on the entire continent? It’s true!
As a test, I imagined that I wanted a quick city break from Rome over a long weekend in October. I set my starting point as Rome and my destination as Europe.
Look at those results! Those are return airfares in my local currency (Canadian dollars – reduce the price by 20% for USD) – $169 to Dublin, $150 to Athens and $123 to Bucharest. With deals like those, I could afford to jet around Europe every weekend!
Each of the blue dots on map represents another available destination. You can zoom in to focus on airports in a certain region, or filter your flights (for example, by duration, number of stops or price) to find the perfect cheap city break.
This trick works all over the world – not only in Europe! A few years ago I used Google Flights to find a cheap flight from Canada to Peru and jumped on the chance to visit Machu Picchu in person. I also use it to search for cheap scuba diving destinations every year at spring break.
Have you ever swapped cities to save money on a city break? Which city did you skip? Where did you go instead? Let me know in the comments!