Whether you want to escape the frigid weather or unwind after the holiday season, this upcoming winter is an opportune time to plan a getaway without breaking the bank. Many popular destinations hawk off-season deals on accommodations and flights, while others are just plain cheap. To stretch your travel budget, read on for our list of the 10 cheapest winter vacations to take in 2020.
Culturally and ecologically diverse, Malaysia offers a full itinerary of experiences and destinations for a lengthy winter getaway. A visit to Malaysia’s bustling capital, Kuala Lumpur, reveals a mix of Muslim, Chinese, Hindu and Indian influences among the city’s architecture, cuisine, and extensive list of festivals. Cheap street eats abound throughout the city of 1.7 million, including peanut-filled apam balik, char mee noodles, dim sum, and fried durian. For a wide selection, head to the food trucks at Tapak Urban Street Dining near the Petronas Towers as well as the line of roadside vendors at Jalan Alor in Bukit Bintang.
The modern capital has plenty of free attractions, too. The famous Batu Caves, which permeate jagged limestone cliffs and contain ornate Hindu shrines, are free to visit. However, the 272-step ascent to the cave entrance certainly has to be earned. Kuala Lumpur’s parks — KLCC Park and KL Forest Eco Park — are ideal for seeing the extravagant Petronas Towers for free and finding refuge from the bustle and heat among the lush rainforest greenery. The Eco Park maintains the city’s final remaining swath of rainforest, providing a glimpse into Kuala Lumpur’s landscape before its emergence as a mining outpost just 160 years ago.
Malaysia has much more to offer outside its booming capital. Located just off the northwest coast on the island of Penang, George Town serves as another melting pot of cultures and cuisines. The UNESCO-listed city center is comprised of mosques and temples intermixed with bright colonial facades and edgy street art. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s east coast boasts idyllic islands and world-class snorkeling, especially on the Perhentian Islands. The main islands — Kecil and Besar — lack roadways, but are easily navigable on foot. Visitors can wander through the jungle to reach pristine white-sand beaches, where gentle waves lap the shoreline. These calm, shallow waters provide excellent visibility for diving and snorkeling.
Round-trip flights from New York and Los Angeles run around $1,000 via connections in Doha and mainland China, respectively.
Our Top Pick for a Malaysia Hotel: Chulia Mansion
The budget-friendly Chulia Mansion is conveniently located near cafes and shops in the UNESCO World Heritage district of George Town. Free breakfast and cheap happy hour on the hotel’s rooftop bar provide additional savings.
Vietnam packs rugged mountains, pristine beaches, energetic cities, and nearly 100 million people in a lengthy stretch of southeast Asian coastline. Although the war has ended, divisions between the north and south are still evident. Starting in the north, Hanoi is an incredibly affordable destination, despite being the nation’s capital. A delicious bowl of pho can be had for under $2 at one of the food stalls lining the winding, narrow streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Be sure to stop for egg-cream coffee — a Hanoi specialty that can be found at many of the open-air coffee shops. Exploring beyond Hanoi, in the mountain villages of Sapa and on the remarkable limestone islands in Halong Bay, will add some expense, but it can still be experienced for well under $100 per day.
In central Vietnam, the imperial city of Hue is rife with historical wonders, including the Tu Duc and Minh Mang tomb complexes, Royal Palace, and pagodas. For a few dollars, visitors can rent a bike and explore the less-trafficked streets of the enclosed city and along the Perfume River. Just a few hours south sits the picturesque city of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Streets between Hoi An’s faded, canary yellow buildings are strewn with colorful silk lanterns, creating a charming atmosphere that is further enhanced by the wafting aroma of dumplings and banh mi. Although the historic city center can be pricier (relatively speaking), exploring by foot or on bike to laid-back beach shacks and local eateries can save some Vietnamese dong.
The former capital of southern Vietnam, Saigon, is now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Located approximately 700 miles south of Hanoi, HCMC experiences average temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s in January and February. This is much more favorable than spring and summer conditions. The city is strikingly modern, with wide avenues and modern high-rises. Many of HCMC’s remaining historic landmarks, like the Notre Dame Cathedral, Cao Dai Temple, and Central Post Office, are free to visit. Other freebies include the 8 a.m. concerts outside the Saigon Opera House and exhibits on Vietnam’s first president after reunification at Ton Duc Thang Museum. Making a purchase is optional while perusing the blossoms at Ho Thi Ky Flower Market and art shops along Dong Khoi Street. However, such restraint is near impossible at Binh Tay Market’s food court, where you’ll find cheap eats such as pork buns and fried noodles.
Flying into Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City requires at least one transfer if traveling from the United States. Wintertime fares from Los Angeles and New York range between $800 and $950 on Cathay Pacific. Inter-Vietnam travel is incredibly affordable, with round-trip tickets between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh starting as low as $100 with VietJet Air.
Our Top Pick for a Vietnam Hotel: Vinh Hung Library Hotel
The Vinh Hung Library Hotel is a budget-friendly option that’s ideal for enjoying Hoi An’s historical city center. The property also includes an on-site pool and free breakfast.
Heralded as the Land of a Thousand Smiles, Thailand draws millions of visitors with its extraordinary beaches, legendary cuisine, vibrant cities, and welcoming atmosphere. Despite its popularity, the country is still a bargain for many international travelers. Winter in Thailand is marked by the end of the monsoon rains, yielding a several-month stretch of drier weather and more manageable temperatures. Exploring the street life in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, is much more pleasant this time of year. The city is home to more than 500,000 street-food vendors, with a diverse array of dishes costing just $1 or $2. If you don’t mind moderate spice, tom yum is a flavorful burst of lemongrass and coconut milk. Milder options include khao niew ma muang (mango sticky rice) and hoy tod (oyster omelets). And of course, you can’t go wrong with classic pad Thai. Bangkok’s biggest temple, Wat Pho, costs 100 baht (or $3.31) to enter. However, Wat Pho’s 150-foot-long golden Buddha, collection of Buddha images, and ancient inscriptions, are worth the fee. For just a few more baht, a small boat will ferry you across the Chao Phraya River to Wat Arun, which costs 30 baht (or roughly $1) to enter. Be sure to wear clothes that cover your knees and shoulders when visiting any pagodas or temples.
Thailand’s largest city in the north, Chiang Mai, is incredibly laid-back compared to pulsing Bangkok. The historic center retains its old-world charm, with many cafes and restaurants occupying the traditional wooden homes and leafy courtyards. The moated city center boats three notable temples — Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Man, and Wat Chedi Luang. Visitors in February should time their visit with the flower festival, which entails a parade of flower-covered floats depicting Buddhist scenes and animals. Other popular activities include treks into the surrounding mountains and Thai cooking classes. While not cheap, such excursions will only set you back $70 for a two-day overnight trek and $30 for a half-day course.
Thailand’s extraordinary islands, comprised of limestone peaks and immaculate white-sand beaches, are a bucket-list item for many. Finding a balance between price and amenities is key, though, as there’s something for every budget, from backpackers to honeymooners. Popular islands like Ko Samui and Ko Phi Phi receive the bulk of their visitors in the winter. Ko Samui is Thailand’s second-largest island and home to a sizable Thai population, meaning visitors can still find casual local eateries and markets. There are also plenty of public beaches, such as Chaweng Beach and the relaxed Maenam Beach. On the opposite coast, the neighboring islands of Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Phi Phi Leh complement each other. Phi Phi Don’s hotels and bars have made it a top party destination, while Phi Phi Leh’s coral reefs and limestone cliffs are strictly preserved for environmental conservation. For an island that offers a nice blend of nightlife and nature, consider Ko Chang in eastern Thailand.
Flights from New York to Bangkok via KLM and Korean Air can be had for less than $700, while China Eastern offers deals from Los Angeles and Chicago for around $600 round-trip.
Our Top Pick for a Thailand Hotel: Chiang Mai Gate Hotel
The Chiang Mai Gate Hotel affords guests an outdoor pool, free breakfast, and bicycle access on a quiet, tree-lined street just outside the old city’s moat.
While Cambodia remains a budget-friendly destination throughout the year, the winter months offer the best weather for exploring the country’s ancient temples, dynamic cities, and remote wilderness. The monsoon rains dwindle in November, bringing comparably cooler and drier conditions until March. Discovering the extraordinary temple complex at Angkor Wat is a must for first-time visitors. Entrance fees range from $37 for a one-day pass, $62 for a three-day pass, and $72 for a seven-day pass. The main temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, which feature moats, soaring towers, and intricate carvings, can fill the better part of a day. Other noteworthy temples include Ta Prohm, the red-sandstone Banteay Srei, and the lesser-known Ta Nei, where massive tree roots emerge from the scenically crumbling ruins. While touring the temple complex by bike is doable for seasoned cyclists, a tuk-tuk is a more realistic and enjoyable option for most. If you opt for a three-day pass, you’ll have some negotiating power to score a slight discount on the standard daily rate of $30 to $35 for a tuk-tuk tour of Angkor Wat. While some tuk-tuk drivers are fairly knowledgeable about Angkor Wat’s history, it’s worth visiting the Angkor National Museum to learn about the empires who erected these remarkable structures.
Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, may lack world-renowned attractions, but it deserves more attention than it’s usually given by travelers in Southeast Asia. Head to major markets like the Russian Market and Central Market to browse chroma scarves, knock-off fashion, and delicious and affordable snacks, such as lort cha and kuy teav noodles. The majority of the city’s pagodas offer free entry — Wat Moha Montrei’s pastel colors are a must-see. However, Wat Phnom’s modest $1 entrance shouldn’t deter visitors. Ascend the grand, statue-laden staircase to observe or receive a good luck blessing in exchange for a fruit offering or small cash donation. Come dusk, head to the park on the Tonle Sap River for some judgement-free aerobics among Phnom Penh’s active mothers and grandmothers. Forgo the overpriced and tacky riverfront restaurants and treat yourself to a meal at Romdeng restaurant. The restaurant, which offers local delicacies like coconut-curry amok, supports job training and education for Phnom Penh’s disadvantaged youth. After dinner, head over the Meta House, a German cultural center that screens free films and documentaries in its partially open-air cinema. An adjoining bar serves cool Angkor drafts for just over $1.
Like the other southeast Asian nations on this list, you’ll have to connect in South Korea, Taiwan, or China to reach either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. Flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York range between $700 and $900, with slightly better deals on the west coast.
Our Top Pick for a Cambodia Hotel: The Moon Boutique Hotel
The Moon Boutique Hotel offers sanctuary from the bustle of Pub Street, but is still close enough for guests to walk to bars and restaurants in downtown Siem Reap. The property’s pool is wrapped in lush greenery, making it the perfect spot to unwind after a long day of exploring Angkor Wat. Guests can also take advantage of free breakfast and tuk-tuks rides within town.
Located between two continents and along the ancient Silk Road, Istanbul has long drawn travelers and occupying forces from around the globe. Winter sees tourist numbers drop significantly, allowing visitors to take advantage of lower hotel rates and fewer crowds at major attractions like the Grand Bazaar. Temperatures usually hover above freezing, so a full-day of sightseeing is certainly doable.
Start exploring in the Old City, which still evokes Istanbul’s rich history. One of the city’s most iconic sites — the Hagia Sophia — brilliantly represents the succession of occupying forces. Once a Greek Orthodox church, the domed structure was converted into an Ottoman mosque during the 1400s. As of November 1, the interior museum is closed to visitors, but the massive domes and minarets can still be enjoyed while strolling Sultanahmet Square. Nearby, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque — popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the color of its interior tiles — grants free admission to visitors outside of prayer hours. Meanwhile, the Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art showcases some of Turkey’s leading modern works free of charge. There are plenty of tour boats offering trips down the Bosphorus Strait. To cruise the Continental Divide on the cheap, take the ferry from Eminönü to Kadiköy for just a few Turkish lira. Head to the upper deck to enjoy the best views of the cityscape, including Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque’s minarets.
Due west of the Old City in the Fatih neighborhood, the Grand Bazaar’s labyrinth of stalls holds an abundance of spices, jewelry, rugs, and antiques. Prices are up for negotiation, so hone your haggling skills to get a bargain. The neighboring 17th-century Misir Çarsisi, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, is more navigable than the Grand Bazaar, and thus, popular with locals shopping for spices, food, and fabric.
Non-stop flights from New York and D.C. cost around $900; adding a stopover in European cities like Frankfurt or Rome will bring the round-trip price below $600.
Our Top Pick for an Istanbul Hotel: Hotel Saba
Hotel Saba is situated on a quiet side street within a three-minute walk of the Blue Mosque. Guests can enjoy city views from the hotel’s rooftop terrace or from ensuite balconies in select rooms.
This South American country is renowned for its rich biodiversity, pristine beaches, and dynamic urban centers. Wintertime travelers will be happy to know that January and February see the least rainfall and plenty of sunshine across Colombia. Although most visitors arrive in Colombia’s capital, Bogota, too few linger long enough to realize they’re missing out on this underrated city. While Bogota has suffered from crime, the situation continues to improve since peace has been reached with FARC, the country’s largest leftist guerilla group. Bogota’s historic district, La Candelaria, is full of plazas, churches, and cafes set among the colonial buildings. Be sure to stop at Botero Museum, where some works by Colombia’s most famous artists are free to view. There are plenty of options for quick and affordable snacks, too. However, dining at one of Bogota’s trendier establishments, such as Mini-Mal, will only set you back $4 to $6 per plate.
Similar to Bogota, Medellin is scenically situated below the Andean peaks. As a predominantly Catholic nation, Christmas pageantry is on full display from December through Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Medellin’s Christmas light display, known as Alumbrados Navideños, sees elaborate projections and illuminated sculptures. A total of 27 million LED lights fill Parque Norte and Parques del Rio. The festivities are accompanied by food vendors and craft stalls. Meanwhile, Medellin’s Plaza Botero features 23 abstract bronze statues that were donated by the famous artist to his birth city. The adjoining Antioquia Museum holds even more work by the eccentric artist.
Set on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Cartagena’s colonial buildings and fortified walls have earned it UNESCO World Heritage designation. Compared to other Colombian cities, this superb location is accompanied by higher hotel and restaurant prices. However, there are still plenty of experiences to be had on the cheap or for free. Cartagena’s two-and-a-half-mile fortifications, known as Las Murallas, are open to the public. The 17th-century structure offers expansive views over Old Town, and is an ideal spot to catch the sunset over the Caribbean Sea. Plan to arrive by 5:30 p.m. at the latest to secure a spot. The nearby sea also boasts some decent public beaches, namely Playa de Bocagrande or Playa de Castillo Grande on the city’s outer peninsula.
From Los Angeles and New York, direct flights to Bogota via Avianca can be had for around $600. Meanwhile, Spirit Airlines operates non-stop flights from Orlando for a bargain at $372 round-trip.
Our Top Pick for a Colombia Hotel: Zalmedina Hotel
The budget-friendly Zalmedina Hotel is ideally located one block from the beach and near plenty of bars and restaurants in Cartagena’s Bocagrande neighborhood. Free breakfast is served each morning on the hotel’s third-floor terrace.
Home to the Amazon rainforest, pristine coastline, and electrifying Carnaval, Brazil is one of the world’s most tantalizing destinations. While much of the Northern Hemisphere shivers from January through March, Brazil is in the midst of its summer. Coastal cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro enjoy temperatures in the low to mid-80s, while inland locales often rise above 90 degrees. Many Brazilians take vacation and travel domestically in December and January, so February and March are better months for deals on hotels and flights.
February in Rio de Janeiro is an exception in terms of lower prices, as Carnaval hits the city streets from February 21 to 26. While the revelry and festivities are nothing short of legendary, many travelers would be better off planning their trip for early February or March. Rio’s Copacabana and Ipanema beaches still pulse with activity outside Carnaval. A diverse mix of soccer players, hippies, and LGBTQ communities all claim sections of these wide, powdery beaches. In addition to its beaches and skyscrapers, Rio has steep limestone cliffs, which makes for stunning vistas. The iconic Cristo Redentor statue, which stands atop Corcovado at 2,329 feet above sea level, is an obvious choice for getting the best views. Be sure to purchase train tickets at least one day in advance to reach the top. Another option is the two-tiered cable car to Pão de Açucar. At nearly 1,300 feet, the views here are also exceptional.
Sao Paulo is South America’s largest city, with over 20 million residents. While Rio’s Carnaval gets the international spotlight, Sao Paulo’s underground bars and clubs offer a more accessible, less commercialized nightlife scene. The city’s creative side is well-displayed via graffiti and public street art in the Santa Cecilia and Arouche districts. Meanwhile, world-class works by Manet and El Greco can be viewed at Museu de Arte de São Paulo for a fraction of the cost of Europe’s fine-art museums.
Other notable destinations include coastal Salvador, which serves as the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture. It also boasts a Carnaval festival that rivals Rio’s without the influx of tourists. Finally, the gushing Iguaçu Falls are a must-see. Located on the Brazil-Argentina border, a series of 275 waterfalls pour over the confluence of the San Antonio and Iguaçu rivers.
Direct flights from New York to Rio de Janiero and Sao Paulo average around $900 round-trip. Meanwhile, stopover flights from Los Angeles to both cities hover just under $900.
Our Top Pick for a Brazil Hotel: Landmark Residence
Located in the heart of Sao Paulo, the Landmark Residence provides affordable comfort with added perks like free breakfast, an outdoor pool, and balconies.
Located just south of the equator, Bali stands out among the Indonesian archipelago for its Hindu culture, world-class surfing, volcanic peaks, and spiritual atmosphere. January through March is technically summer in Bali — daily highs average in the mid-80s, while afternoons typically see some rainfall. This translates into off-season discounts on hotels and flights.
Although Bali is fairly modest in size, there is a wide selection of beach towns and landscapes to choose from. Located near Ngurah Rai International Airport, along an expansive beach with dependable waves, Kuta has emerged as Bali’s leading tourist hub. Kuta’s cheap bars and eateries cater to a younger crowd of surfers and backpackers, while neighboring Legian Beach is better suited to families wanting to capitalize on beachfront access. Continuing up the coast, Seminyak offers a more relaxed atmosphere, with plenty of galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and uncrowded beaches catering to a less budget-conscious clientele of expats and tourists.
The east coast enclave of Sanur is another solid choice for families with kids, as this side of the island receives considerably calmer waves. For those who don’t want to splurge on a beachfront hotel, Pantai Sanur beach is a public and tranquil stretch of sand. Located on Bali’s southeastern tip, Nusa Dua features resorts and Hindu temples along a few kilometers of white-sand beaches. While pricier than the other southern beach towns in Bali, off-season bargains can be found here.
Bali’s epic beaches are rivaled by its lush jungle-clad hills, river gorges, and volcanoes. About a one-hour drive north of Kuta, the hilltop town of Ubud feels far from the tacky surf shops and late-night parties. The surrounding rice fields and valleys set the scene for Ubud’s serenity. Stop by Saraswati Temple to visit the lotus gardens and follow a public trail that winds for three-and-a-half kilometers through the bright-green rice fields. For further immersion in Ubud’s lush scenery, the Campuhan Ridge Walk promises excellent vistas. Ubud’s natural beauty is popular among artists and yogis alike. Options range from one-off classes for under $10 to immersive multi-day retreats. The open-air Pura Dalem Ubud temple is free to visit by day before it transforms into a fire-lit dance stage at night. Tickets for the Monday to Saturday performances cost 80,000 rupiah (or roughtly $5.68).
Flights cost between $800 and $900 from Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. China Airlines offers the best deals from the west coast, while New York and Chicago departures have a layover in Doha via Qatar Airways.
Our Top Pick for a Bali Hotel: Inang Ubud Villa
Interested in experiencing Ubud’s stunning terraced rice fields in solitude? Check out the budget-friendly Inang Ubud Villa. Breakfast is free of charge, while rooms come with either a balcony or outdoor terrace.
January through March is the dry season across Panama, meaning sun-deprived northerners can expect to catch plenty of rays during this time. Situated on Panama’s Caribbean coast, the remote archipelago of Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s premier beach destinations. The main island of Colon has a small airport with daily connections to Panama City for around $230 round-trip, while the other islands require short ferry rides or water taxi connections. There isn’t much to spend your money on here besides hotels, food, and excursions. East of Colon sits the ecologically rich Isla Bastimentos, which makes up a portion of a national park spanning 130 islands and much of the surrounding marine area. Visiting the park costs $10, which goes toward conservation efforts. While here, visitors will be able to hike and spot monkeys, sloths, and crocodiles are well worth it. Snorkeling tours can be arranged as well, with the best reefs located near the uninhabited island of Zapatilla, just southeast of Isla Bastimentos. Water taxis between the islands usually cost about $3 from Bocas Town to Red Frog Beach or Playa Bluff, if you’re traveling without luggage. Be sure to secure a trip home well before dark or risk paying a hefty price to get home.
Arguably Central America’s most cosmopolitan metropolis, Panama City is a mere five-hour flight from the northeastern United States. For a glimpse into Panama City before the advent of high-rises and stylish boutiques, start at Panama Viejo. These waterfront ruins date back to 1519. The on-site museum and grounds are free to the public. Panama City’s Casco Viejo offers more historical insight. The neighborhood has retained much of its Spanish colonial and Art Nouveau architecture, including the splendid National Theatre. Wrought-iron balconies peer out over the immaculately restored brick lanes and bustling street life. Heading north, the Cinta Costera seaside walkway quickly transports folks from the colonial era to modern day along Avenida Balboa.
Flights to Panama City from Los Angeles cost around $550, while Chicago and New York are a bit pricier at $650 round-trip. Spirit Airlines is offering cheap base fares out of Fort Lauderdale ($248), but be wary of hidden fees for seat selection and luggage.
Our Top Pick for a Panama Hotel: Riande Granada Urban Hotel
The stylish Riande Granada Urban Hotel offers great value for its outdoor pool, rooftop sundeck, and open-air beer garden in downtown Panama City. Located between the El Cangrejo and Obarrio neighborhoods, guests can easily reach some of the city’s best nightlife and shopping.
Mid-January through March is low season across Italy, even in the capital of Rome. This seasonal slump should not deter visitors, as reduced hotel prices and smaller crowds at major attractions are huge perks. That being said, Rome rarely dips below freezing, with typical January temperatures ranging between 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although hilly in parts, Rome lends itself to being explored on foot, especially during the cooler winter months. This allows for impromptu stops at pastry shops, unexpected diversions down romantic alleys, and breaks at outdoor cafes. It’s worth checking out Rome’s famous attractions, like the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and Piazza San Pietro. During the winter, locals and visitors can enjoy these public spaces at an unhurried pace instead of waking up at dawn to beat the summer tour groups. Other popular attractions, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, are greatly improved by shorter queues and fewer visitors. Free two-hour tours in English are offered at 2:15 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. However, arriving at or near 7 a.m. is helpful for touring the massive interior and admiring the array of masterpieces by Michelangelo and other Italian greats. Winter is also an opportune time for bargain-hunters and thrifty shoppers, as retailers — including local boutiques and brand-name shops on Via del Corso — tout post-holiday sales.
On the whole, winter flights to Rome are the cheapest on this list. Direct flights from New York with Alitalia are as low as $362 round-trip. Meanwhile, round-trip departures from Chicago and Los Angeles come out at around $600 and $400, respectively.
Our Top Pick for a Rome Hotel: Hotel Golden
Situated in the upscale Via Veneto neighborhood, Hotel Golden is a rare affordable find in the residential district. The family-run establishment is far enough from major tourist attractions to remain quiet, but is still only a 15-minute walk from the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain.
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