As South Africans we know all too well how much money goes into an international trip. Beyond the cost of long-haul flights, we need to convert our hard-earned Rands into foreign currency and often end up spending a fortune on accommodation, food, transport and entry fees to tourist attractions we want to visit while there. But the good news is that not all destinations are created equal, and nor do they all need to break the bank. In fact, there are many wonderful holiday options and alternatives that are relatively inexpensive and allow you to focus on the experience, without it being overshadowed by cost.
Here are some of the more budget-friendly destinations to guide your choices and ensure you get more bang for your buck.
Portugal’s Lisbon, cobbled roads and tram rides
A place of allure with its unique beauty, symmetrically laid Portuguese pavement, brightly painted buildings and viewpoints that reveal layer upon layer of terracotta roofs and white church steeples, you can lose your heart to this European city that effortlessly mixes traditional heritage with modern design and progressive thinking. Lisbon is now easier to get to and more affordable than ever with Taag Angolan Airlines adding convenient routes between Johannesburg and Cape Town, via Luanda into the Portuguese capital. Once there accommodation can be booked in well located and affordable Airbnb apartments, or one of the reasonably priced and stylish hotels with views towards the river.
Coffee and beer cost about the same as in South Africa, food can be bought from the market or enjoyed at restaurants frequented by the Lisbon people. You can choose to either walk the cobbled streets or hop on the tram and lose yourself in the sights as it transports you from one head attraction to another. This is a city to live in, no matter the length of your stay, make it your home for those days and pretend you’re a local soaking up the old-fashioned laidback charm as you get your European fix.
A firm favourite with South Africans, Thailand remains a popular destination that rewards with excellent value and the ability to match the expectations of all travellers, whatever kind of holiday you might be looking for. Known for it’s tropical beaches, opulent royal palaces, ancient ruins and ornate temples displaying figures of Buddha, as well as incredible street food and good value shopping.
The capital Bangkok is an ultramodern vibrant city with high rises next to quiet canalside communities and the iconic temples of Wat Arun, Wat Pho and the Emerald Buddha Temple. Walking the streets is a sensory overload of sound, smells and colour as modern blends effortlessly with tradition. There’s the popular Andaman islands for idyllic blue water, sun and sand, Koh Tao if you’re looking for a scuba diver’s paradise, the lesser know northern regions and the sought after Phi Phi Islands off Phuket.
There are excellent value flight and accommodation packages should you wish to keep things simple, or buy the ticket and discover the various islands on your own. Food is cheap, the night markets delight any avid shopper and the Kingdom’s very efficient transport system that makes moving between your chosen destinations effortless. Indulge in Thai massages, linger on white beaches, and eat as much authentic street food as you can. It really is a relaxed paradise and the Thai people are renowned for their hospitably.
Island hopping in Madagascar
Not too far off Africa’s East Coast, Madagascar beckons discovery. A naturalist’s promised land with varied terrain and unique wildlife, the island is easily reached by flight from Johannesburg. Decide on the areas you’d like to visit, and whether you’d like to make the photogenic capital Antananarivo your base, or simply stop there before heading to the nearby Andasibe National Park in search of lemurs, or the iconic Avenue of Baobabs near Morondava.
Alternately give the island’s pristine oceans your attention and fly directly into Nosy Be for a 4, 5 or 7 day catamaran charter, hopping between the islands to visit a lemur sanctuary, spend time in local fishing villages, eat honey just harvested in the wild and take guided walks in rain forests, when not scuba diving or snorkelling off the boat that is. For this, Madagascat has themed fully inclusive very affordable packages onboard their Gecko or Maki-Cat boats.
After your time onboard you may consider a few nights on one of the bigger islands as you acclimatise back to land. Sakatia Island is good for this, with Sakatia Lodge, which is run by South Africans, offering beginner and advanced scuba diving courses for a much better price than you would find at home. They are renowned for snorkelling with sea turtles, who come to eat the seagrass just offshore. With all travel in Madagascar, it is recommended that you use the services of a local tour operator, to ensure smooth arrangements and best value. They can help you book internal transfers and even a driver and car if that is your preference. Flights are best booked with FlyAirlink.
If you are looking for a holiday with a difference, one that combines eco-consciousness with sweeping beach sunsets and once in a lifetime wildlife encounters, then Kenya should be on your list, specifically the village of Watamu near Malindi on the East coast. An easy flight to Malindi, or bus trip if your nerves are up for the winding road that brings you here from Nairobi, Watamu spoils for choice when it comes to activities on offer. With water sports in the Marine Reserve such as scuba diving, kite surfing, stand up paddleboard, windsurfing, kayaking and bodyboarding. Not wanting to be in Kenya without going on safari, you can visit Kenya’s largest game reserve Tsavo National Park, just a two-hour drive away.
There are sunset Dhow cruises, walks in the mangrove forest, mountain biking and the neighbouring Arabuko Sokoke coastal forest, as well as the ancient Gede Ruins, the remains of a Swahili town with origins dating back to the 12th century. Don’t miss sundowners at Mida Creek and some shopping for art and curios. You even have the option of taking a yoga class at Watamu Treehouse and are spoilt for choice when it comes to fine Italian pizza, given the many Italians who consider this their second home. A must visit is Bio-Ken Snake Farm and research centre who do work developing anti-venom and educating all they can not to kill snakes on sight in their Saving Snakes program. A perfect way to add meaning to your time in Kenya is to sign up as an Eco Visitor at the Local Ocean Trust: Watamu Turtle Watch.
Given that the area has experienced a decrease in tourism over the past years, hotel rates are negotiable and there are many beautiful fully serviced villas and homes for rental with Discover Watamu. The residents could not be more welcoming and friendly.
Escorted holidays for the independent traveller
Should the idea of planning a trip to Europe be daunting when you do the maths yourself, consider a guided holiday and take advantage of the many perks of group travel, affordability is just one of them. Not only is it hassle-free with all activity and restaurant bookings made in advance, but also things like check-in at hotels and those little reminders about dietary requirements and special interests, are all taken care of. All you have to do is immerse yourself in the experience.
Companies such as Trafalgar take great pride in their Travel Directors who unlock each destination you visit with their expert knowledge and local specialist guides, and their Be My Guest experiences invite you into the homes of locals, providing an intimate look at the culture that we are unlikely to be able to create ourselves.
Don’t be put off by the idea of travelling in a group, the itineraries allow much free time for solo and introspective exploration. Take a look at their various multi-country and themed itineraries and select the one that suits you best. Prepayment secures the rate, which means that even if the Rand takes a dive, your pocket will not be affected. Read Italy and Austria the Sustainable Way. #JoinTrafalgar.
Another idea for the active traveller is On Foot Holidays, one of Europe’s self-guided walking tour operators that offer South Africans all-inclusive holiday packages to numerous destinations from Croatia to Bulgaria, Greece and beyond. Their packages include accommodation and meals, you simply select the route and departure dates, and they take care of the rest. Really good value and a holiday that offers a more intimate look at the areas you traverse.
** THis article first appeared in On Route Magazein.