9 places in the Americas where your holiday money goes a long way
The startling weakness in the US Dollar might be causing problems in parts of the global economy, but it's making the country incredibly cheap for European visitors in the process. It's like the United States is having a special 20%-off sale and you are invited, but you can go in other directions across the Atlantic and have a great and cheap holiday as well. Canada continues to be affordable and nearly every other country in the Americas has long been a bargain.
The flights to get over there aren't necessarily cheaper this year, but once you arrive your travel fund will buy much more this year than it ever has before. The United States has always had much cheaper clothing than Europe, and this year it's gotten to the point that you might consider just flying over with one outfit and then buying the rest once you arrive.
But again, there are some excellent destinations all over the Americas and most of them have always been relatively inexpensive once you get there. You might never have a better opportunity to cover some ground over there, so have a look at some of the more interesting possibilities and then get ready to pack your bags because we are headed to the Americas this year!
New York City, USA
This one remains expensive for Americans themselves, but Europeans are practically brawling at the airports to get on flights to the Big Apple. What was a bargain hunter's paradise last Christmas now offers designer clothes so cheap that you might need to hire an assistant with a wheelbarrow to follow you around hauling your new gear. Sure, the city has excellent museums, restaurants, bars, and nightlife, but it's also got Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Tiffany & Company, as well as three H&Ms, Uniqlo, and hundreds of small one-off boutiques. Bring an empty suitcase.
Once in New York City you are just a short and cheap flight from either Boston or Washington DC, and quick trains also connect the three cities as well. Americans love seeing European backpackers who can suddenly afford to buy a hotel instead of just renting a room, so you owe it to yourself to cruise up and down the Eastern Seaboard flaunting your new wealth. Conspicuous consumption may be frowned upon in Europe, but it never goes out of style in the United States and you are now holding all the cards.
A visit to Machu Picchu is like an achievement badge if you want to be taken seriously by any pretentious world traveler, but the place really does live up to the hype. Most dream of getting one of the limited slots on a 2-day or 4-day hike on the Incan Trail, but if you are lazy, time-crunched, or didn't plan ahead, you can always visit by train on a spectacular day-trip from Cusco.
And Cusco is far more than just a staging area for Machu Picchu trips. This former Incan capital features stunning colonial architecture, surprisingly good nightlife, and several days' worth of interesting sites on its own. You'll probably arrive in Peru in its busy capital of Lima, but don't get on that Cusco flight just yet. Lima itself has a fascinating old city and its own grand colonial architecture. And the upscale and beachy suburb of Miraflores has great dining and shopping mixed with reasonable hotel prices.
New Orleans, USA
Truly one of the world's great cities, New Orleans famously got clobbered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the majority of the things that made the city great in the first place were barely harmed in the storm and subsequent flooding. The French Quarter is almost exactly as it was before the disaster, only now there are fewer tourists who visit so businesses and hotels are much more likely to wheel and deal to try to survive until things pick up again.
New Orleans is a food-lover's paradise as long as you aren't looking for anything remotely healthy, and the Bourbon Street bars and music venues make this an excellent party city all year round. For a change of pace you could tour a swamp or a plantation not far out of town, or take a sobering bus tour through the still-mindblowing Katrina damage in some of the Big Easy's low-lying neighborhoods that remain nearly untouched since the disaster.
Thanks to a currency collapse of their own earlier in the decade, Argentina remains very affordable for tourists. Buenos Aires deserves all its praise from previous visitors because it manages to combine European style and sophistication with Latin American influences to create something unique even within South America. The nightlife through the city's many trendy neighborhoods starts late and never seems to stop. If you love a good steak the prices and quality here feel like beef-heaven, but there are many other culinary options if you prefer to stay light on your feet.
Once in Buenos Aires you've got some cheap and easy side-trip possibilities. You could take a short ferry ride to Montevideo, Uruguay, or a short flight to the stunning and extremely entertaining complex surrounding the Iguazu Falls on the Argentina/Paraguay/Brazil border. Or if you are thirsty you could hop on a short flight to the famed Mendoza wine region near the Chilean border to sample some of the local malbec wines on a very reasonable budget. If nature is more your thing you can be down in the enormous Patagonia region in no time. If you want to see the glaciers don't wait too long, but even the non-frozen trekking and photography opportunities are world class.
British Columbia, Canada
As long as you avoid the 6-month winter, it would be hard to find a more enjoyable city than Vancouver. The downtown area is compact, well organized, and fun, but the entire metro area is one big attraction. The Asian Pacific influences are noticeable throughout, but never more so than in its famed restaurant scene. There are small and chic restaurants throughout the city, and many have big reputations for inventing cross-cuisine dishes that are as delightful as they are affordable. Vancouver has one of the finest and largest big-city parks in the world, and if you can get some elevation you'll discover that this bayside city is stunning in every direction.
But don't spend your whole trip in the city. Just 125 kilometers north you'll find the world famous Whistler Mountain ski resort. There is much more than seasonal snowboarding at this huge complex, and you'll be seeing that soon as it hosts many of the events at the 2010 Winter Olympics. You can also hire a car and take the ferry over to Vancouver Island and you'll feel in another place altogether. Especially as you approach the charming city of Victoria, you'll feel so much like you are in a twisted version of the English countryside that you'll be well tempted to drive on the left in spite of the danger.
Most of Central America can be tricky if your Español skills aren't current, but fortunately what many consider the jewel of the region is also the easiest to visit for English-only speakers. Costa Rica is filled with highlights and it's still quite cheap by European standards. The capital city of San Jose is where you'll arrive and it's only worth a day or two because the charms of the country are all elsewhere.
The Caribbean coast has nice beaches and a relaxed lifestyle with a unique culture unlike the rest of the country. The Pacific coast has major beach resorts mixed in with small and fun surfer towns like the famous Jaco Beach. But it's really the interior of the country that makes Costa Rica so unique. This is where jungle canopy tours and zip-lining were invented, or so they say. For a relatively modest fee you can either zip from one tree to another on a harness or use rope bridges for a less frightening way to see the upper reaches of the gorgeous rainforest at eye level. Combining beach and jungle adventures in the same day is quite easy due to the short distances and good infrastructure.
This often-overlooked big city doesn't get as many international visitors as the biggies on the coasts, but nearly everyone who comes falls in love with the place. You'll immediately notice that it's both cheaper and friendlier than New York City and far more authentic than Los Angeles. While Chicago itself is huge, nearly all the best attractions are clustered in the city center next to Lake Michigan. The public transportation is excellent, but most things are walking distance if you stay in the center.
The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the city's many world-class museums, and the revitalized Navy Pier entertainment complex nearby is another don't-miss highlight. But perhaps the best thing about visiting Chicago is the amazing array of ethnic neighborhoods and the food choices that come along with them. The city has areas dominated by Greeks, Indians, Mexicans, Swedes, Irish, Polish, Tibetans, Ukrainians, African Americans, and many more. This is a food city known for good service, big portions, and reasonable prices.
You could go to France this year, or you could go to the nicer version they try to keep secret in Canada. No matter where you are coming from Quebec feels exotic, and your high school French will finally come in handy as the locals have an almost France-like aversion from breaking from their own language even if they know yours. Montreal is the highlight with its historic and gorgeous Old City neighborhood, and also excellent shopping and the novelty of its "underground city". A variety of interesting ethnic neighborhoods are spread around Montreal, and the restaurant and nightlife scenes in this large metropolis both have well-earned big reputations.
Quebec City is smaller and gets far fewer visitors, but it's also a major highlight for anyone traveling through the region. The castle-like Le Château Frontenac Hotel dominates the skyline and it's an epic place to stay if you can afford it, but even smaller budgets can find a nice and central place to sleep. The city's Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the newer part of the city just a short funicular ride up the hill has plenty of big-city charms of its own.
Mexico City, Mexico
Most Americans and Canadians immediately think of Mexico's luxurious beach resorts or lively border towns when they think of Mexico at all, so most of them completely miss the giant bustling capital. The Centro Historic district has stunning colonial architecture and several notable museums, and prices on everything are very reasonable for a major capital.
The Zona Rosa is both the business and entertainment district in the center that some call a tourist trap, but it's still well worth a visit and the nightlife is epic. There are other neighborhoods filled with upscale shopping and dining or artsy loft conversions or hippie hangouts, so anyone willing to explore Mexico City will get right past all the cultural clichés and realize this giant place has been overlooked for far too long.