There’s a lot of debate over which region is the best.
But there are only 3 main contenders;
Southeast Asia | Eastern Europe | Central America
So what sets these regions apart from other popular destinations?
1) They’re all composed of unique countries located in close proximity to one another.
2) They’re relatively safe and easy to get around.
3) And most importantly, they’re all budget friendly.
So which one of these regions is the best?
In the guide below we’ll take a look at the most important budget travel indexes. These include Safety, Friendliness, Deliciousness and Daily Budget.
Then we’ll put these regions head to head, and let you decide which region is best for you and your next adventure.
(Certain generalizations have been made out of necessity. These generalizations aspire to reflect the dominant themes of the region. They do not attempt to characterize the countless smaller unique peoples and cultures that compose them.)
(Exc. Indian Subcontinent)
I love Southeast Asia. I fell in love with it the first time I visited in 2006 and I fall in love with it every time I return.
It’s got beaches and bungalows, and temples and big Buddha’s. It’s got all the world’s religions and all those crazy wonderful people that come with them. It’s a place where you can both surround yourself with other backpackers on island paradises or immerse yourself in traditional ways of life. It’s also budget backpacker cheap.
Safety: 4.4 out of 5
Southeast Asia is one of the safest regions in the world for travelers.
Although there does exist violent groups in the Philippines and on the border between Thailand and Malaysia to name a few, the vast majority of the region is extremely safe. Governments are relatively stable and the rule of law is strong.
In tourist hotspots, there is always the possibility of pickpockets and bungalow break-ins, but harsh punishments and the law of karma makes petty crime relatively rare.
Perhaps the biggest threat to one’s safety is disease. Although tropical diseases such as Dengue fever, and Malaria exists, you’re far more like to get travelers diarrhea. Fortunately, most pharmacies will prescribe you an Antibiotic course with no hassle, and for around just 15$.
Friendliness: 3.9 out of 5
It’s very hard to generalize, but from Singapore to Thailand and Myanmar to Laos, there’s an exceptional amount of emphasis on being polite, staying calm, smiling before interactions, and maintaining harmony. Most people smile at and will help foreign travelers in need. Even if it’s a fake smile out of politeness, it still feels welcoming.
However, there are always places, especially in Thailand, where locals have been dealing with backpackers for so many years that they’re absolutely sick of us.
Deliciousness: 4.8 out of 5
Don’t even get me started on the food. Mango with sticky rice, Won Ton Soup, Pork Sandwiches, all kinds of BBQ’d things on sticks and coconuts in countless incarnations.
If you’re a spicy food addict, look no further than Thailand. If you’re looking to try authentic Indian, Malay, Chinese or a fusion of all of them, SE Asia is your region.
Daily Budget: 23/Day
Aside from Singapore & Malaysia, prices range between 30%-50% less than Western Europe and the US (and even more if you get off the full moon circuit).
Cheapest countries in SE Asia: Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia
Most expensive countries in SE Asia: Malaysia, Singapore
Beach Bungalow: 10 $
Pork On A Stick: 1 $
Wonton Soup: 1.50 $
Sugar Cane Juice: 0.50 $
640ml Beer At 7/11: 1.50$
A comfortable daily budget for travel in tourist areas: 25$/day
A comfortable daily budget for travel in the countryside: 18$/day
Recommended Minimum Budget: 23$/day
*budget is an average based on 3 meals & cheap accommodation across region
SE Asia is safe, definitely the most delicious, friendly enough, and as cheap as they come. In Thailand you can hop skip from one island paradise to the next with a coconut curry in hand. In Cambodia you can explore Angkor Wat like Indiana Jones. In Indonesia and the Phillippines you can surf some sizable and consistent breaks. And in Vietnam, you can overdose on Buddhist temples if you want.
Maybe it’s because my Japanese Grandmother, Haruko, imparted upon me some Asian tastes buds. Or maybe it’s because the cultural mélange of Malaysia and much of the region reminds me of my hometown of New York. Whatever the case, Southeast Asia always feels like a second home and it’s one of my favorite regions to travel through.
The very first time I traveled to Eastern Europe, I thought one thing; this region is ghetto and I love it. City blocks were in disrepair, buildings were bombed out, and Soviet era trams ran the streets.
Everyone seemed to be rougher around the edges, yet somehow nicer at the same time. Although I didn’t have any money, the train ticket checkers would let me stay on the train. If I asked politely, restaurant owners would even invite me to eat. Everyone was poorer than in Western Europe but people helped me much more.
This hospitality inspired 3 more adventures that took me through nearly every country in the region. During this time, I furthered my understanding of a diverse mix of people and cultures scattered across an even more diverse and beautiful landscape.
Eastern Europe is much cheaper than, just as naturally beautiful as, and arguably as safe as Western Europe for travelers. Although the region is kind of ghetto, it’s ghetto in the best kind of way, making it one of the best regions for budget travel.
Safety: 3.9 out of 5
Although Eastern Europe has a bad reputation for being dodgier than it’s Western counterparts, it’s really not as dangerous as you might think. I was never once robbed, picked on, or felt threatened throughout two months of hitchhiking.
Different and a bit ghetto yes, more Roma people yes, more traffic law breaking yes, more road side prostitutes yes…more dangerous? not so much as long as you take common sense precautions. Still it’s not a bad idea to buy some travel insurance before you go.
Friendliness: 4.0 out of 5
From Poland to Bulgaria I noticed a similar theme. Although at first people had tough shells, after a few minutes or beers, they quickly dissolved into welcoming smiles.
People either ignored me out right or, and most often, tried their best to help. When they found out I was American, they wouldn’t hesitate to break out an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie line.
Deliciousness: 3.4 out of 5
Aside from Greece, Eastern Europe isn’t really known for it’s food, which is a shame because they really do excellent meat, cheese, and stews.
For example, no one can do Goulash better than the Hungarians. And few countries can match Croatia’s wine and seafood.
More, if you’re on a budget, it’s all about the baked goods, most notably the Burek. In almost every country in Eastern Europe you can find some form of Burek. It’s basically a cream and feta cheese filled pastry with yogurt drizzled on top. It’s simple but delicious, and best of all, extremely cheap.
Daily Budget: 26$/day
Aside from most capitol cities, prices are around 15%-25% less than Western Europe.
The Cheapest Countries: Moldova, Albania, Poland
The Most Expensive Countries: Croatia, Hungary, Greece
Hostel Dorm: 10-15 $
Budget Hotel Room: 15-20 $
Burek Pastry: 0.50 $
0.5 L Beer: 1$
Mid-range Restaurant Meal: 4-7$
Comfortable daily budget for travel in cities: 33$/day.
Comfortable daily budget for travel in the countryside: 24$/day.
Recommended Minimum Budget: 26$/day
*budget is an average based on 3 meals & cheap accommodation across region
Prices from Poland to Albania tend to be considerably cheaper than Western Europe. The people are poorer on average but often considerably friendlier and welcoming. Everything is generally kind of ghetto, but ghetto in a really good, let’s break the speed limit and paint graffiti, kind of way.
If you’re interested in backpacking Europe but looking for a cheaper experience off the beaten path, Eastern Europe is where it’s at.
Even while I hitchhiked through Sudan, the thought of traveling through Central America still made me nervous. I always envisioned the whole region being awash with gangsters and wannabe gangsters. I put off visiting for ages.
It wasn’t until Oct 2013, after finding a 79$ flight from NYC to San Salvador, that I finally decided to jump. Not only did a net appear but the net was just a buck and there wasn’t a gangster in sight.
Central America is arguably the cheapest and possibly the best region in the world for budget travel. If you like tacos, you won’t find them more delicious than here. If you got ants in your pants, there’s always a bar where you can dance. If you want to immerse yourself into indigenous culture there’s no better than the Mayan. For all of this and more, Central America is one of the world’s best budget travel regions.
Safety: 3.4 out of 5
Chances are you won’t run into any gangsters unless you venture into ghettos and go looking for them.
In reality, the biggest threat to your safety are thieves that prey on gringos. I myself have even fallen victim to them. The last time I was in Antigua, Guatemala, I was beat up and had my camera stolen from around my neck. Just glad I had travel insurance.
However, situations like these are easily avoided if you take precautions. For example, don’t get too drunk and wander around dark backstreets in the middle of the night. Definitely learned my lesson the hard way.
For the most part, you will feel relatively safe as a traveler in Central America.
Friendliness: 4.6 out of 5
I found the people, especially the indigenous people of the Guatemalan highlands and Nicaraguan jungles, to be the kindest, warmest, and most welcoming people I’ve ever found anywhere.
Although some people are opportunistic and looking to profit from friendships, most people generally want to help you out and then hang out.
Deliciousness: 3.8 out of 5
If Central America was a single country the national dish would be rice, beans, and chicken. Aside from this, the most common budget meals are tacos, corn tortillas, funky sandwiches filled with too much ketchup, Papusas, burritos, and plantains (fried bananas).
Although Central America has cheap and delicious food, unless you’re in Mexico, it’s hit or miss from little town to big city.
Daily Budget: 20$/day
Prices across Central America tend to be 40%-50% less than the United States.
The Cheapest Countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua
The Most Expensive Countries: Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico
Hostel Dorm: 6-12 $
Budget Hotel Room: 14-24 $
3 Tacos: 2.25 $
0.5 L Beer: 0.65$
Mid-range Restaurant Meal: 3-5$
Comfortable daily budget for travel in cities: 22$/day.
Comfortable daily budget for travel in the countryside: 16$/day.
Recommended Minimum Budget: 20$/day
*budget is an average based on 3 simple meals & cheap accommodation across region
Central America is full of quaint colonial cities, sky scraping volcanoes, enticing surf, tasty tacos, diverse cultures, and a wonderful melange of Latin rhythm and local hospitality.
If it’s you’re first time traveling, you can easily make friends and get a taste of the region along the Gringo Trail. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path, you can venture into the Guatemalan highlands for a true Maya experience.
Central America is an excellent region for first time budget travelers, and it’s also my favorite region in the world.
The Best Region For Budget Travel
#1 SE Asia 4.4
#2 EE 3.9
#3 CA 3.4
#1 CA 4.6
#2 SE Asia 3.9
#3 EE 3.4
#1 SE Asia 4.8
#2 CA 3.8
#3 EE 3.4
#1 CA 20$ (+5)
#2 SEA 23$ (+2.5)
#3 EE 26$ (+0)
So Which Region Wins?
#1 Central America Total Score: 17
#2 Southeast Asia Total Score: 15.6
#3 Eastern Europe Total Score: 11.3
Let Me Know What You Think!
I love how you rate these 3 regions based on safety, friendliness, food and budget. Your review has been helpful for me to calculate my future travelling expenses. Thanks for the input and please do more reviews on other regions around the world!
The Runaway Guide says
Thanks Qistina, glad you found it useful! I definitely will! Cheers!
With all due respect, your description of Easter Europe (which, by the way, consists of numerous different countries and cities and hence doesn’t constitute one homogenous mass that can be summerised using one adjective) as “generally kind of ghetto” is misleading and frankly, quite offensive to those living there. I don’t know when you’ve travelled to Eastern Europe and what countries/cities you got to visit but the area has significantly improved since the communism and has much more to offer than “City blocks in disrepair, bombed out buildings, and Soviet era trams ran the streets” – that’s just ridiculous and offers a very skewed image of an area that’s also known for beautiful, centuries old architecture, stunning landscapes and natural beauty, not to mention a rich although also turbulent history. I rarely comment on posts but I was rather shocked to see someone who appears to be well-travelled projecting such a stereotypical, blown out of proportions and entirely misleading image. By the way, Greece is NOT considered a part of Eastern Europe – it’s a Southeastern European country.
The Runaway Guide says
Hey Marta, I’m sorry you feel like I’m promoting a stereotype. It was my intention to break stereotypes and promote travel to Eastern Europe. In terms of Greece, I didn’t want to leave it out cause it’s easy to get to and it’s such a great country. Sorry you found it offensive.