Sun-soaked beaches and colorful coral reefs – even the cheapest tropical vacations seem to have it all. Here’s where to go.
It doesn’t matter what kind of getaway you can dream up – from catching waves and trying out water sports to hiking through the rainforest to crystal-clear waterfalls – cheap tropical vacation spots can offer it all and more.
Between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, 36% of the earth’s landmass has a tropical climate, providing a multitude of enticing destinations as diverse as Australia and Bali, Thailand and Colombia, and many parts of Africa. For the best affordable tropical destinations, plan where and when you want to visit and you can reap huge savings – and not just on last-minute deals.
From white-sand shorelines in Southeast Asia to scuba diving in Central America, here are eight cheap tropical destinations that get you access to paradise (without ever hurting your pocket).
1. Palawan, the Philippines
With 7641 islands in total, the Philippines is among the most affordable places for a tropical escape. Palawan, in the nation’s southwest, has 1780 islands in its archipelago alone. The region teems with thundering waterfalls, huge caves, phenomenal snorkeling at WWII wrecks and coral reefs, swimming with whale sharks in turquoise waters, and some of the cheapest scuba diving anywhere in the world. Idyllic El Nido is the jumping-off point for island hopping aboard a bangka (motorized outrigger) to translucent lagoons and hidden beaches framed by karst limestone cliffs.
The pure waters provide a natural bounty of prawns, crab and other crustaceans and fish; look out for danggit lamayo (dried rabbitfish marinated in vinegar, crushed garlic and peppercorn). Staying in a bahay kubo (thatched bamboo shack with woven rattan walls), homestay, hostel or budget hotel are all low-cost options; you can also get good deals on resorts outside peak season (March to May), though some activities close during the June to October wet season.
2. Goa, India
Think budget travel and India will often come to mind, and Goa is a tropical potpourri of Indian and Portuguese cultures. India’s smallest state’s least crowded, most pristine beaches, such as Palolem and secluded Butterfly Beach, are in the south, with glowing topaz-hued sunsets over the Arabian Sea. Water activities include kayaking, parasailing, and dolphin-spotting trips.
In the dense jungle, wildlife sanctuaries such as Cotigao are home to civets, gaurs, pangolins, leopards, monkeys and giant Indian squirrels, and plantations grow cashews and spices like turmeric, pepper, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. Colorful markets sell these and other local specialties such as the cashew-based feni spirit, as well as dishes such as seafood thalis (with rice, fish curries, fried fish, pickles and flatbread) and garlicky, vinegary pork vindaloo, along with cheap clothes and handicrafts.
Guesthouses, hostels, beachside bungalows and resorts offer affordable rates. Much of Goa’s beachside accommodation closes completely between May to September during the monsoon; March to April and October to November are prime times to avoid peak-season prices and crowds.
3. Bahías de Huatulco, Mexico
Forget Cabo San Lucas or Playa del Carmen City in Mexico. In southeastern Oaxaca on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Bahías de Huatulco is a unique and affordable eco escape. Its nine bays are home to 36 beaches. Santa Cruz’s emerald-green waters are just south of commercial hub La Crucecita, where you can arrange sailing and scuba excursions, and rent equipment including jet skis and kayaks. La Bocana is renowned for surfing and pre-Hispanic mud baths. Maguey has gorgeous white sand and snorkeling amid coral, rays and turtles. It’s part of the Parque Nacional Huatulco, with awesome hiking, biking and horse riding, and abundant wildlife including black iguanas, armadillos and dwarf porcupines. Up in the mountains, you can visit waterfalls and coffee plantations.
Minimize costs by dining on super-fresh seafood and local specialties like tlayudas (corn tortillas topped with black beans, pork fat and cheese) from rustic comedores (food stalls or basic dining rooms). For accommodation, stay in rooms in private homes, simple hotels, or low-rise resorts and villas outside peak-season holidays (Christmas, New Year and around Easter) in the November to April dry season. Prices drop lowest in the wet season (May to October), though some places close in September and October.
4. Far North Queensland, Australia
World Heritage rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef in Far North Queensland, Australia. Bordered by sugarcane fields, its gateway city, Cairns, may not have a beach (compensated for by a sand-fringed artificial swimming lagoon on the reclaimed foreshore) but it’s the launching pad for reef trips, such as coral cay Green Island, and hinterland excursions including nearby village Kuranda, with artsy, hippie markets beneath the rainforest canopy.
Cairns makes a great budget-friendly base in Australia with a lively hostel scene, family-friendly motels and resorts, and bargain drinking and dining options, including tropical-fruit-filled market Rusty’s and high-spirited happy hours at Cairns’ bars and pubs. For a beachside stay, try Trinity Beach and Clifton Beach, both just north of the city. April to May and September to October, either side of the peak dry season, are ideal times for an affordable tropical holiday.
5. Lombok, Indonesia
Ringed by pearl-white, coral-pink and black volcanic sand beaches, Lombok is a fantastic place for an active tropical vacation. In the south, reefs, inlets and bays such as Pantai Mawi provide world-class surf breaks. Climbing through the jungle to sacred Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia’s second-highest volcano, is a multiday adventure. Easier treks include spectacular waterfalls such as Air Terjun Sindang Gila. Offshore, between Lombok and its famous neighbor, Bali, the Gili Islands – Gili Trawangan (‘Gili T’), a backpacker favorite for its moonlight parties; traditional Gili Meno; and laid-back Gili Air – are blissfully free from motorized transport.
On Lombok and the Gilis, you can eat cheaply and deliciously at warungs (small, simple eateries) sizzling up skewered-meat satays and grilling fish over coconut-shell charcoal. Beach huts, hostels and bungalows all offer affordable accommodation. The wet season, from October to April, is the cheapest time to go (especially if you skip the busy Christmas holidays).
6. Barbados, the Caribbean
When it comes to the best tropical vacations on a budget, Barbados is one of the most affordable, all-rounder destinations in the Caribbean. All of its sugar-sand beaches are public, even in the west along its flashy Platinum Coast. Strolling distance from its architectural treasure of a capital, Bridgetown, you can snorkel with seahorses, turtles and rays from Brownes Beach, or paddle out on an SUP or kayak.
Surfing is epic off Bathsheba on the wild Atlantic-facing east coast; Freights Bay, in the south, has gentler waves. The south and east are typically the most economical places to base up. Save money by picking up fresh produce at markets and seeking out cheap bites like cutters (filled salt-bread sandwiches) from roadside stalls and rum shops.
Reggae bands play free gigs all over the island. Next to the fish market, diving into mountains of grilled fish and sides accompanied by ice-cold beers and DJ tunes at Oistins Fish Fry is an unmissable island experience. Barbados’ location outside the hurricane belt gives you a bigger window to visit (mid-April to June and November to mid-December hit the sweet spot for great weather outside the peak Christmas-to-Easter period).
7. Vanua Levu, Fiji
Wind down to “island time” in the South Pacific on Vanua Levu. Fiji’s second-largest island is an unspoiled slice of tropical paradise with white-sand beaches, coconut palms and fragrant frangipanis. Underwater, dive sites such as Rainbow Reef and Namena Marine Reserve have kaleidoscopic coral reefs with marine creatures including hawksbill and green sea turtles. Vanua Levu’s rugged interior shelters waterfalls, swimming holes and highland villages.
You can feast cheaply on dishes like kokoda (raw fish marinated in coconut cream, tomato and lime, accompanied by rice) and banana-leaf-wrapped fish, meat and vegetables cooked in a lovo (underground oven), and experience Fijian hospitality in a traditional bure (thatched hut), local guesthouse, hotel or budget resort. Prices are lowest during the warm November to April wet season.
8. Ko Wai and Bang Saphan Yai, Thailand
For decades, Thailand dealt in a special kind of island paradise: remote, little-visited beaches with basic waterfront bamboo bungalows on fluffy, white sands – and little else. (Alex Garland’s The Beach wasn’t far from the truth.) Then, in 2004, a tsunami hit the Andaman Sea and swept away swathes of Thailand’s southwestern coasts. Hotels replaced bungalows. Travelers poured in.
Still, even with new all-inclusive resorts on some islands, Thailand is one of the cheapest tropical places to travel. To find that Thailand of old, head for Ko Wai, a tiny fleck of white in the Ko Chang Archipelago with dirt-cheap beach huts, budget guesthouses and pure turquoise waters. Alternatively, Bang Saphan Yai on the upper gulf mainland, has a halo of golden beaches, traditional bamboo huts and sublime sunsets. The quietest months to visit are April to June. So if you fancy an early summer vacation, you can get cheap accommodation and coral reefs all to yourself.
9. Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Cheaper than its Caribbean neighbors, the Dominican Republic has everything you could want from the best tropical places: gleaming beaches, arching palm trees, countless waterfalls, bays, coves and budget boat rental – plus mangrove lagoons, windswept dunes and plenty of hiking. It’s home to Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean.
One of the ways to economize in the Dominican Republic is to stay in one of the money-saving, waterfront-facing all-inclusive resorts on the island. Punta Cana on the eastern tip has these mega-resorts by the bucketload and they also have access to the country’s best beaches. But don’t let their budget beers make you miss the capital Santo Domingo: the capitaleños know how to get down and the city has plenty of cheap places to eat, drink and party.
10. Unguja (Zanzibar Island), Zanzibar
Africa punches well above the rest when it comes to tropical vacations but few knock-your-sunglasses-off quite like Zanzibar Island (officially Unguja). Cinematic coral reefs surround Tanzania’s Indian Ocean crown jewel as colorful nudibranchs, leaf fish and flutters of seahorses swim temptingly off the shoreline.
The beaches are some of the world’s best, with sand as soft as quilts, swaying coconut palms, beaming sunshine and very little else. Swimmable Kendwa, the widest beach on the island, is the main draw, but for crowd-free coastlines and sublime shades of turquoise, seek out Pongwe on the the east coast or sweltering Jambiani to the southeast – two of the most laid-back tropical places to visit in Africa.
11. Southern Mozambique, Mozambique
Ribbons of pink-blushed sand weave around the forested edges of southern Mozambique, one of the least expensive tropical vacations in this part of Africa. People have dug this tropical paradise for centuries – from the early spice traders and pirates to backpackers and now high-end tourists who chill on resort sun loungers along the Bazaruto Archipelago.
Between Tofo and Barra, Mozambique has some of the most startling stretches of pillowy-soft sand in the whole of Africa. With snorkeling safaris around coral reefs, cheap fishing charters, and affordable day boat rentals that glide through the iridescent Indian Ocean, this is a country that slows the heart rate and helps the worries of life subside – which is all you want from a cheap tropical holiday.
12. Providencia Island and Playa Blanca, Colombia
Ecuador used to be among the best cheap tropical vacations but as unrest puts the country out of the equation, those looking for a budget South America getaway should head for Colombia instead. Closer to Nicaragua than mainland Colombia, Providencia Island isn’t easy to get to (you’ll need to get on a tiny 20-seater plane or take a three-hour catamaran journey to get to this remote Caribbean island; both cost around US$100). But it is one of the best tropical vacation spots in the world.
Its remoteness means that its golden curls of sand are mostly footprint-free. The palms here lean over like yoga enthusiasts. The turquoise-blue waters are gin-clear. Most people are here to snorkel or dive the coral reefs or, well, sunbathe. Being a duty-free island makes Providencia even cheaper still – especially at the beach bars.
If you want paradise to be a little more accessible, mainland Colombia has options too. Try Playa Blanca, close to Cartagena, which offers beach huts, bars and hammocks for kipping overnight along its sugary, white beach.