There are a lot of online resources for finding cheap travel destinations. Two cost-of-living comparison websites I use frequently are expatistan.com and numbeo.com. You may not find the exact city you are looking for in their databases, but you can get a decent idea of the overall COL for various countries just by taking the ranges of COL indices for each country and comparing it to the COL index for your home city.
A few selected COL indices
Luckily, many of the cities popular with travelers are in the databases. For example, we live in Portland, OR which has a COL Index of 184 on expatistan.com at the time I’m writing this article. The COL indices for several international cities I looked at are shown here:
- Portland, Oregon 184
- Madrid, Spain 145
- San Jose, Costa Rica 134
- Granada, Spain 117
- Oporto, Portugal 111
- Cuenca, Ecuador 97
- Penang, Malaysia 95
- San Miguel de Allende, Mexico 85
- Medellin, Colombia 80
- Chiang Mai, Thailand 79
- Puerto Vallarta, Mexico 76
- Oaxaca, Mexico 73
- Mendoza, Argentina 71
- Jaipur, India 54
From this table, we can see that we should be able to live for about 36% less in Oporto, Portugal, 54% less in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 62% less in Mendoza, Argentina, or, if we really want to live cheaply, 71% less in Jaipur, India. Of course, we have to adjust these numbers to take into account that our house is paid off in the US so we have no mortgage payment, whereas we will have rental costs in the new country, but if we add in a monthly rental payment to our current budget, that gives us a good estimate of our overall costs in each city.
COL indices can change rapidly
I should mention that the COL indices for several of these cities on expatistan.com have changed drastically since the last time I ran the list about six months ago. For example, Buenos Aires and Mendoza, Argentina both dropped by about 35%. That tells me that something happened with the Argentinian currency since then. I noticed that most indices for Latin American countries were down as well. This reinforces the need to check the list periodically as COL numbers can change rapidly, particularly in countries with inflationary problems. Argentina is well known for large COL fluctuations.
By taking the range of COL indices from various countries you can put together a list of cheap and very cheap countries to consider traveling to.
Here is a list that I put together for several geographic regions:
Very Cheap: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina
Cheap: Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay
Very Cheap: India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Philippines
Very Cheap: Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, Turkey
Cheap: Portugal, Croatia, Greece, Spain
When I say that a particular country is “cheap” or “very cheap”, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every city in that country is cheap. What it means is that if you look at various cities in that country, you will find some very nice cities where you can live cheaply. These may not be the largest cities or cities which are heavily touristed, however. For example, in Thailand, the COL Index listed for Phuket, a popular tourist destination, is 119, and Bangkok is at 110, which are both still reasonably cheap, but expensive compared to Chiang Mai, a town in northern Thailand very popular with expats, which has a COL Index of 79 (very cheap). I rated Thailand as very cheap because you can find places like Chiang Mai, or Chiang Rai which are very cheap and quite livable. Similarly with Spain, even though Madrid and Barcelona, two popular cities, have indices of 145 and 144 respectively, not really very cheap, there are also wonderful cities like Granada at 117 or Seville at 116 which are reasonably cheap.
Choosing to focus on cheaper countries allows you to home in on finding some cheaper cities within those countries which may appeal to you. At that point the best thing to do is start googling for expat bloggers who are living in those countries and get as much information on cost of living, things to do, problems with visas and visa extensions, climate, best time of year to be there, pros and cons of various cities, and so on. That will help you narrow down your next dream destination.