On the road: how to see more of the world on a budget

Hiring a car and hitting the open road isn’t as expensive as you may think.

With a few savvy money-saving tactics up your sleeve, you can enjoy endless amounts of freedom, while avoiding some major tourist traps along the way.

1. Chiang Rai Province, Thailand

Chiang Rai Province, Thailand
Photo credit: sripfoto

Around 1,100km north of Bangkok is a misty, mountainous valley that cradles the Ping River and is home to the colourful town of Chiang Mai, as well as Doi Inthanon – Thailand’s highest mountain. The diverse, verdant terrain makes for an incredible road-tripping background, particularly if you set off from Chiang Mai and head four hours north-east to Chiang Rai.

The route passes some of the region’s must-see stop-offs. Don’t miss the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs – about an hour along the way – a natural, sulphurous spring where you can soak your feet. Do what the locals do and buy a basket of fresh eggs to boil in the water, before tucking into them with soy sauce. Closer to Chiang Rai, you’ll reach Wat Rong Khun, one of the area’s most popular sites and with a dirt-cheap entry fee of just 50 baht. Known as the White Temple, it’s a contemporary, privately owned art exhibit built in the style of a Buddhist temple. Round off the journey in the small, relaxed town of Chiang Rai.

Where to end your journey: The PanKled Villa Eco Hill Resort, in Chiang Rai, comes with a pool and cute, wooden villas in the greenery, costing around 1,000 Thai Baht, that’s roughly £23 per night.

2. Horseshoe Bend, Arizona, USA

Horseshow Bend, Arizona
Photo credit: Josemaria Toscano

Around 225km and a two and a half hour drive north of the Grand Canyon is its little sister, in Page, Arizona. Still lesser visited than the Canyon, word’s got out about the stunning beauty of Horseshoe Bend: a hairpin meander of the Colorado River, viewed from a cliff face overlook that’s set 300m above the river. The atmosphere of the red-rock natural wonder changes throughout the day as the sun bathes it in different shades of gold – so you’ll want to go back more than once. Just as well it’s free entry, then, compared to the $12 (£9) entry fee to the Grand Canyon National Park.

Where to stay en route: Where Highway 89 links the North and South Rims of the Canyon to Page, accommodation is generally cheaper, costing as little as £30 per night. Try the cheap and cheerful Rodeway Inn at Lake Powell, which has a swimming pool, air conditioning and an included all-American breakfast to set you up for the drive back.

3. Kerala’s Hill Stations, India

Kerala’s Hill Stations, India
Photo credit: Peter Zelei Images

While India is renowned for its chaotic traffic, where honking your horn rules the road and wandering cows can cause significant delays, the roads of the tropical, south-western state of Kerala are, thankfully, calmer and better-kept than in the likes of Rajasthan and Delhi. Driving here is still a challenge, but if you pick up a car in Kochi and travel inland, your sense of adventure will be rewarded with views of some of India’s most awe-inspiring landscapes.

We recommend the route to Munnar, a town and hill station in the Western Ghats mountain range. Once a resort for the British Raj elite, it’s surrounded by bright-green, rolling hills dotted with tea plantations and borders the Eravikulam National Park – where you can trek through thick jungle to the famous Lakkam Waterfalls for an entry fee of just 245 rupees (around £2.70). Consider a detour en route through Valparai, an equally atmospheric hill station with some jaw-dropping vistas. But be warned: there are 40 hairpin bends on the winding ghat road that leads to it, so this section of the route is not for the faint-hearted.

Where to stay en route: Rooms in this part of India go for as little as 270 rupees (less than £3) per night, but if you up your budget to 820 rupees – still an absolute steal at around £9 – you’ll get a clean, comfortable stay at Marayoor Holidays, with hot water and great hospitality (although the WiFi might be patchy). 

4. The Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

The Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand
Photo credit: Fyletto

Drive two and a half hours from Auckland – the biggest metropolis in New Zealand – to the relatively isolated Coromandel Peninsula, where thick, forested mountains tumble towards the North Island’s most beautiful beaches. Extending 85km north from the Bay of Plenty, this is a paradise that’s made up of one white sand cove after another. A road trip here shows off the best of the chilled, Kiwi way of life as well as its breath-taking scenery.

The best part? Most of the region’s attractions, immersed in the wilderness, are totally free. Cathedral Cove, a 1.5km walk from Hahei beach, is one of the most photogenic spots in the whole country, with its naturally formed, white pumice rock archway. Then a 10km drive south is Hot Water Beach, where you can dig down to the hot springs below the sand and make your own natural hot tub.

Where to stay en route: The best range of budget accommodation can be found in the town of Whitianga, all of which benefit from the nearby beach and bush. Try the Turtle Cove hostel, which offers kitchenettes, private rooms, outdoor cabins and a sociable communal barbecue area from NZ$75 per night (less than £40).

5. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Photo credit: Sebastien Cote

The world’s largest salt flat is technically not a road, but if you’re feeling adventurous you can hire a car and spend four or five days driving across it. Most travellers opt for a guided tour from Uyuni, on the edge of the flats, but hiring your own Jeep gives you more flexibility in terms of starting points – plus the option to avoid the other tourist tours, which all arrive at the area’s volcanoes, geysers and amazingly colourful lagoons at similar times.

Consider beginning your drive in the quieter towns of Tupiza or Sucre, and make sure to stock up on provisions and plenty of water. There won’t be many shops once you begin the journey, and the altitude reaches 4,000m, so you’ll need to keep hydrated. The cheapest way to sleep during your road trip is either in the car or wild camping, so bring a camping stove and a thick sleeping bag as temperatures plummet after dark.

Where to stop en route: Reward yourself for one night and book a room at a hotel for a hot shower and a decent breakfast – the salt-sculpted Hotel de Sal Luna Salada makes a real treat, and is worth the 900 boliviano (around £98).

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