My Top Ten Countries for Travel

I’ve had the good fortune to travel to 44 countries on six continents, many in the last two years since starting the blog.

I rarely write about my trips because I’m better at writing about how you can earn and redeem frequent flyer miles for your dream trips. And there are other blogs where people give actual travel tips.

But the week I’ve spent in Cambodia has been so fantastic that I want to share the top ten foreign countries that I’ve enjoyed the most.

What are my top ten? What are the best miles to use to get to them?

Everyone has different travel preferences. I don’t think anyone’s travel preferences are more valid than anyone else’s, so I do not like travel snobbery, which tends to take the form of deriding touristy places or activities. (There’s a reason they’re popular, you know.) But I do have my own travel preferences that I should probably mention, so you can see how applicable this list is to you.

Some things I look for in a country more than the average person:

  • Low prices. There’s something about getting $200 worth of local currency out in Scandinavia and heading back to the ATM the next day to do the same that weighs heavily on me. I know everyone prefers low prices to high prices, but for me it borders on pathological. There is only one country on the list way more expensive than the US and two about the same level of expensiveness. The other seven are way cheaper than the US.
  • Natural beauty. I like the jungle. I like the mountains. I like the beach. I like accessible hikes to beautiful views. I like bike circuits through the countryside. I like safaris.
  • Nightlife. Some people are in bed by 9 PM, but not me. The more options there are to get a beer and meet some new people, the better.
  • Mega-cities. When I’m in a city, the bigger, the better. The more people there are, the more likely there will be some incredible neighborhoods, incredible ethnic enclaves, and just more things to do. Several of the countries on the list have multi-million person cities that I’ve enjoyed visiting.
  • Late light. There are few things I love more than a 10 PM beer in the park or a hot tub while the sun is just setting. Far north and south are a big plus for me as long as I can visit near the summer solstice.
  • Spanish speaking or English speaking. I’ve learned Spanish from traveling, and I’ve always preferred traveling in Spanish speaking countries because traveling is most fun for me when I can communicate with the locals. Countries that speak English as the national language or where most people speak it well (Scandinavia) are a distant second-best for me. Countries with very poor English skills beyond the tourist industry are my least favorite because then I only interact with the tourist industry.

Lastly, I know my list is influenced by how much time I’ve spent in each country. The top three on my list are three of the four countries I’ve spent the most time. Of course, part of the reason I spent so much time there is that I loved them, but part of the reason I love them is how much time I spent in them.

Some things I care less about that the average person:

  • Food. I love to eat, but I am mainly looking for cheap, tasty meals. I am not particularly interested in the novelty or authenticity of the food in each country. I know there are some foodie travelers, and that’s a great reason to travel, though it isn’t mine.
  • Hotels. The presence of a great hotel is almost irrelevant to me, since I rarely stay in them. In several of these countries, I have zero hotel stays.
  • Ease of getting around. Of course, I’d like a compact country all other things equal, but I take longer trips than most people, so I have more time to move at a leisurely pace, and I don’t punish countries too much for having poor transportation infrastructure.

My Top Ten

1. Peru

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has seen my Top Ten Things to Do, See, and Eat in Peru.

I’ve spent five months of my life in Peru because it has so much to offer:

  • Machu Picchu
  • Lake Titicaca
  • Amazon Rainforest
  • Ica Desert
  • Mancora Beach
  • Lima, population 9,000,000

And all of that at dirt cheap prices.

As a bonus for mileage collectors, all the US-based airlines categorize Peru as Northern South America, meaning it is very cheap in miles, as low as 30k American Airlines miles roundtrip.

Best Miles to Get to Peru: American Airlines at 30-35k miles roundtrip in economy and 60k miles roundtrip in business class. Try to fly LAN business class with your American Airlines miles to get a fully flat bed to Peru. Consider an open jaw like into Lima and out of Cuzco to save on intra-Peru flights.

2. Argentina

I’ve spent about seven months in Argentina, including six months last year, that I memorialized in Six Thoughts on Six Months in Buenos Aires.

Argentina has my favorite city in the world–Buenos Aires–with its cafe culture, night life, and steakhouses.

And Argentina has some of the most beautiful nature in the world. I checked out the Lake District of Patagonia and Iguazu Falls on my last trip, and I’m hoping to check out farther south in Patagonia on future trips.

Lake District near Bariloche, Argentina

Best Miles to Get to Argentina: American Airlines charges 40k-60k roundtrip in economy, 100k in business and 125k in first. American Airlines has the best award space to Argentina, almost by default, since United’s is so bad. Consider an open jaw of flying into Buenos Aires and back out of another city by tacking a LAN Argentina flight onto the return for no extra miles.

3. Spain

Spain made me fall in love with travel. I spent six weeks there one summer in high school, and I’ve since gone back for an incredible road trip down the coast with friends.

My favorite city is Sevilla, which is such a beautiful city with a riverfront that I still dream about. I also love Madrid and Valencia, though I’m not totally sold on Barcelona.

I’ve seen a lot of the highlights, but I want to go back for the trek to Santiago de Compostela one day.

Spain is for night owls, which suits me, and the cities all have vibrant public spaces.

Best Miles to Get to Spain: United or American miles. American miles offer cheaper prices in premium cabins and direct flights on Iberia. United offers more space overall, mainly connecting on Lufthansa in Germany.

4. Tanzania

For me, Tanzania has three highlights:

  • Serengeti Safaris
  • Zanzibar
  • Dar es Salaam

I rolled into Arusha, Tanzania without a safari booked, and promptly booked the cheapest safari I could find, $540 for four days. We had the slowest Land Rover by far, but we saw all the animals there were to see including the big five. My favorite animals were the giraffes and lions, and the coolest thing was watching thousands of zebras and wildebeests moving across the landscape. (Even the impromptu driver strike in the middle of the road on the first day was a positive addition to the safari. Watching the drivers, passengers, and transport minister hash it all out by the side of the road from the top of an oil tanker was unforgettable.)

Zanzibar’s Stone Town is an impossible labyrinth of winding alley ways that you want to get lost in for days. The beaches outside of Stone Town were my first taste of the Indian Ocean, which is fantastic.

Dar es Salaam is probably the typical, hectic city that most people don’t like but I love. The bustle of the inner city with its blaring mosques, and the tranquility of the coastal area that had the embassies and casinos was a nice juxtaposition.

I didn’t even hike Kilimanjaro, which I must go back to do at some point.

Other things to love about Tanzania: cheap and almost everyone spoke conversational English in the cities.

Best Miles to Get to Tanzania: United has the best miles to fly to Dar es Salaam because the Star Alliance has the best African partners. United charges 80k miles roundtrip in economy and 140-160k in business.

5. Croatia

I’ve spent three days here, and I want to spend three more months.

Cliff jumping in Dubrovnik under medieval walls at sunset was the highlight of 2013 for me.

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 8.49.55 PM

Zagreb was a small city, but had a really fun vibe with incredibly interesting people. It is also much cheaper than the capitals of Western Europe. English is widely spoken by the younger generations.

I would like to go back and travel along the coast for a few weeks.

Best Miles to Get to Croatia: United miles. Star Alliance has the best access to Europe, and Croatia Airlines is in the Star Alliance if you want to fly somewhere other than Zagreb.

6. New Zealand

New Zealand is one of the most incredible countries for outdoor adventures, and I only scratched the surface.

Auckland is totally skippable, I think, as it’s the least interesting city I visited in Australia and New Zealand.

Wellington was a lovely capital city on the water. I enjoyed it, but I have a friend there, so for most people it probably wouldn’t be as fun.

Tree swing on a hill overlooking Wellington and the water.

The highlight of New Zealand is the South Island. I only went to Queenstown, and it rained almost the entire time it was there, but I still could tell that Queenstown is special.

The hiking, biking, bungee-ing, and exploring options are endless on the South Island. And in the summer, it stays light until almost 10 PM in Queenstown, so you can fit more into your day than most places.

Best Miles to Get to New Zealand: For one person, the best miles are Delta miles to fly Virgin Australia to New Zealand. Air New Zealand is in the Star Alliance, but it never releases business class seats between the US and New Zealand to its partners.

7. Cambodia

Angkor Wat!

Of all the man-made things I’ve seen, the top two are Machu Picchu and the 1,000-year-old temples in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the star as the largest temple, but all around Siem Reap and other places, there are 1,000 year old Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 9.10.09 PM

Angkor Wat

Cambodia is a fascinating country, scarred by the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge, and military coups in the last 40 years. The country is still rebuilding from the mass slaughter of millions of its people and the thousands of land mines that remain in the country that cause deaths every year.

Through it all, though, the country with a GDP per capita below $1,000 tuk tuks on.

Prices in Cambodia are ridiculously low. Hire a driver to drive you to several temples for an entire day and pay only $15. Get a meal for $1. Stay in a hostel for $3. A draft beer at the bar is 50 cents.

Three to four days in Siem Reap to see the Angkor temples is a bare minimum for the country, and further exploration is rewarded. I’m in Battambang at the moment, which has its own 1,000 year old temples, a bat cave where you can see a nightly exodus of a few million bats, a “killing cave” where the Khmer Rouge tossed bodies like trash, and some of the world’s last bamboo trains.

The drawback is that the level of English in Cambodia is extremely low (and better in Siem Reap than outside of it.) Even some tourist-facing positions are filled with people who can not “go off script” making a natural conversation almost impossible with most locals.

Best Miles to Get to Cambodia: Air China has good space two days a week from Beijing to Siem Reap that you can access as part of an award from the United States to Cambodia with United miles.

8. Poland

My trip to Poland and Ukraine for the 2012 Euro Cup was incredible, and Poland was the star.

I visited Krakow and Warsaw.

In Krakow, I had one of the best meals of my life. Each entree in the very poorly-signed restaurant that a local directed me to was about $3. Instead of considering a reasonable amount of food to eat, I considered a reasonable amount of money to spend was $9, so I ordered three entrees and ate every bite.

Not pictured: the last third of the meal

Outside of Krakow was Auschwitz, which stands out as the saddest place I’ve ever been.

Most people prefer Krakow to Warsaw, which was almost completely destroyed in World War II since Krakow has much older architecture. But I loved Warsaw as the thriving heart of the country with a really fun and inexpensive nightlife.

I also appreciated that Poland was extremely easy to travel in with English as the younger generations eschew Russian for English. And of course Eastern Europe is far less expensive than Western Europe.

Best Miles to Get to Poland: United miles. Star Alliance has the best access to Europe, and LOT Polish Airlines is in the Star Alliance if you want to fly somewhere other than Warsaw.

9. South Africa

Has any country changed more in my lifetime? From apartheid to majority rule in the last twenty-some years, South Africa is one of my favorite spots in Africa.

For me the highlight was Cape Town, which is the most beautifully laid out city I’ve ever visited with the iconic Table Mountain dividing the sections of the city and offering stunning urban and ocean views.

As I spent five days in Cape Town, I thought that was a place I could live for an entire summer. It’s cosmopolitan, cheap, and beautiful.

Jo’burg and Pretoria were the heart of South Africa. I enjoyed a tour of Soweto’s history and its current crop of entrepreneurs who offer the chance to bungee jump with views of Mandela’s old home.

Pretoria was a sleepy capital, but Freedom Park is one the most moving and worst publicized museums–it’s not exactly a museum–I’ve ever visited.

Best Miles to Get to South Africa: United has the best miles to fly to South Africa because the Star Alliance has the best African partners including South African. United charges 80k miles roundtrip in economy and 140-160k in business.

10. Sweden

The only really expensive country to make the list, Sweden deserves it as a place with the friendliest people, most beautiful city parks, and a really cool layout for Stockholm.

Tips to save money:

  • Use hotel points.
  • Get to the Systembolaget (state liquor store) during work hours to buy drinks to take to the park with friends instead of paying the bar prices.

The first time I went to Stockholm, I was traveling solo, and staying a bit outside the city center. Each day I took the train to the center, I made a friend on the train who would invite me to hang out with their friends for the day.

The activity of choice in Stockholm was to enjoy the beautiful summer days that lasted until 11 PM by going to one of the city’s many green spaces with a bottle of wine. That’s something I’m willing to travel for.

I could walk for days in Stockholm, through the old town, through parks, over the bridges, and from island to island. If only I could afford to stay there for days. A hostel runs $40, a hotel $300, and any sit-down restaurant will probably be at least $25.

Best Miles to Get to Sweden: United miles. Star Alliance has the best access to Europe, and SAS Airlines is in the Star Alliance with flights from the United States to Stockholm.

Which of your favorite countries made the list? Which ones did I miss?

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36 Responses to My Top Ten Countries for Travel

  1. Very nice read!

    I assume you’ve been to Norway too. I’ve seen some pictures for the fjords (breathtaking, I thought). Probably as expensive as Sweden. (I’ve been to Sweden but not Norway).

    One of my criteria is extra-ordinarily beautiful nature (e.g. Switzerland, Italy, France) or mind boggling man-made landmarks (7 wonders).

    So much more left to see…

    • Scott Grimmer

      I spent 23 hours in Norway this fall. My burger and fries was $29 at an order-at-the-counter restaurant. A Red Bull was $10 at 7-11. It’s much more than Sweden. I’m not too interested in going back.

  2. Based on your criteria, which are stunningly close to mine (with the addition of being best during school holidays), I would wager that you would LOVE the Philippines. Lived there for seven months and it has become the yardstick by which I measure all other traveling experiences.

    • Scott Grimmer

      Yes, I was just trying to solicit some friends to visit there, Vietnam, and Laos in the next year. I wanted to go to Philippines right now, but there just wasn’t time.

  3. Great list Scott! I’m definitely bookmarking this because your criteria are nearly a match for mine. The main difference is that I crave exotic places.. I don’t want the people, customers, or language to remind me much of things back here in the US. I love hearing people speaking foreign languages around me, needing to pick up phrases and be resourceful to communicate with them. I feel a great sense of pride, if at the end of my trip I can comfortably order food and navigate the city in whatever language they use. Plus, in the english-speaking countries, I feel like I’m surrounded by american & european tourists, so the experience feels less authentic. Much more exciting when I’m the only american for miles!

    Btw, one thing I’d love to see on your site is a list of cities you’ve visited, along with a rating & quick synopsis of what you loved or not about that place. I know your blog is miles-focused, but I’d love to have more places to aspire to as we churn all these credit cards!

  4. hmmm no Thailand ?

    • Scott Grimmer

      I only spent one week in Phuket. From what I’ve heard, if I get to the north, it could be on this list.

      Also: I HATED the nightlife in Patong Beach, Phuket. I find the number of prostitutes lining the street to be disgusting.

      • Forget Phuket… that’s like judging Mexico by the “hotel zone” in Cancun. I fell in love with Bangkok, the mountains in the north (Chiang Mai/Rai) and some of the less touristy islands in the south.

      • Great writeup, I need to figure out a way to get to Tanzania.
        You need to go the Chiang Mai, it will meet almost all your criteria very well.

  5. You have not visited Vilnius the capital city of Lithuania.
    It’s baroque architecture, oldest university in Europe and Sunday
    Music fests performed on the corners of Vilnius by students of the University range from classical violin to rock to song.
    As one who has traveled there since the soviet era, the city has blossomed into a vibrant energetic place.
    The ‘eye candy’ is enticing as well.
    Kempenski just opened their hotel on cathedral square, indicating the
    Acceptance of its attractiveness to world.
    English is well spoken there along with the oldest Indo-European language, Lithuanian.
    A bea
    finnair in OW and LOT in Star fly there

    • Scott Grimmer

      I really want to see the Baltic states. Lithuania is also home to one of my favorite all time basketball players: Laurynas Mikalauskas.

  6. Michael Kelly

    Ok, when are you coming to Dublin, Ireland

    I’d be delighted to show you around

  7. Thanks for sharing, I definitely agree with Cambodia, Angor Wat is an incredible experience as are most of the other temples in the area. I too vote for Thailand but only the beaches/islands and then to the north, Chang Mai and Chang Rai. Amazing temples, markets, and your fav, cheap prices.

  8. I found your blog 3-4 months ago and have been reading it religiously ever since. I couldn’t agree more with your comment about travel snobbery. There are an infinite number of reasons to travel, which is why I detest the “how could you waste your time traveling to that place on that airline in that fare class using those miles” bloggers/commenters. Thanks for your refreshing POV on travel. Best article yet!

  9. Scott, thank you for a bunch of great ideas! The next time you go to Poland, try the countryside. Poland has the largest percentage of land under National Park System management in Europe. The ring of parks on the borders closed with the Mazury Lakes and the Baltic sea in the north is absolutely wonderful. Places such as Bieszczady (NP with Ukraine) scattered with tens of beautiful wooden churches, Tatras (NP with Slovakia), Karkonosze (NP with Czech Republic) or medieval forests filled with the European bisons of Bialowieza (NP with Belarus) are a bit off mainstream travel routes. But the locals know them very well so go there in late Spring or early Fall to avoid the crowds.

  10. I love that you included Peru as your number one favorite country. I lived there for a little over two years and I’m going back to visit this Saturday. The country is amazing (cusco Trujillo, the beaches, the rainforest, there too many to list) , the people are incredible and the food is the best I’ve ever had.

  11. Love this kind of post! I enjoy your quick synopsis much more than a blow-by-blow trip report.

    How about a list of best places to go in their “off” season?

    • Scott Grimmer

      I generally try to travel “on” season because it’s usually “on” season for a reason like weather, and I care about weather more than most things.

  12. Great list! Ironically, even though I look for very different things than you, your list matches up well with places I loved and/or are high on my wishlist, with the exception of Sweden (potentially just because I don’t know a lot about there). Thanks for sharing!

  13. Really interesting post, especially comparing your perspective to mine. We spend one month each trip so we like places that can be enjoyed on many levels. We’re in our 70′s so we aren’t much up for hiking and the like. We are just back from Peru. We loved the people and were overwhelmed by the histrory and grandeur and underwhelmed by the difficulty of normal food shopping and ambience living in a Cusco apartment. Then there is the distance between attractions. We are glad we went but not eager to return. Argentina, on the other hand was fantastic. We only experienced BA and Iguasu but we are definitely open to return.
    I would love visit Asia but my wife resists. Somehow I need to find a way to combine Ankor Watt with a city worth exploring and not a turn off for my wife. Croatia and Prague are on our list. Maybe we should be considering Croatia and Lithuania. Next on our bookings are one summer month in Belgium based in Brugge and winter in Probence.

    • Scott Grimmer

      I would have picked Lima to live instead of Cuzco, and especially if you can go the 1-2 months per year when the place isn’t blanketed in garua (fog).

  14. Thanks for the list. I just returned from South Africa visiting Cape Town, going on safari at Sabi Sands game reserve and finishing trip in Zambia and Vic Falls. One comment is regarding miles. I was told several times by United, travel agent and SAA that I could not use miles even though SAA is a star alliance partner. We could accrue miles but not use them to get tickets. Anyway we purchased tickets and upgraded at the airport the day of the flight which was cheaper than buying a biz class seat initially.

    • Scott Grimmer

      Maybe the agent was saying South African had not released award seats on the day you wanted. I can assure you that you can use United miles on South African flights.

  15. Traveling Tamara

    I loved Turkey, traveling to the caves where people live in Cappadocchia, Namibia/Botswana for the safaris and India for the surreal mix of beauty (architecture, textiles, spice markets) and beastly (poverty/environmental abuse) plus the areas of holy pilgrimage will give you a new look at life and death.

  16. Scott,
    You said the best way for ONE person to get to NZ is Delta miles on Virgin Australia.
    So how do my wife and I get to New Zealand, business class for the long hauls? We have lots of AA, and some UA, BA, USair, Alaska, Starwood and URs, and wouldn’t mind taking a lengthy or ‘odd’ route to get there.

    Thanks so much, Jim

    • AA could be used for Qantas biz via Australia (very rare to find two seats) or via Hawaii and Hawaiian (decent availability but just a recliner product in biz). United miles via Asia is the easiest option.

  17. Scott
    Regarding my SA trip. No I did not misunderstand travel agent nor UAL. I called several times and ask various ways never being told seats were not available dates I wanted to travel. Not a big deal I went, I loved it and look forward to going back!!

    • Cheryl,
      I’m glad it worked out for you to upgrade with miles. Yes, you can use UA miles on SAA. Last November went travelled DEN>IAD>JNB roundtrip in J, booking via the UA website, all with miles. Did you mean that you can accrue SAA miles but not use them on UA? I haven’t tried that.
      I really enjoy South Africa. This time we went to Botswana and wanted to get to Zambia as well but didn’t have the time.

  18. finally i found a travel blog that fits my travel style! thank you. i don’t understand why most other bloggers are so obssessed with luxury . I am surprised that Thailand is not on the list. fun, warm, good food, cheap,and decent English for Asian countries.

  19. Dear Scott, thank you very much for beautiful words about my country.

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