Far and wide ... Phra Nang island, Thailand. Photo: Getty Images
From Hobart to Ho Chi Minh City, Ben Groundwater picks the new year's best affordable breaks.
HOLIDAYS don't have to be expensive. In fact, some of the world's great experiences cost next to nothing, which is good news if you're trying to stretch out the travel dollars in 2012.
We've chosen the best destinations - at home and abroad - for travellers on a tight budget. These range from family fun to wild getaways and foodie delights, and all fit comfortably into the lower end of the cost scale. It's all about getting the best from your dollar and having fun doing it.
Birdsville races, Queensland. Photo: Steve Christo
Best for families
AT HOME Town of 1770/Agnes Water, Queensland
It doesn't get much more quintessentially Aussie than camping on the beach, fishing for your barbecued dinner, playing cricket on the sand with the kids or going for a walk in a nearby national park.
Canoeing on Lake Louise, Canada. Photo: Getty Images
The neighbouring Town of 1770 and Agnes Water offer all those experiences at a "not yet discovered" price. There's also sandboarding, surfing some of Queensland's best breaks, hardcore four-wheel-driving and loggerhead turtle nesting if you're there at the right time of year. Get in before everyone else.
The strength of the Aussie dollar has put the US squarely on the map for families on a budget and no state offers value for the greenback like California. If your family is looking for a change of pace from theme-park-driven LA (which is still great for a few days), head to Huntington Beach, California's surf capital and the perfect place to relax without being parted from too much cash. Elsewhere, up north in San Francisco there are free daily walking tours of the city or you could plump for a "CityPass", which bundles cable car rides and five San Fran attractions into one fee.
Best for city slickers
AT HOME Melbourne, Victoria
You want cheap? How about free? Plenty of Melbourne attractions won't cost you a cent in 2012, from a walk around Queen Victoria Market to the Royal Botanic Gardens, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which has the permanent Screen Worlds interactive exhibit now open.
Music fans, meanwhile, should check out Diggin' Melbourne, a new free guide to the city's 51 vinyl record stores. For transport there's the free City Circle tram or if you're feeling more energetic hire a pushie with Melbourne's Bike Share scheme. It's easy to use and can cost as little as $2.50 a day.
If it's the buzz of urban life you crave, try experiencing it from the back of a motorbike taxi in Ho Chi Minh City. That buzz becomes a roar when you're in the middle of a sea of scooters making their way through this labyrinthine, fascinating place.
The city formerly known as Saigon has everything a budget-conscious traveller could want, from amazing, cheaper-than-chips street food to fascinating museums and upbeat nightlife.
Elsewhere in Vietnam, take in the good-natured chaos of the northern city of Hanoi or relax in the cooler surrounds of the hilltop city of Dalat. Each has its own distinct character.
Best for the great outdoors
AT HOME The outback, Queensland
Next year, outback Queensland is all about quirky events and seeing them with the freedom of a 4WD or campervan. Drive up north of the border or get yourself a rental from Brisbane. Some of the better (and, let's face it, stranger) events include the Windorah Yabby Races, the Birdsville Races, the Boulia Camel Races, the Barcaldine Goat Races and the Bedourie Ute Muster.
If, however, you just enjoy the tranquillity of the empty outback and a decent campsite at the end of the day, that can be taken care of. Endless horizons and the open road: not a bad way to see the great outdoors.
From Rocky Mountain highs to endless prairie lows, Canada has outdoor attractions to spare. And they don't have to be expensive. In British Columbia, kick things off with a bike ride around Stanley Park, Vancouver, before heading up for a free hike at nearby Grouse Mountain.
Alternatively, skip over to Alberta to hike the Plain of Six Glaciers in Banff National Park, before paddling a canoe around Lake Louise. If you'd rather get away from the crowds, the Muskoka area of Ontario has acres of untouched forests and lakes.
Best for foodies
AT HOME Hobart, Tasmania
That the Taswegians have a thing for good food is no secret, but you have to know where to look to get the cheap stuff. Begin the gorging at Salamanca Markets (at Salamanca Place) on a Saturday, where a huge range of local produce, from fruit and veg to seafood and cheeses, is stacked on makeshift shelves. Hobart's Farm Gate Market offers a similar experience, only in a car park rather than a city square.
If you prefer eating in, the city has a huge range of quirky little restaurants and cafes serving top-notch cuisine. Check out Machine Laundry Cafe, a combination of laundromat and eatery, or The Drunken Admiral, which is filled with maritime memorabilia (and, quite frequently, a few drunken admirals).
There are plenty of reasons to visit India - from its temples to its beaches to its urban adventure - but food is often overlooked. It shouldn't be. This is a country where the cuisine seems to change from town to town, where the tang of spices permeates the air just as strongly as the thought of the next meal permeates most locals' minds.
Indian food is incredible and cheap - if you've paid more than $1.50 for a thali, a huge multi-dish lunch, then you've been ripped off. The Punjab region is home to the sort of food that Westerners find familiar, such as butter chicken, while in the southern regions of Kerala and Karnataka the vegetarian fare is synapse-sparklingly good. Travel in India is sometimes described as a "feast for the senses" - but it's really just a feast.
Best for getting off the beaten track
AT HOME Kakadu, Northern Territory
Almost anywhere in Kakadu National Park could be classified as "off the beaten track" but if you're really trying to get away from it all in 2012 there are some little-known sites that will appeal. Start with the Gubara Pools Walk, a four-hour hike past sandstone cliffs and through dense forest filled with the fluttering of butterflies.
Cool off at Gunlom, a waterfall and plunge pool with beautiful views over Kakadu. There's also a campsite. If you're after more exercise in the great outdoors, the Yurmikmik Walks are a series of interconnected tracks taking in waterfalls and lookouts. Maguk Plunge Pool, an hour south of Cooinda, is also a great place to bush-camp for the night.
Some areas of Kakadu can be inaccessible during the wet season so be sure to check conditions before leaving.
You might think calling something the "Death Road" would put people off. Wrong - this cliff-hugging stretch of dirt near La Paz is one of the world's most dangerous roads and consequently one of the world's most popular mountain-biking destinations. But you don't need death-defying stunts to get off the beaten track in Bolivia - just stroll around the (literally) breath-taking, high-altitude city of La Paz, past markets selling witchcraft supplies to a backdrop of the soaring Andes and you'll know you're not in Kansas any more.
It's short on tourists and big on value. Away from La Paz, don't miss the UNESCO-listed city of Potosi and the incredible salt flats of Salar de Uyuni. Cheesy "depth perception" photos are a must.
Best for relaxation
AT HOME Hunter Valley, NSW
The cost effectiveness of the Hunter can depend on your passion for the local produce. If it's a little drop of wine you like, you could end up spending a motza here. If you're content to keep things to a simple cabin and the odd tasting, it will be much easier on the wallet.
Moneyed visitors might want to hire a car to get around the vineyards but the more spendthrift can pick up a pushbike from Hunter Valley Cycling for $30 a day. Just try to make sure you're sipping the wines, not quaffing, and line the stomach with tapas from the excellent restaurant at the Tempus Two vineyard. (If you plan to ditch the bikes, $10 happy hour cocktails will go down a treat.) The Hunter has plenty of budget accommodation options - try Hunter Valley YHA for a super-cheap stay or rent a cabin at Pokolbin Village if you're after a little more privacy.
The Thais know how to offer a relaxing holiday and with a price that suits. Like massages? Get one every day. Two if you want. Like sitting by a pool with a cocktail? You can afford it. While the hordes will inevitably head to famed spots including Koh Samui and Phuket, you can get much better value for your baht elsewhere.
All resorts on the rocky peninsula near Krabi offer access to beautiful beaches such as Phra Nang and Koh Hong, which are perfect for breaking up all of those massages. If scuba diving is your thing, head to Koh Tao and if you'd like a little culture between cocktails, make the journey north to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai.