Savings vs. Safety: How to Determine If a Destination Is Budget and Family-Friendly

Around the world, some destinations are simply stuck in our social consciousness as being fine for the adventurous traveler, but possibly too rough around the edges for families looking to drink in more culture than beer.

To help you navigate the perfect cross section between your budget and bucket list, here’s a look at the risks of traveling to three inexpensive destinations that can be easily reached by most stateside cities.

First, What Makes a Budget Destination?

How much it costs to travel to a destination depends greatly on the time of year you decide to travel.

Airfare, too, greatly depends on your home-base airport – it’s a lot cheaper to fly out of New York’s JFK or Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson than it is to leave from Sacramento, California.

To keep things simple, we’ve selected three picks for what’s considered “budget” from Forbes 30 Cheapest Places to Travel in 2017.

However, some of their picks, such as South Africa, were skipped because the flights there exceed the cost of traveling to more popular destinations.

With that in mind, we’ll base our idea of “budget” on a combination of airfare, accommodations, and entertainment.

What Factors Are Considered When Measuring Safety?

Whether your willingness to take risks stops at two-day old takeout food or you’ll happily rappel down the side of a bridge, everyone has a different tolerance for danger.

However, there are certain things we can likely agree on, like the hope of avoiding serious bodily injury, being mugged, or harassed.

When traveling, there’s also the cost of what I call “tourist tax,” which is when you pay out the nose because you simply didn’t know any better.

Because some areas have higher reports of scams than others, we’ll include those too.

Budget Destination #1: Mazatlán, Mexico

Forbes’ first pick was influenced by the current exchange rate ($1 = 20.70 Mexican pesos at the time of writing).

Adding to the appeal, Mexico is a relatively short and inexpensive flight from many US destinations.

How Much Will It Cost to Vacation in Mazatlán?

Resorts can be reserved for as low as $100 per night, and hotel or vacation rentals for less than $50.

Entertainment costs vary, but a nice dinner at a cloth-napkin steakhouse will run you half of what it would in the US, while delicious street tacos can be purchased for as low as 25-cents each.

With lodging included, a family of four should consider spending approximately $200 a day in Mazatlán, Mexico (per TripAdvisor).

That price is certainly appealing considering that it’s half the cost of a similar trip to Hawaii.

In short, here’s what to expect to pay in Mazatlán:

  • Roundtrip Flight - $459 (San Francisco), $390 (Chicago), $525 (New York)
  • Nightly Accommodations - $46+ (4-Star hotel), $60+ (5-Star hotel), $20+ (Vacation rental)
  • Meals - $1 (Street food), $25 (Steakhouse)

But is Mazatlán, Mexico a Safe Place for Your Family Vacation?

Yes and no.

The U.S. State Department warns that Sinaloa, the Mexican state in which Mazatlán is located, houses one of the country’s most powerful criminal organizations and that crime remains high – “except the cities of Mazatlán, Los Mochis, and the Port of Topolobampo.”

It turns out that the question of safety is a little more nuanced.

Because tourism is one of the most important industries in Mexico, there’s a lot of effort to keep these areas safe. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see policia in popular town centers every five minutes on foot, bicycles, and in trucks.

A TripAdvisor thread that attempts to answer the question of safety teems with replies that Mazatlán past tourists have felt safe vacationing there as well, providing you stay within the historic town area and other tourist spots.

My personal experience traveling through Mazatlán and living on Mexico’s east coast, in Playa del Carmen was similar to the reviews above: I felt very safe in tourist areas.

Although, it’s worth noting that there are currently high numbers of reported ATM scams throughout the country, and you should take precautions when pulling out cash.

Bottom Line Regarding What Level of Safety Mazatlán Offers Budget Travelers?

Millions of U.S. citizens visit Mexico safely each year, with more than 150,000 American crossing the border each day.

Additionally, the Mexican government devotes significant resources to protecting popular tourist destinations, and criminal groups have not targeted resort areas and tourist destination.

Our verdict: Mazatlán, Mexico offers plenty of family-friendly activities and a “very low” risk of crime as long as you stick to major cities and resort towns.

However, it’s geographical location makes it most appealing for families coming from the U.S. west coast, mid-west, or south.

Budget Destination #2: San Juan, Puerto Rico

Particularly for travelers from America’s east coast, San Juan can be reached via an inexpensive (and often direct) flight.

And, if you stay within the old city’s two-mile radius, there’s no need to rent transportation, allowing you to save on, even more, costs.

The U.S. dollar is accepted tender, meaning that there’s no money lost on currency exchange. On the downside, that means you’re not saving any funds due to exchange rates.

How Much Will It Cost to Vacation in San Juan?

Decent hotels in San Juan (rated 3-stars and higher) can be reserved for anywhere between $150-200 a night, with vacation rentals as low as $50 on Airbnb.

This is more expensive than in a typical Latin American capital city. However, spending on a place within the historic (and touristy) area is worth the money if you go. (We’ll explore why in the next section.)

The good news is that the main tourist zones are quite nice and feel like they are worth the money.

Condado has a nice mix of posh and mid-priced, while Isla Verde is much larger and runs a wide spectrum of prices.

Food in San Juan can also be expensive if you stick to tourist restaurants. However, budget breakfasts can be had for under $8 and budget dinners for under $15.

In short, here’s what to expect to pay in San Juan:

  • Roundtrip Flight - $398 (San Francisco), $304 (Chicago), $243 (New York)
  • Nightly Accommodations - $151+ (4-Star hotel), $338+ (5-Star hotel), $50+ (Vacation rental)
  • Meals - $8 (Street food), $50 (Steakhouse)

But is San Juan, Puerto Rico a Safe Place for Your Family Vacation?

Data shows that San Juan's crime rate is comparable to New Orleans and Detroit. That’s a little more than nine times that of New York City and seven times the rate in L.A.

More so, while crime in San Juan has always been higher than the average American city, it’s seen a spike in the last three years as the territory continues to endure a shaky economic situation and potential bankruptcy.

The nuance of what kind of crime is also important. From my own traveling experience, I can attest that, while Mexico has risks, you’re very unlikely to experience them unless you engage in illegal behavior.

San Juan, on the other hand, is reported to have high incidents of mugging, pick-pocketing, and harassment of women.

The difference between who is at risk is important to your decision. Just check out this comparison of crime data from the two destinations below:

Comparison of crime data

Bottom Line Regarding What Level of Safety San Juan Offers Budget Travelers?

There are many beautiful and safe destinations within Puerto Rico. However, the capital, San Juan, is not among them. Frankly, unless you’re an experienced traveler, we wouldn’t recommend vacationing there much less taking your family.

That being said, there are some lovely (and safe!) destinations within Puerto Rico. However, their big cities fall short of providing the safety you want with kids in tow.

Budget Destination #3: Crete, Greece

With the U.S. dollar strong against the euro right now (($1 = 0.93) and the economic crisis in Greece keeping prices lower than other parts of Europe, it’s a great time to visit the country’s beautiful island of Crete.

How Much Will It Cost to Vacation in Crete?

Fluctuations in euro might be in your favor when it comes to vacations in Crete. But, the cost of getting there is fixed.

To arrive in Crete, you must travel from the mainland. Costs vary with your mode of transportation, but here’s what you can expect to pay when traveling to the island from Athens International Airport:

  • Fly to Iraklion for $35-75
  • Fly to Chania for $26-65
  • Drive to the coast, then take your car on a ferry for $41-78

Decent hotels in Crete (rated 3-stars and higher) can be reserved for as little as $23 per night, while high-end hotels will cost around $115. Vacation rentals are available for $30.

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. Yet, it remains one of the least expensive. Beyond the appealing costs of accommodations, meals are also extremely budget friendly.

Breakfast can be purchased for as little as $5, lunch under $10, and a moderately nice dinner for around $15. Even beer is relatively cheap, at around $3 a bottle at a bar. Expect to pay upwards of $25 for a particularly fancy meal.

In short, here’s what to expect to pay in Crete:

  • Roundtrip Flight - $550 (San Francisco), $601 (Chicago), $750 (New York)
  • Nightly Accommodations - $40+ (4-Star hotel), $114+ (5-Star hotel), $30+ (Vacation rental)
  • Meals - $4-$25

Don’t forget to tack an extra $50-100 onto your travel costs to get from Athens to Crete.

But is Crete a Safe Place for Your Family Vacation?

The good news is that, if you can afford to get there, Crete offers a near Disneyland level of safety. It’s so safe that the only rating to hit “moderate” was bribery:

Crime rates in Crete

Note that these stats are specifically for Crete and, while Athens and the rest of Greece still have a low crime rate, there are reports of taxis overcharging tourists and pickpockets in particularly touristy areas.

But, when it comes to the island itself, reports are that crime is so low that cars and homes are regularly left unlocked.

Bottom Line Regarding What Level of Safety Crete Offers Budget Travelers?

The reports of crime in Crete are so low that this section hardly seems necessary. To drive the point home, apparently cars and houses are regularly left unlocked. Suffice to say, we think this destination tops the list on safety.

What to Take Away From This Comparison of Budget Destinations?

If you enjoy exploring the idea of new travel destinations as much as the locations themselves, then you’re no stranger to lists like that provided by Forbes proclaiming hot, newly budget-friendly spots.

However, as you can see from our comparison of safety statistics for each, budget-friendly doesn’t always mean family-friendly, but you also shouldn’t immediately cross less expensive places off your list.

Instead, learn to research a destination to see if it satisfies your particular requirements. Here are links to the tools I’ve used throughout:

With these tools at your disposal, you can research any destination beyond just budgeting initial costs to learn if it’s safe for the whole family to explore with abandon, if staying in tourist areas is advised, or if the idea should be scrapped entirely.

Finally, Know What You Can Do to Mitigate Risk When You Travel

Sometimes it’s impossible to anticipate what might be a risky situation ahead of time. However, you can abide by common-sense travel tips such paying close attention to any detailed cautions that governments issue about problems occurring in specific cities or rural localities.

Also, stay up-to-date on local news and warnings from the country or municipality you’re visiting and heed cautions from local people or other travelers about hazards that may exist in particular places.

Don’t be shy about asking questions. In any city, the folks behind the hotel desk are a great source of information and they want you to have a safe trip.

More on Family Travel:

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.