Top 10 countries for 2010 named by Lonely Planet -- and they're cheap

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Lonely Planet, the popular Australia-based guide book company for budget travelers, has named the "best places to go around the world right now" in its Best in Travel book series, and there are some surprising entries on the list. The good news is that most of them are inexpensive to visit, at least once you get there.

The list is not numbered, there is no definition of what "best" means, but we can assume that these are the places where you would want to live and travel because they're off the radar of mass tourism at the moment. The list was also complied in 2009, before the BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf and the Greek financial crises.

Here are Lonely Planet's 10 best places to go in alphabetical order, along with their reasons why each one made the honors. I also update this list in light of big events that have occurred in the past six months.

El Salvador

Everyone goes to Costa Rica and Guatemala instead, so you can have its forests, lakes, and volcanoes to yourself.

The lack of visiting hordes means deals are easier to find. The country is also closer to most of the continental United States than Europe or even Hawaii. There are beaches, with 188 miles of sand along the Pacific, plus hotel and golfing developments you never knew were there.

Germany
The labors that followed its 1990 reunification and reinvention are finally maturing.

I was in Berlin three weeks ago, and the forest of construction cranes that made it such a headache for 15 years have finally be cleared away, leaving a shimmering, modern, and vibrant city for nightlife and cafés. The Euro, though, is faltering, and the exchange rate with our dollar is growing more favorable all the time.

Greece
The country "has something for everyone": beaches, food, ruins and parties.

Since Lonely Planet crowned Greece as a top destination, everything went to Hades there. Not only has the financial system completely melted down, but twenty four-hour strikes have crippled its package tourism industry, which makes visiting there independently a potentially frustrating but money-saving opportunity.

Tourism represents 16% of Greece's gross domestic product -- there is even a police department devoted just to the assistance of foreign visitors -- so the hardship of canceled bookings is a temporary open door for independent visitors. It's high season in the Greek Islands right now, but their economy is at low ebb.

Malaysia
The draws: cheap air connections, rainforests, good exchange rates, and more reliable infrastructure than neighbors Thailand and Indonesia.

Like Lonely Planet, I tout Malaysia as a great starter country for all those reasons. Its residents also speak English, and the city of Kuala Lumpur is stocked with plenty of five-star hotels and spas to soothe American skin after a few days of hiking and leeches in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Taman Negara National Park.

Also, political troubles have scared travelers away from its neighbor, Thailand, but you can find the same sugary beaches here. You will have to do without the beery Full Moon Parties, though, because Malaysia is tight on the control of alcohol.

Morocco
Lonely Planet implies Moroccans are embarrassed by the behavior of their Muslim brethren in the Middle East, and the 10 million annual tourists that visit the country suggests they know how to roll out the welcome mat.

Just when Morocco, which is just across the Atlantic from America, is about to go out of style, something happens to kick it back onto the hot list. This spring, Sex and the City 2 came out, and after its intense marketing campaign, few Americans could escape learning the movie was filmed in Morocco, so the country just scored another 10 points for visibility among mass tourists.

Nepal
Those bloody revolutions, which saw the royal family slaughtered, are over, and Mount Everest beckons once again.

Nepal is always cheap. It has been a favorite with backpackers since the hippie era was forming in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But it's a mountain country, and because most of its population is pressed into the valley of Kathmandu, when there is political trouble the whole country might as well shut down. Lots of other things will strand you in Kathmandu, too, including excessive smog (another by-product of the mountains, which trap air) and strikes. Fortunately, a basic hotel is dirt cheap. I stayed at a placed called the Hotel Potala, where breakfast is just $1.30.

New Zealand
Yep. It's still perfect.

Well, except for that pesky airfare, but maybe it's the expense or getting there that keeps it so pristine.

Portugal
It has the best of Old World (vineyards, medieval villages) and the New World (boutiques, vibrant galleries and cafés).

Lonely Planet's call is right on the money. Like Greece, it's on the edge of financial ruin that threatens to drag the value of the Euro under the waves, and that means good news and good prices for the casual spender.

Now that World Cup superhero Cristiano Ronaldo has achieved a hint of the frothy-mouthed fandom in America that he already had around the world, I wonder what the knock-on effect will be for tourism in his home country.

Suriname
Visiting South America's tiniest nation is like visiting several countries at once, what with the Chinese, Javanese, Indian, Dutch, Jewish, indigenous Americans, African, and Lebanese populations all living together in remarkable peace.

There isn't much tourism infrastructure there, and pretty much no cultural icons -- and that's the appeal. You come here because it's an ignored tropical backwater with mighty rivers, jungles, and empty beaches.

United States of America
The U.S.A. is cool again, says Lonely Planet, giving possible credit to Barack Obama's worldwide popularity (presumably inferring that Bush is gone) and to the fact we're laboring under a recession (so, presumably, prices are good). The book was compiled before the massive BP oil catastrophe began, but there's a silver lining for tourists in that the beaches just ahead of the tar balls are largely empty and begging for business. Find the beaches that are yet to be obliterated by corporate greed, and you can find a bargain. Some trade-off.

I find the practice of anointing a "top 10" of something as varied and massive as countries to be unnecessarily arbitrary, and an exercise that turns entire peoples and places into nothing more than passing trends -- and such reductive thinking is probably the antithesis of why traveling is so rewarding.

But I'm always in support of drawing attention to worthwhile places to visit, because I believe that travel is never a waste. There are some advantages to the book version Of Lonely Planet's list, including 30 trips mapped out for you in case you'd like to visit any of these places yourself. And Lonely Planet is one of the best guide books out there for people who would like to see the world but also save money doing it, so the plans it presents are mostly ones that are easily repeatable if you can find the time off work.

My "what's hot" list usually matches my list of places I'd like to return to or visit for the first time. This year, that includes India, which is astoundingly cheap and inexhaustibly fascinating, and Namibia in southern Africa.

Because of the sagging Euro, about all of Western Europe -- at least those countries that use the Euro, which means Britain and Sweden are out -- offers prices that are lower than they have been in four years, and I told you so here a few weeks ago. We haven't seen prices this low in Europe since the mid-'00s. After the exchange is done, prices are nearly fair again, and so this summer is the ideal time to seize the moment for that trip to Paris or Florence.

Who's off the list? Canada -- after years of being a bargain, its dollar is now worth almost exactly what ours is.

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