I often hear people say, “I really wish I could travel but I just can’t afford it”. There seems to be a widespread misconception that the only way to enjoy some faraway paradise is to win the lottery or find a rich lover. In reality, traveling on a budget is within the reach of anyone who really wants it.
You absolutely can spend tens of thousands for an all-inclusive one-week vacation on a tropical island. But you certainly don’t have to. As long as you are willing to compromise you can have an amazing trip, on a shoestring budget. This is especially true for Southeast Asia, where “western” comforts are abundant, yet everything is much cheaper than in Europe, the US, or Australia. If you can see yourself giving up the marble bath-tub and some fancy hotel, for a bungalow with a bamboo shower, then it’s easy to travel around Asia for months.
During my last trip, I recorded all of my expenses. I didn’t miss a thing – not the kayak trips, nor the cocktail buckets or the fried cricket bowls. After summing it all up, I can provide an answer to the ever-curious question, “How much did it cost?”.
For 5 weeks, I traveled through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. I spent exactly €1,034. My plane tickets from Sofia to Bangkok and back were an extra €350. Below, you’ll find a breakdown of my budget, you’ll learn which country was cheapest, and you might even get some insight into making your own trip more frugal.
I spend 11 days in Thailand, while visiting Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. For that, I needed €346 (13,262 baht), which includes my domestic plane ticket from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, as well as the re-entry visa. During my first few days in Thailand, I tried to save as much as possible. So, I felt anxious, whenever I tried to keep up with my travel buddies and ended up paying more than I had planned. After a while, however, I decided that it’s more important to feel good and enjoy yourself on the road, than to save a few bucks. My most significant expenses here, were transportation, presents for home, and entrance fees for temples/museums.
My trip in Laos was 14 days and included 6 locations – Pakbeng, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, some little village along the road, and the island of Don Det. That whole trip cost me €287 (2,618,000 kip). That’s how Laos became the cheapest destination of my journey, even though it’s where I spent the most time. Transportation came up cheaper than anywhere else, because I became friends with people on motorbikes and traveled with them.
However, street food in Laos, especially at the night market in Luang Prabang, is an adventure for the senses. On the other hand, Vang Vieng is famous for being Laos’s party capital. So, most of my money went to delicious food and partying.
Cambodia was the most expensive country of my trip, as it took me €401 ($451) to enjoy myself there. Two currencies are in circulation – the local riel, as well as the US dollar. The second option is easier to deal with, especially after you’ve had to change countries and currencies a few times. You end up confused by money and zeroes start making you dizzy ($1 = 4,059 riel). Nonetheless, when you are using singles, instead of thousands, money is spent seamlessly. My biggest expenses in Cambodia were food and entrance fees to cultural sights, especially the ticket to Angkor What.
I’ve got an Excel table with various categories, which I used to structure my spending a bit. The categories are accommodation, transportation, food, parties, and miscellaneous. Below you’ll find how much of my budget went to each of these categories.
For the three countries in total – €158. Finding a cozy, yet budget-friendly spot to lay your head, is a simple task in Southeast Asia. My goal was to spend to more than €5 per night.
To figure out my best option, I searched by “lowest price first” when I was online. Then, I focused on customer reviews to choose the best place. Apart from that, a few times I searched for accommodation on site, which is popular amongst backpackers.
No matter how much you research and compare between companies, prices for transportation are usually similar and non-negotiable, so you can rarely save on this category. I spent €237 in total. This includes domestic flights, boats, buses, tuk-tuks, and gas. It’s cheapest to move around by motorbike, since gas is so fair-priced in Southeast Asia. In Laos, where I traveled mostly on bikes, I cut down twice on transportation costs, compared to what I spent in the other two countries.
Some tourists avoid eating where the locals go. They feel it’s dirty and risky. However, if you’re a traveler, not a tourist, you’d be drawn to the stalls of steaming pots, like a moth to the flame. Apart from being delicious and fun, eating local is also a good way to keep to a low budget. Even though you’ll probably get overcharged, just because you’re a foreigner, it would still be less than at a western style restaurant.
What I paid for food was €241. To be honest, it could have been a lot less, if I hadn’t insisted on trying everything I could find on the local markets. Or if I had cooked for myself. Besides, I had heaps of junk food, which could have been avoided.
Although most of the places where I had my meals would probably make any food inspector shriek in terror, I didn’t get sick once. It seems to me that it must be because of my vegetarian diet, since I met many travelers who told colorful tales of food poisoning.
When I left home, I thought that I would simply stroll around cultural sights and stay away from any nighttime recreational activities. After all, caution should be exercised when you’re traveling solo. Of course, that plan went out the window, as soon as I met fun party people, on the very first day of my trip. I spent €166 on parties and even though this money could have easily been saved, I would not give up a single one of my nights out.
This category is pretty broad. It includes museum entrance fees, kayaking adventures, refrigerator magnets, massages, and all sorts of other unnecessary items. These are all the expenses that you absolutely don’t need, yet they add a splash of color to the journey. I chose to place them in a single category, rather than split them up into more specific ones, since “miscellaneous” is all about personal preference. Every stop on my trip was abundant in fun opportunities that could fit into this category. Still, I met plenty of travelers who didn’t visit any temples and came up with their own fun activities, rather than paying for them. This category required €231 out of my budget.
It’s Possible to Spend Less
Although €1,034 doesn’t seem like much, for a 5-week trip that I filled with adventures and did little to limit myself, you could easily spend less. My friend Maria, from 203challenges, traveled Thailand before me, and made a pit stop to Angkor What in Cambodia. She and her boyfriend managed on a much lower budget. For a month-long trip, they spent €1,329 for both of them, roundtrip plane fare from Bulgaria included.
Here’s their budget per person:
Entrance fees for national parks and cultural sights: €70 (Angkor What – $62; Khao Sok National Park – €7 per day; most museums and temples – €0.50-2.50)
My hope is that this article would prove how money is not a good enough excuse to refrain from traveling the world. With a bit of creativity and motivation, you can have an amazing time, without draining your savings.
What’s your favorite trick for a budget-friendly trip? Share in the comments below.