How to Travel SEA Under $15 A Day (Including 3 Months in Vietnam For Less Than $1000!) (1 Viewer)

Matt Derrick

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Reposted from r/shoestring: all credit belongs to the author (i.e. i did not write this post)

I thought I'd make this post because I remember researching and wondering if a trip like I'm on was possible and if so how to achieve it. I know my situation may not reflect that of everyone, but I want to show that it is possible to travel long term with relatively little money. I try to go into as much detail as I can, so pardon the length.

For the last 6 months I've been solo traveling around South East Asia, so far spending time in Thailand (1 month), Laos (1 month), Vietnam (3 months), and Cambodia (1 month). Its been an amazing trip and even though I haven't spent much money, I haven't once had to say "no" to an activity that I wanted to do. I've been a part of a Thai meditation retreat, went tubing in Vang Vieng, taken a cruise in Ha Long Bay, and explored Angkor Wat to name just a few of the many cool experiences I've had. Just because you're on a shoestring budget, does NOT mean that you can't have tons of fun along the way.

So how much does it really cost to travel? All things considered (without my initial flight to Asia), it costs me just under $15 a day, but the number can easily be a bit lower or higher depending on the country. If you’re wondering, Vietnam was the cheapest as I spent less than $1000 in 3 months and the others cost me between $450-600 a month.

I like to split my travel budget into the daily essentials (food, water, shelter), the semi-essentials (long distance travel, local transportation, mobile phone, etc.), and the non-essentials (activities, alcohol, taxis, etc.). I'll break down how much things really cost and how to keep expenses down in more detail below.


Essentials:

  • Food: This is my biggest expense. Depends on the country, but expect $1-3 a meal for local food where local people eat."Local food" in tourist restaurants is often closer to $3-6 and Western food is $5-10+ and can mirror what you'd pay in the West. Don't be afraid of local food. If a bunch of locals are eating it, it probably won't make you sick, because as the late great Anthony Bourdain once said, "its bad business to poison your neighbors." Food is the culture of SEA so experience it as much as you can.

  • Water: You can't drink the tap water, but bottled water is cheap. $0.20-0.60 for 1.5L bottle.

  • Accommodation: This depends on you. In 6 months I have never paid more than $6 for a dorm room and since figuring out the "tricks" I haven't paid more than $4. Almost all of them have been good and most have included a comfortable temperature at night, privacy sheets, and hot showers. The key to finding deals is to use Agoda or Booking.com. Limit your search to places reviewed 8.0 or higher and sort by lowest price. If there are tons offered, raise the review rating and go with the highest rated place that fits your budget. Regardless of the price, if the review is 9.0+ and has more than 30 reviews, its probably a good place to stay. Private rooms are usually much more expensive, but I’ve only stayed in them a few times so I’m not as familiar. $10-15 is what I paid in Cambodia and that seems average for the region but I’m not entirely sure.

Semi-Essentials:

  • Long-distance travel: This can cost a lot or a little depending on where you want to go and how you want to get there. In general, don't be afraid of night busses. Yes, there are accidents. Yes, people die. But tens of thousands of local people and tourists alike use them and almost all live through the (more or less pleasant) experience. In Vietnam, a night bus can take you 12 hours away for less than $13. You shouldn't spend more than $15 traveling city to city this way, and often it's under $10. Flights are also a viable option, as many are less than $50 and you gain time and comfort (but watch the high fees/taxes and luggage limits). Some destinations are more difficult to do on a budget than others though, as Laos to Vietnam has you choose an 18hr or so bus from hell or a $117 flight. I opted for the flight.

  • Local transport: Simply one of the easiest ways to waste money if you're not careful. Always check and see if public transport is available, especially in major cities like Bangkok or Saigon. Bus fares are usually only $0.10-$0.50 while taxis are usually $2+. $2 may not sound like much, but there and back is the same as a dorm room. These costs really add up. The best option is to plan ahead and stay near the main tourist sites, so you can just walk and spend nothing.

  • Mobile Phone: Get a SIM card. Besides the small fee for the physical sim (less than $5) my data in Vietnam was $0.40 per gb for a month. It's really that cheap.

Non-Essentials:

  • Activities: This is why we travel. If you're not going to experience the places you travel to, why go there? It doesn't mean that you have to spend too much to get a lot out of it. Prices vary considerably, but generally speaking temple entry is free to $3 (higher in Bangkok), historical sites are $1-5, and nature sites are free-$3. These are rough estimates, but I've rarely spent more than $5 in one place. Tours can range from the cheap, my Ha Long Bay tour was $15, to the very expensive, elephant tours are usually $75-150 (I decided against it). If you want cooking classes, its usually $15-30. If you want to save money, then never book someone to do something you can do yourself. If you don't have a choice (i.e. Ha Long Bay) then find a reputable cheap option. If you stay at quality cheap hostels, they can be of immense help with this. Don’t forget that you can splurge on an activity or two that you really want to do, so still go to Angkor Wat even though it costs $62, SCUBA diving if that’s a dream of yours, or another item on your bucket list. If won’t kill your budget if you keep costs down in other areas.

  • Alcohol: Beer is king and usually pretty good. Prices range from $0.20-0.50 (Vietnam) to $0.80-$1 (Laos/Cambodia) to $1.20-$2 (Thailand) and higher in bars. It sounds cheap until you drink 6 of them and you realize you drank double what you paid for your dorm bed. If you're a heavy partier, you will have a very hard time staying under budget, especially if you drink liquor instead of beer. Doesn't mean that you can't drink and keep a moderate budget, even I can't resist a delicious BeerLao, but there's a reason alcohol and financial sense don't mix well.

  • Taxis: As mentioned above, avoid taxis. If you do need them, then download Grab. It's the "uber" of SEA and will keep you from getting ripped off. Keep in mind the ways the locals travel and do that. In Thailand, Tuk Tuks are almost always a rip-off (besides the “red taxis”) but in Cambodia they’re the main taxi option while Vietnam relies on motorbike taxis. The locals almost always do the cheapest option, so follow their lead.

  • Souvenirs: If you find a meaningful souvenir, then don't feel bad getting it. Just make sure its ethical, meaning don't buy things made from the metal from bombs (encourages dangerous scavenging), animal parts (encourages poaching), looted historical artifacts (illegal and could get you in trouble for bringing out of the country), from children (encourages them to drop out of school and continues the poverty cycle), and other discouraged practices. To find the best deals, buy items from their source or in markets where you see local people actually buying things, not just tourists.

Additional tips:

  • Never think of money in terms of your own currency/prices back home. A $10 cab ride may sound cheap if you're from New York, but if the local price is $2 you're grossly overpaying. This extends to everything from food to hostels. To find the local price, ask hostel staff or ask various sellers to see how much the going rate is. For consumer goods, see what the price is at national chains like 7-11 and go from there.

  • Mentally use a comparative pricing system. If your dorm costs $4 and that Starbucks costs $4 then is the drink worth losing another night of travel? At the same time, maybe a little piece of home is what you need to keep going when you feel homesick. Know the price you're willing to pay and prioritize what you're willing to spend it on.

  • Sometimes prices aren't scaled the same as back home, so be careful. For example, a juice can easily cost more than a full local meal in SEA. At the same time, drinks like beer may be only a couple cents more expensive than soft drinks at dinner. It may surprise you, so remember to keep prices relative to each other, not your expectations.

  • Don't get ripped off, but don't be a jerk either. Don't allow someone to overcharge you double or triple what the real cost is. At the same time, most people selling things on the street are extremely poor. Paying $0.20 more is not going to kill you, but it may mean making a sale that helps someone else get to eat that day. Find the price that you are willing to pay, and if you think its fair then don't push it unnecessarily low.

  • Keep track of all purchases. I use the Tripcoin app on iOS and I've found it works great for me, especially considering it's free. I'm sure there's other options out there as well. Believe me, money is much more real when you see how much you're actually spending and it allows you to budget accordingly.

  • Get an ATM fee free card before leaving and withdraw cash free from anywhere. Charles Schwab is a great option for Americans.

  • Always buy travel insurance. If anything goes wrong, it pays for itself. I use World Nomads and since they more than adequately serviced my claim I'll probably stick with them. If you plan on riding a motorbike (and even if you don't plan on it) get a license and an international drivers permit before leaving to stay covered in the case of an accident.

  • Consider teaching English online if you qualify and need some extra cash. One or two days working could likely fund an entire week of travel in many places.

I apologize for how long this post is, but congrats if you made it to the end. My trip is over 6 months long (and still going) but almost everything I said still applies even if you aren't planning on being gone so long. I'll be happy to answer any additional questions people have in the comments. I still plan on going to southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia in the next 2 months, so if anyone has any advice on those destinations I'm all ears as well.
 
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