I have been traveling Southeast Asia, mostly Thailand, for nearly three years at this point, and I have learned some valuable lessons on how to save money and travel on a shoestring. With that said, most of these tips can be applied anywhere your little traveling heart desires.
I don’t have much, I am certainly not rich, and therefore I need to be careful with my money, like most travelers out there. I have collected all my advice, experiences, and lessons so that you don’t make the same mistakes, and are fully prepared to enjoy your travels without draining your wallet of every last coin.
Sure you could read other budget savvy posts from bloggers way cooler than me, like here and here, but the thing is, I like detail and I have a few extra tips up my sleeve too. So enjoy reading my long list (sorry) or feel free to scan the bold parts for a quick read. Let me know what you think of the budget travel tips I have here and feel free to add more below in the comments.
1. Ditch the Closet
When you travel light, your baggage costs will be less or possibly zero. It also makes for an easier time traveling if you’re not lugging several things of baggage.
I first came out here with a bus load of clothes. OK really, a large backpack and one suitcase, but still, it mine as well have been a busload. It was ridiculous. To be fair, I was coming out here to teach English, so that’s why I thought I needed all these things. No. No. No. Leave it at home, buy something at the destination if you desperately need it.
2. Local Grub
When traveling in most places, especially Southeast Asia, it’s smarter to eat local food. When you eat local food, you’ll be saving a good chunk of money. For example a pad thai only costs about $1 and some change, so if you eat that instead of a pasta dish that might cost $4-5 dollars for dinner, you’ll be saving a decent amount of money. That’s at least another few meals.
A lot of people are afraid to eat at the local markets, but to be honest they actually not only have the cheapest food, but most of the time it’s better tasting and more authentic. Have you seen the food I eat? It’s delish! Also, yes- for the most part it’s safe. Why else are all the locals lining up?
3. Market < Shop
If it’s time for shopping, lookout for the street markets. If you can find it at the market, it will guaranteed be cheaper than a store. Think about it, a store has to pay rent and has overhead costs, therefore they have to market their things at a higher price. When you’re buying from the person who just set up a stall 2 minutes ago in the middle of the street, they’re going to have cheaper prices.
4. No 24/ 7 Drunky Monkey
You’re here to travel so don’t go out every single night getting $h*t-faced and partying all night. You’re not going to wake up and get anything done, and you’re wasting a lot of money. I usually keep going out to an absolute minimum personally, because instead of spending my money on alcohol, I would prefer to spend it on food or shelter. This isn’t to say you should be a hermit and never go out… Just be smart about it and just see how much money you’ll save staying in a few nights.
Try to avoid tour guides and other travel agencies booking things for you, because you will surely pay more this way. The majority of the time, you will be able to find your way to the attraction and figure everything out for yourself. You will end up spending a lot less money in the long run.
For example, when I went and saw the temples of Angkor Wat, instead of going on a whole day tour, I did it myself with a few new friends who shared a taxi with me. We bought the entrance ticket and did our own thing. No unnecessary extra costs, no other activities that I wasn’t really interested in etc. We managed our own day and had an amazing time.
With that said, there are some situations where you would want to book through a travel agency, or you might not have a choice. For example, I sometimes suck it up and pay extra money for a bus ticket, because the bus station is really far out-of-town and it wouldn’t make sense to pay a taxi to get out there just to get a ticket. Just gauge what would be the better and cheaper option in your situation.
6. Ask First
When you’re looking for prices for something, like transportation or perhaps an item that you’re looking for, try asking the person running your guesthouse or your waiter how much things should cost. That way you have something to gauge the price off of when you’re negotiating . If you have a base, then negotiating will go a lot smoother.
7. Slick Negotiating
On that same note, to keep your costs down, you’re going to need to know how to negotiate. Obviously you never want to negotiate a price that would be insulting to the other person. Don’t ever ask for such a significant discount, because then they might not even want to deal with you and it’s rude. This is another reason why asking someone else for the average price beforehand is a good idea. If you don’t have a starting number, it would be best to start with a reasonable price that you would be comfortable paying and see how it goes. Be flexible.
If you happen to be staying in the country for a long time, try to learn the number system. In most languages it’s really not that hard. Once you know 1-10 you should be fine with the rest. Knowing the number system would be extremely beneficial, plus showing that you know a bit of the native language might give you some extra leeway too.
(Remember to make sure if negotiating is acceptable in the country. In Southeast Asia, it’s very common. If the price is actually posted, a rare occurrence, then that’s the price you pay)
8. Simple Sally Saves
If you’re really trying to save money, don’t be someone who is extremely petty and picky about everything. Don’t expect to stay in five-star hotels and eat at fabulous restaurants every night. If this is what you want, you’re not traveling on a budget. If you’re out here on a budget, you need to be a bit more simple with what you’re asking for. Take the room with a cold shower instead of the hot shower. Instead of getting a room with air conditioning get one with a fan instead. It will end up saving you a significant amount of money if you go simple on a few things.
9. Money X-Changer
Don’t be stupid about the exchange rate. Make sure that you know what the exchange rate is, especially when you’re traveling from country to country and you’re exchanging currencies often. Study up on that before you hit the streets . They can sense a sucker a mile away.
On the same note. Give yourself a few minutes to study some of their notes and coins. Familiarize yourself so you don’t get a 100 and 1000 mixed up or receive the wrong change.
10. Big City Ballin’
Big cities equal big money. If you’re in the big cities expect to pay more. Try getting to the smaller towns, get off the beaten path, go somewhere that you know is going to be cheaper than the big city you’re in now . The prices will drop immediately.
11. Know Surprises
A big part about keeping on budget is eliminating all of the surprises. Make sure to call your bank first and see how much they’re going to charge you for every transaction, and make sure that you know what the ATM fees are in the country you’re going to. For example, in Thailand it’s usually a $5 standard fee to use the ATM. Visa costs, medical needs, baggage costs, etc…. All the non-expected things are what’s going to throw you off budget, get it panned out now. You will be sure to have surprises along the way anyway, so eliminate any imminent ones beforehand.
12. Get it Low
Do some research about the country before visiting and see when high season is. When it’s possible, try to go on the outskirts of high season or just pop up during low season. The weather is often fine and you can definitely get some better deals.
Just be sure that the area that you want to go to doesn’t close down during low season. For example, I nearly went to the Perhentian islands in Malaysia during low-season and pretty much everything is shut down . Good I found out beforehand.
13. Travel Without the Tout
During your travels you will be approached, yelled at, shouted at from afar, and who knows what else, by touts. These are the people waiting for you when you get off the boat with pictures of some “luxurious hotel for a great price” or a taxi because your guesthouse “is too far.”
While in some cases, you might not have a choice, kind of like when I arrived at Koh Phi Phi during a horrible storm and took the first tout up on their offer for a hotel, which of course, turned out to be a shit-hole and nothing like the pictures. But I had to do it, hypothermia was creeping up on me since I was on a boat for three hours in what must have been nothing short of a monsoon…. but that’s another story.
When you can, push past these people and go find a spot for yourself. If you get a room, or a ride from the touts you will be paying more for less. Trust me. Do a bit of leg work and you will find something so much better and in your budget. For the taxi touts, I tend to look out for the ones that aren’t practically begging for you to ride in their vehicle. I’ll go up to the dude smoking his cig acting all cool and chill while leaning on his tuk-tuk and ask if he is available. It always ends up working out better this way.
14. Choose your Transport Wisely
Of course this depends on how much time you have, but if you can, avoid flights while visiting numerous countries in a particular area. If there is a bus or train that goes there, it will hands down be your cheaper choice. This will also add to your adventure. The overnight trains in Thailand and Malaysia are actually pretty awesome in my opinion. I always get the berth, which is essentially a small bed with a curtain. You can sleep your way to your next destination for a quarter of the cost. Sure your journey will be 12 hours instead of 2 hours, but you’re saving money and adding another awesome experience to your list.
15. Stay put
If you plan on traveling long-term, two things:
A. Stay some place for a while that’s near cool stuff. If you are on the road indefinitely, there is no rush to see everything. Chill in a nice spot where there are things to do at your own leisure. Don’t be constantly on the move.
B. When you do stay put for a while, find an apartment. They will be cheaper or equal to the cost of a guesthouse, but way better. You will get more for your money, like your own bathroom, perhaps a living area, and sometimes a mini kitchen which will help keep costs down even more.
16. No ‘Mo Home Money
This is more for the people who are traveling long-term/ living/ working abroad. Wherever you’re from, stop converting back to your home currency. A wise friend of mine told me a great budget travel tip when I first moved to Thailand and it was very simple. “You’re not making US dollars anymore. Stop converting.” It helped me save and stay on budget better.
17. Get a Deal
There are tons of ways to get good deals. You just need to know how to work the system. Since I am still learning in this area, you should probably just check out Matt’s page. He’s the boss when it comes to flight deals and ways to earn points on credit cards to earn free things. Yea… He’s pretty much amazing and I am in the midst of trying all of his methods out, so far so good. I wish I started sooner.
Learn from my mistakes!
18. Look Now Book Later
Look up some accommodation options in the areas that interest you just to know what’s up. You don’t want to accidentally head for the most expensive area on an island. Booking ahead doesn’t always bring you the best deals. Unless you are going during a holiday weekend or high season (and sometimes even then it doesn’t matter), there isn’t much of a need to book ahead. The cheapest places aren’t always listed online. Make note of the places, but don’t book.
19. Foot Work
Let your feet lead. On a similar note as #18, walk around a bit and you will very likely find a cheaper place to stay than you would have found online.
What I do is….
A) Research the areas I would want to stay in and the cost of accommodation in the area.
B) Get dropped off in the area I chose and walk around until I find a guesthouse.
20. Those Books…
With #17 and #18 you might want to hide under your blankets because you might feel like I just gave you a research paper to complete. However they have these things called guide books nowadays. You know, like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. Many will say to stay away from these, but they are good resources. I use Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. I might use it to see how much a bus is from Penang to Kuala Lumpur, or to see where a cluster of guesthouses are on the map, so a taxi can take me there to walk around and find a cheap spot. Use them as a guide, not a bible.
I also use this book as a back up emergency option. What if I get dropped off at a weird place? I can use the maps to help assist me. What happens if I arrived late and it’s getting dark? I can just pick a quick guesthouse from my book, a guesthouse that is obviously popular, and my taxi driver will likely know it. It’s helped me many times.
You can buy a cheap used one on Amazon or guesthouses usually have used for sale/trade.
21. Fly Here or There
Give all airports a chance. If you are traveling around China, check to see which airport is having the best deals and then work from there. If you are traveling to multiple countries, see which is the cheaper country to fly to first. Be flexible with your dates and use websites like skyscanner.com to take advantage of browsing through tons of flights for the week or the month. Pick the cheapest days of the month and work with it.
22. Make Friends
This is for everyone, but especially all my solo travelers. When you travel in numbers, costs go down. So with that said, make friends. If you are going somewhere in a tuk-tuk, ask the travelers next to you what they are up to for the day? Maybe they will share it with you? You never know. I have shared rooms, food, taxi’s, boats…etc with other travelers and not only did I get to pay less, I made new friends. That’s always nice when you’re traveling solo AND broke.
I hope this helps you travel better and cheaper so you can keep on traveling for longer! Feel free to add any other amazing budget travel tips you might have discovered during your travels or feel free to ask any questions that you may have below.