Traveling cheaply in S.E. Asia – tips and insights after 3 months
I am not going to talk about extreme penny pinching here – sleeping on the grass, hitchhiking and eating with the monks will leave the most bills in your wallet, and its probably not a bad way to see the world in your youth. We are not digital nomads or making money on property back home. I am giving these tips from our position of an average family of 5 that wants to travel without being rich, while not foregoing completely all the comforts we are used to.
We stick to a budget of $100 a day for all of us and so far we have done much better (less than $15 per person a day). This is good, because our average will skyrocket when we move onto Europe, where we do indeed think it might be a good idea to camp.And hunt. And stare into space.
Here, in no particular order are some of the ways we manage to do this without breaking the bank…completely:
Get access to your money for free
Carrying a load of cash with you is never a good idea, which means that you will have to use ATMs or your credit card often. Our usual accounts served a hefty fee for overseas access. The debit card charged two extras for each ATM transaction and the credit card had an overseas processing fee. Averaging to almost 5% of the amount, this would have added up quickly. Don’t skip this step, especially in Asia, where the few times we used the credit card at first cost us an amount with which we could have bought a whole fancy dinner for everyone.
I imagine in the US the options are a lot more varied. In Australia I managed to find only one: a credit card account, which had the loophole of giving out cash for free if it was in the plus. So we load it up with cash via internet banking when we need it and use it like a debit card.
Move along on land
Mostly. Even though with the boom of economy airlines sometimes a flight is cheaper than the alternatives, it is still a lot better for the budget to get to your next location on land. Tourism and commercialization of the continent means that there are quite extended bus routes, trains that are quite comfortable, minibuses, even taxis can be a good option in places.
So far we have caught only 2 flights, one from Perth to Bali, and another one from Bali to Singapore, both on sale from AirAsia. Our favorite mode of transport is the night train. The kids squeal with delight when we tell them we are catching one.
Travel at night
By catching the sleeper train you are both changing locations on the cheap and saving up on a nights accommodation. Keeping in mind that both of those are easily the most expensive items on the budget, its something to keep in mind. Same can be done with the bus, although much less comfortable and the success is dependent on whether or not you can sleep on one. We ended up sleeping most of the day away after arriving from our night bus ride.
Seek guesthouses and homestays and don’t be afraid of hostels
Hotels are rarely a good deal. Often for the price of a cheap gray hotel you can find a wonderful and comfortable guesthouse. Don’t be afraid of places that are called homestays, which are almost never exactly that, rather a guesthouse that is less business like, if that. I have trouble distinguishing between the two and treat them the same.
Hostels might sound horrid, but actually they can be a great option. Yes, there are some grungy ones, but we have stayed a few times at clean, feature-rich establishments. Buzzing with activity and excited travelers, they offer a lot of information and can be a good way to update your know-how with people that have been to the places you plan on visiting. Most are conveniently located and have private rooms available, some with attached bathroom, but if you are in a group, getting a whole dorm room can be a great and cheap way to spend the night.
I hate doing it, but if you are traveling on a tight budget its inevitable. In Bali we got taxis to the different destinations much cheaper than the initial offer. Mr.Blab brought down the cost of our lovely hotel in KL down to 2/3 of the price. When staying in places for longer than 2-3 days we always ask for a deal and often get it. At the markets if you dont bargain, you will end up paying a lot more than necessary.
I have said it before, but please dont be a nasty westerner behaving like you are entitled to the cheapest price just because you have shown up. I have seen angry tourists and even Mr.Blab’s tone of voice sometimes grinds me the wrong way when it comes to bargaining. A response of “What!” to the price makes you sound like an idiot, especially since you will gladly pay a price two or three times higher at home. Do you really think the person in front of you deserves less profit than the company that brought it to you at home? Smile and respect those with which you are dealing with and usually you will get much further. Nobody wants to give a prick a good deal.
Travel off season
The top flows very easy when you are one of the few tourists around. The whole of our 3 months in Asia so far have been in the low-season and I struggle to see what makes it so – the weather has been good, the rain never a problem and the prices always the best.
Off-season has been the best time to travel for us. Attractions are rarely full, taxis in Bali have little work so getting to places is very cheap, we get accommodation for the cheapest rate possible and there is little need to book ahead. And since business is low, asking for a good deal wont be met with a laugh.
Have a budget
I know I probably lost half of you here, but this is a very important step anytime you are trying to keep a watch on your money and get the best out of them. Having an idea of what you want to spend on average a day, gives you a good idea of what you can afford and what you cant. Those cents and lonely dollars that fly out for a bit of this and that add up all the while you probably dont even notice them.
We have written every single thing we have spend money on. Every day. Mr.Blab has a little notebook he carries and jots down as we go. In the evening this gets transferred to our book, the total calculated and we have an exact idea of our position financially at any point. If we go over our budget one day, the next we tighten up and we try to keep our averages good. This way when we indulge after a good stint, we can do it without any guilt too.
Get off the tourist route
Temples, markets, animal shelters, food outlets and even hospitals that are bustling with other tourists are inevitably much pricier. Often they will ask for a hefty payment compared to that if you find a place that is less popular with the well off foreigners. Not only will you save money, but you will actually feel like you are somewhere else other than home.
How to know you have gotten off? If there are very few to none other foreign people around you and the locals are not pestering you to buy something in broken English, it is an excellent sign. It is so refreshing to walk around without feeling like a wallet on feet and being on the receiving end of genuine smiles. You dont have to travel to remote areas to find that, these places exist in the middle of Bangkok and KL as well, just keep an eye out for them.
I will make this very simple – if you are regularly paying more than $4 for a meal in Asia and its not your birthday, stop pretending you are traveling on a budget. In fact, we are usually spending about $1-2 per meal and we eat delicious local food. Often that means you forgo air-conditioning and have to eat in the open air, but not always. Check menus carefully, if prices are much higher than this, move along. At the same time, dont think that the beautiful places are necessary expensive. Especially off the beaten track you can find wonderful and comfortable options to eat on the cheap.
We eat on the street and some of the most delicious food we have had has come from there, like the soup we got in the night market of KL – it still brings a giddy smile on our faces. The one rule I have is that the food is prepared as we order it, which is not hard as most of them whip up the noodles, rotis and soups as needed. Served hot and safe, easy on the wallet and almost always satisfying, its hard to beat it.
And whenever you can, cook for yourself. One visit to the market can feed you for awhile and even though I was not sure it will save us anything (at those prices of street food), it does in fact make a difference.
Don’t scoff at the small savings
Back home a dollar might be close to nothing, but in Asia it can buy you a meal. For less than that you can enjoy some of the best fresh orange juices around. Yes, public transport might be cheap, but legs are a perfectly fine way to move around, not only are they free, but they enjoy getting some use as well – a win-win situation. To pawn off your laundry to someone else can be ridiculously easy around here, but your upper limbs can do a fine job of it for no money whatsoever.
We have taken this rule to extremes, by walking in the heat of the day on a highway for 30 min each way to save $10 in taxi fare. We didnt take the train from Singapore to KL, rather took a bus to the first city in Malaysia where we caught the train because it turns out prices are double from Singapore. For the same price we were going to spend in a 2nd class day trip from Singapore we got the sleeper train and saved up on a night’s accommodation as well. We have waited in the early morning of arriving in a new place for the buses to start going and save us $6 compared to taxi fare.
If we are thirsty, juices usually get shared, instead of everyone getting their own. Make your own hot drinks and instead of a full breakfast, keep some bread and butter with you, nuts and fruits and veggies from the market. Much cheaper and healthier alternatives.
A dollar here, a few dollars there adds up and in our case, keeping in mind our daily budget, its not long before we have saved enough to make a difference.
Be informed and spend time researching your destinations
This one is a bummer. I was hoping to spend less time on the laptop once we are on our trip, but instead I am still staying late in the night, this time reading about the places we are or will be visiting. To find the best, but cheapest accommodation takes time, but worth it since even though we are on a budget, I dont want us to stay in dumps. Same goes for transport options and local public transport. Above I mentioned how trains from Singapore into Malaysia are double the price what you will pay in Malaysia. This required some reading to dig out and find out. The good news is that this step only takes time and this should be not too difficult to find. Better yet, do this job before you leave, then you can skip the long hours clicking on the monitor while you are on your holiday and spend them on a hammock somewhere.
Information is power, use it.
Know why you are traveling and what makes you happy
I have left the most important point for last. If you are unclear why in the world you are roaming the streets of a particular place and what brings you pleasure, you are in a prime position to fall victim to the tourist whirlwind of a machine and spend a lot of money on things you are not that into to. Reading the above might sound like we are having a horrible time watching our every cent and hiding under our cheap roof eating stale buttered bread. In reality, none of the things we are doing to save money burden us, they allow us to travel and see the world. Fancy accommodation is ok, but we prefer to indulge in food instead. We may go out of our way to save up a few bucks instead of giving them to a taxi, but I have no problems paying up even more on a bottle of delicious extra virgin olive oil, which I carry happily in my backpack, or a pack of French butter to spread on the above mentioned bread.
If art and culture is your thing, don’t get suckered in an expensive trekking tour or tiger “farm”, save up and spend where you will get the most bang for your buck. If you derive a special pleasure in sleeping in fancy hotels, then do that and accept that you probably wont have much left to do outside of them. Traveling on a budget means you may have to forgo the bragging rights for some of the popular tourist attractions in the places you visit, instead do the things that you really care about and will make you happy.
Done right, it is a particularly honest-to-self way to travel and if you know yourself none of the things you have to forgo to achieve it will manage to ruin it for you. Those of you that have been reading this blog for awhile know that I have always been a fan of the simple pleasures in life and this has not changed.
Wonder is everywhere and most of it completely free.