No doubt, traveling Southeast Asia is already half the cost of other destinations, like Western Europe, Australia, or the United States. But while some backpackers easily keep their monies in check, others blow their budgets out of the water. Here’s my tips on how to budget and save money when traveling Southeast Asia.
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Hands down, Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest regions in the world to backpack. I mean, hello, why do you think it attracts so many gap year travelers or broke college kids?
Saving money when traveling around SE Asia can be easily done — without planning it all out in a spreadsheet or meticulously scribbling down every little purchase you make!
The thing is, budgeting like a pro doesn’t mean you need to be one of those weird people who steal food and toilet paper rolls from hostels or someone who tries to rip off locals by paying an absurdly low amount for a handmade souvenir.
It also means you shouldn’t have to live like a hermit or compromise on doing cool things just because you’re trying to save a few dollars.
FOMO is real… and you will feel it if your travel buddies come back raving about an excursion you decided to pass on — which in reality will only cost a mere fraction of your overall budget.
With that said, here’s my pro tips on how to budget right and save money in Southeast Asia — without hindering your experience or f*cking up your backpacking trip!
TIPS ON HOW TO BUDGET AND SAVE MONEY IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
The following money-saving tips are broken down into four sections: accommodation, transportation, food and drinks, and general tips! And just to make sure you’re ultimately prepared for your SEA backpacking trip, don’t forget to read part 1 and part 2 of this travel guide!
1. Stay in Hostels or Guesthouses
Avoid staying in big hotels or chains, as they will definitely cost more than your average guesthouse or small hostel.
If you aren’t a hostel person, you can book pretty cheap private rooms in local accommodations.
Additionally, if you’re traveling in a group, it can sometimes be cheaper to book an entire private room together and split it, rather than booking separate dorm room beds.
For example, when I traveler to Cat Ba Island in Vietnam earlier this year, a group of 5 of us stayed in a private hotel room which cost $13… which worked out to $2.60 per person! Pretty good deal, eh?
2. Use Booking or Agoda
Rather than booking all your accommodations through websites like Hotels.com, Expedia, or Travelocity, use Booking.com or Agoda. These sites are more likely to have a better selection of smaller hostels, hotels, and guesthouses.
Agoda is actually tailored to be specifically for the Asia region, so use that by default if you’re looking to save money on accommodation.
(For reference, I used Booking.com to book that super duper cheap room talked about above for my travel group! It’s definitely my go-to accommodation site.)
3. Shop Around
While you should definitely be using Booking or Agoda to choose the right hotel, if you find one you like on a site, shop around to see if it’s cheaper somewhere else.
For example, some accommodation sites charge higher fees than others, so the owners will tack on a few extra dollars to balance it out.
4. Long Stay? Use Vrbo or Airbnb.
If you’re staying in a place for quite a few nights, make sure to check out Airbnb or Vrbo! Especially if you’re staying for longer than a week, as many Airbnb and Vrbo owners set up weekly discounts.
Plus, with many Airbnbs or Vrbos, you can book out an entire place and get a kitchen, which can further help save you money by cooking at home!
5. Ask for a Discount
While you shouldn’t just be going around asking every hostel or hotel owner for a discount, if you’re traveling in a large group — say, like 5 people — you can ask for a group discount.
This isn’t always going to happen but nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to ask!
Additionally, sometimes you can receive a discount if you plan on staying in one place for a good length of time — like than a week or so!
Again, it never hurts to ask (just don’t be a greedy motherf*cker!).
6. Just Show Up
If you’re comfortable with planning absolutely nothing in advance, you can sometimes just show up to a hostel or hotel and ask for a rate, which may or may not be lower than online prices (as there’s no booking fee attached).
But, with that said, make sure to look at the online prices anyways to get a ballpark idea of what costs should look like.
For example, when I was in Vientiane, Laos, the hostel owner wanted to charge me $7 for a dorm bed… but the online price said $5. So I asked him to reduce it to match his listing price, and he agreed!
1. Walk it Out
Now walk it out, now walk it out… but seriously, if you want to save money walk to your destinations instead of taking a tuk-tuk or local bus.
There’s nothing better (or faster) than getting to know a new place on foot. You’ll see local sites, off-the-beaten-path shops, cute little side roads, and more.
2. Go Local
Instead of booking a luxury bus (which won’t actually be luxury because that word hardy means anything in SE Asia), go local and ride what the local people ride — cheap trains, buses with questionable safety, and rickety tuk-tuks.
You’ll not only save money but also have a good time! And get a taste for the local life.
Tip: While the term “luxury” has no real meaning here, VIP does! If you see the option to book a VIP bus, DO IT! It’ll won’t be luxury by any means but it’ll be much better than the cheaper bus. (Plus, it’ll realistically only be a few dollars more than the regular bus.)
3. Budget Airlines
There are a number of great budget airlines all throughout Southeast Asia. I personally like AirAsia, VietJet, or TigerAir.
Also, to save even more money, only fly with a carry-on! While checking a bag can be quite cheap in SE Asia compared to other regions, that money could be spent on better things, like an excursion or motorbike adventure.
Tip: My favorite website to book flights on hands down is Skyscanner. Second to that is Momondo, as this website checks the prices of really small airlines that might be offering better deals than the big brands. Click here to read more about how I shave hundreds off flight tickets!
4. Ground Travel
Another way to really save money in Southeast Asia is traveling slow overland. Instead of booking flight after flight to get around, go with an overnight bus or train.
Sure, it might be a bit more uncomfortable, but you’ll save a heck of a lot of dollars and it’s better for the environment!
All throughout Asia — but especially Vietnam — you’ll find the best way to travel this ridiculously long country is by overnight bus! If you’re heading there or thinking about it, make sure to checkout my 1-month Vietnam itinerary for ideas and inspiration.
Not to mention, when you book overnight transportation, you’re not only saving money on the transportation itself, you’re also saving money on accommodation! Sweet.
5. Book with Your Hostel
If you’re staying in a local hostel or hotel, the managers or owners will typically have a bus schedule on hand and you can book transportation right through them.
Most of the time they won’t screw you over with prices, as they want to receive good reviews to attract future travelers.
While backpacking SE Asia, I’ve booked most of my transportation directly through my hostel or accommodation, as it can save time, money, and be hassle-free.
6. Uber and Grab
Taxis can sometimes be really expensive in Southeast Asia, which is why I recommend downloading either (or both) Uber and Grab.
Every time I’ve compared prices of a local taxi to an Uber or Grab car, they always win out as the cheaper option. Heck, you can even ride on the back of a motorbike with those two apps! And it’s awesome.
Tip: If you’re heading to Indonesia on your SE Asia backpacking trip, don’t forget to download GO-JEK! Which is the country’s own transportation booking app.
7. Take it Sloooowwww
The best tip I can give you with regards to saving money on transportation in Southeast Asia is taking ‘er nice and easy (aka taking things slow).
If you’re hopping on a bus, train, plane, or Uber every day, the costs add up. By spending a few days in each destination, you can not only see more of the place and take things in better, you’ll shave hundreds off transportation costs.
Plus, slow travel is part of sustainable travel and that’s pretty cool, eh?
Tip: Depending on how much time you have, I recommend planning for 1 month in each country. The slower, the better.
Food & Drinks
1. All About that Street Food
As mentioned in part 2 of this backpacking SE Asia travel guide, you need not be afraid of street food! (Unless you’re eating copious amounts of meat, which can sometimes not be fully cooked.)
Not only can street food be absolutely delicious, it’s typically super duper cheap. Like I’m talking $1-2 for a huge meal.
Bring your own beverage! While a restaurant or cafe might be a little weird about you bringing your own beer or alcohol, they usually won’t throw a fuss if you bring your own water or soda.
This is especially true if you bring your own water bottle, as they will likely appreciate you not using unnecessary plastic.
I’m a HUGE fan of the GRAYL Filtering Water Bottle. I used it literally everywhere in Asia to filter icky bathroom and tap water into safe and hydrating drinking water. It was hands down the best packing essential I could have brought with me when backpacking Southeast Asia.
Want to get one for yourself? Click here to check out the GRAYL.
3. Leave the Tipping for America
Although tipping is totally expected in America, it’s not customary in Southeast Asia. Thus, you really don’t need to do it and by not tipping you can save a ton of money if you’re traveling for a long time.
Unless the service was absolutely fantastic and blew you away, you don’t need to tip.
4. Pre-Gaming is Key
While alcohol is freely handed out in places like Vang Vieng, Laos, the same doesn’t go for most places around Southeast Asia. Thus, pre-gaming is key to saving loads of money when partying it up (which you likely will be doing!).
Head to a 7/11 or local shop to pick up some beers or a bottle of liquor to split with others and chug chug chug before setting off to the bars or clubs.
But with that in mind…
5. Cut Down on the Booze
I know, I know. What a downer but seriously, for most backpackers in Southeast Asia a huge chunk of their budget goes to alcohol (I’d go as far to say it is the biggest expense for SE Asia travelers!).
Everywhere you go there’s a party and by the end of your trip, you’re probably going to get sick of drinking anyways (unless you’re a raging party animal).
6. Get the Local Beer
Local beer is not only super duper cheap (sometimes as cheap as 50 cents!), it’s also really tasty most of the time!
And it’s especially awesome on a hot, humid day. I mean, who can say no to a cool, refreshing beer when it’s 100°F outside?
7. Avoid Western Food
Sure, after eating copious amounts of fried rice and noodles, you might have a burger or pasta itch that needs scratching but eating western food everyday will not only get old, it’s more expensive and you lose out on the opportunity of eating local dishes.
8. Cook Your Own Meals
This is a seriously savvy way of putting a few extra dollars back in your Southeast Asia travel budget!
You can find extremely cheap produce and cooking ingredients at local shops or markets to cook delicious homemade meals up with. Just make sure to book an accommodation that has a communal kitchen, such as a Vrbo or hostel!
General Money-Saving & Budgeting Tips
1. Skip the Souvenirs
Sure, you might want to get a few things here and there but skip out on most of the souvenirs you see. Not only are they not unique (seriously, you’ll see the same hundred souvenirs all over Southeast Asia), they’re a waste of precious space in your bag.
Instead, take photos and make memories with new friends (I know, how cliche) or spend your hard-earned money on handmade souvenirs, like a copper ring, braided bracelet, or woven items.
2. Do Your Research
If you’re looking at accommodations, excursions, or group tours, don’t just stop at the first price you see!
Doing your research and shopping around can literally save you hundreds! Plus, if you look around at the different options, you can usually find one that not only offers better service and perks, it can be more affordable, too.
3. Negotiate Like a Pro
As mentioned in my part 2 of this Southeast Asia travel guide, bartering and haggling is part of the daily life! Thus, you need to learn how to negotiate like a pro.
If you continuously forego haggling for things like souvenirs (which you should skip anyways), clothes, and more, you could be missing out on saving a lot of dollars!
4. Avoid Packaged Tours
Because you usually will lose out on money for these. Unless it’s an intricate multi-day trip that requires a tour, such as going to the Komodo Islands, there’s no point in booking a packaged tour.
But, with that said, if you want to do an organized tour, try to book it with a group and you might be able to haggle down the per person price!
Also, go with a local organization so you support the community.
5. Work for Stay
If you want to stay even longer than your Southeast Asia budget allows, pick up some work! Some places offer “free” work in exchange for food and board.
This could include working at a hostel, teaching english at a school, or offering up your skills to help the place, like social media marketing or website creation.
6. Grab Some Paid Work
If you’re SE Asia budget is running a bit low, grab some paid work! A great option is teaching English at private schools (you might need to get a TEFL — Teaching English as a Foreign Language — certificate but some places will allow you to teach if you have a good enough education, such as a Bachelor’s degree).
Otherwise, hop online and work as a freelancer! That’s how I’ve been traveling the world full-time for the past 3 years and I love it. The freedom you get with being a freelancer is unparalleled and the work can be quite lucrative as well, depending on what you’d like to do.
7. Get Travel Insurance
…and have someone else pay for your unfortunate misgivings!
If you miss a flight due to a traffic accident, your flight is delayed, lose your bags, or have a little motorbike accident, don’t dig into your own travel budget to pay for those costly events!
Get travel insurance that’ll cover you for those types of things. My favorite company is World Nomads; they’re reputable, easy to talk to, and have the most in-depth coverage for backpackers.
Always keep in mind: If you can’t afford to buy travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel. It’s really that simple.
There are my best tips on how to save money in Southeast Asia! Ready to read part 4, aka the last section in this guide? Click below!
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