One of our biggest concerns when planning this trip, especially as recent college graduates, was finances. After carefully planning and budgeting (see our expense reports for details), all that was left to do was to use our money wisely. At first we went through a lot of trial and error as we got the feel for traveling on our own in Southeast Asia, and sometimes we spent more than we should have. But after months of packing up our things every few days and moving to a new city, we’ve picked up on dozens of small, easy ways to save on day to day expenses. In our city by city blog posts, our goal is to help other budget travelers save as much money as possible in each destination while still enjoying their new surroundings. But there are some general tips that will save Asia-bound budget travelers money no matter where they are. Here’s what we’ve learned so far in simple bullet-point form:
- Stick together: The most important way traveling in groups or in a pair will save you money is on hotel rooms. For solo travelers, the price of a bed in a dorm may seem like a steal, but often the cost of a double room split between two people is a much better value. For example, one bed may be $5 but a double room with a fan is $8, or $4 each. Traveling together also saves money on transportation by splitting the cost of taxis or tuk-tuks, and can even save you money on rentals or in souvenir shops. One of our favorite lines is, “If we buy two (or three, or four), can we get a discount?” It works more often than you’d think.
- Stay longer: Another great way to get a hotel discount is by staying longer. We’ve gotten discounts pretty regularly by telling the staff we’ll be staying for a while. The magic number is at least four nights. Sticking to one area has the added benefit of giving you time to find the cheapest and best places to eat. Staying longer in one place also has benefits besides saving money, like the ability to make friends, see more of one area, and build a relationship with a certain town or city.
- Booking online: yes or no?: Booking online is sometimes necessary and often worth it. If you’re going to a certain city during a big festival or holiday booking online is a must to avoid the last pick of hotels. It’s also useful if you’re arriving late at night. In some places there are great deals online as well. We booked a great hostel in Siem Reap for $1 a night online. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes the cheapest hotels aren’t listed online, and useful websites like Hostelworld or Hostelbookers charge per person, which often ends up being more expensive. Finding a hotel upon arrival is time consuming but allows for bargaining and the chance to see the room beforehand. In other words, if there isn’t a worthwhile deal online and it’s not a peak travel time, booking in person is always the wiser choice.
- Become a regular: Being a regular is the best, because it’s a sure way to put a smile on a small-business owner’s face. But it can also save money in unexpected ways. Every now and then we got freebies from our favorite places, like free pineapple from our favorite restaurant in Siem Reap, or free bananas and shakes from our go-to sandwich ladies in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Yay for free stuff!
- Steer clear of tourist restaurants: Although great every now and then for comfort food, tourist restaurants usually overcharge for local specialties. The best way to save money and get a real taste for local food is by eating in local eateries or opting for street food.
- Walk everywhere! Transportation costs like taxi and tuk tuk fares may seem cheap at first compared to Western prices, but it adds up quickly. We walked so much, I broke clean through two pairs of sandals. Walking is a great way to get to know a city, and the best part is, it’s free!
- Rent bikes: When a sight is too far to walk, bike rental is a great alternative. This is especially true for attractions that lay outside the city. A 10 km tuk-tuk ride may be spendy, but bike rental is around 1 or 2 dollars a day and you’ll see much more on a bike than you will out the window of a taxi.
- Take local transportation: Tourist attractions are always more expensive than just the entrance fee if you’re planning on taking taxis or other expensive forms of transport like tourist buses or tuk tuks. In most large cities, local transportation is easy to use with the right information, and is always a fraction of the price. Ask local friends, your hotel staff, or the waiter at your favorite restaurant what bus to catch to get you from A to B, and have a map or a pen and paper handy to find out where to catch it. When traveling long distances, always check to see if there are local buses you can take instead of tourist buses. Make sure you research the most affordable form of transportation available beforehand (i.e. is the train or the bus cheaper?) and see if you can buy bus tickets at the bus station instead of through an agent (it’s usually cheaper that way).
- Filter your own water: Filtering your own water on a long trip is a good idea for reasons other than the money you’ll save; I consider a water filter an absolute essential for a backpacker in Asia simply because of the impact buying bottles of water has on the environment (especially in a place with no recycling facilities like much of Asia). Filtering water will also give you more of an idea of what it’s like not having easy access to clean water, a state much of the world’s population still lives in. But if you need more convincing, filtering water can save you a ton of money! We used my Katadyn microfilter to pump our own water on our trip. This filter can purify up to 200 gallons of water with one cartridge, depending on water quality. Based on the length of our trip (taking into account time spent with friends when we didn’t have to pump water) and the fact that we pumped approximately a gallon of water each day for the two of us, I estimated we pumped around 177 gallons of water with our filter, or 22,656 ounces. That’s equal to around 686 1 liter bottles of water (that would no doubt be in a landfill or a river by now). Priced anywhere from 50 to 75 cents per bottle, we saved between $343 and $514 over seven months by filtering our own water. No brainer? I think so.
- Hand wash your laundry: For short trips, having your clothes laundered is actually pretty affordable. But for a long trip like ours, it adds up. Pick up some cheap powdered laundry detergent at your local market before you leave, and transfer it into a heavy duty gallon sized Ziploc. Hand washing clothes in the bathroom sink may seem like a hassle at first, but I grew to like it. It made me feel more connected to my clothes. And I did seven months of laundry for only a few dollars!
- Get food to go: if you know you’ll be spending lunch at a busy tourist attraction, avoid the marked up prices and get food to go from a local establishment beforehand. Lunch stops on long bus rides are sometimes expensive as well, so this is also a good idea when traveling overland.
- Join rewards programs: Without frequent flyer programs, our trip may never have happened at all. If you use a credit card, make sure it’s a rewards credit card like the AAdvantage card from Citi or Chase's United Explorer card (both of which give you bonus miles just for signing up!). However, please only do this if you plan to be responsible with the credit card. For long trips, credit cards are not a responsible method of payment, outside of emergencies. Joining other rewards programs that have no membership fee is also a good idea, like hotel rewards programs. At the very least, make sure you’re enrolled in frequent flyer programs for the airlines you use so you can accumulate mileage for your next trip.
- Join Couchsurfing.org: Couchsurfing is not only an incredibly rewarding experience on a personal level, it can save you money in several ways. The most obvious way is by saving you money on a hotel room. While couchsurfing should not be abused as simply a free hotel service, it is nice not having to pay for a room. Other ways CS can save you money: free meals (sometimes, depending on the host), tips on where to find the best deals on food and travel, knowledge about the local transportation system, and unbiased advice from a friend on the ins and outs of their city.
- Ask the locals: When you don’t have a Couchsurfing host to rely on, go out of your way to ask other local friends for advice. Be sure to ask someone unbiased. The waiter at your favorite restaurant will give you better advice on tourist attractions and bus tickets than a local trekking guide or even your hotel staff (who usually have package deals to sell you). Ask someone at the local market where the best, cheapest places to eat are. Most of the time you’ll find complete strangers more than willing to help out!
Of course, common sense and good research are always your first resources when it comes to saving money. Never take the first deal you come across, be it flights, hotels, or souvenirs, and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. An informed traveler is a happy traveler! And now you know. For more questions on how to save money, please refer to our expense reports or send us an email or comment and we’ll be happy to answer!