The Hidden Costs of Budget Travel
Everyone knows that travelling in Southeast Asia is cheap. But, budget backpacking in the region is such a cliché that it has become far too easy for bloggers to oversell the point.
Yes, you can get bungalows on the beach for less than $10, and eat all day for $5 in some of Southeast Asia’s up and coming destinations. But those of us who claim to survive on $30 per day are playing the long game, or we have the experience and stamina to stay on budget. Forget for a moment the pre-trip costs of visas, vaccines, sunscreen, new bathing suits, bug spray etc., there are still many hidden costs that we nomads often drown out in our “Travel on $30 or less” clarion call. Some of costs outlined below apply to either short vacations or extended tours, and many apply to both.
The global economy is just that, global. As smartphones, multinational corporations, McBrands, and pop culture spread, so does economic growth, and with growth comes inflation. When I first arrived in my own Thai paradise for an extended stay, my favourite chicken & rice shop charged 30 baht. Then one day, the lady raised the prices to 40 baht. And that’s in the Thai economy—just think how much prices can go up overnight if your primary market is Western travellers?
When I arrived in Thailand this year, I got over 30 baht to my Canadian dollar. Since then, the rate has dropped as low as 28 baht [UPDATE: In March 2017 it was 26 baht]. For a 10,000 baht ATM withdrawal, that’s a $25 difference. And most Thai ATMs have fees of 150 to 200 baht on top of what my bank charges at home. In Vietnam, the rates are even higher, and many ATMs limit your withdrawal to 2 million dong, or just $100—and that doesn’t last as long as you might hope. For a 5-million dong withdrawal (about $265), I had to pay $17 in fees. Getting a bank card that doesn’t charge fees will help, but you can’t do anything about the local charges and withdrawal limits.
Most Canadians are spoiled when it comes to cheap, safe, and good-tasting water. In most of the world, however, you must buy your drinking water by the bottle—most accommodation in Southeast Asia provides a small amount of complimentary drinking water, but it won’t be enough. Drinking water is not expensive by any means, but depending on the size of container you buy (the bigger the bottle the lower the cost), you’ll be spending at least a few dollars a day on water. And sometimes you’ll be forced to buy water at huge mark ups—at busy beaches, touristy restaurants, the Full Moon Party, Angkor Wat—anywhere supply and demand allows for it. You should plan to double your usual consumption of H2O when travelling in the hot sticky mess that is Southeast Asia, and if you drink a lot of alcohol, you should triple it.
Speaking of alcohol, a night of drinking is definitely cheap in Southeast Asia when compared to the tab at home. In some places, like Vietnam, beer can be as little as 50 cents, and happy hour specials in touristy destinations offer cheap (and watered down) cocktails. But, in stronger economies like Thailand and Malaysia, alcohol is relatively expensive (compared to the cost of everything else). Beer usually costs the same or more than your plate of fried rice. Alcohol can easily increase your daily budget in Thailand by 50 percent with mixed drinks costing at least $3, and beer at least $2. And while the infamous mixed drink “buckets” offer good value, they usually cost more than your daily food budget. Buying your own drinks from the shops is cheaper, but popular bars and touristy places will mark up alcohol as much as they can—happy hour specials may draw you in, but like anywhere else in the world, bars make their money on alcohol.
Rarely do cost estimates factor in taxis, tuk tuks, airport transfers, and public transit. Transport is one of the most common scams in the worldwide tourist industry, and chances are you will overpay for transport as some point along the way. Locals take advantage of tourists in popular destinations and raise the price as far as they can (and more power to them). Even when you are paying the local rate, the costs add up. If you plan to move around a lot, one of the cheapest and most flexible transport options is to rent a motorbike—but you still need to buy gas, which costs about the same as it does at home. Each fare on public transit in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok adds up. In off-the-beaten path places, supply and demand inflates the local market rate. And because of the heat, you’ll find yourself taking taxis and motos you hadn’t planned for. The simple fact is, transport isn’t an option, it’s a must—when I missed the 100-baht bus to a small regional airport in Southern Thailand, I had no choice but to get a songthaew or large tuk tuk for 400 baht. I knew that to be the going rate, but it still stung—that 300 baht is much better spent on a massage. And don’t forget that food and drink in airports and on budget airlines is super expensive!
Price of Experience
You can’t fly all the way to Southeast Asia and not tick major experiences off your list. Actually, you can, but those dirt-poor backpackers who can only look at Bangkok’s Grand Palace and Wat Po (500 baht or $17) from the outside are a little pathetic. Do you really want go all the way to Kuala Lumpur’s Suria KLCC mall and just look up at the Petronas Towers (80 ringit or $27)? And travel through Cambodia without exploring Angkor Wat ($40 for a 3-day pass, plus a driver)? Absurd. As the kids say today, you only live once, so make sure you budget enough to actually see the things that pop up on those infuriating Buzzfeed lists!
Even if you don’t plan to buy souvenirs on your budget trip, you won’t go home empty handed. Whether it’s a sunburn on Koh Samui, a stubborn cough from the Hanoi air, blisters from walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur, infected bug bites from the jungle trek in Sumatra, or a third-degree calf burn from the exhaust pipe on a Phnom Penh mototaxi—travelling in Southeast Asia comes with its own unique souvenirs. And all of them require a trip to the 7-Eleven, the pharmacy, or (God-forbid) the hospital. If you subscribe to the “pack less stuff and bring more money” school, you’ll need to budget for self-care incidentals like aloe vera, cough drops, tissues, tiger balm, bandages, decongestants, hydration tablets, antihistamines, antibiotics, antiseptic creams, and doctor visits.
Unless you intend to spend your time in a monastery working on your Buddhist meditation technique, it’s also a good idea to budget some money to treat yourself. From fancy frozen drinks to massages to custom tailoring, Southeast Asia is a good place to indulge yourself on items at a fraction of the cost of home. One dollar for a frozen watermelon juice at the local night market? Seven dollars for an hour of massage? Fifty dollars for a bespoke cocktail dress that fits you perfectly? Don’t travel all the way there and then deny yourself. That would be a waste of perfectly good airfare.
Comforts of Home
Even the most avid foodies eventual crave the tastes of home. Whether it’s a bag of Cool Ranch Doritoes, a chocolate bar, a real salad, a pizza, an “American” breakfast, a hamburger, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, or a full-on steak dinner, chances are you’ll be dropping a few bucks here and there for items that can cost the same as they do at home (or very slightly less). Sticking to local treats will keep costs lower, but meal portion sizes are smaller than what you are used to, so snacking is inevitable. And the longer you travel, the less you’ll be able to stick to your “local food only” resolve.
In addition to massages and custom tailoring, Southeast Asia is a good place to indulge in luxury you could never afford at home. Happy hour at the Saigon Park Hyatt’s martini bar will cost the same as a couple of beers at your local pub. A night’s stay in a charming top-shelf beach resort on a Thai island won’t cost much more than a Motel 6 in most U.S. cities. A plate of seafood at the Sailing Club in Nha Trang, Vietnam, will be a fraction of the cost at your local seafood restaurant. Your mileage may vary, but setting aside $100 or so for your favourite luxury experiences in Southeast Asia is a good call—better to budget for it than to feel guilty about the expense after the fact.
Budget More, Spend Less
It’s very possible to travel through Southeast Asia on $30 a day, as many experienced travellers can attest to. But, it’s important to understand that a month of travel could end up costing you well over your budget of $1000, even if you are committed to making frugal choices. And trust me, it’s hard to be frugal when the prices are so low—in my experience, low prices often lead to over spending. “My whole bill was the price of one drink at home!” is a common cry of Western tourists new to the region. Aim for $30 by all means, but I recommend budgeting for $50 a day (if you can) and make each day about the experience, not about finding the cheapest choice possible. If you come in under budget, you’ll have more left over for re-entry, or enough to treat yourself even more.