There’s a saying that goes like this: “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then, take half the clothes and twice the money”. I agree with the clothes part, and when traveling in places like Europe, you definitely need twice the money. This doesn’t hold true in SE Asia though, where western currency goes quite far and budgeting is much simpler.
So far I’ve only been through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. This budget I created might not be suitable for the other SE Asian countries. Although, I have spoken with dozens of backpackers traveling the whole region and heard that the cost of travelling in the other SE Asian countries is pretty similar. This budget definitely does not hold true in Singapore.
Keep in mind that this is a general guideline. I have created this budget based on my MY travel standards and MY spending habits. That being said, I think that this budget can be beneficial for the average backpacker. I am neither a minimalist and I don’t splurge often nor unnecessarily. I like to keep costs low as much as possible, while still allowing myself the financial freedom to do or buy small things when I want.
Here’s what I discovered after a few months of travelling in the region:
Overall, I shoot for about $30 a day. There have been days where I have spent almost $50, and other days I got by on $15. $30 per day is a good average. It comes out to roughly $1,000 per month. That’s for accommodation, food, transportation, and buying personal items here and there. There are backpackers who can easily spend less than $1,000 per month. There are also others who are spending way over that. This is my personal budget, and it has been working out great for me. Here’s the breakdown of a good budget and a few tips to cut costs:
- Accommodation – From $3 to $12. That’s staying in whatever I could find; hostels, guesthouses, or cheap hotel/motels. The cheapest place I stayed in was in southern Laos and cost me $2.50 per night. The most expensive was around $12. I keep finding the magic number to be $7 per night for most budget accommodations in the region.
Tip: look at the cheapest price of accommodation in a guidebook such as Lonely Planet. Go to that street, and find out the prices of a couple hostels/guesthouses/hotels within a couple blocks radius and before checking out the one in the guidebook. Also, never book online unless there’s a holiday during that time or the hotel you want to stay at is particularly popular. Most places always have a room available when you arrive at their door without a reservation.
- Food – from $1 to $5 a meal, $3 to $15 a day. That’s assuming that you eat three meals a day. I eat 4 meals a day, and I am addicted to fruit shakes, so my personal budget for food is usually about $15 per day.
Tip: To cut on food costs, seek out the places where the locals go. In any country, these are the street food stalls or restaurants with only a handful of items on the menu, if they have a menu at all. The more items there are on the menu, the higher the price. Many backpackers find restaurants with Western food. They see the menu at one of these places, do the currency conversion in their head and think “that’s not bad”. Remember, the locals are eating for a fraction of that cost and so can you. Plus it’s more authentic…
- Transportation: Under $10/travel day. This one has a lot of variables. If you are going long distances each time and changing cities frequently, trying to ‘see it all’, you’re going to spend a lot. I have been staying in most cities at least 2 days, and closer to a week in places that really grab me.
Tip: Take local buses from place to place by showing up directly to the bus station early in the morning. The local buses will be less comfortable and will take a little longer to get there, but they cost a fraction of what a ‘nice’ bus does. While in any city, avoid taking a tuk tuk unless it’s absolutely necessary. They are overpriced. Instead, walk or rent a bicycle or motorbike to get around town. A bicycle is usually less than $2 and a motorbike less than $7 per day including fuel.
- Splurge items – everything that’s not necessary but fun and makes you feel good. Souvenirs, new clothes or accessories, electronics, museum entries, bowling (awesome in Luang Prabang), beer, dessert, and massages all fall under this category. This one is hard to quantify. I myself am not buying anyone any souvenirs. My weakness is for buying a new clothing item for myself every couple weeks and chucking an item that no longer works for me. In Vang Vieng, Laos I bought a motorbike for $300, definitely a splurge.
Tip: This one you’ll have to go about your own way. Remember that any objects you buy, you’ll have to lug around in your backpack/suitcase. Instead, try to spend money on experiences rather than objects.
I don’t pretend to be a minimalist. I travel light, and cut corners on costs a lot, but I don’t often deny myself something I really want for myself. This is how I find balance in life on the road and I feel happy with my travel spending and budget habits. Explore what’s right for you and you’ll have one less thing to worry about.