I call myself a budget traveler, but I was feeling self conscious about writing this article disclosing how much money I spent traveling through Southeast Asia for 3 months with my boyfriend (check out the route we took here!). We could definitely have done it cheaper, I was thinking! But then we wouldn’t have gotten to volunteer with Elephants in Thailand, or stay the night in the tallest treehouse in the world in Laos, or God forbid miss Angkor Wat! So I’m calling myself an Experience-Led Budget traveler.
What is an Experience-Led Budget Traveler?
An Experience-led budget traveler is a traveler who prioritizes experiences while still on a budget. We spent money on an across-the-world ticket, travel insurance, and travel gear. We spent time planning the trip and taking time off from our careers. Traveling is a huge investment of time and money, and we wanted to get our dividends back in experiences.
We had a number ‘big things’ that we really wanted to do, even though they were expensive. They included volunteering with elephants for a week in Thailand, staying in the highest treehouses in the world in Laos, getting a 3 day ticket for Angkor Wat in Cambodia, an overnight boat trip through Lan Ha Bay, rock climbing in Laos and Cambodia, and taking a cooking class in every country. Those experiences are the highlights of our trip!
I’m not saying your trip is a failure if you don’t go scuba diving. I’m saying that if scuba diving in Southeast Asia is something that is very important to you, then you should go for it, even though it’s expensive!
At the same time, experience-led budget travelers are still on a budget! We shopped around for discounted guesthouses, ate mostly cheap food, walked places regularly, and often took cheaper transportation. The good news is that there are many inexpensive options in Southeast Asia that are also great experiences!
Budget Travel in Southeast Asia
Here are the ways we saved money while traveling in Southeast Asia:
- We traveled in the off season. We got discounts on some activities, souvenirs, and most importantly lodging. The cheapest hostels were still similar priced, but we were often able to book mid-range accommodations for the price of the cheapest hostels.
- Travel with a partner. Traveling with a partner is undeniably cheaper, as we could split a room for less than the price of two beds. If we wanted to try some new snack or dish, we could buy one and split it. I love solo travel, but when it comes to budget, partner travel wins.
- Eat street food. As long as it’s freshly cooked, street food is by and large safe to eat. It’s cheap, easy, and so effing delicious!
- Eat at markets. You can find a night market in most cities in Southeast Asia, and it’s a great way to find cheap delicious food.
- Take a tour. I’m not always a fan of tours, but sometimes it’s the cheapest way to get to a more remote destination.
- Buy fruit for breakfasts and snacks. It’s cheap, healthy, and local.
- Buy water from grocery stores. You can buy bottled water anywhere, but the cheapest comes in giant jugs from grocery stores that you then can use to fill up your water bottle.
- Take local transportation. Local buses are cheap and a great way to see the countryside.
- Explore on foot. Walking around a new place is free and a great way to explore.
- Get a bank account with no ATM fees! I use Charles Schwab and love it.
- However, don’t be a dick! Sometimes there’s a ‘tourist tax’, where tourists are expected to pay more than locals for things: pay it! It’s common practice in Laos, for example, for tourists to have to get off boats a stop early, and then have to take a tuk tuk to their destination, while locals get to go on to the boat dock in town. We heard a story of some tourists who refused to get off, so everybody, locals included, got kicked off at the early stop. Don’t do that!
How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Southeast Asia?
On to why you’re actually here. I’m going to give you a rough breakdown of the costs, and then provide daily averages.
Preparations and Prudence
Flight: Los Angeles to Bangkok: $556.58
Flight: Hanoi to Denver: $770.03
Travel Insurance: $430.19
Travel Clinic visit + vaccines: $173
Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in Thailand: $38.16
Total per person: $1967.96
Money Spent in Southeast Asia
Total for two people: $6768.67
Total per person: $3384.33
Tailor made clothes + gifts: $619.82 per person (completely optional!)
How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Southeast Asia Per Day?
For our total travel time of 89 days, these are the per day averages:
Complete total per day per person: $67.10
Complete total per day per person without tailor made clothes: $60.14
Total per day without flights, insurance, medical, or tailors: $38.03 per day
Since flight costs vary on your home location, you possibly have different insurance, and you can choose to not get tailor made clothing, I think the most useful number is:
$38.03 per person per day for lodging, food, travel, and activities in Southeast Asia
In conclusion, as an experience-led budget traveler, you can expect to spend about $40 per day traveling through Southeast Asia. I encourage you to actually partake in experiences that interest you while traveling, even if they are more expensive. Nomadic Matt talks about his definition of a budget traveler, and I think experience-led budget travelers are exactly what he’s talking about! Be frugal, not cheap!
In the end, our memories and experiences are the most precious things we have! But lets not get into debt while we’re at it! Are you a budget traveler, an experience-led budget traveler, or do you prefer to pay for luxury experiences while on vacation? (No wrong answer!) If you’ve traveled through Southeast Asia, what was your budget? Do you regret spending money on something, or missing an experience because of the cost? Please let me know, I’m always interested to hear other opinions!