Here is the ultimate guide to backpacking on a budget. These tips and advises are based on my own experience traveling Asia for months. First thing first, there is a misconception about the cost of traveling. Not everyone can afford to travel. Let’s face the reality. However, most people complaining that they can not afford traveling are wasting thousands of euros or dollars on unecessary things. It is all about how you manage your finance and about how you set up your priority order. Buying the latest smartphone, computer or pair of shoes and spending loads on drinks every weekend is worth a month or more traveling Eastern Europe, Asia, South America or Africa. Think twice!
The good news is that if you have already managed to save up for a future trip, the following tips and advises will be easy to apply for you.
Let’s start with the basic: every single cents count! There is a proverbe that says small streams make big rivers. It is exactly the same concept when backpacking on a budget. In low budget countries, a few euros or dollars are worth a night in a hostel or several meals. It means that if you are a long term traveler who is backpacking on a budget, you should be careful with every single penny you spend.
Let me explain you why! It will clearly not affect your budget if you spend a little extra on a fancier hotel, restaurant or transport once in a while. However, once it starts to be closer to a daily basis habit it is a game of scale. If everything you spend is always a third or more more expensive than the cheapest way to go, then you will be off target by the same gap at the end of the month. This is will no more only be a few euros or dollars but several hundreds at the end of the month! When backpacking on a long term basis, the worst thing ever is to think with your native currency in mind. Think with the local currency in mind.
Let’s break it down into categories! I have listed below tips and advises for every single category of expenses which you need to be careful with. Keep in mind that the most important thing is the experience you live while traveling. You do not have to apply all these tips. Just pick-up the ones that resonate with you!
Scaling an activity interest: Unfortunately, there is not much things to leverage on the entrance fees. However, some activities are quite expensive. I know some people do not like to spoil themselves looking beforehand while traveling but I always check Google images, Flickr, Pinterest or Instagram to jauge my level of interest towards an activity if it is out of budget.
Asking locals or fellow travelers about their experience is also a great way to decide whether you should go or not. It is really useful to spot some tourist traps as well.
Teaming-up: Team-up with fellow travelers to share costs (ie. boat rides, tuktuk tours). You can also ask locals to go with them (ie. fishermen). It is a cheaper and more authentic way to explore an area. Some even bring you for free sometimes. Just because they are proud of their city and happy to show you around!
TRANSPORTATION BETWEEN COUNTRIES
Bus and boat: Always try to cross the border from a country to another one by bus or boat. There is a huge probability that it will be cheaper than getting a flight. On top, you will be able to explore some remote countryside areas you would not explore otherwise.
Flight: Always check flight fares a month or two in advance. If it seems that flight fares have a fixed price, there is no need to rush. Book it in the last few days before you leave a country.
If it seems that flight fares to fly from A to B is highly fluctuating you should be booking in advance to get a better price.
You need to be careful with the immigration law of each country. Some countries require that you get a return ticket to enter their territory. If noot, boarding the plane will be refused. It happens more than you think even though you have a clean passport.
TRANSPORTATION WITHIN A COUNTRY
This one is a big deal. It really depends on the way you want to travel and your physical ability to handle low comfort transportation. Commonly, we assume that expensive transportation is fast and reliable. On the other side, cheap transportation is slow but authentic and funky.
Local bus: Always try to get local buses. Some countries requiere that you buy your ticket from an official bus terminal and not through a questionable travel agency. Make it to the bus terminal on your own through local city buses unless you can share a taxi fare with fellow travelers. Buying tickets from a bus terminal is usually cheaper than buying it from a hostel or travel agency as you avoir commissions.
Train: Slow trains are usually as cheap as a bus journey. They usually are safer but slower. It offers another perspective of the country since the route taken is most likely to be different. Speed trains are usually more expensive than a local bus but way more comfortable. It might be a good option for travel journey over 7 or 8 hours.
Bycycle & motorbike: When renting a bycycle or a motorbike, compare prices between different hostels, guesthouse and rental places. You would be surprised to realize some charge double or triple of the standard price. Always double checked the business name on the internet to avoid scams or bad experiences. Try as much as possible not to leave your passport as a deposit. It is the most valuable thing you own.
Hitchhiking: Hitchhiking is not that common in South East Asia. You usually need to explain the concept first. It does work pretty well in remote areas though. Locals sometimes offer you a ride without even asking in some remote areas.
Taxi & Tuktuk: Grab or Uber are your friend if you can’t get where you want with a cheaper mean of transport. If getting a local taxi or tuktuk bargain as hell to get a fair price. Team-up with people to share costs.
Walking: And the very last one is walking. WALK as much as you can. When the walking time is under an hour, I always walk to avoid spending coins. But this is not all about that. I do walk because I also like to feel the atmosphere of a place and take pictures of what resonnate with me. It is the best way to engage a conversation with locals. Not forgetting that it is hard to keep up with a physical activity while traveling ; walking and cycling are good ways to stay healthy.
There is nothing better than sleeping for free. The couchsurfing website and smartphone application is your friend.
When looking for hostel or guesthouses, accomodation websites such as agoda, booking or hostelworld are your friend. I have not noticed any notable difference in raking between 7 and 10. Choose the cheapest one. However, always check bad reviews to spot important issues such as bed bugs or poor level of cleaness.
In less technology oriented countries, checking prices online without booking allow you to bargain onsite to avoid booking fees. It does not always work but it is worth giving it a try. Most surprisingly, I had to bargain to get the online price in some countries.
In less developed countries, most cheap accomodations are not available for booking online. If so, always ask to see the room first and check matrices to spot potential bed bug issues.
In some countries, a breakfast included option is the norm and a really convenient option.
In less developed countries, street food is the way to go. It is cheap as hell and usualy much better cooked thant fancier restaurants. The price difference only impact the quality of service. Who cares, really! Street food means both food booth on the street or cheap local restaurants.
While night markets are mainly designed for tourists, they are always cheap and an enjoyable experience. Morning markets are mainly designed for locals therefore the cheapest way to go. However, they are not so much to westerners standards and I find it tough to breath the smell of meat hanging unfreezed for a couple of hours. Especially since these markets run in the morning.
In high developed countries, food can be a real budget killer. There is a few ‘not so much enjoyable’ options that can keep your budget low. Just get some instant noodles from any grocery store and add boiling water. In these type of countries, hostel can have a kitchen available for guest. Buying your own food and cooking it is another option.
If heading to a touristy remote spot, food and drink prices are hugely inflated. Buy a snack beforehand or wait to be back in town.
Water: In most Asian countries, the tap water is not drinkable. You have to buy water bottles. It costs a few coins at the end of the month but you can lower down your cost by using water refill. However, please note that it is unhealthy to use the same plastic bottle for weeks once open. Change from time to time or get a proper water bottle.
Alcohol: Some countries have huge tax rates on alcohol. Keep your consumption at a minimum level or inexistant. Drinking water only will not kill you.
Here is another big topic. Bargaining can be hassle for some people and a fun game for some others. Having a sales background, I stand in the second category.
First thing first, the aim of bargaining is to reach a faire price where both parties leave each other happy. Please do not forget that countries where bargaining is a big thing are usually the poorest countries. A few cents will not change your lifestyle but it can really help them. It is not about getting the lowest price, it is about paying a fair price and not an utterly expensive milking cow price!
Asian are respectful and unconfrontational people. Learn the language basics, smile, take your time, be pushy but not arrogant.
Optimizing your travel costs means that you need to define a logical itinerary beforehand. You do not have to plan everything but try to map the places you want to see and build up your itinerary accordingly.
If possible, always choose the a visa on arrival or e-visa option since they tend to be cheaper than processing a visa request through an embassy. Depending on your nationality, most countries have a month or more exempt visa option for travel purposes.
Pack as light as you can. Ten kilos should be a maximum. You won’t need these 15 tshirts and 5 pairs of shoes, will you? Remember that you will carry all this weight on your shoulders. There is one more thing. Checking in with a carry-on luggage only is way cheaper!
TOURS AND HICKING GUIDES
This one is a big topic. It really only depend on you. Do you prefer traveling with organised tour or doing everything on your own.
If you are most likely to choose the first option, your only one way to lower down your budget is to compare pricing amongst the countless number of travel agency on site.
If you are most likely to choose the second option, I have a good news for you. Tours and hiking guides are the costliest thing of your backpacking budget. If you like to travel to avoid tours at all costs, you will be saving like crazy. Maps.me is YOUR FRIEND. It is a fantastic offline GPS tracker both available on Ios and Android. Even the tieniest trail paths are mentionned. There is a big travel community adding daily pin to help you find the best way to get the cheapest local bus, free viewpoints and anything you can think off.
Please note that despite I try to avoid tours at all costs, some countries absolutely require you to get one for life safety purpose. Countries such as Laos and Cambodia are still affected with UXO issues which are unexplosed bombs from the world war. UXO keep killing locals every year in remote areas. Guides know what they are doing and will be able to enjoy your trek in the very best way!
This is one of the biggest budget killer. Bank are sharks in the international bank withdrawals and payments. Find a bank that do not charge international operations or at least at a low cost.
The thing is that most local banks will charge each withdrawal from 3$ to 8$ USD. Your own bank is most likely to charge each withdrawal about 2€ to 3€ plus an additional 3% over the amount withdrawn. On a year, it is a lot of money worth traveling another county for a month!
Here are a two finance applications to minimize your banking fees: Azimo and Revolut. Have a look at them!
In some badly regulated countries, medecines will either do nothing or kill you. You might be sold fake medicine. Even if you are an andrenaline and risk taking person, I swear you do not play with it.
As I was running from Malarone, an anti malaria pill treatment, I had to buy new ones in Singapore. I specifically choose to pay the high price in Singapore as I kew I would get the real medicines. Thing is, I ended up paying 6 times the price it costs in France. Depending on where you live and your home country health coverage, you better get your medicine before traveling.
If you are heading to an island, you should remember that buying beforehand will be cheaper in the mainland (ie. sun blocker, deodorant, shower gel and so on).
Same as with medicine, when buying sun blocker do not go for the cheapest option. Buy one from a notable brand. You do not want to end up with a skin cancer.
I have seen a countless number of tourists with severe skin burns. You have to be completely stupid not to cover yourself with sun blocker. The sun in these countries is life threatning and develop skin cancer! Observe locals, you won’t see any of them sleeveless or shirtless under the sun at 1pm.
As you might have read in other blogs, buying apparel in Asia is most likely to be cheaper than in your home country. In this case, you should wait to be there to buy your gear.
I absolutely do not agree with this statement. First thing first, I am totally against copy and a clear defender of the industrial property. You will have two options: buying fake products or buying cheap product. In both cases, they have miserable built quality and you will need to buy a new tshirt or a new pair of shoes every month.
Please also note that fake shoes have an incredibly bad built quality. It is up to you to harm your body. I am sure, your back and knees can’t wait to be broken!
If it comes to buying a few souvenirs, why not!