Southeast Asia is a beloved backpacker destination for several reasons. From the amazing food to the beautiful sights, there is a lot to see and do in this region. But it’s the low cost of living and travel that’s particularly attractive for budget travelers.
From street food to hostels, you can travel around Southeast Asia for as little as 10-15 EUR a day. I have done two long trips to Southeast Asia and never spent more than 300-400 EUR a month.
Plane tickets might be a little more expensive, but once you’re there, your dollars or euro’s stretch a lot further in Southeast Asia than they do at home. To make the most of your cash, follow these tips for budget travel in Southeast Asia and you shouldn’t have any trouble staying in your budget.
Stay in hostels, but don’t book in advance
Staying in hostels is part of the quintessential budget backpacker experience. From dingy dorms to boutique private rooms, there is a hostel for every type of traveler.
The best thing about staying in hostels is the social aspect. It’s the best place to meet other backpackers, make friends and find travel buddies. I’ve never had as much anywhere as in hostels.
There are a lot of hostels and guesthouses in Southeast Asia. A lot. So they rarely fill up*. And most of them, especially the guesthouses run by locals, don’t have online booking.
So instead of booking ahead at that hip boutique hostel for 5 EUR a night, walk around and bargain at a guesthouse to get a bed for 3 EUR a night. Not only will you have a more authentic experience, you’ll save some money as well.
The one thing you should book in advance is your ticket there (and possibly your return ticket). Long distance flights are generally cheapest 5 months in advance and on Tuesdays. There’s actually a whole science behind it!
*The exception to this rule is during high-season and holidays. For instance around NYE or a local festival, you may want to book a room just to be sure.
Eat street food
Food is generally cheap in South East Asia, but nothing compares to street food. Not only is it usually the tastiest, by eating outside you can often get meals for as little 1 EUR!
Since most hostels in South East Asia don’t have a communal kitchen, eating out three times a day can add up. But street food is the best way to get authentic, cheap and tasty meals throughout the day.
Street food can be a dodgy and you don’t want to get the dreaded “Bali belly”. As a general rule, only eat at stalls that are busy and have a quick turnover. You don’t want to eat anything that’s been lying out in the sun all day.
Follow the locals and pick places with a limited menu (1-2 items tops) to find the best food.
Take public transportation
Public transport in Southeast Asia is generally super cheap. It is often not that dependable and may take a little work to figure out, but it can save you a lot of money in long run. Especially night buses, that are fairly comfortable and save you the money of a night in a hostel.
It’s also a much more sustainable way to travel than flying.
Cabs and tuk-tuks are a lot less expensive than they are in Europe and the US, but they still can’t beat the prices of busses. The one exception is when you’re travelling in a larger group and going a short distance. In that case, sharing a Grab (Asia’s answer to Uber) can come down to as little as 50 cents a person. In Vietnam there are even Grab Bikes, where you ride on the back of a motorbike!
HelpX, WOOFF and Workaway.info are worldwide volunteer platforms where you can find hosts looking for a hand at any of your destinations. In exchange for a few hours of work a day, you get a bed and food.
Not only is it a great deal that saves you a lot of money, but you get to contribute to exciting projects, meet cool people and experience the local culture. Volunteering works especially well if you are planning a long trip, as some places do require a minimum stay of several weeks or months.
In some places, especially touristic islands, you can find temporary jobs in exchange for food and accommodation. These are usually hostels and restaurants that like to employ backpackers that speak English to help with the tourists.
I know, it’s awkward. It can be uncomfortable haggling over what essentially comes down to pennies on the dollar, but you should still do it.
Not only because any money you save you can spend on something else, but also because bargaining is a vital part of South East Asian economies and culture.
It is so expected that starting prices at markets may be as high as 80% over value. By paying the asking price you are proving that you’re a dumb tourist and overinflating the market.
In some places, tuk-tuk drivers will even refuse to transport locals as they stand to make a lot more if they wait for a tourist to come along. So while you should be prepared for a little tourist tax, it is encouraged to bargain for a good price when it comes to anything without a fixed price, such as tuk-tuk rides and stalls.
My tip: calculate the max price you’re willing to pay for an item (I would usually say 50% of the asking price), start about 25% below that and don’t go up to quickly. For instance, if the asking price is 10, my max is 5 and my starting offer would be 2,50. That gives you a little wiggle room. And if your offer is below value, the seller will definitely let you know.
Traveling in Southeast Asia is amazing and doesn’t need to break the bank. As a backpacker, it’s one of the most budget friendly destinations. What are your best tips for traveling in Southeast Asia on a budget?
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