Man in Sand

I’ll be honest.

I am horrible at budgeting when I travel.

I barely do any preplanning or keep track of spending: I simply look at my bank account statement to find out if I am in trouble or not.

But people ask me all the time,

“How do you budget when you travel?”

So, I decided to collect insights from proven budget travelers across the web.

They shared some valuable insights on the most cost effective-ways to travel Asia. (Or really anywhere else in the world.)

Before the trip: Saving and preplanning

Bank Account Fear

Some people do loads of preplanning. Others embrace more of a “figure-it-out-when-I-arrive” approach. (Both are better than my “figure-it-out-after-I-am-in-trouble” method.)

Ashley Hubbard is the epitome of an expert pre-planner. Ashley is a Tennessee native who hasn’t even left on her long term adventure, but has been preplanning for 8 months.

After deciding to go on a trip with an undetermined end date,

“The very first thing I did was set a savings goal and a budget. I was still in my apartment and couldn’t really set aside money from my paychecks, but I could still budget and plan how much I wanted to save.”

Soon after, Ashley moved out of her apartment. However, she made sure to sell as much as possible before heading back to live with mom. Today, Ashley continues to work and save before departing to Southeast Asia in approximately… 200 days from now. (You can view the up-to-date countdown on her blog!) All the while, Ashley has been keeping very detailed records of overall savings.

Taking on a bit of a different approach, consider Kristin Addis— an ex-investment banker turned travel blogger. Similar to Ashley, Kristin was burnt out and desired a change of pace. Also, like Ashley, Kristin bought a one-way-ticket to Southeast Asia. However, unlike Ashley, Kristin did far less planning and saving in advance.

“I worked for four years, saving up each month and paying off student loans, before I took off on my trip. I was always saving, though I didn’t know what for.”

Establishing a budget

Before arriving, many travelers set concrete budgets. As Kristin notes in her piece about Southeast Asia on a budget, many guidebooks claim that $30 a day in Southeast Asia is perfectly realistic.

However, for Kristin (and myself, included) $30 a day in Southeast Asia is just not feasible.

“The $30/day benchmark does not take into account gear, insurance, flights, and immunizations.  It’s also easy to forget that things like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, batteries, adapters, mosquito repellent, medication, and visas all need to be periodically purchased on the road. The cost seems small but when budgeting only $30 for one day, $4 on a small bottle of shampoo can really add up.”

I couldn’t have said it any better.

Nonetheless, surviving off less than $30 a day in SEA is doable.

Geri from Snaps & Blabs and her family are examples that Southeast Asia can be done on a much stricter budget. Speaking about her trip with her family (five people total),

“We actually managed to do Asia on $75 per day for all of us – much better than we expected.”

I’ll do the math for you: $75/day average for five people means $15/day per person average.

Best ways to save

Southeast Asia is known for being affordable. However, it’s easy to rack up spending without even realizing it.

Geri delves into a range of ways to travel cheap in Asia on her blog. Some of the most cost-saving tips include: traveling via land rather than air, traveling at night to save money on hotels, bargaining on transport and accommodation and traveling off season.

Nonetheless, according to Geri, one of the biggest budget-savers is accommodation. As she explains,

“Cheap accommodation is plentiful throughout Asia, but if you want cheap and not horrible, it takes time to dig around. Everything took long hours of digging and researching.”

A lesson to take away is in order to score the best deals, prepare to spend lots of time researching.

Beyond affordable accommodation, authors Shelley R. Seale and Keith Hajovsky of How To Travel For Free (Or pretty damn near it!) suggest,

“Eating street food is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to save money while traveling in Asia.”

Which is very true– eating at proper restaurants adds up; eating like a local at a market or from a street stall is a penny-saver.

For those on a tight budget that are looking forward to the some of the famous nightlife in Southeast Asia– not so fast. As Kristin (Bemytravelmuse.com) advises,

“The biggest budget eater is partying, by far. If you never buy drinks, you’ll literally save thousands. Really, thousands!”

And I couldn’t agree more. With alcohol so cheap in places like Thailand, it’s easy to get carried away. Next thing you know you’re buying buckets (alcohol-filled beach buckets) for all your new friends as you shout, “Only 3 dollars for a bucket of alcohol!?!? What a deal!” But, like anything, it adds up. 

Tracking Expenses

Nowadays there are countless mobile and web apps available to track spending. But, interestingly, most people I spoke to preferred old-fashioned methods.

After jotting down all spending on a spreadsheet for three days, Kristin realized she couldn’t be bothered writing every snack or bus ticket down. So she began mostly tracking day-to-day spending in her head. Also, since SEA is a “cash culture,” she mentally noted all money she withdrew from the ATM and how long it lasted.

On the other hand, Shelley and Keith prefer the tested and proven spreadsheet,

“For every trip that we take, I keep an old fashion spreadsheet going to keep up with all costs (plane tickets, visas, accommodations, tours, etc.) on Google Drive.”

Even more old-school than the digital spreadsheet, Geri’s husband (Snapsandblabs.com) tracks all spending by hand.

“Mr. Blab has a little notebook he carries and jots down as we go. In the evening this gets transferred to our book, the total calculated and we have an exact idea of our position financially at any point. If we go over our budget one day, the next we tighten up and we try to keep our averages good.”

On the whole, everyone pretty much agrees that tracking spending in one way or another is the way to go. As Keith from How to Travel for Free points out, tracking makes one aware of day-to-day spending. Therefore, the sooner you can take action and make financial adjustments if things get out of hand.

Where your dollar goes the farthest

While it can be said that most of Southeast Asia is affordable, at least compared to Europe or the US, some places offer more “bang for the buck” than others.

Keith found that Laos and Indonesia were the least expensive.

“Both have pretty weak currencies yet have so much to offer at great prices for food, drink, accommodations, etc. They both likewise have rich cultures and beautiful scenery to enjoy.”

After traveling in Asia, Geri thought Cambodia was the most budget-friendly.

“But, as a whole, Asia is good for those of us without a lot of money, with the exception of Japan, which is still more than worth visiting.”

Kristin also agrees that Cambodia is the most affordable country in SEA, calling it the “land of the $2 dorm rooms.”

In the end, exploring Asia is possible on any budget

People ask me all the time how I “fund trips” or something on that note.

While I may not be a specimen of budget travel, I know there are many ways to make traveling in Asia work for you and your financial situation. Lots of people have done it before; and many continue to do so.

Keith (travelforfreebook.wordpress.com) summed up budget travel perfectly. While he tries to set spending limits and stay within them, when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself,

“I’ll cough up the extra cash and make the most of the moment. Some opportunities are just worth it, and I know I can cut back on some things when I get back to my ‘normal’ life to make up for it.”

Do you have any advice on how to save money in Asia? Leave it in the comments below or tell me in a tweet!

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  • Ashley Hubbard

    Thanks for including me in this Laurence! Love reading some of the other tips as well and seeing how everyone does things. Great post! 🙂

    • Thanks again for adding your insight, Ashley! Glad you enjoyed it!