We went to SEA, Australia and New Zealand on roughly $10,000 CAD each, and that includes paying for flights to and from Toronto, Canada. We lived on about $2,000 a month, and that had to pay for food, tours, lodging and travelling from place to place every 4-5 days, or sometimes even more frequently. Suffice to say we budgeted hard. Here are some little ways we saved a couple dollars here and there, which in the long run added up to us saving a decent amount of money.
1. Carry a Water Bottle
You live off bottled water in SEA as 99% of tap water is undrinkable. Though a large plastic water bottle at a convenience store will only cost you $0.25-$1.00 CAD, it eventually adds up. We went through 5-6 a day because it’s HOT in SEA and it’s the only thing you’re able to drink. Averaging to $0.35 a bottle and say 3 bottles each a day, you’re at about a dollar a day. Over three months you’ll have spent almost $100 on water. Now that doesn’t sound like much, but in SEA you can often find lodging for $5-$7 a night. So that water has cost you a potential 15-20 nights accommodation.
We always carried our Nalgene water bottles with us, equipped with carabiners to clip them onto belt loops or to just make them easier to carry. We got pretty good at finding clean water supplies in SEA to fill them up with. Often in public buildings (temples, museums etc.) there are water coolers you can fill up at. We also found that a lot of guesthouses have the same coolers, and if you ask nicely they’ll let you fill up there. Just think that every fill up is saving you money, not to mention a plastic water bottle from polluting the environment!
2. Share Your Ride
Tuk tuks and the like charge by trip, not by person. So if you have more people, it’s less money, just like a taxi back home. Often you can find a fellow traveller going to the same attraction or heading into the same part of town to split the ride with and save a chunk of change. And who knows, you might make a friend along the way.
3. Booking on Site
Nine times out of ten we found the price for a hostel or guesthouse to be cheaper if we booked in person as opposed to online. We tried to only book with booking.com when we were arriving later at night to assure we had a place to stay. Even then we found the asking price at the door was cheaper than the price we booked online.
The best way to go about it was to spend about 20 mins looking around for the cheapest/cleanest place. We would use MapsMe or a little research to locate where most of the hostels were or to target a part of town we wanted to stay in, and then walk around and ask for prices and look in rooms. All of the hostels will let you check out the room before you book so you can see if it’s up to your standards. The best and cheapest places we stayed were generally not online, and we only found them by doing a little exploring.
This may sound obvious, but sometimes it’s not so intuitive. We saved a fair amount of money looking up how far from the middle of town we were when we arrived at the bus station in a new city. Tuk tuk drivers will charge you a ton for a short drive into town that can easily be walked, and they’ll often lie about how far it actually is. In Luang Prabang we were told that the walk into town was an impossible 10km, when it was actually an easy flat 2km walk. If it’s 1-2km you can definitely walk it; you are calling yourself a backpacker after all.
Another thing to consider is where you book a room. We found that it was worth it to spend a little bit more on a place in the center of town, within walking distance of most of the attractions we wanted to see. Sure you can get a cheaper room farther away, but if you have to tuk tuk over to everything you’ll spend more in the long run.
Bargaining, bartering, haggling, whatever you want to call it, be prepared to exercise it in SEA. Unless the item has a price tag on it (and sometimes even if it does) you can negotiate a better price than what the local seller is trying to sell it for. Khao San Road is an extreme example, if you pay more than half of what the original price is you’re being ripped off.
If you’re not familiar with haggling, here’s a crash course. First, have a price in mind of what you would pay for the item. Then, ask what he/she is selling the item you want for. Try to not seem too interested, don’t try it on, just ask out of curiosity. When they quote the price, smile and say “oh that’s a lot”, think for a second or two, then say you give them a certain amount below what you’re willing to pay for it. They’ll say no, and quote a lower price than their original. Raise your price a bit, and go back and forth until you reach the price you’re willing to pay. If they refuse to go any lower for whatever reason and they’re not at the goal price in your head, try sticking to your guns by repeating your goal price again, indicating you won’t go higher. If they still won’t budge, politely refuse and start walking away. Often they will come after you and lower their price one more time. They might not, but you had already decided you wouldn’t pay that much anyway so it’s all good. Make sure to also do this with tuk tuk drivers. Often it’ll take a while and you’ll have to go up to a few to reach a price you’re willing to pay. Walking away works especially well with these guys.
One thing to remember though is that in their eyes you’re rich, even though you probably won’t feel rich at the time. This is also their livelihood. So don’t try to bargain down and pay nothing for their product, reach a fair price that both of you are happy with and walk away with your souvenir. The goal isn’t to rip them off, and don’t get mad at them! The best policy is to smile and walk away if things go sour. It’s always best to go into a store or market after having done some research on how much the items should cost. Bargaining will definitely save you some coin, and it’s not being cheap, it’s just how things work there.
This ones simple. Locals don’t use sunscreen, so the only reason it’s in the convenience stores is because tourists buy it. Therefore buying it in SEA means paying a lot, even more than what you would pay at home. Save yourself a few bucks and skin cancer later in life by stocking up on a few bottles before you leave. It’s hot and sunny in SEA, and especially in Australia and New Zealand, your skin and wallet will thank you.
6. Do it Yourself Tours
We found that tours are often money grabs for rich older tourists that have enough cash to not bother with exploring the area themselves. Before we committed to a tour, we always researched whether or not we could do it ourselves and save some cash. Some examples being the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market near Bangkok (saved about 700 baht each), Angkor Wat (spent $2 on a guide book instead of tons more on a guide), and creating our own food tour in Hanoi. Some we could’ve done on our own but decided to go with a tour, as the savings weren’t worth the trouble (getting to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi is a headache, but book a cruise beforehand and they drive you there themselves). A lot of things in Australia and New Zealand require a tour (Whitsunday Islands, Fraser Island, Hobbiton, Waitomo Caves, Milford Sound) which is fine, hopefully you’ve saved enough money by then to afford them!
7. Student Card
Alex unintentionally brought his student card with him, and we randomly found places that gave student discounts throughout SEA, especially in Vietnam. So if you have one bring it. We got into a couple temples and museums for half price just because we were carrying a piece of plastic.
Woolworths Supermarket was probably one of the only reasons we stayed on budget in Australia. The restaurants in Australia are very expensive, which makes sense, but is a shock when you literally only eat out in SEA and it’s still dirt cheap. Woolworths has pre made meals for $4-$6 AUS (sandwiches and salads etc.) that are two to three times less than a meal in a basic restaurant. You can still grab these meals easily without wasting a bunch of time prepping if you’re on the go. Not to mention they’re everywhere. The equivalent in New Zealand is called Countdown. Basically, eat cheaply at grocery stores in Oz and Kiwi land and you’ll save some dough.
9. Convenience Stores
We found that 90% of the time any item you’re looking for could be found in a convenience store, and that it’s cheaper there than anywhere else. This works for beer, toe nail clippers, water bottles and snacks. 7-elevens in Thailand are great, you always know you’re getting the best deal. Saving that 10-20 baht each time truly does add up.
10. Take the Toiletries
Just over 50% of hostels in SEA will provide you with toilet paper, make sure you ask the owner/front desk for some. If you do not completely use said toilet paper, don’t leave it behind. You’ll need it for the next hostel that doesn’t provide you with some, and you’ll definitely need it for the next public washroom as they rarely provide toilet paper unless you’re in a very touristy area. Locals don’t use toilet paper, they use the fun butt cleaner provided in most bathrooms. Therefore if you need toilet paper, you buy it at a tourist price, which is pretty steep. You’re much better off keeping a stash for these kind of sticky situations.
Along the same train of thought, take any little soaps provided in your bathroom as well. They’re easy to carry and will save you from attempting to read the thai labels on the shampoos in the convenience store to find that right one (we bought toothpaste that tasted like stale salt…not what we expected).
11. Buy Things in SEA
You can pretty much buy anything you need in SEA, and almost always for much cheaper than North America. So don’t over-prepare. A good example is passport photos. You’ll often need them for visas when entering countries. Alex was able to buy 4 photos for 100 baht (~$4 CAD) in Chiang Mai and get them done in about 10 mins. When we went to Costco to get them done before our trip, and they were about $3.50 CAD per photo. They also know the size of the photo and how many you’ll need for the specific countries in the area, as they deal with tourists all the time. You can buy cheap clothing for 120-200 baht (~$4-$7 CAD), flip-flops, toe nail clippers, deodorant, chargers, basically everything you need. In the picture to the right Devon is stylishly decked out in things she bought in SEA. By all means bring specialized items such as hiking shoes, rain coats and sweaters from home, but if you need a cheap pair of sunglasses or a bathing suit cover up, wait instead and buy it there!
12. Suspend Your Phone Plan
You will not be able to use data or your cellular service in SEA, or if you do it will cost a ton! There’s no point in paying for that service while you’re not using it. We both suspended our plans for the four months we were gone and saved about $50 a month each. Just call your cell service provider and ask them to suspend your plan for however long you are gone. If they say you can’t, keep asking and tell them you only want to be able to use it like a tablet. They should drop your plan down to $5-$10 a month, and since it’s only suspended you’ll be able to keep your number the same for when you get back.