How I travelled Asia for 3 months with only £1,000
It is September 2019 and I’m flying back to the UK, having squeezed every last morsel out of my two year working holiday visa. I am truly gutted to be leaving the West Coast of Canada. If my reluctant homecoming featured in a movie montage it would be accompanied by Nelly Furtado’s All Good Things (Come To An End).
True to form, I began plotting my next getaway before the wheels had hit the tarmac at London Heathrow. Both my boyfriend and I wanted to escape the doom and gloom of a drab British winter and were discussing the prospect of heading overseas again. We decided on a trip to South-East Asia as we had both travelled there previously and it seemed familiar (and cheap enough) territory to set up camp for a few months. We wanted to line up another adventure and delay our inevitable British reintegration. Problem is, back-to-back travelling is totally unrealistic if you lack the necessary funds.
With hopes to fly off again in November, we had two months to salvage any savings and earn some quick cash. By mid-November I had saved what I deemed “enough” money to head off again, but with no real idea of how far my budget would get me, it was Squeaky Bum Time.
After booking a one way flight — Heathrow to Bangkok, £240 — I was left with approximately £1,000 GBP ($1,245.50 USD). By London standards, this is approximately one month’s rent and a few rounds at the pub, but I was relying heavily on memories of 90p street-side phở and cheap hostel deals.
Fast forward three months, and the moral of the story is, I made that £1,000 stretch for all it was worth: I spent an average of just £11 a day! By Western standards this is unfeasible but I can confirm this account is a work of non-fiction. When relaying this information to friends and family, they were amazed to learn I lasted for so long with so little money. While I am by no means a money management expert (just ask my boyfriend/sister/parents/anyone tbqh) I am eager to pass on the good habits I developed which undoubtedly made my funds go further…
1. First and foremost: Food
When it comes to SE Asian food, it is important to check your Western standards at the door. If you want to save money it is imperative you dabble in the street food scene, opting for local options over Western food whenever possible. This shouldn’t be too hard, considering one of the most enticing aspects of travelling around Asia is the food. Local vendors dish up the tastiest fare for a fraction of the price of ‘Western’ options. Not only are you sampling a plate of consumable culture while mingling with locals, but street food doesn’t have a fixed price tag, is often negotiable, and does not involve additional or hidden costs such as service charges or billable napkins — a common tourist trap.
What about snacks though?
If you really want to save money I urge you to embrace domestic offerings across the board. Don’t rule out foreign snacks or drinks. I have done the leg work and I can say with confidence, a lot of SE Asian chips/crisps/chocolate/candy brands do the exact same job as their Western counterparts. A great example of this are Vietnamese ‘Creamos’, the Southeastern Sister of Oreos? I guess? In Vietnam they cost about 5,000 VND (0.17 GBP) while the same size packet of Oreos can cost as much as 30,000 VND (1.03 GBP). The same goes for drinks: domestic beers can be every bit as tasty and are half the price. It all adds up, especially if you are prone to consuming everything in sight like I am!
Food courts are your friend
I am happy to confess a devoted and undying love for Asian food courts. Unlike Western food courts with their wall-to-wall junk food, some of the best local dishes are served up in food courts across Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia… If you’re feeling overwhelmed by new surroundings or finding the street food vendors intimidating, take solace in your nearest food court. The food will be cheap, cheerful and as a general rule; if it’s popular with locals, you can bet it’s the real deal. Try to Google the food court prior to arrival, as they vary in cleanliness and options. Siam Paragon Food Hall in Bangkok, Takashimaya in Ho Chi Minh City and Pavilion’s Food Republic in Kuala Lumpur would be my top picks!
Finding local gems
Eating where the locals do often results in making new friends, which is always fun! Be sure to take up any offers to dine out with these new acquaintances, as locals are more likely to dine at the hidden gems off the beaten tourist path. This means homegrown goodness with the added benefit of dining alongside someone who speaks the native tongue and can make sure you are given the best possible deal. I go with food recommendations from locals over fellow backpackers because in my experience the food tends to be more authentic and will be cheaper than what a Westerner is willing to pay.
All You Can Eat
I will admit, I can be reluctant to share food. I am a greedy little piglet who can polish off my own plate without the help of others, thank you very much! Exceptions can be made, however, in the name of budgeting, and one great way to cut costs is by ordering one meal at a time. This is because portions of noodles and rice in SE Asia tend to be excessive, as many of the countries encourage sharing. Start by ordering one or two dishes, you can always order more if it isn’t enough. It will save you big bucks in the long run, trust me.
2. Travelling as a tourist
When it comes to travel my best money-saving rule to follow is: “travel like a local to spend like a local.” For example, if you’re headed to Vietnam, you should be prepared to hop on a motorbike. This doesn’t necessarily mean driving your own, although a large percentage of backpackers go to Vietnam exactly for that reason, but embracing the role of backseat passenger. Not only is it fun to race around alongside the locals, but it’s also the quickest, most efficient mode of transport on their roads and motorbike taxis (xe ôm) cost a fraction of the price of a car.
Becoming a biker
Motorbikes are the go to mode of travel in most SE Asian countries. Vietnam has all sorts of transport but in 2018 there were reportedly over 58 million bikes on the roads compared to an estimated 2 million cars. There are several rent-a-ride apps similar to Uber and Lyft, depending on the country you find yourself in. Riding around on the back of a motorbike will always be cheap as chips in comparison to the cost of a journey in a car. It might be scary the first few times but you soon get used to. Make sure you are appropriately dressed (no skirts) and donning a helmet; don’t copy the locals on this one!
Do your own research
It is easy to get sucked into privately organised day tours and organised excursions, especially if they seem to be cheap by Western standards and are offered by your accommodation. However, one budgeting hack I highly recommend would be to do your own research prior to arriving at your destination in order to learn more about the best local offerings. By finding out which are popular local blogs and Facebook groups, you can suss out upcoming free events as well as suggestions from authentic locals who know the city best. Although some tourist things are a must, if you have access to certain blogs and social forums, you can locate recommendations and deals, avoiding traditional tourist traps that prey on tourists looking for quick and convenient options.
Fun for freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
This seems like an obvious one but why not keep it cheap and head to the beach? Beaches and parks are generally free so whenever you’re close to one, it’s a good idea to pop to the nearest market for cheap local snacks and beers before spending an afternoon in the sunshine, free of charge. If you have everything you need (snacks, drinks, SPF, your own towels etc.) with you, the beach bars and nearby hotels that hike up their prices, can’t rip you off!
3. Asia’s Must-Have Apps
HostelWorld: As the go-to platform for hostel bookings worldwide, it is well worth downloading the HostelWorld app. This way you can search for accommodation easily, keeping tabs on all the places you’ve stayed while having quick access to your bookings. This saves you needing WiFi to rifle through emails!
When it comes to booking accommodation, our prized penny pinching tip is this: Don’t prioritise places on account of they bed and breakfast offer. While this may seem like a smart way of scrimping (only £5.00 extra and breakfast is included?! Great!) you will quickly realise sourcing your own breakfast works out far cheaper than the difference in room price. If there is a kitchen on the premises you could also prepare your own breakfast or lunch to save yet! more! money!
MapsMe: I can’t tell you how many times MapsMe has been a lifesaver. It is an invaluable tool for anyone travelling without data. With MapsMe, you can download a map of your destination ahead of arrival, meaning full access to a detailed interactive map at all times, even when you have no WiFi access. MapsMe makes you feel like you know your way around, on the go, without having to rely on the internet.
Grab: Anyone travelling around SE Asia will quickly become familiar with the Grab app (see: FastGo for Vietnam.) We were sure to always comparing the price of a taxi journey using the Grab app before heading anywhere, especially because many local taxis wait at local airports to exploit unknowing tourists. Researching an approximate cost on Grab will put you in a more informed position if you need to haggle with a taxi driver.
Google Translate: Another app I am forever indebted to is Google Translate. Whenever you face a language barrier you can just take a photo, record the sentence or type in the foreign language for an instant translation. This comes in handy when reading menus, communicating with taxi drivers and deciphering timetables and signs. A worthwhile download.
Workaway: Finally, I have to hail the holy grail and patron saint of this most recent SE Asian adventure. I cannot speak highly enough of our experiences with Workaway and our volunteering exchanges. We didn’t want to commit to jobs in SE Asia for a few reasons so Workaway was the perfect solution. We formed friendships with lifelong natives in locations we may never have had the chance to visit otherwise. We gave back to local businesses and community projects, in exchange for accommodation and occasionally, meals. It saved us a great deal of money, especially when we went from Ho Chi Minh to Kuala Lumpur, a considerably more expensive city. If you are travelling in a pair or group, a one year Workaway membership practically pays for itself after your first week in an exchange placement. Even if you do it the once, Workaway will help to prolong your funds and who knows who you might meet along the way!
This post is intended to encourage backpackers who have their sights set on SE Asia but are challenged by their limited travel budget. Money definitely goes a helluva lot further in SE Asia than it does in other parts of the world and I hope these tips and tricks help others embrace the prospect of backpacking on a budget.
Comment your most savvy money saving travel tips below!
Originally published at http://april-abroad.com on April 4, 2020.