7 Tips on How to Travel South Asia on a Shoestring Budget

by Dustan Stanley
April 23, 2012

The first time that Darlene and I traveled the world we left with $600 in the bank. Fourteen months later we returned to the USA. Now we had worked overtime to raise support as a missionary, but we had nothing but promises. Most of our partners came through, but we also learned to travel on a shoestring budget. Most people think you need $5000 a month to travel the world. Well I’m here to tell you that you don’t.

Here are seven tips on how you can travel in South/Southeast Asia with very little money…

  1. Stay in cheap guesthouses. These range anywhere from $2 bucks a night in South/Southeast Asia to ridiculous, but in these areas the average is around $13-$15 a night (as of last time we traveled). The key is often to not book ahead, even though it’s annoying, and search out on the ground when you arrive. Remember, places that charge $8 a night normally can not afford ads online or English translators for a website. A great option for the traveler with no really expensive valuables is the Hostel, a room with multiple beds. These are usually the cheapest option and a good way to meet other travelers. We’re married, so we don’t take this option, but a ton of our friends do and enjoy.
  2. Travel with a trusted friend. This way the Guesthouse cost will be split and you will be safe. In South/Southeast Asia it’s by the room (when not a hostel type place), not by the person. Therefore a small room, if you are willing to share, can be half as expensive when there are two of you. Most times you can even get two beds!
  3. Learn to eat local food. Listen, almost everyone I know says they won’t eat western local food when on the road, but everyone I know does at some point. It is a part of your culture, so plan for that in the budget, but when possible eat at the yummy cart down the street. The food is usually pretty good, and it’s cheap!
  4. Research out the cheapest transportation. At first we all want to jump on a tuk-tuk/rickshaw because it’s fun, but later we discover that we’re getting three times normal price. In Thailand, learn to drive a motorcycle. In India get a nice Indian friend to get the rickshaw for you, or learn the local bargaining process yourself and haggle away. In Bangkok/Kuala Lumpur/Singapore get on the MRT/LRT trains. And here’s the best option, WALK when you can. It’s free, healthy, and you will see more of life. Just know where you are going. Get a map. Read online. Dodge the dodgy areas. When traveling from city to city find the local bus or the train, rather than flying. One option, although it is not relaxing, is to travel overnight by bus when moving to a new city. It doubles as a guesthouse and a ride. Yeah!
  5. Take it slow, and stay out of the big cities for too long. You will discover that travel costs the most, and getting around any large city is pricey. Search out those jewels surrounded by rivers and trees and kick back in nature. Find a local and stay with them, blessing them with the money you would be paying to a guesthouse. The most relaxing place we found during our first missionary journey was a dot on the map called Don Det in Laos. $5 bucks a night, $2 meals, and a river. It was perfect. We rested there before heading deep into the mountains. We had to because Phnom Penh, Cambodia had eaten our monthly budget.
  6. Get off the beaten track. The reason things are more expensive in cities is demand. Since there are SO MANY tourist prices naturally raise. However, once you leave the Lonely Planet suggested routes you will see prices drop. The Lonely Planet is helpful, but if you follow it on every step you will miss a ton of adventure and it will cost you more than you want to pay. Take a few days and look over the map, research at a local internet cafe, pray, and see where you feel the best about going. Then, GO.
  7. Don’t buy a bunch of fancy travel clothes. This is one most everyone falls for. It’s fun. You go to REi and see all these amazing goodies. By the time you leave you’ve spent $500. Listen, I’ve done this a bit and regret it. Truth is, a good pair of jeans last longer and looks better than those cool zip-off pants. I like the convenience too, and for some people it’s perfect, but now I want something that will last, and I’ve come to realize it is an industry designed to make money. Prepare, please, but don’t go overboard with stuff you won’t use. You can get new clothes on the road as well.

So there you go. That’s seven tips to save money when traveling in South/Southeast Asia. I would like to stress one last thing. Prepare. Save. Find a good budget and don’t lower it just to hurry the trip. You don’t want to turn into one of those hippies who steal toilet paper because you are broke. It is not rare to see such people. In fact, quite a few of my friends have been victim to unprepared people stealing money on buses and such. Save more than enough and go, just don’t undercut on the already shoestring budget.

What are you ideas for cheap travel? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

  • http://www.revolutionarylife.org/ Darlene Stanley

    Awesome tips babe! So true….I’ll never forget that $2-$3 a night place we had to stay because we couldn’t get any money out. Every other backpacker backed out of that place when they saw it, but we had no choice but to stay! Thank God for protecting us….was Very Dodgy. Lol.
    One other tip I’ll add with everything else you shared, so no one on a budget gets stuck, is to make sure to always have enough cash on you before leaving the city, or beaten trail cause multiple times we got stuck with no way to get money out. Most of the world takes Visa card, but not MasterCard btw.

    • http://www.twitter.com/destanley Dustan E. Stanley

      Good point Darlene. Mastercard is growing, but there are many places it is not taken. Yes, always get enough cash before leaving the trail.  Forgot that