People always ask us, how do you guys have the money to travel for such long periods of time. Putting aside the fact that we saved a lot of money during our “rat race” days of living in the U.S., we never spend more than we make. By contrast, many of the teachers that we work with often live paycheck to paycheck, which means they often don’t have the money to travel during our many holiday breaks, or even go out on the weekends if it’s right before pay day. Frankly, we can’t comprehend this, as we’ve both always been savers by nature. But with traveling in particular, there’s a number of ways you can save while you travel so as to allow you to travel for longer periods of time. Here’s some of our best suggestions:
Accommodation: Without a doubt, the single biggest waste of money in our opinion is accommodation. If you’re like us, when on vacation, we like to spend as little time as possible in our room so as to see as much as possible of whatever destination we’re visiting. Typically, we spend about an hour in the morning checking email and having coffee (but rarely breakfast at our hotel as we’d prefer to try a local breakfast nearby), and then an hour or so at night after we return from dinner but before we go to bed. Often times we’ll come back in the afternoon to change/shower/relax before dinner, but often times we don’t if it means missing out on something that we wanted to see in that destination. Thus, at most we spend 3 hours a day in our room, but more often two. So for us, we try to spend as little as possible on accommodation without jeopardizing comfort.
In our experience, the three most important things in accommodation are 1) good and free wifi, 2) basic cleanliness and 3) location. If it’s hot out, we’ll also try to get aircon, but often times we’ll forego it if it’s much more expensive. Re # 1, every good hostel/guesthouse worth it’s salt should have good wifi. If it doesn’t, find one that does. You can figure this out pretty easily by looking at reviews on the website you book the hotel on or on TripAdvisor. For # 2, as long as there’s a roof and it’s closed on all sides (ie, not a bungalow), it’s generally good enough for us. Again, read the reviews and if there’s consistent negative reviews re cleanliness, then choose elsewhere. For # 3, being close to the city center (or wherever you’ll be spending most of your time) means spending less time/money on transportation. Generally speaking, we like to stay close to where we’ll be at night as you can typically take public transport during the day, but not so much at night. As a guideline, in Asia, we typically spend about $15-20/night, sometimes a little more if somewhere like Japan, but sometimes a little less if somewhere like Vietnam or Cambodia. Unless you’re planning to just relax at your hotel all day, spending any more than you have to just seems like a complete waste of money. We’d rather use that money on food, transportation, activities or activities! Once in a rare while we’ll splurge on a place with a pool, but if you’re at a beach destination, just go to the beach!
Transportation: Whenever possible, we use public transport. Also, one of the benefits of long-term travel is that you can afford to spend more time getting somewhere if it costs less. Thus, even though a flight may only cost $100, if a bus is only $30, that’s $70 you’ll be saving. When multiplied by two, that’s $150, or for us, two extra days of holiday! Also, taking public transport allows you to see more of the country, and also exposes you to more locals, local customs and local food.
Another big tip is overnight buses/trains. Whenever possible, we try to take these as 1) it saves you the cost of a night’s hotel, and 2) gets you an extra day of holiday if your time is tight. Though they vary, most overnight buses/trains we’ve taken have been extremely comfortable, and we often enjoy them. Bonus tip: find out if your train//bus serves food or stops for food along the way, and if the latter, try to find out when if possible. There’s nothing worse than being hungry, or worse, bringing your own meal only to find out that food was included or you’ll be stopping for a (typically delicious) local meal along the way. Bonus tip 2: bring a bottle of whiskey or hard alcohol to help you sleep, and some movies on your computer if possible. Don’t bring beer however as you’ll be going to the bathroom all night.
Food: For numerous reasons, we try to eat local food whenever possible while traveling. Firstly, because it’s typically the most delicious food available. Secondly, because it’s also typically the cheapest. And by local food, we don’t mean fancy restaurants serving their version of local food. In fact, often times, we don’t even mean restaurant at all. Rather, we mean street food or little pop up restaurants (not permanent fixtures but rather plastic tables/chairs). Though they can be a little intimidating at first, our general rule is that the busier the place (with locals, not foreigners), the better it is. And if you’re not sure what to order and can’t communicate with the locals, just walk around and see what others are eating. Then find a waiter and point to what you want. Typically, the locals will steer you in the right direction and undoubtedly they’ll be impressed with your curiosity and sense of adventure. And you’re almost always rewarded for this bravery. Bonus tip: when booking hotels, look to see if breakfast is included. If it is, then all else being equal, choose that hotel. But you shouldn’t spend more than an extra dollar or two (at most) on breakfast at the hotel, as you can typically find a good local breakfast for the same price ($1-2 per person). Bonus tip # 2: if you’re on the road a lot, consider buying a loaf of bread and some peanut butter or jam to make sandwiches for lunch. We’ve done this often and it saves a ton of money. It’s also a nice break from the local cuisine. An alternative to this is picking up sandwiches (or sushi) at a local 7-11 or similar convenience store. Only for lunch though, not dinner. Eat local for dinner!
Alcohol: This is probably where most people waste most of their money. And I’m not saying don’t drink it (or even don’t drink it as much). Rather, I’m saying instead of wasting your money at bars and clubs, buy your alcohol from the local liquor store and drink (sometimes heavily) before dinner or your night out. One of the best things about living in Asia (or pretty much anywhere outside of the U.S.) is you can drink in the street. Thus, we’ll often pop into a 7-11, buy a small bottle of whiskey and a mixer, and make a “roadie” while walking around to figure out where we’ll eat dinner. Not only do you save money, but you also get to see more of the city while you’re walking around. Unless you’re single and trying to meet people, spending money at bars/clubs is a complete waste of money. We’ll typically have 2-3 drinks before dinner and then all we need at dinner is a beer or two. In Asia, many places (particularly the local mom and pop restaurants) let you bring your own alcohol, so there’s no point in paying their marked up prices. Bonus tip: when booking hotels, if your hotel has a balcony, that provides a great place to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail without paying cocktail bar prices. Bonus tip # 2: if you’re heading somewhere remote or somewhere where there won’t be a lot of local stores (e.g., a small island, a jungle, a mountain), stock up on alcohol before (you can pour a large glass bottle of whiskey/vodka into a large plastic water bottle for ease of carrying). You’ll be grateful later when prices are 2-3 times as much.
Bottled water: When traveling abroad, particularly Asia, you can’t drink the local water. This means buying bottled water. While annoying (and expensive), many places have water refill machines where you can fill up a small bottle of water (which costs 30 cents at a 7-11) for 3 cents or a large bottle of water (which typically costs 50 cents) for 10 cents. It may sound like small change, but when traveling for an extended period of time, it adds up. Even living in Bangkok, we fill up jugs of water every week for about 30 cents. Those same jugs cost $1.50 at a convenience store. And then we fill up our smaller bottles from those jugs. We rarely buy bottled water at the convenience store. Only once or twice a month when our regular bottles need replacing for hygiene purposes, if we can’t find a water refill machine, or if we just desperately need cold water (the refill machines dispense room temp water but if you have a fridge it doesn’t matter).
Trip Planning: Though sometimes you just can’t change your schedule or maybe you’re going somewhere for a specific event (eg, Kho Phangan for the Full Moon Party, Munich for Oktoberfest), if you have flexibility, there’s a variety of ways to save money if you plan accordingly. Flights and hotels are typically cheaper during the week, some places offer discounts the longer you stay, and if you visit fewer places for longer periods of time, you’ll cut down significantly on your travel expenses. These are just a few ideas.