17 Ways To Travel Cheaply in Southeast Asia


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Backpackers get a bad rep for being cheapskates… and sometimes deservedly so. But it’s not all about stealing food from hostels and walking everywhere in broken flip flops in the sweltering heat just to avoid paying for a taxi… Here are some real tips that work to take chunks off your budget!

1. Independent travel is the key 

The easiest way to blow a massive amount of money on a backpacking trip to Asia is book a packaged tour through one of the big well-known travel agencies (we won’t mention any names here!).

The main reason that newbie travellers (especially solo travellers) are inclined to do this is because they are, naturally, nervous about their first time travelling far from home! They think that by booking a group tour, they will have instant friends and the security net of the travel company to fall back on.

While this is a good enough reason, people undoubtedly waste literally thousands of pounds/dollars/euros like this! For example, a typical 4-week Southeast Asia tour package (tours + accommodation) will cost you around $2,000 US, while a savvy budget backpacker could experience exactly the same for literally half the price. 

Our advice? Ease your travel nerves by joining our Facebook Community, make some travel buddies and get some honest advice before you go. Book yourself into a popular hostel on the first few nights in SE Asia and you will easily make friends for your onward journey!

2. Avoid ‘packages’. Book each part of your trip separately

Use flight comparison websites such as SkyScanner to find the cheapest flights and check out local tour companies online or when you arrive at your destination. Also book your travel insurance separately, rather than as part of a package with a travel agency. In short – check out the best deal for each segment of your travels and book separately through those companies.

A little story about me: When I first booked a backpacking trip to Asia at the age of 23 I booked several flights, adventure tours and my travel insurance for the whole trip through a travel agent on a high street in the UK. I was inexperienced and nervous about my first solo backpacking trip, and apart from reading each page of the Lonely Planet and annotating every word of the Dangers and Annoyances section (this was 10 years ago!), I didn’t have a clue where to start!

The whole trip was organised very well and I had no complaints. However, when I arrived in my first destination, Kathmandu, Nepal, I realised that with a little more planning and a lot less haste, I could have done the whole thing a lot cheaper if I’d have researched the best companies for each separate element of the trip!

Another story (just incase I haven’t drilled this point home enough): When I was in Peru on the famous Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu I met three English guys who had paid five times more for their trek than I had. They had gone through a famous travel company in the UK whose package included flights, trek and insurance. I had booked my trek at the local hostel in Cusco a few days before.

The moral of the story? Even though you may want to be organised ahead of time to make sure you don’t miss out, it is always worth waiting until you arrive in a destination to check out what’s on offer. There are usually plenty of options and you may end up having a more authentic experience!

3. Couchsurf

Every savvy traveller has heard of Couchsurfing as a fun and interesting way to travel the world and sleep for free – plus bunking at someone’s place in a new destination can be an amazing, authentic way to get to know the place you are staying from a local point of view!

Check out this article written by Will Hatton on why you should try couch surfing and also read this article about one backpacker’s experience of couch surfing in Indonesia, along with 10 couchsurfing tips!

And if you don’t fancy couchsurfing, why not put a post up on Facebook and see who lives in Singapore / Bangkok / Bali – you may be surprised that you have a cousin’s brother’s long lost sister that you never knew! The world is a small place in 2020.

4. Volunteer

Volunteering in Southeast Asia can be a bit of a nightmare. Voluntourism has well and truly reared it’s ugly head in Southeast Asia and these days it is very difficult to choose an ethical organisation which isn’t simply going to rip you off. Many companies charge obscene amounts for the pleasure of volunteering but it doesn’t have to be like this. Volunteering can be cheap, it should be cheap. Volunteering can really help your budget as if you find a decent project, food and accommodation should be included… 

5. Work for food & board

Check out websites such as Work Away and Help Exchange with listings of places that are willing to offer free accommodation / food in exchange for volunteering. Work that you may get involved in could be anything from teaching english at a local school, conservation work or even offering your unique skills such as design / website creation to help somebody build their business!

Check out more volunteering options here, read this article of one girl’s experience volunteering at an organic farm in Vang Vieng, Laos, or this experience of working at an animal welfare centre in Koh Lanta, Thailand. There are loads of interesting opportunities available that could make your backpacking experience even richer!

6. Cook & eat street food

Hostels these days have great kitchens, so why not get some recipes, or take a cooking class, head to the local market and start cooking fresh food as you travel! Before you know it, you’ll be the most popular guy/gal in the hostel.

It goes without saying, if you want to save money in Southeast Asia, avoid Western restaurants and eat nothing but street food – it’s delicious, healthy and so cheap! Grab a whole juicy sliced mango and sticky rice for less than $0.50 US, fill up on a nutritious bowl of noodles for less than $1.50 US. And, perhaps a backpackers’ biggest guilty pleasure – if you want to save money – don’t spend all your money on beer!

7. Use local transport

Instead of just taking flights or the overnight VIP buses everywhere, get creative. Take a local chicken bus, hitchhike, or better still – get your own wheels! Travel by bicycle like this adventurous backpacker who spent four months cycling the Mekong Delta in Vietnam or buy a motorbike like these crazy travellers and go on an epic road trip. Note: If you want to book buses, boats and trains in advance online, check out 12Go.Asia.

8. Claim for travel mishaps

There are loads of websites to make sure that you don’t get ripped off while you travel. Has something gone wrong with your flight? Check out Flightright – who will fight your right for compensation after you’ve lost money when a flight has been cancelled or delayed… Making the effort to investigate your rights as a traveller can leave you with more money in your pocket! And more importantly – don’t scrimp on rubbish Travel Insurance. Reading the small print and making sure you’re covered for accidents, thefts, medical treatment could save you a lot of money in the long run!

9. Get a travel card

Depending on your citizenship, there are some excellent mobile banks with travel cards that can save you tons of money on expensive ATM fees! While they won’t completely prevent charges (foreign ATM machines will still charge a fee), they will prevent you getting charged back home too. Some of the most highly recommended cards are Starling, Monzo and Revolut. You can read more about the best travel cards here, as well as more money-saving tips when it comes to managing cards and cash in Southeast Asia!

10. Don’t fall for scams

Don’t be a rookie backpacker and get sucked into any of travel scams! Learning some words in the local language will make people think that you’ve been in XX country a while – even if that’s not the truth! Finally – blend in, particularly if you are traveling to places that have a reputation for being more dangerous. Wearing spanking brand new trekking gear and displaying a camera and laptop will get you mugged. Wear what the locals wear and walk with a swagger.

11. Try House or pet sitting

Did you know that you can stay in someone’s posh house for free, and you’re doing the owner a favour! Check out TrustedHouseSitters.com and MindMyHouse.com – and start house sitting today! For animal lovers – there’s also a lot of opportunity to babysit dogs and cats, and in exchange get a free place to stay!

Sound too good to be true? Check out this interesting article by our friends over at Goats on the Road who reckon they saved over $24,000 US by House Sitting! The ‘Goats’ spent 6 months pet sitting an awesome dog called Spare on the beautiful island of Grenada and didn’t spend a penny on accommodation. Now it doesn’t get much better than that does it?

12. Read blogs from expert backpackers

There’s a lot to be said for doing your research online. A bit of planning about activities to do and places to visit before you travel can save you tones of money. Find out when museums and art galleries have free ‘open days’, read blogs like this one about 10 free things to do in Chiang Mai to get insider tips from locals and expats on free things to do in each place you visit. 

13. Haggle

When it comes to buying something in Southeast Asia, pretty much anything can be negotiated. Whether your after a silk scarf for your mum, a cheap room for the night or even a tour; it’s possible to get a discount on almost anything. You just need to be polite. When haggling, treat it as a game, you don’t want to make anybody lose face (an important cultural consideration in Asia), the whole thing should be light and jovial. You shouldn’t aim to get a ridiculous discount but do ask around and find out what the going rate is for whatever it is you need. Haggling is a real skill which, when developed properly, can help you save consistently whilst travelling.

14. Hitch-hike

Hitch-hiking is one of the most fun parts of travelling. You meet amazing people, see incredible things and you don’t spend a penny. Sure, you will at some point get dropped off in totally the wrong place and be totally screwed but it’s all part of the adventure. I have hitched all over the world and without a doubt, Southeast Asia was one of my favourite places to stick out my thumb and clamber into the back of a pick-up with a bunch of orange-robed monks…

15. Spend longer in cheaper places

There’s no denying it, some countries are cheaper than others. If your on a tight budget, plan on spending more time in some of the cheaper countries; you will get more value for money and be able to try more exciting activities such as white water rafting, diving and mountain climbing; at the end of the day, for me, that’s what its all about. Also beer… beer in Cambodia is literally 25 cents! Be happy to spend weeks, months, hell even years in a cheap bamboo hut on the beach! With your ocean as your playground – what more could you ask for?

16. Make travel buddies

The more people you hang with, the more your buying power goes up. If you can cram four or five of you into a taxi, that taxi suddenly becomes crazy cheap! If you have buddies to split the cost with, your expenses go down massively – whether you’re splitting a pitcher of beer or just sharing a room. Making buddies on the road is relatively easy even if you’re a solo traveller and even if you’re a little shy – simply smile and be positive!

17. Pick up paid work

If you find yourself running low of cash, maybe consider picking up some work on the road. It’s very easy to get bar or flyering work on the backpacker circuit. If you have a fair bit of time to kill, maybe consider TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), this is a great way to earn some good money and to experience living the local life at the same time. My recommendation? Vietnam, where you can earn over $20 USD / hour teaching English in private language academies… 

So there you have it budding adventurers, hit the road – haggle your socks off, make some friends, stick out your thumb, couchsurf whenever you can, get a job (you damn hippy!), volunteer, chat with locals on dilapidated buses and spend weeks at a time drinking dirt cheap beer in dirt cheap Cambodia… Travelling on a budget in Southeast Asia really is quite easy, you just need to know what your doing!

South East Asia Backpacker Magazine is a collaboration of articles from travellers exploring the region right now. For more info on submitting an article to us, check out the ‘Become A Writer’ page in the ‘About’ section of the menu.

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Our Recommended Travel Resources

  • Join Our Facebook Group: South East Asia Backpacker Community.
  • Travel Insurance: True Traveller and World Nomads.
  • Local Transport: 12Go.Asia
  • Accommodation: Booking.com and HostelWorld.
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