Backpacking on a Shoestring: 28 Budget Travel Tips!

Backpacking Southeast Asia on a Budget: A Shoestring Guide!

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Being able to travel on a budget is essential for spending more than a few weeks a year away from home. We all know travel is not cheap. But it’s not as expensive as Karen from down the road or your local travel agent would have you believe either. 

Budget backpackers are not a new phenomenon. Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler pounded their way from Europe, through Asia and to Australia in the early 1970s. Rolf Potts has been ‘Vagabonding’ his way around the world since the turn of the millennium and humans have been migrating across the planet for the last 200,000 years, often with nothing more than a leather satchel and knowledge of the land.

Sure, travelling today will cost you more than it cost the Wheelers and unless you religiously stick to chicken buses, you’ll be spending more than Rolf Potts but this doesn’t mean travel is out of the reach of average Joe. 

Whilst there are unavoidable costs involved in travel (travel insurance, airfares, visas), there are plenty of ways to make travel affordable for almost everyone. Even if you only listen to half the tips listed below, you’ll be well set to extend your trip by weeks, if not months!

Read on to hear tried and tested methods of saving money on the road!

Man wearing daypack walks next to river.
Backpacking Southeast Asia can be a life-changing experience!

Planning Tips That Will Save You Money During Your Travels

Before you can successfully start budgeting for your backpacking trip, you need to make a few decisions about your travel style. 

If you haven’t quite got your travel fund up to full strength yet, check out this handy guide about saving to travel to make sure you have THE MOST money possible when you finally jump on that plane! 

1. Decide between luxury vs longevity

I hate to be the one to burst your bubble here but travelling on a budget means making sacrifices. Unless you’re totally minted (in which case, why are you reading this?!), you’ll have to decide whether you’re willing to trade comfort for time. 

If hostels and local buses aren’t for you then fair enough, all travellers are different. However, don’t expect $2000USD to last long in Southeast Asia if you only ever choose four-star hotels and domestic flights to get around!

If you keep your costs low and travel as cheaply as possible, $2000 will easily see you through two months in Thailand, let alone its cheaper neighbours!

2. Pick your destination

Arguably more important than deciding HOW you want to travel is choosing WHERE you want to visit. Whilst the majority of Southeast Asia is cheap by western standards, somewhere like Singapore can be as expensive as visiting Paris or New York. Conversely, travelling through Laos, where you can buy yourself a meal and a beer for less than $2, is super affordable. 

Southeast Asia has plenty of countries that won’t blow the bank so spend most of your time in the cheapest and your money will last longer than an elephants memory! That statement is not based on any scientific evidence. I just thought it sounded good… 

Laos is a great destination for budget backpackers.

3. Work out your expected budget

It’s sometimes easier to look at the money you currently have before making decisions about where to go or how long to go for. Consider how much money you have right now and how much more you can save before you head off on your life-changing adventure.

Be honest with yourself on this one, if you are only going to have $1500, you don’t want to plan a trip that would cost you $3000. Knowing your expected budget will really help with your trip planning and should stop you having to call the trip off early because you’ve overspent or vastly overestimated how much cash you have to throw around. 

4. Get a bank account that offers travel cards 

While I cannot speak for citizens of the USA, if you come from the UK or Europe is a new wave of mobile banks that can be a travellers best friend. Most of them come with debit cards that have zero foreign withdrawal fees, so you’ll save yourself a fortune at ATMs! You’ll still be charged a small fee by the ATM itself but unlike most major banks, they do not take a cut for letting you use your card abroad. When using foreign ATMs, you’ll be asked if you would like to use the ATM conversion rate or your bank’s conversion rate. Always pick your bank’s, you’ll get a way better exchange rate!

The most highly recommended banks are Starling (affiliate link) (read our full review of their service here), N26 (affiliate link), Monzo (not affiliate link) and Revolut (affiliate link). 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!

bank card
A travel card is a great thing to get for your trip!

Unavoidable Travel Costs and How To Reduce Them

As already mentioned, there are some things you just have to pay for but there are always ways to make them a tad cheaper. 

5. Flight Hacks

Flights are one of those annoying expenses that you just cannot get around but that doesn’t mean there aren’t little tips and tricks to make flying to Southeast Asia cheaper and easier. It’s well known within the industry that Tuesday is the cheapest day of the week to book flights, as there is less interest on a Tuesday. 

You should also search through multiple comparison sites such as Skyscanner or Momondo to find the best deals. Just remember to do this in a private browser so the cookies don’t appear on your computer. As soon as the airlines know you are looking to fly, they will bump up the price (sneaky bastards). 

Always remember to clear your cookies to find the best flight deals!

Taking indirect routes with long layovers can also be a great way to save money on flying and if you plan it right, can even allow you some time to explore a city you’ve never visited before. Some layovers can be multiple days which gives you plenty of time to see more of the country than just its airports. 

Collecting air miles is also a great way to negate the cost of flying. There are several ways to do this but the most common is to use credit cards that give you points which can be exchanged for discounted flights. I recently got myself a British Airways American Express card which I use for all my normal spending. Just remember to pay off the balance in full each month or collecting the points becomes a waste of time as you will lose more money to the interest payments!

6. Choose good travel insurance

Let’s just deal with the elephant in the room: insurance sucks. Not only will most insurance companies do their best not to pay out when you really need them but they also make their premiums eye-watering for long term travellers. Of course, there are some really good travel insurance companies out there, you just need to know where to look. Check out our best travel insurance for backpackers guide if you want to see our top picks for affordable travel insurance or  if you’re just confused by all the bloody legal-speak that the policy wording involves. 

Even though insurance is a drag, you really don’t want to be stuck without it. Most of the time you won’t need it and depending on where you are in the world, you might find that paying for basic medical treatment is a better use of your time than messing about with making a small claim. It’s for those big problems that having travel insurance really comes into its own. Have you ever thought about how much a medical helicopter would set you back if you get super ill while travelling through some of the far-flung islands of Indonesia or the Philippines?

7. Research your visas

In an ideal world, nations wouldn’t exist, borders wouldn’t exist, visas wouldn’t exist and governments wouldn’t exist (sorry I let my anarchistic views come through a little there) but that isn’t the world we live in. Visas are an inevitable part of travel and there really aren’t many ways to make them cheaper.

Some countries will charge slightly less if you get them in advance as opposed to at the border which is also a good tip if you are looking for a visa with longer validity. It’s often only possible to get long visas if you book them in advance. Check out this comprehensive visa guide to Southeast Asia!

Sadly, there are little to no ways to make visas significantly cheaper. As a general rule, you will have to pay whatever the government of your destination country deem you should. 

When it comes to visas, you also need to be aware of the length of time you are allowed to stay in a given country. While most countries in Southeast Asia won’t be throwing you in jail for overstaying by a few days, they will fine you and can even ban you from returning. Make sure you leave before your visa expires, or it’s like flushing money and opportunity down the toilet!

Passport-stamps-visas
Visas are sadly a necessary expense of travel.

How To Save Money While Travelling

8. Choose your accommodation wisely

The number one outlay for a long trip is likely to be accommodation. Even staying in the cheapest beds you can find, which is never recommended, will end up setting you back a fair amount over the length of your travels. Despite this, you will be pleased to hear that there are ways to keep your accommodation costs down!

  • Stay in Hostels

Southeast Asia has some of the best and most affordable hostels in the world. Take advantage of this and lay your head in some stunning locales for very little cash!

  • Choose big dorms over private rooms

Even in hostels, private rooms are pricey. They are nice for the odd night here and there but staying in large dorms is usually around a quarter of the price of a private room. I understand that travelling couples want their own space but if you can reduce the number of nights you spend in private rooms, you will significantly extend the length of your trip.

  • Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing is an amazing resource that connects local hosts with travellers. Essentially, as a traveller, you can find locals who are willing to give you a place to crash FOR FREE! There is a small catch though… 

Couchsurfing always used to be a free to use platform. However, the impact of COVID-19 has left them struggling and they have had to introduce a mandatory member contribution to keep the platform going. This is hardly a big ask though as the cost is just $14.29 per year if paid upfront and this can get you an unlimited number of free stays. 

You may get a sofa, an air mattress in the living room, or even your own room to sleep in for a night or two. Whilst there is no real way of knowing your sleeping situation until you arrive, most hosts are very forthcoming with information about where you will lay your head at night. 

As well as costing you no money, staying with a Couchsurfing host is a great way to get tips and recommendations for things to do in the local area. Read this post all about why you should try couchsurfing!

Some hosts are very generous with extras while others will just leave you alone to do your thing. For example, when my girlfriend and I stayed with a Couchsurfing host in Bolivia, we were treated to breakfast and dinner every night. We were even allowed to stay for three nights longer than we originally agreed to because the hosts had other guests who pulled out at the last minute! 

Drinks with new friends on the Maldives Group Tour!
Couchsurfing is a great way to meet new people.

  • Housesitting

Have you dreamed of living in a high rise apartment in Bangkok or a condo overlooking jungle-covered mountains? Well, thanks to sites like Trusted House Sitters (affiliate link) and Mind My House (not an affiliate link) you can. FOR FREE!

Homeowners looking to spend a few weeks or even months away from home often don’t like to leave their place unattended. So instead of paying someone to check on the place every day, they use a house sitting website to advertise their property to prospective house sitters. 

As a house sitter, all you need to do is be reliable, friendly and agree to look after their home. You might find yourself doing a few hours of work around the house; looking after pets or watering plants but that’s a small price to pay for having a place to crash for an extended period. 

Be aware, some of the best gigs can be hard to get when you are first starting out house sitting. The system is built using reviews so until you’ve managed to land a few house sitting opportunities, you will have little to no reviews, meaning the homeowner will be taking a bigger punt on you. Although this can be annoying, you can’t blame them for wanting someone reliable to look after their home!

  • Camping

While camping is a great way to save pennies when travelling, you need to be careful where you pitch your tent at night. Most countries on the backpacker circuit will have plentiful campsites and places designed for those free-living tent lovers but these still cost money, albeit significantly less than a hostel. Check out these great camping spots near Chiang Mai, Thailand for some more inspiration!

It’s when you get into wild camping that things get more complicated. A lot of countries around the world have laws forbidding wild camping – imagine that, a few rich folks in government deciding that the rest of us can’t sleep for free at night… Whilst these archaic laws are predominantly designed to stop homeless people from having a marginally easier life, they do impact the money-saving backpacker too.

If you are going to try your hand at wild camping make sure you find a nice secluded place, preferably not in view of any roads, footpaths or houses and follow the leave no trace policies

Camping on the beach
Camping is a great way to save dollar!

  • Hammocks

Hammocks, much like wild camping can be an amazing way to save money on accommodation. Be aware though, slinging your hammock between two random trees on a beautiful beach still counts as wild camping, so make sure you follow the same guidelines as with a tent. 

This is more common in South America than in Southeast Asia but some hostels do have space for hammocks. While you’ll still be paying to whack your hammock up in their property or on their grounds, it is often a fraction of the price of even a dorm bed!

9. Eat Local or Cook Your Own Food

We all have to eat (even the supermodels of the world have to get their sustenance from somewhere) so one of the best ways to save money while travelling is to reduce your food costs. The most effective way of doing this is to avoid restaurants and especially big chains. I know we all crave a trusty McDonalds after a heavy night but you’ll be paying way over odds for your meal. 

Instead of relying on the brands we all know and (some of us) love, opt for the local street food. Southeast Asia is arguably the best place in the world to experience eating from a paper plate, crammed into a tiny plastic chair, tucked away next to a busy, dirty street… I’ve not really sold it have I? The fact of the matter is, Southeast Asian street food is a right of passage for backpackers and once you’re over the initial uncertainness, you’ll come to love the entire experience. Plus, you’ll be paying less than $2 a meal in most places!

Of course, there will be some backpackers who just don’t feel up to eating street food constantly and will instead want some home comforts. The first time we went travelling, my girlfriend was very much in this camp. Eventually, we found street food stalls selling cheese sandwiches and I’ve never seen her so happy!

You can also save a bomb by buying basic ingredients from local markets (or supermarkets but local markets are cheaper) and utilising the cooking facilities at your accommodation. This obviously depends on where you stay but most hostels that cater to the budget backpacker will have a kitchen or cooking facilities that you can use. 

Green Sleep Hostel kitchen
Many Southeast Asian hostels have communal kitchens.

10. Drink The Local Booze

Much like with eating, a good chunk of money can be saved by scrutinising your drinking habits. I’m not suggesting you don’t drink, you’re a backpacker, that would be ludicrous. What I’m saying is swap your drink of choice out for something cheaper, preferably something that is brewed locally. Check out this post for some of our favourite drinks from Asia!

Imported beer like Heineken will cost a small fortune in Southeast Asia (it’s not even that great…) but if you stick with the local specialities, you’ll see your money go much further. The added bonus of this is: most local booze is stronger than you’d find at home!

With that said, not all cheap booze is good booze. Indonesian Arak has been killing locals and backpackers for years. I know we are saving money here but avoid this for sure. If you can’t afford to drink safely, just don’t drink!

11. DIY it or Embark on a (Good) Tour

What’s the point in travelling if you are only going to see the inside of your dorm room? There isn’t one. The good news is that you don’t always need to book expensive tours to see the sights. It is possible to visit a lot of the main tourist attractions in Southeast Asia independently. 

By organising your own transport, such as taxis, tuk tuks or boats, you can get close to, if not right up to, many of the main attractions for much less than an organised tour costs. Likewise, you could spend the day trekking up to an amazing viewpoint instead of getting in that minibus arranged (at a cost) by your hostel. Not only will you spend less but you’ll have a completely different experience to most travellers!

That said, it’s not always cheaper to do things by yourself. There are plenty of budget tour agencies about, who can get you to the most famous spots and guide you around the place for less than the taxi ride. They can only afford to do this if they ship large numbers of people to the attractions every day though, so it is worth remembering that you are unlikely to get much peace to enjoy the destinations! 

If price is more important than group size, that’s fair enough. Make sure you do your research before deciding on whether to book a tour or do it yourself so you can find out which is the cheapest option!

If you find yourself a tour agency offering suspiciously low-cost tours, it’s worth looking into their reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, Google or even Facebook. Make sure they are ethical and not causing more disruption than is necessary to the environment and local people. 

Tour guide
Responsible companies like Sumatra Orangutan Discovery will invest in the local community.

There are A LOT of cheap agencies out there who really don’t give a toss about anything but your money. Watch out for them. It’s better to pay a bit more to go with a good company or just do it by yourself. 

Of course, there are some places (many of the Galapagos Islands for example) that it is impossible to get to independently. For this, you will have to get a tour. There are also times where a tour can offer you something that independent travel cannot. 

The Maya Bay tours are a prime example of “you get what you pay for”. The cheap tours will take you there at peak times when the beach is crammed full of people. The boats are not great quality and will often be spilling engine fluids into the fragile ecosystem, leaving the whole day tainted from the start. 

If you go with a more reputable company, you will pay significantly more but get a much rewarding experience. When I visited the bay in 2015, we arrived at the beach after most of the tourists had left. Within half an hour, we were the only people there. The tour guides handed out buckets of booze as well as a few joints (we were all young backpackers once…) and we spent a few hours watching the sun go down, playing games and enjoying the serenity of the bay. By the time the sun had set, we jumped back on the boat and were able to go swimming with the phosphorescent plankton. In hindsight, it maybe wasn’t the safest thing to do considering how wasted I was but it is one of the most memorable nights I have ever had travelling. The night ended with us, on the only boat in the bay, sleeping under the stars on the deck, before heading back to Koh Phi Phi in the morning. Yeah, it cost a lot but it was worth it. 

Now I know I’ve been banging on about independent travel as the cheapest and most ethical way of doing things (most of the time) but if you are nervous about doing things by yourself, don’t have time, can’t be bothered with the planning or want an experience that you can’t get by yourself, check out our tour booking platform. Here we only sell trips that have been tried and tested by members of our community. We work with small companies who offer unique experiences to backpackers and can show us what they’re doing to help protect the environment and local communities. 

We charge significantly less commission to the tour providers than some of the bigger platforms, so those running the tours can make the most of having backpackers sent their way. While we do make a little money on each tour sold (which goes towards the upkeep of this site), that is not our primary objective. We want to make sustainable travel possible for everyone as well as promote small local businesses who really care about what they do. 

12. Take advantage of hostel events

Most busy hostels will have free (or at least super cheap) things to do each night. In some hostels, these events will be for only their guests but if the hostel has a bar that is open to the public, it is common for them to open their events up to anyone as well. 

These can range from quiz nights (often with free drinks as prizes), fancy dress nights, dance classes, yoga and meditation sessions and even cultural experiences like market or food tours. 

Lullaby Hostel - cooking class
The famous cooking class offered by Lullaby Hostel!

13. Choose free walking tours

There’s no point in travelling if you are going to spend every second hiding in your hostel so you don’t have to spend anything. The point is to get out there, experience new cultures and meet new people. 

This is where free walking tours come in. Not only are they extremely budget-friendly but the guides tend to only make money from tips, meaning they put on a good show! A normal walking tour lasts between 1.5 – 3 hours and you can expect to walk for at least a few miles through the city to see the main sites. While tipping is not mandatory, it is good practice to leave around $5-$20 USD per person, depending on which country you are in. If you feel the tour was particularly good, then leave more but if it sucked, leave less.

14. Haggle

In the USA and Europe, it’s been drilled into us that the only time you can haggle with a trader is when you are buying a house, car, or other massive purchase. In much of Southeast Asia, this is not the way things are done. 

It is perfectly acceptable and often highly encouraged, to haggle for many items across the continent. There are a few basic haggling rules to learn which will help you save money and more importantly, have fun interacting with locals!

15. Utilise your contacts

If you have friends or family members who live anywhere near where you plan on travelling (I’m talking within a 24-hour bus ride) then hit them up. Not only will they be stoked to see you and offer you a place to crash (assuming there’s not some long-running feud) but they are bound to have some great insider tips on things to do and see in the local area. They may even offer to be your tour guide for a few days! 

If you don’t have any family or friends anywhere nearby then go one step further, ask your family and friends if they know anyone who would be willing to put you up for a few nights. You might find yourself with a whole bunch of new pals you never expected to make! 

Even though staying with someone for free is nice, remember not to overstay your welcome and don’t be a slob. Pull your weight around the house and leave before they want you to or you might never be invited back!

Geraldine Forster and friends
Travelling allows you to make friends all over the world.

16. Get a student or teacher card

If you are a full-time student then you qualify for an International Student Identity Card. This gives you access to huge discounts across the world. The card can be used for discounts on package trips, entry to monuments and historic sites as well as air travel!

With an initial outlay of roughly $15 they are a great deal as the money you will save over the card’s one-year validity will easily outweigh the initial cost. 

If you are a full-time teacher or professor, you will be eligible for the International Teacher Identity Card. For the same price as the ISIC, you can have almost all the same benefits and you’ll even get an extra four months validity on each card!

17. …Or an international youth travel card

Under 30 but not a teacher, professor or student? Fear not, there is a travel card for you too! While different countries recognise the International Youth Travel Card in different ways, most let you use it in exactly the same way as the ISIC and ITIC’s. 

So, for the same price, you can have access to almost all of the same discounts as teachers and students. Just for being under 30!

18. Choose a local SIM card

Like any true millennial knows, travel without social media isn’t really travel, is it?! 

Okay, so that’s actually a load of old codswallop but these days you’ll be hard-pressed to find a backpacker who isn’t Instagramming the shit out of their trip. To save yourself from those eye-watering roaming charges, grab a local SIM card in each country you visit. It’s way more cost-effective way than getting an international SIM or just relying on your regular carrier to provide you with that vital connection!

SIM card for iPhone
Investing in a local SIM is the best way to stay connected on a budget.

19. Pick your transport wisely

After accommodation, getting around is going to be your next largest expense. Of course, there will be costs you can’t avoid when it comes to travelling from one place to another but there are certainly ways to make the experience a little lighter on your wallet.

  • Buses

In an ideal world we would all hop on a plane and be at our destination within an hour or two but not only does flying cost way more, it’s also even more damaging to the environment than we originally thought! Save your bank balance and the planet by using buses instead!

  • Local Buses

You could only travel on ultra-comfortable VIP tourist buses, that come with more bells and whistles than you could ever need or for a quarter of the price, hop on a local bus. The local buses will travel slower, have a strong aroma of exhaust fumes mixed with sweaty bodies and potentially be full of screaming children (or animals) but they give you a chance to experience local life and save you a butt load of cash. 

  • Night Buses

Is there a better way to save money than get a night bus? 

These usually cost significantly less than their daytime brethren and as they travel through the night, save you money on accommodation! It’s a double whammy!

Just be prepared for hours of sitting around in dingy bus stations waiting for them to turn up.

The Sleeper Bus That Runs The Hanoi to Luang Prabang Route
Night buses are a great way to travel – if you can get past the long journeys and travel sickness!

  • Hitchhiking

For those adventurous backpackers among you, hitchhiking is a great way to save your limited travel budget and it allows you to meet all sorts of whacky and interesting characters on your travels. Realistically, boring people don’t pick up hitchhikers, so you know you’ll be in for a treat whenever anybody stops for you! 

If you combine hitchhiking with wild camping, you can essentially travel across an entire country for free!

When it comes to sticking out your thumb and letting the road gods guide you, patience is key. Many hitchhikers find that they can be waiting by the side of the road all day before a car stops for them, so be prepared with enough food and water to get you through the long stretches of waiting!

  • Road Trips

The allure of the open road is all too real. If you’ve never been on an epic road trip adventure, then maybe now is your chance to try.

If you can get enough friends together, be it folks you met in a hostel or friends you are travelling with longterm, hiring a car and blasting across a country can be a great way to experience a country but it does bring with it new challenges – can you imagine trying to navigate your way through the streets of Hanoi or the tough mountain roads between Thailand and Laos? What an adventure!

Realistically, unless you find a great deal on car hire, or manage to buy one which can be very tricky in Southeast Asia, you will be spending a fair amount of money on the vehicle and fuel. This is only a budget-friendly option if there are enough of you.

  • Motorcycles

Unlike buying/hiring a car, getting a motorcycle in Southeast Asia is pretty simple and very affordable. There are whole contingents of backpackers that buy motorcycles in each country, ride them around for a few months and then sell them on to other backpackers. This is easy to do but crossing borders can be almost impossible unless you have all the right documentation, which you probably won’t have if you buy the bike from another traveller. Instead of dealing with the hassle, just sell the bike before you leave the country and buy another one in your next destination. 

If you are mechanically minded and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, spending a day or two fixing up the bike before you sell it is a great way to make a tidy profit on the stallion that has taken you across the country!

I met a guy in Vietnam who was travelling with a few friends but decided he wanted to do it via motorcycle, while they stuck to buses and public transport. He got himself a little 100cc Russian bike after seeing a poster up in a hostel. On the “Red Rocket” which it has been affectionately named, he was able to blast from town to town, feeling the wind in his hair. All while his travel buddies were stuck in the cheapest, dirtiest buses they could find. I know which option is more appealing!

Travellers on motorbikes heading to Ban Gioc.
Many travellers choose to explore by motorcycle. Photo credit: Rory Emond.

  • Cycling

“But I want to see the whole country, there’s no way I can do that by peddling.” 

Yep, I once thought the same thing. While I am yet to take on my own epic cycle touring or bike packing adventure, I know plenty of people who have and the number of folks accepting this challenge rises every year. 

You can buy a bicycle from anywhere in the world for less than $50 (that won’t be a good bike but it will do the job) and then essentially travel for free. Cycling 25-50 miles a day is achievable for even beginner cyclists and rather than moving through the surrounding landscape, you truly become a part of the environment. Every smell, sound and movement is yours to take in. So travel slow, stop regularly and enjoy the ride. Cycle touring might just be the ultimate form of travel freedom. 

Combine cycling with wild camping and eating local food and see your $1000USD stretch for months on end. Alastair Humphreys famously spent four years cycling around the world and only spent $7000USD that entire time!

  • Sailing

What if I told you that people travel the world for free by volunteering on yachts and going where the wind takes them? Well, they go where the captain wants to go but the wind pun was fun right?!

Our friends at Coast Guard Couple wrote this great guide to travelling the world by boat, check it out if you want some tips on how to cross the ocean for the cost of a week’s groceries!

  • Walk

I don’t mean walk from town to town, country to country, although that would certainly be one way of saving a shed load of moolah. Think about how far your accommodation is from the centre of town or local attractions. Is it less than three miles? If so, walk there (providing you feel it is safe to do so). Every short taxi, Uber or Grab ride might only cost a couple of dollars but over a long trip that adds up!

20. Work On The Road

So this isn’t exactly a money-saving tip but finding a travel job is certainly a way to extend your travels. Many backpacker hubs have plenty of work if you know where to look. Hostels, bars and restaurants catering to tourists will often take backpackers for a week, month or maybe longer. Just find somewhere you like and get chatting to people!

Teaching English online and even travel writing are great ways to make a decent amount of money on the road, all you need is a reliable internet connection!

A digital nomad works on her laptop in Southeast Asia.
Any money you can make will go a lot further in Asia!

21. Volunteer

Unlike working on the road, volunteering won’t earn you any money. In fact, the most popular volunteering projects in Southeast Asia will cost a significant amount of money. Yeah, I struggled with that too. Places want me to pay them to allow me to give them free labour. Screw that. 

Over time I’ve come to realise that, if you follow a few simple steps and choose the right organisation, the money you pay to work with elephants or help build a school does directly benefit the local population. I guess it’s not quite as bad as I originally thought.

Just be careful which volunteering projects you choose to get involved with as there are a lot of unscrupulous folks out there who just want your money and really don’t care about the animals, people or environment they claim to be helping!

However, we are talking about ways to save money when travelling, not how to spend it! 

Websites like Workaway, HelpX, Hippohelp or WWOOFING are great ways of connecting with locals who need skills and manpower to help on the land, building houses, teaching kids or with running businesses. Each site focuses more on one location or area of expertise so have a look through them all before deciding which one to use. That said, most of them have at least a few opportunities on almost every continent.

There really is no end of variety available and I have personally volunteered in animal sanctuaries, eco-lodges, inner-city garden centres and hostels using the Workaway platform.

In general, you can expect to work for four hours a day, five days a week and in exchange for this, you will get a free place to crash, as well as at least one meal a day. Often more meals are provided and if you’re really lucky you might be able to arrange to work an extra few hours a day for a little pocket money. I won’t tell the taxman if you don’t…

Be aware, most of the volunteering platforms do have a small yearly or bi-yearly fee attached to them. This is rarely more than $40 so even utilising them for just a single week on your trip will save you money!

22. Avoid tourist traps

This should go without saying but where the backpackers go, the tourists follow. And where the tourists go, prices are higher and people are a damn sight grumpier. 

That’s not to say you should miss all the popular attractions. Angkor Wat, Halong Bay and Koh Phangan, for example, will always be busy but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see them. 

Angkor Wat Siem Reap void of touirists during the Coronavirus era.
Angkor Wat is a must-visit!

What we are really getting at here is to avoid spending too much time and money in expensive tourist hubs. Why spend a few nights in gross old Sihanoukville which is now full of litter, casinos and drunken tourists, when you could instead jump on a boat to the cheaper and much more chilled Koh Rong?

It’s all about balance, see the cool places, deal with the crowds but get out before they cost you too much money and potentially your sanity. Plus, by avoiding places impacted by over tourism, you’ll undoubtedly be travelling more responsibly

23. Plan ahead

“We’re backpackers, we just go with the flow man.”

Yeah we are and yeah we do but if we are trying to save as much money as possible, then we need to think about things a little further down the line than our next beer.

Having a rough itinerary and knowing where the more expensive spots on your trip are will really help you budget and snap up good deals on flights and accommodation. Even transport can be cheaper if you book your bus a week ahead of time, rather than wandering about the bus station at the last minute. 

24. Travel carry-on only

There are weird bragging rights attached to travelling with small bags and the minimalist lifestyle is the talk of the town right now but it really does have financial advantages. 

Firstly, you don’t need to pay to check a bag every time you get on a plane. Flying is already expensive enough, why make it more costly?

Secondly, less stuff in your pack is less stuff to worry about. If you can fit all your most valuable items in a small collapsable day pack for those long overnight bus rides, you can leave the rest of your gear under the bus, knowing that if the worst happens and it goes missing, you can just replace it at the next town. 

For the last few years, I’ve only travelled with a 40-litre Osprey backpack and a small daypack which is more than enough. In fact, I’m going to downsize my pack to the Tortuga Setout Divide for my next trip (see those weird bragging rights coming to the fore). 

No matter what travel backpack you choose, make sure it fits within normal carry on dimensions and you’ll be fine. You can still take your creature comforts, I literally travel with a soft, cuddly platypus wherever I go and I’m fully aware I don’t need that. I just like it and have room for it, so don’t go too mental trying to lighten your load. 

Best International SIM Cards for Backpacking
Try to travel carry-on only to avoid extra baggage fees.

25. Make friends

Not only will this give you more options for future trips (see ‘utilise your contacts’) but speaking to other travellers is a sure-fire way find out the best and/cheapest things to do in a given area. Backpackers are notorious for sniffing out the cheapest beers and street food in any given city and often these nuggets of information can only be gleaned in the hostel common areas!

26. Visit free galleries and museums 

Across much of the world, major museums and galleries are free to enter. You’ll have to pay to enter certain special exhibits but often, you are free to explore the majority of the building and the artefacts within. 

If you find a museum or gallery big enough, you can easily spend half a day wandering around, losing yourself in the artwork or rich history of the country. A nice bonus is, these buildings are often climate-controlled, making them much cooler than spending the day in the Southeast Asian heat!

27. Be aware of scams

As travellers, we like to believe that the world is a friendly place full of lovely people. While this is true 99% of the time, your worried parents will occasionally be correct about people trying to rip you off. Make sure you are aware of the common travel scams in Southeast Asia so you don’t fall prey to them!

It is also worth noting that you should avoid wearing too many expensive clothes or wandering around the streets at night with a camera around your neck. These are surefire ways to get yourself in a spot of bother, especially in rougher areas!

Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok.
Watch out for touts and scammers in the areas around Wat Phra Kaew.

28. Claim for travel mishaps

I used to have this strange perversion to making insurance or compensation claims. After all, there are people truly suffering in this world, why should I complain just because my flight was late or someone worse off than me decided to nick my phone for a quick buck. 

What I’ve come to realise over the last few years is that MASSIVE COMPANIES rely on people like me to keep their profit margins healthy. And you know what, I’m not okay with that. If I’m paying for a service, I’ll milk it for all it’s worth. Big companies don’t care about me, I’m just a way for them to pay their directors a nice juicy bonus at the end of the year. 

There is a ton of resources our there to help you avoid getting ripped off while travelling. If something has gone wrong with your flight, hit up Flightright. They fight for your right to compensation after losing money when a flight gets cancelled or delayed. Knowing your rights as a traveller can really help save money for the important things… like massages and coconut cocktails!

Make sure you don’t get crappy travel insurance just because it was cheap. Reading the small print is boring AF but finding out your not actually covered for riding a motorcycle after you’ve already broken your arm is worse! Good travel insurance will cost you but it will cost you way more if you don’t have it and you should get into trouble!

Other Travel Money-Saving Resources

We have already spoken about sites like Couchsurfing and Workaway but there are a whole load more sites and apps out there to help you save money during your travels!

Apps

In 2009, Apple came up with their famous “There’s an app for that” slogan. At the time, there really wasn’t an app for everything but over a decade later app stores across all platforms are filled with handy little pieces of software that make our lives easier – or more complicated depending on who you talk to!

Today, travel apps are as ubiquitous as mango sticky rice but which ones should you use?

  • For Flights: Skyscanner
  • For Budgeting: Trail Wallet
  • For Trip Planning: Tripit
  • For Entertainment: Netflix
  • For Banking: Starling
  • For Navigation: Maps.me

These are just a small selection of the best backpacking apps available but they will prove to be an invaluable way to help save some wonga on your travels. 

Websites

  • Campspace 

This wonderful site connects willing landowners with campers who are looking for a place to pitch their tent. While there are very few sites in Southeast Asia right now, the platform is growing daily so keep your eyes peeled for a spot to pitch your tent for just a few dollars a night!

  • Skiplagged 

The fine folks over at Skiplagged discovered that flying to a popular destination is expensive (go figure) but transferring through that same airport is often way cheaper. They cite flights from New York to Orlando cost around $250 but a flight from New York to Dallas, with a layover in Orlando, is only $130. So why not book the flight all the way to Dallas and just get off in Orlando? 

Skiplagged help you find these deals by using their “Hidden City” function. It’s not always cheaper but certainly worth checking if it means you can save hundreds of dollars on a flight!

  • Facebook 

Love it or hate it, Facebook is here to stay. If you can cut through the constant barrage of cat pictures, photos of food and your “friends” spouting poor political opinions, then there is a wealth of valuable information available.

Search for groups specific to your destination or your travel style. Check out our very own Facebook community if you need a place to start. You’ll find thousands of likeminded backpackers who are more than willing to share tips and advice about Southeast Asia!

Phones and SIM Cards - A Guide for Travellers to Southeast Asia
Social media can be a great way to stay connected to other backpackers.

  • HomeExchange 

Featured on the travel podcast, Zero To Travel, HomeExchange works a little like Airbnb but instead of paying someone to use their property, you offer to swap homes for a set period. If they don’t want to exchange homes but are still willing to have you in their place while they are away, there is also a complicated points system involved, which I’m not even going to try to explain in a single paragraph. 

Overall, this is a great option for flexible travellers who are also homeowners wanting to see the world on a budget!

  • Sleeping In Airports 

Got an early morning flight? Why bother paying for a hostel and leaving at stupid o clock in the morning when you could just arrive at an airport late at night and find a quiet corner to crash in. You’d certainly not be the only person doing so! 

Sleeping In Airports is a resource designed to make airports much easier. They list quiet rest spaces, lounge and bathroom information as well as the opening times for shops or restaurants. Anything you could want to know about the airport you will be travelling through is on the site. Arm yourself with as much information as possible to make your airport transit (or sleep) as cheap as possible!

  • Booking.com

Yeah I know, you’ve already heard of this one but it wouldn’t be right to overlook it as Booking.com is one of the best ways to find cheap accommodation across the world, not only in Southeast Asia. I use it religiously when travelling so I don’t have to worry about wandering around at 4 am looking for a place to sleep!

  • HostelWorld

Much like Booking, HostelWorld is a great place to find high quality, affordable hostels wherever you are in the world. Cross-reference between the two sites because some businesses will only list on one of the two! 

  • Google Maps

As much as I love using Maps.me when travelling, sometimes the more powerful Google Maps is a much better option. While the app is good, the full desktop version is unrivalled when it comes to providing detailed maps of wherever you happen to be!

  • TripAdvisor

When researching places to visit in any given destination, having a hunt through TripAdvisor will help you decide what you want to do with your valuable time. The myriad of reviews for almost any possible attraction, restaurant or hotel you can think of really does help!

Best Books About Budget Travel

“Books? Those old paper things with words actually printed on them? That’s pretty archaic.”

Yeah, I know. In this day and age with the entire world’s knowledge at your fingertips at any given moment, why would you ever go and buy a book? 

Because these books contain only the best of that knowledge, nicely curated by the authors. And if you’re really opposed to books, just download the digital versions!

Each of the books listed below is filled with hints, tips and explanations on how you can make budget travel work for you.

Do you have any more money-saving tips for before or during your travels? If so, head on over to our Facebook community and let us know!

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