How to Travel Southeast Asia on the Cheap

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Originally Published on Half a World Away by Katie Milne

I’d like to say I’m pretty good at budgeting and the bargain hunter in me managed to find some great ways of making my money last a lot longer in Southeast Asia. Here are my top tips for doing Southeast Asia on the cheap.

Stay at Hostels with Free Breakfast.
There are plenty of hostels in Southeast Asia that offer a free breakfast when you stay at the hostel. The best ones I stayed at are in Vietnam—they’re clean (most of the time) and super cheap! Give these a try:
Sunflower Hotel, Hoi An, Vietnam (includes a buffet breakfast)
Hanoi Backpackers, Hanoi, Vietnam
M Hostel, Seminyak, Bali
Reggae Mansion, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Travel Overnight.
This is my ultimate budget tip for backpacking! Avoid paying for an extra night in a hostel and sleep on the bus, train, plane or boat you’re traveling on overnight. I did this so many times while I was backpacking in Southeast Asia, just make sure you invest in a good neck pillow and some Valium.

Tip: If you decide to do this, make sure you keep your belongings safe. Stuff your valuables at the bottom of your sleeping bag liner (also another good idea) or at least somewhere out of sight.

Eat Like the Locals.
I know it’s a cliché, but really this is a great way to stay on budget and maximize your trip. There are plenty of food markets in the evenings that serve tasty local food at a fraction of the cost. I’ve listed some of the best spots below but you can pretty much find cheap local food anywhere and everywhere in Southeast Asia.

Luang Prabang—Laos
Chiang Mai—Thailand
Gili T—Bali
Basically any street side in Vietnam

Tip: Do not try and eat chicken anus kebabs in Borneo—worst idea ever.

Try Not to Buy Loads of Crap.
Girls, I’m talking to you on this one. You visit a market with your new pals from the hostel and you’re like, “OMG HOW CUTE IS THIS ELEPHANT NECKLACE,” then POW, next thing you know you’re carrying around eight Chang vests, four cushion covers, two lampshades and a kitchen sink. I know it all looks pretty at the time but trust me none of this stuff is built to last and you will be leaving it behind once your backpack weighs 50 kg.

Barter Reasonably.
I’ll be straight, you’re going to get ripped off at least once while you’re traveling Southeast Asia – it’s a fact. So learn to haggle the price down if and when you do decide to buy something; it’s the culture over there but remember that these guys are often very poor and this is their way of making a living. The locals purposely set their price high to see if they can get more money out of you so negotiating them down is OK as long as you don’t take the piss. Barter with goods such as clothing and taxis.

Only Take the Money You Need Out With You.
I guess this is relevant for anywhere you go. Instead of taking loads of money out with you, just take what you think you will need. My trick was to stuff a spare note down my bra or in a secret pocket in my shorts in case I needed some emergency money. It also makes you a lot safer in places where pickpocketing is rife.

Be Wise About Sending Gifts Home.
Don’t bother trying to send knickknacks home as presents; it costs a fortune to post and it’s a load of crap anyway. Try sending a personalized photo card from Moonpig or a photo calendar from Snapfish.

Tip: Snapfish almost always has discount codes reducing the price by up to 60 percent.

Stay in Big Dorms.
It’s a no brainer really—the bigger you get, the cheaper it is. It might be completely and utterly intruding and public but, hey, if it gets you an extra few nights in one of these beautiful countries then why not. The biggest dorm I stayed in was at Pak Up hostel in Krabi, Thailand which has 30 beds in one dorm!

Do Your Research.
I don’t suggest this all the time as spontaneity is the spice of life when traveling, but it helps to have a general idea of transport costs in the country you’re about to visit. Try and find out how much it would cost you to get from the airport to the city or the price of a beer, et cetera. I remember when I landed in Phnom Penh by bus and stupidly thought the hostel was further away than it was. The driver drove me round the block 3 times and charged me a fortune. Later I found out the bus stop was round the corner—typical.

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