Southeast Asia (SEA) is a hotspot for first-time travelers. It’s one of the least expensive places to travel around, which is one reason why it’s been deemed a backpacker’s paradise.
However, because of its relative affordability, it’s easy to overdo it on spending once you actually get there. That’s why it’s important to learn money-saving tips to keep you afloat.
What are the best ways to save money while backpacking SEA? First and foremost, make sure you’ve planned the most important aspects of your trip, including what your overall budget will be. After that, just implement the tips below and you could save hundreds of dollars while backpacking SEA!
After you’ve determined how much cash to bring to SEA, it’s a good idea to download a budgeting app to track every dollar spent. A popular app to use is Trail Wallet. This app lets you easily switch between currencies if visiting multiple countries, and lets you see summaries and averages as you spend.
Seeing a large sum of money in your bank account may cause you to spend too freely. Knowing every dollar leaving your wallet will help you to make smarter decisions.
SEA is one of the many countries in the world that allow buyers to haggle prices on goods. Haggling works best at all of the several pop-up shops selling clothing and miscellaneous items. But it doesn’t work well for food, especially at restaurants with predetermined prices on the menu.
For the inexperienced haggler, it can seem difficult to talk prices down and settle on an agreement. A good technique for most goods is to start at half price before eventually meeting somewhere in the middle. In some cases, it may even be appropriate to turn your back on the item. Oftentimes this will cause the merchant to settle at your proposed price instead of risking losing the sale altogether.
Be mindful about haggling, however. Don’t try to short merchants to steeply. People living in SEA rely heavily on tourist money, so in some situations, it may not be ethical to harass merchants to lower their prices. Afterall, SEA is a collection of developing countries, and their prices are generally cheaper than what you’d see for similar items in developed countries.
Combine your purchases with the many cashback apps available on smartphone devices. Apps like Rakuten usually have partnerships with hotel and travel booking services.
Rakuten can be used with the popular hostel/hotel booking app Agoda, for example. Depending on how long you’ll be backpacking, the cashback percentage will constantly fluctuate, so there may even be some double cashback days during your stay. If staying for multiple months, this alone could save you hundreds of dollars.
Sometimes it’s easier to opt for a car ride instead of walking a few blocks. Unfortunately, taxis and rideshares tend to add up over time. Instead, choose to take the exercise and walk the 10 or so blocks to your next landmark. The weather can range from rainy to heatwave in a matter of minutes, so be sure to pack an umbrella and plenty of water.
Skip the tours
Throughout SEA you will encounter many opportunities to embark on guided tours. These can definitely be good ways to explore and learn more about the region, but realistically they’re an expensive alternative to simply planning an adventure yourself.
Thanks to the internet, there is no shortage of apps, websites, and videos showcasing all the things you can do in SEA. Why pay for a guided tour when you can just pick and choose your own adventure?
Not only will you have the flexibility to go at your own pace, but you won’t have to contend with all the other tourists on the same tour as you. Most of the time, the larger cost of the tour is just to pay the guide anyway.
Cut down on alcohol
Alcohol is a huge temptation no matter where you are in the world. In SEA, it becomes even more of a temptation when you consider the relatively cheap prices of beer and other drinks. Despite how cheap some alcohol is in SEA, this is an expense that tends to add up greatly over time.
Obviously, it’s okay to let loose every once in a while. You are on vacation after all. But try to resist getting a drink during every meal, and steer away from the nightclubs offering drink deals. Once you’re drunk, it’s easier to drain money on even more alcohol, more food, and other useless things.
Before setting out to SEA, find a bank that offers debit cards with ATM rebates. One such bank is Charles Schwab, which will refund all ATM fees at the end of each month.
Holding too much cash on you at any given time puts important funds at risk. While in SEA, it’s best to pull out just a few days of cash each ATM visit. Over time, pulling money out each week will quickly incur ATM fees ranging from a few dollars to $7 at airports and other touristy areas.
Grocery stores instead of restaurants
Food is by far the best reason to visit SEA. Alongside all of the incredible street food, there’s also an abundance of restaurants that offer an even more refined experience.
Street food is typically cheaper than restaurant food, but by and large, the best way to save money on food is to simply grocery shop. Good quality grocery stores can be found in almost every major city in SEA. Whenever possible, stock up on snacks and easy-to-make meals — like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — to take on your longer treks. Some hostels and hotels have full kitchens, which allow for even more elaborate meals to be made.
Still, don’t overdo it on the homemade meals. Traditional street food meals are something you can’t miss!
Even though SEA is a relatively inexpensive region, it still helps to be a budget-minded traveler. The money-saving tips mentioned above can literally save you hundreds. You never know when you’ll need the extra cash in a snap. Or, if you find that you are far below your budget, you can use that extra money to stay even longer and do more traveling!
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