Long-term travel budgeting and other tips

Passports and currencies

Many people are deterred from thoughts of long-term travel because they believe they will never be able to afford it.  It is a common misconception that travelling for a year or more has to be an expensive affair, fit only for the wealthy.  This is certainly true for those wishing to stay in 4 star hotels, eat in nice restaurants for every meal and travel to countries with strong currencies, but for those wishing to experience a different culture and just get out and see the world there is a multitude of ways to do this on a shoestring budget without giving up the experience and, in many ways, enhancing it. Sitting down on a ten inch chair to a menu in Thai script and having to point to order a dish you’ve never seen or heard of can be a scary experience for some but it can lead to the most interesting and rewarding discoveries.  We have been travelling for almost a year and four months and have picked up a couple of tricks for saving money along the way.

Planning.  This doesn’t mean hours and hours in front of the computer trying to get the best deal of flight/hotel packages, this means making your trip achievable by working out where you want to go, how much you’ll need to go there, how long you’d like to go for and how much you want to carry with you.  Generally speaking, the flight is the most expensive part of a long trip and this kind of travel actually becomes much cheaper than the two week vacation most westerners take every year.  The cheapest places to travel by continent are: Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, Africa – with North America, Western Europe, Oceania and Antarctica as the most expensive.  In many countries in Asia, a $15 dollar a day budget will be sufficient for all food, transportation, accommodation and sight-seeing.  Don’t be fooled by Lonely Planet’s suggested budget either, you can go cheaper with a little more effort and without cutting the quality of life.  Find out whether you will need to barter for items, whether it is common or not to tip and what is the socioeconomic situation in the country; how much does the average person make a day. When tipping a cab in India it is important to remember that 1 US dollar is the equivalent to what a working adult might make for a day of hard labour; over-tipping or over-paying can destabilize the local economic and cause problems in small communities.

Learn about the country you are travelling to.  This can be done in part before the trip and during your voyage as well.  There is a common scam in India involving a mother who approaches you saying she doesn’t want money, only milk for her baby.  She then proceeds to take well-intentioned travellers to a nearby convenience store to purchase an expensive bag of powdered milk.  As soon as the traveller is out of sight, she returns to the store to resell the milk to the owner at half price.  The shop keeper is happy because he gets money for nothing and the ‘mother’ walks away with 200 rupees for every successful scam.  This is indeed a scam because more often than not the baby does not actually belong to the woman and is in fact ‘rented’ from a family in a slum.  These women often shake the babies to make them cry and thus appear hungry.  By supporting these practices, visitors are paying into a much wider beggar mafia which does many horrible things including deforming/starving children, sending them out to beg and taking a large cut of the money they make.  Without foreknowledge, many people are sucked in by the poverty they see in the third world and try to help by giving money instead of looking for better alternatives.  This is not only expensive but actually detrimental to the lives of the people in these countries.  I cannot stress the importance of this enough – knowing about a country and its people will prevent embarrassing situations like wearing the wrong clothes, being ridiculously overcharged or acting in a way that makes foreigners look bad. Knowing about the culture you’re travelling to will help protect you and future travellers from scorn, harm and scams.

Pack light.  It is more than annoying to arrive somewhere in a taxi and be told that you must pay double what you agreed on because your bag is so big it is considered ‘another passenger’.  If you pack light enough to keep you luggage with you at all times you will avoid being asked for extra to truck your things along and you will also save yourself from exhaustion and worry.  An absolutely indispensable resource for us was the comprehensive list and suggestions at this site: http://www.travelindependent.info/whattopack.htm.  The author has outlined everything we’ve needed for our trip and nothing we didn’t.  We have used every item in our bags without feeling like we left anything behind.  The one complicated issue for us was the shoes: if you are travelling to a warm climate and not going trekking, just bring sandals and some cheap plastic flip-flops, if you plans on doing a moderate amount of trekking, bring sandals, trekking boots and the cheap flip-flops.  Shoes are one of the heaviest and least packable items on the list but we found on our trip that one pair of comfortable walking sandals in an all purpose colour (black or dark brown) were suitable for every occasion (except more difficult treks).  The plastic or rubber flip-flops can be bought on the road (at a much reduced price) and are good for shared bathrooms, sketchy room floors and rainy days when you don’t want to ruin your nice walking sandals.  One of the best choices we made when deciding what to pack was a carbon water filter.  At $100 for the pump and $50 for an extra filter, this water purifier paid itself off in six months of travel, even though a liter of water in India costs only 10-15 rupees (about ¢25).  We drank water we filtered from some of the most questionable sources and never got sick in an entire year of third world travel.  Apart from saving money, it is also safer and more environmentally friendly to use a water purifier.  In many countries in Asia, garbage is often burnt on the streets and so purchased plastic bottles will mostly likely go up in a poisonous smoke.  The other use of empty water bottles is by small time entrepreneurs who collect used bottles, fill them with tap water, recap them and sell them to travellers as ‘purified’ bottled water.  These are not as obvious as they might seem because the people involved in the re-bottling business have had many years experience making the reused bottles look like new, the tops are almost always sealed and sometimes they even have a protective plastic covering.  Filtering your own water allows you the peace of mind of knowing that your water has been treated and is much better for the environment. For the doubly cautious you can also treat your water with a UV light after filtering. Packing light has facilitated our trip by allowing us to sit with our bags in buses and trains and never being charged the notorious ‘luggage fees’ or having our bags held hostage in the trunk of a taxi for a steep ransom.

If you can, barter.  Negotiating a price is common practice in Asia and takes some getting used to for most westerners. In some countries you must be aggressive in others you must ask the right questions (“do you have a cheaper room?” or “could I have a discount?”). The best way to learn these things is to ask the locals how much things should cost; ask the hotel staff about the price of rick-shaws (so long as they don’t call one for you) and rick-shaw drivers about the price of hotels (so long as they don’t take you to one). It is common for people to help each others businesses with commissions for bringing visitors to pricey hotels or shops; one definite giveaway of this is if you find yourself in a shop 10 minutes after meeting a new local ‘friend’. The best practice is not to buy anything until you have a better idea of what it should cost. Another tip for long term travel is not to buy anything like clothes or souvenirs in the first month. Watch how much the locals are paying but don’t be obvious about it as some shopkeepers will ask the buyer to pay more and promise a return on their money and a little extra for their help. Negotiating a price where this is the norm also goes under knowing about the country you’re visiting and helps to keep the economy at a level where the average person there can live. In some areas of Asia (notably many of the more beautiful islands in Thailand) the locals have been pushed out by prices that skyrocket due to foreign money and business. To drive a people out of their own land is not only unethical but this foreign business takeover also causes the prices to be unaffordable for even the average traveller. By trying not to get ripped off, you help the next person who comes along to get the real price and help the people of that country to be able to live affordable for them. However, it is important not to barter too hard, it is alright to pay 10%-25% more than the locals if you come from a wealthier country as this sets an appropriate standard and keeps shopkeepers from being frustrated. Always agree on the price beforehand for food and taxis, if the person you agreed with tries to charge you more after the meal or the taxi ride and is being aggressive, simple put the agreed amount down (on the table or car seat) and walk away. If they act like the payment you agreed on is insultingly low and won’t take the money, just walk away with it and you will invariably be called back to pay the agreed upon sum.

Eat the local food!  It is not only generally tastier and better cooked but you will save tons of money eating at street stalls rather than in sit down restaurants.  Where you might pay five dollars for a badly cooked western meal in a sit down restaurant, the little corner shop (consisting of a wok and a small grill) will have some local delicacy for maybe ¢50.  In India we paid an average of $2 for a meal, in Vietnam it was $1.  Many people fear street stalls but in reality, these can be much safer than restaurants; on the street you can see how the food is being cooked, how clean the cooks’ hands are and how long it’s been sitting there whereas in a restaurant you can’t.  In countries like Thailand and Vietnam especially, the quality of the street food and the cleanliness of the stalls is exceptional.  We ate exclusively at the street stalls in these countries and our food experience there was greatly enhanced.  In a country like India where food safety is not the norm, well, at least you can have a look at the cooking area before deciding if you want to put the food in your mouth.

Try to learn the language, at least enough to say hello and order some dishes. One of the most useful things I learned in India were the numbers in Hindi and the phrase “Kitana?” (How much?). If you can ask this question and understand the answer, chances are you’ve already gotten a much better price than the person who asked “can you speak English?” The people who don’t speak English are also the ones who don’t charge foreigners five times the going price.  They might quote you ¢10 above the local rate and will be happy for the extra money. This is also a real way to help spread wealth to poorer members of the country because, in many places, those who speak English or another foreign language are the ones who come from wealthy, educated families. Another way to communicate is visually with gestures, pictures or with a phrase book. Show shopkeepers the question in their language and ask them to show you the price with bills or in writing.  This has worked for us in countries where we spent less time or where the language was radically different from English and impossible to learn in the amount of time we had. The final benefit of knowing at least the most common numbers in the local language is that you can listen in on other people bartering and hear the initial rate and the final price.  Language is one of the most important tools for bringing the world together as misunderstandings stemming from linguistic barriers can be incredibly divisive.

Travel in twos.  Travelling with a partner instantly cuts your accommodation and some transportation costs in half. Although two is great, three’s a crowd and often makes looking for hotel rooms much more difficult. Not to discourage the solo traveller, those travelling by themselves have the benefit of following their own schedule and being more in contact with the locals, as well as other travellers. A single traveller can also pick up friends along the way to share rooms with when he or she doesn’t want to pay full price for rooms or sleep in dorms and also has the luxury of choosing to be alone at times. When choosing a travel partner one of the most important elements to consider is budget; making sure you have similar ideas about costs helps avoid many tensions to do with one partner feeling like they’re always having their budget stretched and being made to feel cheap while the other is getting annoyed about having to forgo luxuries they enjoy and don’t consider to be expensive. Another important factor to look at when considering a travel partner is that person’s idea of a good day traveling; do they enjoy lying on a beach with a mojito? Or trekking in the mountain? Or visiting museums? and do your interests match. While traveling up the west coast of Australia we managed to find a great group of people with similar interests and lifestyles. With one exception everyone was on a shoe-string budget and we all preferred to be seeing sights and doing outdoor activities like hikes and swimming as opposed to drinking and staying up late. We shared costs when everyone agreed and paid for ourselves when we wanted something special. This trip – five people in a three-seat van driving 6000km through a desert with no air-conditioning for 21 days – could have been an absolute disaster but, with a little maturity and similar ideas about travel from the beginning, we all managed to make it up the coast and see many beautiful things we could never have afforded to visit were we travelling independently. Sharing the costs of the van, gas and food five ways made this incredible road trip possible for us. With all the food, petrol, rentals, sightseeing, camping, national park fees and activities included, the final price came to a little over $50 a day per person (where the Lonely Planet says you might be able to eek out a living for $80 to $100 a day). Personality is the other important aspect when considering a travel partner; do you like this person? Many people only consider this factor but it is vital to look at budget, interests and activities as well to ensure that you continue to like this person after the trip is over.

Buy locally.  Many people are afraid that they won’t be able to find clothing, medicine or toiletries in the countries they’re travelling to and try to bring everything they’ll need for the entire trip with them from the get go. With few exceptions, most of what is available in your home country will be available wherever there are people living. In particular, antibiotics and toiletries are often much cheaper (especially in Asia) and also more readily available.

Couchsurf.  Although we haven’t tried much ourselves, we’ve heard from Europeans that couchsurfing (using the website https://www.couchsurfing.org/ which allows you to link up with local people and stay in their houses on a couch or in a spare bedroom) can make travel in Europe cheaper than travel in Asia. Many people we’ve spoken to don’t believe that something like this, based on the idea of paying forward a favour, could work or that it must be dangerous as the only people offering to take strangers into their houses must have ulterior motives. We heard from one young American woman who couchsurfed all across Europe, the middle east and Asia that she had only had two bad experiences; one was a case of harassment in Italy and the second was in Israel when she arrived late to the next host’s house and he had called the Isreali police to report her as a missing person. This was because the previous host had informed him what time she was coming and when she was late he was afraid something had happened to her on the way. The positive experiences she had with hosts from all over the world outweighed the negative experiences 10 000 to 1 and the generosity of these strangers allowed her to stay on a 10 euro a day budget even in western Europe. Couchsurfing has a system for rating hosts and surfers alike, so for anyone worried about ending up in the wrong house they can stick to people with multiple positive reviews and read all the comments left about them by people who’ve stayed there before. Overall couchsurfing make the world a smaller, better place. Besides finding a free place to stay, there are also a number of the money saving benefits because couchsurfers are an excellent source of local knowledge about great places to eat and fun, inexpensive activities. There are many other elements to this website/community that don’t involve opening your home up to people you don’t know; there are couchsurfing events where travellers and locals can meet up for coffee or drinks or to play a sport and swap stories in a more casual environment.

Buy flights as you go.  Although last minute flights are generally more expensive than pre-booking, if you want the flexibility to cancel a ticket if plans change or stay somewhere an for an extra week you will invariably be spending more money in the end by buying ahead.  Getting everything but the initial ticket (to give you motivation and a deadline) as you go and flying “in a straight line” by taking the shortest possible flights and progressing logically from one country to the next will help keep flight costs low.

Travel overland and travel slow.  Travelling by local transport gives you a feel for the land and comes at a fraction of the cost of airfare. By choosing a smaller region of the world to cover comprehensively, you can afford to take a local bus (added discomfort but huge monetary savings and interesting stories) because you’ll only be travelling a short distance and won’t have to be in transit for long. No one gets excited about the thought of being in a cramped and smelly bus for 20 hours overnight but that same bus for a couple of hours might be a fascinating experience. One of our earlier mistakes was to take long train rides in India. Not only were these more uncomfortable that short train rides and detrimental to our health (as we had to eat whatever was available on the trains) but we missed many interesting places we should have visited instead of just hopping from state capital to state capital. In particular our first train ride (18 hours from Mumbai to Jaipur) I was sick for, it was incredibly expensive and we passed many places we had wanted to visit like Ahmedabad in Gujarat, and Udaipur and Bundi in Rajasthan. We never managed to get back to these places as they were no longer on the way to where we were heading in the mountains and we regretted this initial impulsive decision. Since then we’ve tried to travel shorter distances and limit the amount of travel we do in any given day. By allowing more days for a trip, you will be able to stop and rest when you need it, stay and enjoy a place when you didn’t realize just how beautiful it was going to be, leave if it is absolutely horrible and be flexible with your schedule. In Nongriat, the beautiful village in in Meghalaya, India we had been told it was worth the trek down but nothing more. We didn’t realize what an incredibly peaceful paradise this place would be and ended up staying for almost a week. During our time in the one guest house in the village, we met an older couple who could only afford to stay 2 nights because they had already purchased their onward flight and we also met several people on tight schedules who completed the 2.5  hour hike down to the village then the 4 hour hike back up to Cherrapunji in the same day. We saw these exhausted people take one look at the natural swimming pools then, clearly distracted by thoughts of how late in the day it was getting, take one sip of water and head right back up the mountain. Trying to cram too much into a day (or week) is draining, complicated, and causes arguments and unnecessary stress when a train or flight is delayed. It is better to do the logistical planning ahead and leave the actual travel schedule open, instead of trying to micromanage your time.

Our personal budget for this past year of travel was $10 000 per person ($20 000 total).  At the end of the year when we arrived in Perth, Australia we still had $5000 in the (shared) bank.  We had spent $7500 each to travel the world all flights, transportation, accommodation, food and sight seeing included. Our first month in India we spent $750 each but this went down to $500 each for our second, third and fourth months as we became more informed about prices and became more travel savvy. In Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sumatra Indonesia we spent the same ($500 per person, per month).  In Laos because of the lack of infrastructure it was a little more expensive ($750 each) and also in Malaysia because of the more advanced infrastructure and stronger economy ($750 per person). We never missed a sight we really wanted to see because of cost and also allowed ourselves some very expensive activities like scuba diving (including an open water and advanced open water certification). Between the two of us we spent about $1500 on diving alone but there is no point trying to save money by skimping on an experience that you really want. It is better not to regret having passed something up and terrible to listen to other people who did it talk about what an amazing experience they had. There is a balance that must be struck between frenetic, expensive travel and pulling your purse strings so tight that it ruins the trip. It is important to determine the experience you want to have and craft a budget around it.

Of the countries we visited, I would have to say that the best value for money to be found was in Vietnam. The hotel rooms seem to be a standard $10 (which was expensive for us coming from the $6 rooms in India, Thailand and Laos) but are equivalent in facilities to what you might find for $80 in North America or Europe. The hotels were very clean with room service, air-conditioning, attached bathroom, hot water, TV and attractive decorations. The food in Vietnam was also some of the cheapest and tastiest we had on our trip. The meals were generally around a dollar, very clean and – especially in south Vietnam – exceptional. A special mention as well to the sparkling clean street stalls in Thailand (very, very tasty) and the extremely reasonable accommodation in Cambodia and Indonesia.

These suggestions deal with saving money once you have decided to travel and are already on your way to the planning stage. For those wanting to travel but dealing with the logistical problems of what to do with their house and kids, I would recommend the book Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. In this book he deals with the planning of a long term trip for those with careers and mortgages as well as for students and the unattached. No matter what your budget or situation if there is a trip you’ve been wanting to do there is no better time than now to do it.