“Ha! I just wrote an article stating I can’t believe people actually ask me this question… it’s a bit personal don’t you think!?” I responded, stunned yet again.
His facial expression signified confusion … and guilt, for unintentionally offending me. “I’m sorry,” he said, paused for a moment, then continued with “I don’t see it that way though. If you asked me the same question I wouldn’t care because it’d be no different than asking me what I had for breakfast this morning, the answer is nothing.”
The innocence of his explanation made me realize how harmless this question actually is…
So why am I so guarded with the answer?
I took time to self reflect and concluded the reason this question makes me uncomfortable is two fold:
The first reason is fear. When someone I don’t know asks me about money I get nervous. Even a small amount of money goes a long way in Asia- if the wrong person was led to believe I have money, I could potentially put myself in a dangerous situation.
The second reason is judgment. People telling me I don’t have enough saved or that I should do something “practical” with the money I do have is draining.
Even though I have confidence in my financial preparedness, and know I have multiple ways to make money while traveling, the naysayers would make me doubt myself. Keeping details to myself eliminated having to deal with their judgment, and my own.
The encounter with that guy made me realize the vast majority of people aren’t trying to rob me or judge me. They just want to understand how I’m doing what I’m doing so they can travel as well.
So, when I was asked the question again today, this time by a friend who I attended the International TEFL Academy with, my attitude was completely different. Here’s what he wrote:
Melissa!!! FYI, I follow your stuff like MAD! Love keeping up in your travels! I know it’s kind of a personal question and feel zero need to answer, but I’m currently starting some savings to travel SE Asia before my time [teaching] in Korea, and I wanted to know, how much money did you bring with you? I plan to be backpacking for a few months, and I want to just make sure I’m financially prepared to take it on! KEEP BEING A BOSS BITCH AND TAKING ON LIFE SO BOLDLY ❤💙
Of course, this adorable and complementary message put a huge smile on my face!
His inquiry also made me realize something else- Not everyone planning to backpack Southeast Asia is planning to travel indefinitely, like I am. I should know this, I used to be one of these people. I went on three different three week backpacking trips before I made plans to travel indefinitely. The way I traveled and spent money when my time was limited was different than the way I’m doing it now. I was still a budget backpacker back then but things were different when time was a factor.
Certain travel hacking tips, such as staying in one city for several weeks to work or volunteer, or taking slower public transit, aren’t feasible options when you want to cover a lot of ground in a specific time frame.
On this trip, at times, I have spent as little as $10 USD per week by staying in the same place for weeks at a time, working and volunteering. This isn’t always an option for short-term travelers though. So, asking me how much money I brought with me isn’t going to help you backpack Southeast Asia- but I have info that will!
As soon as my friend messaged me I knew I had turn my response to him into a post- if one person’s asking, there are a dozen more wondering the same thing.
So, here’s how much money you will need to backpack Southeast Asia…
Start with Travel-Hacking:
As I previously stated, many of the travel hacking tips I mention may not be possible for you on a short trip. But some of them are! Definitely get the Charles Schwab checking account so you can avoid paying ATM fees and the Chase Sapphire Visa to eliminate foreign transaction fees. You will also start building points with the Chase Sapphire. Even if you don’t accumulate enough to use them on this trip, you will have them for your next one!
The Cost Breakdown Pre-Departure
Travel Vaccines $400-$1000
This is a big cost I wasn’t expecting before I left. At e7 Health, a vaccine clinic (ironically with two locations, one in Las Vegas and one in Chicago, my two home towns) I paid around $400 USD for the first round of the Hep A vaccine, a TdAP vaccine (Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis), a Typhoid vaccine and a Hep B vaccine. I declined the $600+ USD Japanese Encephalitis vaccine.
Travel Insurance $250-$350
I purchased travel Insurance through World Nomads Travel Insurance because Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt and Kristin Addis of Be My Travel Muse both use it. I bought 6 months of insurance with coverage in most regions of the world because I did not (and still do not) know where my travels will take me.
For 3 months in Southeast Asia, you’re looking at between $250 to $350 USD through World Nomads.
Departing International Flight $400-$800
From anywhere in the USA, Bangkok, Thailand is usually the cheapest place in Southeast Asia to fly to. I just checked on Skyscanner.net and from LA, Chicago, and New York it was around $400 one way to Bangkok. It could end up being double that depending on your actual departure city, flexibility of your departure date and the booking site.
I booked my one-way ticket to Bangkok with airline miles, so I don’t know what the actual cost would have been. I chose Bangkok because it seemed like the place most travel bloggers start backpacking . Now that I’ve been In Southeast Asia for a few months I can verify that Bangkok is the hub of Southeast Asia- You can get just about anywhere from Bangkok for cheap.
The Cost Breakdown for 3 Months in Southeast Asia
Transportation within Southeast Asia $690
These costs will vary significantly depending on how far/fast you want to travel. Local buses are always the cheapest option but can be slower and unpredictable (but also an incredible adventure).
Long haul sleeper buses cost between $7 USD and $15 USD depending on the country, distance and time of day. Trains tend to be more comfortable but cost double or triple the bus price. 12go.asia/en is a commonly used booking site for buses and trains in Southeast Asia.
Flights within Southeast Asia vary as well. I’ve seen flights for as cheap as $18 USD and others for over $150 USD. It depends on travel dates, times, and cities. Skyscanner to Everywhere is a fun option if you are flexible with your next destination and just looking for a cheap flight!
The backpackers I’ve met who are backpacking Southeast Asia for a few months tend to move destinations every 3 days or so. That means, within 3 months they take around 30 sleeper buses, planes or trains. Using $15 USD as the average price for these three modes of transportation (and assuming you don’t fly a lot), that is about $450 USD on transportation from city to city.
Download the Grab App now! It’s the Uber of Southeast Asia as UBER NO LONGER EXISTS here. Grab has a strong presence in Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore but I have heard it’s questionable in Indonesia. Grab offers a “Grab Bike” option which is motorbike transportation and it is a fraction of the cost of a car.
Let’s add in an additional $4 USD per non travel day for transport within a city (Grabs, taxis, motorbike rentals and local buses), totaling an additional $240 USD.
Lodging prices can range significantly depending on where you are and what amenities you require. At first, since someone scared me out of staying in dorms that were under $5 USD, I selected places priced between the $5 USD and $20 USD per night.
A few weeks into traveling I read great things about a hostel in Chiang Mai, Hug Hostel Rooftop, that only cost $3.33 USD per night. I decided to check it out and ended up staying there a week for nearly the same price I paid for one night elsewhere.
Since that experience, I have been searching for the highest rated rooms under $5 USD per night and it’s worked out great! No doubt the accommodations have been basic, but they’ve been clean and safe and that’s about all I ask for! There have been times where there was nothing, at least nothing that didn’t scream BED BUGS, available for less than $5. But one time I actually stayed in a dorm for $2 USD per night that had a resort style pool and served free beer from 5 to 6pm! On average, decent dorm beds range between $5 USD to $10 USD per night.
Oh for the love of street food! I have only been to Thailand and Vietnam but from what I understand, street food is abundant in most parts of Southeast Asia. Expect to pay anywhere from $1 USD to $3.50 USD per meal. At 3 meals a day, plus maybe a snack (which is more than enough food) you’re looking at spending between $4 USD and $14 USD per day.
NOTE: Restaurant food can cost double this or more. So if you’re not into sitting on tiny red plastic stools on the side road to eat, plan accordingly.
For most backpackers, this is where their money goes! But to really blow your budget on alcohol, you have to be drinking a lot! Large beers cost, on average, $2 USD. Let’s say you have one beer per day, which could also mean no beer for 6 days and one big night out, per week, where you have 7 beers, you’re looking at $180 in 3 months.
Activities and Excursions $?
If you plan to do back to back activities and excursions everywhere you go, your trip cost will go up. I’m talking organized tours, skydiving, SCUBA diving, canyoning etc. These activities cost anywhere from $20 USD to $100+ USD. Research these on a case by case basis as they range significantly.
You can still do stuff and see PLENTY on a tight budget. Most places that you can get to on a tour you can also get to on your own via local transport, bicycle rental, or motorbike rental. Local buses cost a few cents per trip, bicycles can be rented for the day for about $1 USD and motorbikes $5 USD per day. The ticket to get into most temples and parks is only a few dollars.
- Travel Vaccines $400-$1000
- Travel Insurance $250-$350
- Departing International Flight $400-$800
- Transportation within Southeast Asia $690
- Lodging $450-$900
- Food $360-$1260
- Alcohol $180
- Activities and Excursions $?
3 month TOTAL: $2,730 to $5,180 (Plus Activities/Excursions)
NOTE: Prices range slightly from country to country but are relatively similar throughout Southeast Asia (excluding Singapore where you can expect things to cost similarly to what they’d cost in the States or Western Europe).
Don’t forget you can spend less than this if you want to stay in one place longer to volunteer or work. Most of these opportunities require a commitment of 1 week to 1 month or longer. Sign up for workaway.info if this is something you’re interested in!
Read these Blog Posts for Additional Information
Kristin Addis, writer of Be My Travel Muse, is one of my favorite travel bloggers. In this article she discuses why things like travel insurance, gear, special activities and replenishing personal care products make staying within a budget of $30 a day is difficult… but not impossible!
This traveling pair, Goats on the Road, suggests a daily budget of $35 to $40 not including travel insurance or flights to Asia if you want to do more than just “survive.”
Hope this info helps you … all!
Leave a comment if you have any advice to add!