Travel expenses in Southeast Asia are known to be relatively low when compared to those incurred whilst traveling in other regions of the world, so it is no surprise that Southeast Asia is one of the most popular take-off destinations for long-term travelers. But how much does it cost to travel Southeast Asia exactly and is it as cheap as you might think?
Many travelers look at starting off their travels in countries where travel expenses can be kept low, until they find a footing with respect to both their budget and their sanity (sometimes). Planning a budget for long-term travel is no mean feat especially when funds are limited and travel plans are still a work in progress. With cheap accommodation and cheap food available, keeping travel expenses in Southeast Asia low is not usually very difficult, making it a starting travel destination of choice.
Our own adventure kicked off with a commitment to save as much as possible, whilst we were still working full-time in our respective offices from Malta. We don’t have many tips for saving money since we weren’t particularly good at it, and actually wish that we had accumulated some more savings before we left! However, knowing that the travel expenses in Southeast Asia would not be particularly high, we kept up a very busy social lifestyle until the very day we were set to leave!
How Much Does it Cost to Travel Southeast Asia – Our budget and expenses so far
Despite not saving up much, we did not leave home with $500 in our pockets either. Having worked at professional jobs for over 15 years ensured that we had a good chunk of our travel expenses sorted before we left home. We were aware that we could travel on a pre-determined (if rather low) budget for a good number of months if necessary, and any money we made on the road would serve in contributing some “luxury” (usually in the form of better accommodation or an occasional glass of wine) to our travels.
We have now been traveling in Southeast Asia for 8 months and we’ve been to the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Timor-Leste and we’re currently on our fourth month Indonesia. We have noted down every single expense that we made every day in each of these countries in an attempt to monitor our travel expenses in Southeast Asia and minimize costs where possible.
In spite of the fact that we are traveling on a restricted budget, not only are we doing our best to experience as many things and exciting places as possible, but we are also making that we do not miss out on destinations which are known to be expensive. So yes, a restricted budget, but not to the point where we feel that we are missing out on experiences.
So, what’s a restricted budget with respect to travel expenses in Southeast Asia?
Beyond a basic minimum limit, your travel expenses in Southeast Asia can be as high or as low as you choose. Southeast Asia is perfect this way, in that most of the region caters to budget backpackers as well as to those looking for luxury. You can even travel on a budget and have a “luxury break” if you so wish!
Our pre-determined budget is €30 (around $35) per person per day. That covers ALL expenses including accommodation, transport costs, food, toiletries, sim cards, and internet connectivity and any entrance fees, excursions or activities.
We do not stick to this budget religiously every single day. In cases of interesting activities or excursions (or restaurants) which are expensive we do at times go over-budget. Some other times when traveling in a relatively cheaper area we spend less and save some $$$. We average out our expenses per country and hope that the final average figure is lower than €30 per day in any country!
We’ve had all kind of comments regarding our budget from people telling us that a €30/day budget is sheer luxury to others saying that we’re “tramping” our way around. There’s no universal “right” way of spending your money. Adjusting to a budget mostly depends on the lifestyle you have been used to living and what you’re ready to give up.
For us, the term ‘restricted’ means that when traveling full-time, we are no longer traveling in the same manner as we did when going on shorter trips. Gone are the restaurants dinners, wine and mid-range hotels. In come the street food and local eateries, plastic chairs besides street-side barbeques and hawkers, budget guesthouses and hostels, and overcrowded vans.
We have outgrown dorms at this point in our travels. We tend to look for accommodation with a private bathroom, though we can be flexible on occasions. Mandi-style (bucket) cold-water showers and squat toilets are perfectly fine with us. Although we like to have a functional a/c unit to counteract the Asian heat and humidity at night, we don’t mind using fans instead either.
Tips for minimizing travel expenses in Southeast Asia
Although being spontaneous tends to be more fun, there’s little doubt that it is more expensive too. Planning your trip beforehand allows for better research into accommodation options, choosing more convenient transport options (don’t miss the twice weekly ferry or long-distance bus if it’s half the price of a flight to the same destination!) and even choosing the right area to stay in to minimize travel costs even further.
If you are traveling during peak season or during local holidays, for example, you should most definitely book accommodation and transport beforehand where possible. During Easter time in the Philippines, it was impossible to find an empty room on the more popular islands whilst during the days of Hari Raya in Malaysia, long-distance buses to many destinations were fully booked from weeks before.
If you’re traveling long-term, planning too much for long stretches of time is not always possible or advisable. We usually like to look into transport and accommodation options for particular destinations about 2 weeks before getting there. If we get the feeling that the place is not particularly busy we will book 1-2 nights stay and monitor transportation out but not book that, so as to have the liberty of staying as little or as long as we like.
If on the other hand, we realize that many rooms have already been taken up and transport options are few, we will book everything beforehand at once so as not to miss out on going there, or have to stay at a resort which costs three times as much as a budget room. This has happened a couple of times and our lack of proper planning was a definite culprit!
One of the cheapest ways in which to travel long distances in most Southeast Asian countries is by using buses. Some are more comfortable than others (even in economy) with very little difference in price, so we do suggest that you search online and use companies with the newest and most comfortable buses.
Flights in Southeast Asia also tend to be affordable, so you should look at flight prices for any given route before using a bus or a ferry. For example, flying from Ambon to Bandaneira (one of the Spice islands in Indonesia) is cheaper than using the ferry (though more prone to cancellation). All too often though, flights are double or triple the cost of using land transportation and here is where it makes a lot of budgetary sense to go for the cheaper option.
When traveling short distances, it is almost always possible to find some kind of local van to take you to different parts of town, rather than using more expensive taxis. The vans (locally called, bemos, angkots, bisons, jeepneys amongst others) can be very uncomfortable (think people sitting on your lap uncomfortable) but really affordable, probably 10-20 times cheaper than a taxi.
Choosing affordable food options is one of the easier ways in which to minimize travel expenses in Southeast Asia. Local food tends to be very cheap in the region and, with a very tasty wide selection of dishes available, it rarely gets boring.
Very often we eat street food or dine at local eateries and stalls thus ensuring that we stick to our budget. Once a week, we make it a point to eat at a better restaurant with no budget restrictions as a “treat”. We find that this works well since some local dishes might not be available at cheaper places. After some months traveling in Southeast Asia, we also get western food cravings on occasions, which we know will eventually need to be satisfied.
We like to research accommodation options beforehand and even book online if we find a good deal. Some long-term travelers prefer to just turn up and ask around for cheaper stays and accommodation. Whilst this does work out cheaper sometimes, we find it to be a waste of time, and booking online also gives you access to reviews about the place!
Online booking also give you the opportunity to compare price vs quality (cleanliness, facilities and location). Although most times we can get a good room that fits our requirements for less than €20 (around $23)/ night in the main part of town or beach, this is not always the case.
Such budget options in Singapore or in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste were inexistent. Other times, in more remote and undeveloped areas, the only accommodation option available only included shared bathrooms. They had to do!
Travel expenses in Southeast Asia can be truly minimized by going on few organized activities. There are actually many activities which can be done for free, though some of the best ones are rarely so. We don’t recommend being too stingy with activities and entrance fees as some experiences may be unique to that region only, although this is of course a personal choice.
Diving in different parts of Southeast Asia is world class, the more expensive temples in Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia are the most stunning, whilst cruising around El Nido and Coron in the Philippines will give you access to dream beaches and islands. Going on a balloon ride over the temples of Bagan in Myanmar is an experience we will never forget, and the country itself has plenty of things to do for couples, solo travelers, families, and more.. None of these activities are free (or cheap for that matter) but they are surely worth every penny.
Are some countries in Southeast Asia more expensive than others?
Singapore, Brunei and Timor-Leste are known to be more expensive than other countries in this region. Travel expenses in Cambodia and Vietnam are among the lowest whilst Thailand and Myanmar used to be a lot more budget-friendly than they are now. The travel costs in the Philippines and Indonesia depend a lot on how far you travel and what islands you go to.
Read More: A Vietnam Itinerary for 2 Weeks
Keep an eye on your transportation costs. It is good to point out that although services and amenities may be more expensive in some places, it may be possible to travel around by long-distance bus, thus reducing flying costs, and the average transport expense may turn out to be less than the travel costs for a country where food and accommodation is cheap but transportation expenses are higher.
The latter is true if you intend traveling around countries with many islands such as the Philippines and Indonesia. Although it was way more expensive to eat and to stay in Timor-Leste than it is in Indonesia or the Philippines, it was possible (although difficult) to get around Timor-Leste via long-distance buses, so the average cost of traveling in the country turned out to be less than the average costs of traveling within Indonesia and the Philippines.
Of course, if you choose to spend most of your time on only one or two of Indonesia’s and Philippines’ many islands, travel costs can be considerably reduced. This was never the case for us! We like to experience as much as possible and go off the beaten track, so limiting ourselves to a couple of islands was never a solution.
Traveling and exploring remote islands with limited infrastructure is usually more expensive than spending time in places with considerably more tourist facilities. Traveling within Sumba island, Alor Island and West Timor in Indonesia costs more than going down the well-trodden routes of Java, Bali and Flores. But the opportunity of experiencing places with a little more authenticity and uniqueness and a lot less tourists is priceless!
Our travel expenses in Malaysia averaged out lowest of the countries we have been to so far. Thanks to a very well organized bus and train network, we never needed to catch a flight and only used long-distance buses and ferries. Although we found accommodation costs to be higher in Malaysia than in neighboring Indonesia, the fact that we dined on very tasty street food at hawker stalls, and the fact that the transportation system was so easy to use and reliable, meant that we only spent an average of €22 each/day in Malaysia as opposed to an average of about €30 each/day in the Philippines and €27 in Indonesia.
Singapore costs were by far the highest with an average of €40 each/day which is over our budget. We felt that three days in this little country was enough for a quick overview of the main sites though and the “extra” cost of traveling to Singapore were easily be balanced out by lower costs in neighbouring countries, to ensure that we stuck to our budget.
Surprisingly, the Philippines was a more expensive destination than we expected. We averaged €30 each/day with very little comforts. No expensive or celebratory meals, very basic accommodation and street food almost every day. We thought that activities and boat trips in the Philippines are a little more expensive than they are in the other countries. Furthermore, flights are often an unavoidable evil, as the only means of traveling between different parts of the country, i.e. if you intend exploring much of the territory rather than sticking to one or two touristic islands. In fact, we spent an average of €9.50 each/day on transport as opposed to only €3 each/day in Malaysia.
So far, we feel that we have managed our travel expenses in Southeast Asia pretty well, traveling mostly on a budget but still experiencing as much as possible and pampering ourselves with some comforts every once in a while. It has been increasingly easier to make financial decisions during our travels as we gain more experience with living this lifestyle!