What does it cost to travel in Asia?

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First published 14th October, 2008

It seems discussions about the cost of travel are all the rage at the moment, so here's the first part of a series of stories on what it costs to travel around Southeast Asia. In this piece, we'll discuss all the costs you face before you even get out of your home country. Later stories will cover each country individually.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when planning and budgeting for their first trip overseas is to forget to take into account all the expenses they'll face before heading overseas. There's nothing worse than saving $3,000 for a three month trip in Asia, only to realise you could well be spending a quarter of that before you leave home. Some costs, like a flight ticket and travel insurance, are pretty close to essential and largely fixed, while others, like a backpack and vaccinations are less so. Here's our breakdown on costs and a few ways to save some money. Note all dollars are Australian dollars unless otherwise noted.

Fly to a hub
Unless you're already in Asia, you're going to need to get on a plane to fly here -- and aren't budget airlines just the best thing since sliced bread? Southeast Asia is especially well served by budget carriers offering cheap flights -- AirAsia, Jetstar, NokAir and Tiger Airways are the big ones. These carriers criss-cross all over Southeast Asia at bargain basement rates, often with fares for international flights costing as little as $50 (after taxes and surcharges). What this means is even if you're actually planning a trip to Vietnam, it may be cheaper to fly in with a long haul carrier to a regional hub -- Singapore (Tiger and Jetstar), Kuala Lumpur (AirAsia) and Bangkok (Nok Air and Thai AirAsia) are the best choices, and then fly onto Vietnam with one of the low cost carriers. Kayak is a good price comparison website for the long haul carriers and Skyscanner is good for low cost carriers.

Getting insured
It never ceases to amaze us how many travellers we meet who haven't bothered with travel insurance. Theft and loss are, in the scheme of things, minor -- what you really need travel insurance for is medical coverage. Yes, medical care in Southeast Asia is far more affordable than in many more developed countries, but, well, it's not always so developed! Fees for serious accidents can still be very high. A friend of ours racked up over $15,000 worth of medical fees in under two weeks of treatment at a Bangkok hospital after a motorcycle accident. A month-long policy through World Nomads (which is who we use when travelling), would set you back a little over $100 -- a bargain.

Estimated fees* through World Nomads
One month: $100 (around $3/day)
Two months: $150 (around $2.50/day)
Three months: $180 (around $2/day)
Six months: $250 (around $1.50/day)

See -- it makes sense to travel for longer!
* Exact prices vary depending on your country of residence and assume no travel within North America and Japan.

Getting jabbed
Like travel insurance, checking that your vaccinations are up to date is a no brainer when it comes to travel in Southeast Asia. At a minimum, we'd suggest you check you're inoculated against the following:

Hepatitis A
Hepatitis B

If you're after more comprehensive coverage, then consider:
Japanese encephalitis

Regarding malaria, it depends very much on exactly where you are going. Read our related Malaria in Southeast Asia story for more information. Overall we do not recommend taking malaria pills unless you'll be travelling extensively in seriously affected areas.

The costs of these vaccinations vary tremendously from country to country and are also dependent on what pre-existing medical insurance you already have. Sample prices we found online are below:

Shot Australia UK Canada
Hepatitis A A$50 £88 C$105
Hepatitis B $30 £105 C$105
Typhoid $35 £25 C$40
Japanese encephalitis A$225 £138 C$300
Rabies $225 £123 C$510
Tetanus, Diphtheria, Polio A$58 £36 C$45

UK: http://www.thehealthstation.co.uk/Travel_Clinic/travel_vaccinations.htm
Australia: http://www.newcastle.edu.au/service/health/vaccinationpricelist.html
Canada: http://www.tmvc.com/fees.html

Another investment on the medical side of things is a small medical kit. These vary in price from around $20 to $50 depending on how much stuff you want. Sure you could just pilfer your parent's medicine cupboard and toss it all in a plastic bag, but these professionally produced packs are well worth the money -- they're well organised, compact and light -- just what you need in a probably already overloaded pack.

Get a pack that suits your needs
You're off travelling in Southeast Asia -- not hiking the Himalayas -- so get an appropriate pack. Backpacks are measured in litres and anything over about a 70 litre pack is too big -- a 70 litre pack is really heavy when it's packed full of wet socks, bongo drums and snorkelling gear. The main decision is whether to go for a top loader or a back loader. The former tend to be tall and narrow -- rest assured that every time you need something, it will be at the bottom of the pack. The latter are squat, wider packs, often with daypacks that zip off the back. Rear-loading packs are the more popular overall among travellers in Southeast Asia. Relatively inexpensive packs can be bought online for under $100 and we'd say, for the casual visitor, there's little reason to spend more. See our buying a backpack page for more advice.

Boots or sandals?
Do not go and spend hundreds of dollars on a flash set of hiking boots -- all you'll do is buy some flip flops once you're in Asia and carry the boots in your pack. Unless you're planning on extensive trekking, expensive boots are a waste of money and you're better off buying a pair of comfortable, sturdy sandals -- Teva (http://www.teva.com/) is a good brand.

Passport and visas
No passport? You'll be needing one of those! Sample costs include Australia A$208, Canada C$87, UK £72 and USA US$100. Remember to allow enough time for the application process.

Regarding visas, the most important point is that in most cases it is far cheaper to get your visas in Southeast Asia than in your home country. If you're travelling to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam for example, but are starting in Thailand, get your visas for the other three countries in Bangkok. It will save you money. If you must get a visa beforehand, sample visa costs for Laos, Thailand and Vietnam at selected overseas embassies are below.

  Australia UK Canada USA
Laos A$45 no embassy C$54 US$47
Thailand (tourist visa) A$45 £28 C$35 US$35
Vietnam A$70 £38 - US$65

Add it all up
So if you're travelling to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam for two months you should have the following in your "before I even leave home" portion of your budget:

Return airfares to the region: $500-$1500
Travel insurance: $150
Vaccinations: $200-$300 (varies tremendously)
Backpack: $100
Sandals: $50
Passport $100-200
A couple of visas: $100

Yup -- over $500 in expenses and you've not even picked up an air-ticket yet!

But don't fret, it's not all bad news! In the next story (coming soon), we'll be looking at what it costs to travel in Cambodia -- that should bring down your costs a little -- and it's more fun than getting jabbed at the doctor!

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

Read 6 comment(s)

  • I got most of the vaccines you mention (Hep A, Typhoid, T/D/P) from my GP surgery in London for free, without even seeing a doctor (they have a wonderful nurse who does all the travel stuff). I also got 17 weeks worth of Doxycycline anti-malarials for one standard prescription charge (£7.10). Anything else would also cost no more than £7.10.

    Posted by jon on 1st November, 2008

  • Re: Money belts and security

    I have been to Asia a few times, and have found cargo-type shorts (the ones with lots of pockets) are far better than a money belt for keeping notes secure and dry in the humid heat.


    Posted by rayc101 on 3rd January, 2009

  • Travelling with money...

    We all have this fear.

    Interestingly, we seem to place more fear on being robbed than being run over by a wayward vehicle, or on a bus that rolls over, crashing on a motorbike, etc., etc..

    I use a wallet in my side (not rear) pocket for daytime cash. I do not hold large amounts there. I have a little slip in purse that has a sturdy 'hook' that goes inside my pants where I have my belt. There I hold my credit cards, and large notes.

    I've found that bum packs are a signal to be treated as an ignorant tourist (ignorant in the sense of not knowing the local issues, so leaving you open to be charged high prices).

    As for packs, in Asia one really doesn't need a lot. I see visitors with these huge packs. I take one that can fit into the plane (ie walk on luggage). That way, it's easy to walk a city looking for better/cheaper accommodation. All too often i see people lumbered with large baggage unable to wander around and are at the mercy of 'touts' near the station/bus depot, etc. So, think small and light (T's, shorts, etc. are cheap to buy and some even replace there T's instead of washing!!!).

    For flying, also look uo www.airninja.com to get a list of budget airlines doing 'your' route.


    Posted by brucemoon on 1st March, 2009

  • Just a side note, it costs about $400 minimum for health insurance in Canada, the quote of about $87 was correct to renew a passport, I went through about $500 for my shots (getting the bare minimum I think), and my backpack put me back about $300. Shows you how much more expensive it is to live in Canada than the states

    Posted by Chelsea on 15th November, 2011

  • I have £8000 (including flights, visas, etc)and want to travel SEA(thailand, laos, vietnam, cambodia and maybe more) for as long as possible. I am willing to work/volunteer. Although I plan to visit tourist spots I want to go to unpopular places as well and eat like the locals. I am am willing to live as cheaply as possible in order to extend my trip for the longest possible time. In your opinion, how long do you think I could travel?

    Posted by mac on 21st March, 2013

  • hoi hoi

    Posted by alice on 5th December, 2013

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