Ten ways to save money when travelling

Jump to story list

First published 16th February, 2007

So you've done the math twenty times but you're still a few hundred dollars short in the budget department. Here's ten ways to save money -- US$1,400 to be exact -- while travelling. Just think how much more you could do, see and experience with that extra $1,400!

1) Don't spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of hiking boots.
You won't need them. Trekking in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam isn't like trekking in Nepal or Peru. Most get by just fine with a good pair of sturdy sandals. Hiking boots are hot, they'll start to smell really bad, you'll be needing to take them off over and over again to visit temples and enter guesthouses, and they're heavy.

Estimated saving over a month: US$285 (based on an average pair of quality boots going for US$300, with a sturdy set of leather sandles for around $15)

2) Don't spend hundreds of dollars on malarials.
Unless you're planning on sleeping naked in a swamp in remote areas along the Thai/Burma border, chances are you'll not need to take malarials during your trip. If your family doctor starts writing out a script for months of malarials as soon as you say "Asia", go and see a travel doctor for a second opinion. If the travel doctor says you still need them, then buy generic equivalents upon arrival in Asia -- at a fraction of the cost of what you'll pay at home. But remember, if you are visiting destinations on the main tourist trail in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and are not planning on spending time in remote rural areas, you do not need to take malarials. Instead use repellent, dress sensibly at mosquito feasting times (light coloured clothing, with long sleeves and pants), and use a mosquito net.

Estimated saving over a month: US$135 (Based of $3 a Doxyxyline pill for fourty five days -- a month and a week before and after. )

3) Don't spend hundreds of dollars on brand new guidebooks.
As you're reading this on Travelfish, you've already got the right idea. Regarding guidebooks, buy the book for the first country you're heading to and buy/swap as you travel for the others. Not that we support piracy, but ... pirated (photocopied or bound) versions of Lonely Planet guides are available throughout Vietnam and Cambodia -- Yup that's right, that US$20 guidebook to Laos you bought at Borders yesterday can be purchased on the street in Phnom Penh for $2. The regional guides (Southeast Asia on a Shoestring etc) are hardly worth using in our opinion and you'll be FAR better served by the country-specific guidebook for each destination. Buy/Swap/Sell.

Estimated saving over a month: US$80 (based on purchase cost of four guidebooks at a cost of $100 Vs one real guidebook for $20, then swap or buy a fake one)

4) Invest in a digital camera.
Asia is a beautiful region and you'll take photos -- lots of them. If you're shooting film or slide you'll be looking at hundreds of dollars to process all your happy shots. A mid-range digital camera (say around US$300) will pay for itself in no time at all and if you buy the right one, you'll get a video camera as a part of the package.

Estimated saving over a month: break even, but you've save money on your next trip.

5) Don't buy a sleeping bag.
You won't need it. If anything, get a sleep sheet or a couple of sarongs, but nearly all lodgings will have sheets and treks will have bedding organised. Plus sleeping bags are hot (you're in the tropics remember) and they take up space that could be filled with trinkets.

Estimated saving over a month: $190 (based on a $200 sleeping bag Vs a $10 sleep sheet)

6) Travel second class
The train system in Morocco has "C class" -- locals joke the C stands for Corpses, Crates and Cattle. Thankfully 2nd and 3rd class in Asia is nowhere near as bad. In virtually all cases, 2nd class is more than enough -- and it's generally about half the price.

Estimated saving over a month: US$50-100

7) Drink water not beer
Both beer and water are cheap in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The former makes you fat and drunk, the latter slim and hydrated. While beer is often super cheap -- say US$1 for a big bottle, water is often cheaper. Drink alcohol in moderation and you'll be surprised just how quickly the savings pile up -- and that's without even counting the greasy $5 American Breakfast you'll find yourself craving the morning after the night before. If you don't want to listen to us, listen to your Mum. Drink less booze and you'll save more baht.

Estimated saving over a month: US$90 (Based on four beers a night vs one, at $1 a beer -- doesn't include the greasy breakfast.)

8) Fan good air-con bad
You're in the tropics so you know it is going to be hot, but the evenings are often surprisingly cool. If you're on the beach, look for rooms with good window space to let in that fine sea breeze. In cities you want a room on a higher floor and preferably with a window. Oddly, often rooms on the upper floors are cheaper.

Estimated saving over a month: US$300 (based on an average for of $10 for a fan room Vs $20 for an air-con one)

9) Money management
Check with your bank before leaving to find out just what charges they have for overseas withdraws from ATMs and for cash advances. The fees may curl your hair and make travellers cheques look a lot more sensible as bank fees on a month-long trip in Asia can easily mount into the hundreds of dollars. When your bank tells you they have a US$5 charge per foreign bank withdrawal, plus an extra 5% spread on the exchange rate, you know which way to run -- either straight to a bank that doesn't, or to the closest American Express office for some travellers cheques.

Estimated saving over a month: US$100 (based on personal experience of one month in Vietnam foolishly using a Commonwealth Bank of Australia credit card)

10) Food, food, food!
Most guesthouses will offer what they call an "American Breakfast". This is normally two greasy eggs, a couple of plastic sausages, manufactured ham and a decorative tomato or cucumber. Don't be surprised when it costs US$5. Skip the overpriced fatfest, walk out the door and plonk yourself down for some fried rice or noodle soup for a dollar.

Estimated saving over a month: US$120 (Based on $5 fatfest Vs $1 noodle soup)


1) Buy your Travel Insurance through Travelfish.
Buy your travel insurance with World Nomads through Travelfish and you'll save 5% on the policy cost. (See the Member Centre for more information -- Americans and Canadians not eligible sorry!)

2) Get your visas in Asia, not at home.
Visas for other Asian countries are almost always cheaper in other Asian countries than in the west. For example a visa for Vietnam costs A$70 in Sydney, Australia or US$30 in Cambodia.

3) Catch the bus, not a cab.
Where possible use public transport rather than taxis. Taxis remain very cheap, but the bus system, particularly in the larger cities in Thailand and Vietnam, is even cheaper. Bangkok, Saigon and Hanoi all have comprehensive and very affordable bus systems.

4) Get your travellers cheques in large denominations.
Exchange kiosks will often charge a flat fee per travellers cheque. So to change five US$20 travellers cheques may cost you $5 ($1 per cheque) while a single US$100 cheque will cost you just $1 to change. Don't get travellers cheques in anything smaller than US$100.

5) Look into the Bangkok Airways Discovery Airpass
If you're planning on a few flights between Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, then the Discovery Airpass can be a steal. Note the Airpass CANNOT be purchased in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand or Vietnam -- you must buy it in your home country.

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 10 comment(s)

  • this website is gold
    thanks for great tips

    Posted by chris21 on 28th January, 2009

  • Hi,

    Some amusing tips. Just a note to readers that for some Malarial medication to work, it is necessary to take it some time both "before" and "after" the vacation.


    Posted by Antony Hayes on 9th September, 2010

  • @Antony Hayes

    - as well as praying to various gods!

    Posted by Jason Stevens on 16th October, 2010

  • Great tips.

    A good ATM is usually better than Traveler's Checks. In most urban areas ATMs are on every corner, while TC changers must be searched for. In the outback, there may be few ATMs and no TC changers. In some places (e.g. Manila), changing TCs can turn into a 2-day ordeal.

    There are banks (in the U.S.) which will not charge you an ATM fee, and even refund foreign bank's fees (up to a certain amount). Bank of the Internet is one. Look around.

    Fan rooms are good if you can stomach them. Apart from sweltering heat (in which some are unable to sleep), there are mosquitoes (aircon rooms have better insulation, it's in innkeeper's interest). However, an old cheap aircon blasting right at you is the quickest way to a sore throat.

    Buses can be better then cabs (especially in heavy traffic), but it depends on how much you value your vacation time. If an hour spent waiting for a Bangkok bus in the heat (at a possibly mislabeled stop) are worth more to you than the $3 taxi fare, go ahead.

    Posted by dbkk101 on 18th October, 2010

  • Anyone going to Thailand will have a ball. Just be very careful not to insult people by making bad comments about the King and royal family. The Thais do not appreciate it. Have fun.......I know I did !!

    Posted by Steve on 10th April, 2011

  • I agree with most of these tips, but travellers' cheques? Are you kidding me? That would be the one form of payment that would be least useful in travelling in Asia, from my experience. I've always gotten by with cash and credit cards. Just make sure you contact your credit card company before you leave so they don't freeze your card when it starts showing unexpected transactions. Credit cards are good for any higher-priced, western style travel (hotels, restaurants, etc.). Cash is good for everything else, and since non-western style stuff is relatively cheap, the amount of cash you need to carry is much less than if you were travelling in, say, Europe. Debit cards can also be useful, if you just keep them to withdraw more cash at an ATM in a major city like Bangkok.

    Posted by Mari B on 24th August, 2011

  • I will have to review this and it's a very information

    Posted by Anita Elmido on 22nd April, 2012

  • @ Mari B

    I've had debit cards frozen several times and then you have the extra expense of having make international calls to your bank to get them to unlock the card. Lloyds in the UK said that they couldn't "mark" my account to say I'd be using it in Indonesia for the next month so I'd probably have it frozen again - totally ridiculous! I ended up using my partner's card that I'd taken for emergencies.

    Posted by Tennouji on 14th July, 2012

  • the Discovery Airpass link is not working...

    Posted by greg121 on 26th August, 2012

  • ...As a person who has never travelled to these destinations, I must say the information is priceless... and as said costs nothing compared to buying travel guides.... Thanks..

    Posted by Robert Rezo on 22nd September, 2012

Add your comment

Feature story quicklinks

Newsletter signup

Sign up for Travelfish Burp!

Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.

We respect your email privacy