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cheapest places to travel

$15 in London, $1 in India

Where are the cheapest places to travel in the world? And how does City A compare to City B? How well does perception match reality?

World's Cheapest DestinationsEvery few years I put out a new edition of the book you see to the right and if you’re about to embark on a year-long trip around the world, it’s the best $9 (e-book) or $16 (paperback) you’ll invest in your journey. It’ll give you rundowns on the best bangs for your buck around the world, as well as a quick overview of why you’d go there. It has real prices on what an average person can expect to spend as a backpacker or mid-range traveler in the cheapest places to travel that are worth visiting.

Beyond that though, if you just want to compare Vienna to Prague, or Chiang Mai to Hanoi, there are a couple of other good resources out there I use as a gut check now and then when working on articles or for media interviews.

Numbeo for Wisdom of the Crowd

The first is called Numbeo.com and it’s a crowdsourced platform where people input costs so the system can come up with averages. It’s not perfect of course since it’s dependent on volunteers to take time out to enter data, but close enough for ballpark numbers. They’ve had nearly 145,000 people put info in as I write this.

What I really like about it is it puts things in a ratio perspective, using New York City as 100. You find out, for instance, that renting an apartment in Nicaragua is a 10 on that scale of 100. So if you live in Manhattan and move to Managua, you’ll probably be able to get a place that would cost your $5,000 a month in New York for $500. On the other hand, you definitely do not want to move to Norway or Switzerland unless you’re getting a transfer and a huge raise:many of their cities are above 150 on the scale. Here’s a rundown from most expensive to cheapest.

This site is to compare living expenses though, so while it’s good to see what you’re in for if you want a better life for half the price, the data is mostly populated by expatriates and residents upper-crust enough to enter info in English. So you get some odd skewed results from people trying to live a first-world life in a country that may not have a huge selection of imported items for reasonable prices. Thus the outliers that look expensive but really aren’t for most people, like Caracas, Venezuela. Go to the other end and 24 of the 25 cheapest cities are in India and after that you start getting into some of the other places featured in my book. like Nepal, Indonesia, and Bolivia.

Take it all with a dose of skepticism though. No way in hell that Puerto Vallarta and Durban are cheaper than Cuenca and Plovdiv. It’s good for getting a general sense though of apartment prices, food prices, and what a taxi will cost you. To give you an idea, here’s the rundown on Medellin, Colombia.

Cheapest Places for Backpacker Travelers

While Numbeo wants to know what a lot of things cost, the PriceOfTravel.com site is aimed at backpackers trying to find the best deal. So here’s the basket of goods and services they used to compare A to B on their backpacker index:

A dorm bed at a good and cheap hostel
3 budget meals
2 public transportation rides
1 paid cultural attraction
3 cheap beers (as an “entertainment fund”)

There are inherent flaws in this one too of course, like the beer cost not mattering if you don’t drink and the “hostel” part being pretty meaningless in a country where most everyone gets a private hotel/guesthouse room since it’s so cheap. Some places you walk everywhere and never need public transportation, others may require expensive taxi rides to get anywhere you really want to go.

Pokhara Nepal

The very cheapest backpacker destination?

Again though, as a basic guide it’s pretty good, with 14 of their 15 cheapest being places I cover in my book. Sri Lanka is borderline cheap from what I’m hearing, but if I haven’t been there, so I could be wrong. Here’s their list, with a daily budget amount.

Pokhara, Nepal – US$14.32
Hanoi, Vietnam – $15.88
Chiang Mai, Thailand – $17.66
Goa, India – $18.25
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – $18.27
Kathmandu, Nepal – $18.46
Vientiane, Laos – $21.38
Delhi, India – $21.38
Luang Prabang, Laos – $21.71
Bangkok, Thailand – $21.78
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – $21.95
La Paz, Bolivia – $22.24
Quito, Ecuador – $22.30
Hoi An, Vietnam – $23.26
Colombo, Sri Lanka – $23.87

There’s a clear focus on cities, as you can see. There are far cheaper places than Delhi in India and far less expensive destinations than Quito in Ecuador, but hey, they’ll be a happy surprise when you get there.

When you click on an individual city, what you get is excellent: not just detailed price ranges, but also weather patterns, attraction prices, and a quick overview. Here’s the one from Budapest.

Like I said at the beginning, my book only features 21 countries and you’ll likely explore destinations that are your wish list that aren’t so cheap. But using these two sites, you can figure out that Australia is going to cost you far more than Canada, that London is more than double the price of Istanbul or Seoul.

Budapest train

What’s the biggest perception difference between an experienced budget traveler and one planning to take off around the world?

The first has learned what really breaks the budget over time. The latter generally has it all backwards.

Here are some paraphrased quotes from people who have sent me e-mails or asked questions on message boards I’ve been on.

- “Yes, I know we’re going to a lot of expensive places in Europe, but we’re going to sleep in hostels.” (Person who had Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, England, France, Spain, Italy, and the Greek Islands on their itinerary.)

- “We’re on a tight budget, but we really want to hit all every continent except Antarctica on our trip.” (A trip that was just 12 months long.)

- “I’m trying to find a cheap round-the-world flight that includes South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia but I’m not having much luck.”

These statements are inherently at odds with traveling on a budget. They’re hoping for a magic bullet answer that is the equivalent of defying the laws of physics. If you don’t tackle the big budget items, you had better have lots and lots of money saved.

You can ignore most of the “Top-10 Ways to Shave Your Travel Costs in Europe” articles that are meant to be click bait. Most of the time they’re just about messing with the margins, the small stuff. It’s like trying to fix the U.S. deficit problem by cutting funding for the arts. To really make a difference we would need to reform social security, truly fix the health care system, or cut defense spending. All three at once to achieve anything dramatic.

hostel prices

For the price of a hostel bed here, you get a really nice hotel room for 2 in a cheap destination.

Location

Budapest is a fantastic bargain. Nobody will ever call Oslo a bargain, or even London for that matter. You can buy a round of drinks for all your friends in Hungary for the price of one in Norway.  The price of a hostel bed in Copenhagen will get you a spacious hotel room for two almost anywhere in Eastern Europe. One nice restaurant meal in Switzerland will feed you for a week in Portugal.

Now take that further and go to Central America, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent. Prices drop in half again, for almost everything you could possibly spend money on. So don’t think of how you can shave costs by self-catering and staying at hostels. If you cut the entire “basket of goods and services” cost by 2/3, messing with the margins isn’t necessary.

And as I’ve said often, getting out of the big capital cities will usually help no matter where you are.

long-term travel

Did you really leave home to do this every day or two?

Velocity

The more you’re moving around, the more money you’re going to spend every week, every month. It’s not far-fetched to say that someone visiting 24 countries in one year is going to spend twice as much as someone visiting 12. The one visiting 8 will spend even less.

If those 24 countries are on multiple continents that require long-haul flights, bump the budget up by thousand of dollars. Even in places where transportation is cheap, being on the move a lot requires constant spending on some kind of tickets. If you’re in one place for a month though, it’s just your feet and local buses or subways. Plus when you get to know an area, you don’t have to throw money at hurdles because you’re in a hurry. You can figure out cheaper/better options for everything from lodging to groceries to bus options for leaving town at the end.

Many people setting out on their first round-the-world trip act as if their life is going to end the moment they return home. They have to do it all, see it all, on this one grand adventure. Hey, you’re 28 years old; is this really the last time in your life you’re going to get on a plane and go somewhere? On my three round-the-world trips, I never even set foot in Latin America. Now I’ve been to a dozen countries in Latin America. They didn’t disappear from the map. I still haven’t been to New Zealand. But I think it’ll wait for me.

round the world flight

This route STARTS at $7,250.

Distance

I’ve written a few articles related to my book on traveling in the cheap clusters of the world. This one is getting a bit dated, but apart from Turkey getting more expensive it’s still pretty accurate.

The idea is, you take a long-haul flight to a cluster of cheap countries, then go overland from there. The most common one is to get a flight to Bangkok and then you can hit a half-dozen other countries without getting on another long-haul flight. You can get a cheapo flight from Singapore to Indonesia or a not-so-bad one from Bangkok to Nepal or India, which is the start of another cluster. The cheapest cluster option from the U.S. or Canada is to fly to Mexico or Guatemala and then make your way south by land and boat. For the Brits, a cheap flight to Budapest or Prague can then turn into lots of jaunts by train and bus to the least expensive parts of Europe.

The easiest way to ratchet up your long-term travel budget in a hurry is to try to check far-flung places off your list on one trip. Sure, you may have always dreamed of visiting Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, and France, but if you’re trying to find a ticket hitting all those areas, it’s going to be the price of a used car, no way around it. Save some for later.

What lesson did you learn the hard way between planning and actually traveling?

Italy travel Carrara

Sometimes editor types joke about the “three I’s of travel” that grace so many magazine covers: Italy, Ireland, and India. They’re photogenic, look exotic, and have nice luxury hotels with ad money to spend. You’ll rarely find a travel magazine that goes a whole 12 months without one of the three on a cover.

In the current issue of Perceptive Travel, we subbed in Iceland for Ireland. (Don’t worry, you can still find the latter plenty of places on our blog.) Iceland is also photogenic, can look exotic, and has some nice hotels. As usual though, we don’t tick off places you’ve already seen a hundred times before. We like to take the road less traveled. In this case we’re literally on the road with Luke Armstrong as he tries to learn how to drive a stick shift on the fly. In a van. Going across Iceland in the “crazy season.” See Learning to Drive a Dinosaur in Iceland.

We also have a story about Italy, but toss out your expectations because Debi Goodwin is not going to check anything off your bucket list. This place was on hers though: the Italian marble quarries of Carrara.

Old Delhi

We had a story in the past on how the “Incredible India” portrayed in ads and glossy travel stories is like an alternate universe to the Slumdog Millionaire reality that non-luxury travelers see every day. Being sheltered from the grinding poverty is next to impossible if you go for a walk though, as Jim Johnston finds out in Hunger and Privilege: Dinner in Old Delhi.

As always we run down some world music worth listening to, from a globalFEST compilation to classical music with a Turkish twinge, through the ears of Laurence Mitchell.

Susan Griffith reviews three new travel books: one from a legend, one from a shipping industry reporter, and one from…well, you decide.

Need some new travel shoes?

We give away something cool to one of our loyal Perceptive Travel readers each month and last time Jack P. from Florida scored a nice $139 daypack from Granite Gear. In April we’re setting someone from the USA up with a nice $90 pair summer travel shoes: the H2O Escape Bungee Sneaker from Sperry Topsiders.

To win, you could follow PT on Facebook and pay close attention. The better bet is to sign up for the monthly e-mail newsletter.

Cambodia living

How do these expenses for living in Cambodia compare to yours?

A 2-bedroom apartment with a pool for $350, a $5 massage for an hour, a full-time nanny or housekeeper for $120 a month, meals out for $2, taxis for a dollar or two.

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I’ll be putting out a book later this year on cutting your expenses in half by moving abroad. In the course of that, I’ve been interviewing loads of expats living in different countries. If you pinned me to the wall and said I had to tell you which country was the absolute cheapest place to live in different regions, Cambodia would be the answer in Southeast Asia.

cambodian food

Cheap Living, Easy Visa

On top of the cheap living and the pure ease of getting things done, you’re welcome to stick around for a while. “This is one of the easiest countries in the world to get a business visa,” said Justin Garnett. “You just pay a little extra when you arrive for the upgrade. Then you can extend for a full year for $280. From there it’s very easy to rent a space and open a bar, a restaurant, or a service business. As long as you don’t do anything stupid, it’s no problem.” Just keep it above board, he advises. “As soon as you start f#cking with the system, it’s going to come down very quickly. The judicial system is not going to be your friend.”

Khmer livingWhen I spoke to Humphrey of New Zealand, who lives in the capital, he echoed the ease of getting a visa in Cambodia and not having any hassles. “When I need to renew my visa, I give them some money at a motorbike shop or travel agent and hand over two photos. The next day I have my passport back and it’s done.”

Plus you don’t have to worry about sneaking around if you want to tend bar or take scuba divers out for PADI certifications. “This is one of the few countries in the world where you can just roll up and work,” says Humphrey. “It’s not like Thailand.”

Apartment and House Deals in Cambodia

As with anywhere you’d want to live, it pays to take your time finding a place to stay to get the best deal. If you look online though, the prices are quite reasonable even for those in a hurry. In Phnom Penh, the most expensive places are right by the river and you can pay as much as you do now if you want. But they go down quickly as you count the blocks back from there. It is common to spend $250-$300 for a one-bedroom condo and $400-$650 for one that has several bedrooms and lots of facilities. In Siem Reap prices are far lower. If you spend $600 there you’re going to have a swanky villa with a pool, all utilities included. Most of the condos and apartments you can find online range from $250 to $550 per month. Go to a smaller town with fewer tourists and it drops again from there.

When I asked Humphrey what he spends on a regular basis, he stressed that he was living large and wasn’t very careful with his money. “I earn about $2,000 a month and I spend about $1,500,” he said. Even in the nicest bars, it’s still 50-75 cents for a half pint of beer. Liquor here is cheaper than at duty free in an airport. If you spend more than $4 on a meal it was a very fancy place. Women are cheap, but I’m not a player now,” he insists. “I have a girlfriend.”

“There are plenty of dirty old men on a pension down at the beaches though,” he adds, “and I know a few that easily get by on $1,200 a month. They live well on that amount.”

Justin is a family man, so his story is very different. He’s got a house full of relatives in the compound, a place where he spends around $750 on rent, utilities, and maintenance for a 4-bedroom house “with a huge garden.” He estimates that he probably spends $3,000 a month supporting the extended family of his wife he met here, along with his own kids, but can’t imagine going back to his old life in Australia. “I pull up to the house and the kids run inside. I always know there’s someone to take care of them. We’ve never ever paid a babysitter.”

market stall

He now has a vacation getaway place he made happen from his savings. “I bought a block of land with a 3-bedroom house that needed some improvements,” he says. All told I’ve spent$21,000 and I have an acre of land. If you buy land somewhere, you can build a home here for 10 grand.”

I also interviewed a hotel manager living in Siem Reap who was just plain flabbergasted at how cheap it was where he was living. “I don’t know anyone who pays more than $500 a month for a nice large apartment or house here,” he says, “And even if you run the air conditioning 24/7 you won’t be able to spend more than $300 per month on all utilities added together.”

happy hourHe has worked in several other countries in Asia and can’t imagine spending less than he does now on food and drink. “I cannot think of anything outrageously expensive except some imported food stuffs.”

Cambodia is not for everyone, of course. It’s a hot tropical country with the bugs and diseases that implies. Most people fly to Thailand for serious medical care. The Khmer Rouge killed off everyone who seemed intelligent, which didn’t exactly result in an enlightened gene pool. The beaches here are okay, but they don’t compare to those in neighboring countries.

Do your homework and give the place a trial run before making a move. If your funds are limited, however, this is probably the best bargain in Asia outside the Indian subcontinent.

Want to hear about the best opportunities for cutting your expenses and having a better life? Subscribe to the Cheap Living Abroad newsletter!

 

Argentina travel

Why did you leave me all these pesos instead of dollars?”

Getting ready to travel somewhere for a few weeks or months of independent travel? If you want a great value, put these countries on your short list:

Argentina

India

Indonesia

Mexico

Why these? Not because of their “friendly locals,” “charming towns” or “pristine beaches,” yada yada yada. And not because they’re a hot destination this year. You should go if you like to get a lot more for you money there than you did in the past. If you like traveling well while spending less than you do just existing at home, a plunging exchange rate is a surefire ticket to savings.

Most travelers approach exchange rates backwards. They don’t even think about them until they get to where they’re going, then fret about how everything is more expensive than they expected. It makes a lot more sense to see where your timing will be right and go there. Heck, even if you’re going somewhere expensive this makes sense: the pain of Canada, Japan, or Australia stings about 10% less right now than it did a year or two ago.

Argentina’s Pain, Your Gain

I took Argentina out of the last edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations because high inflation, high import duties, and a slew of nutty economic policies were making it an unfriendly place for tourists. You’ll still face a hefty visa cost before you even exit the airport if you’re American and there’s still a crazy small limit on how much you can take out of an ATM each day. If you arrive with U.S. dollar wads in your pocket though, you are going to tango your way across the land in much better shape than even just a few weeks ago.

That’s because the peso has plunged badly for a whole host of reasons and the government’s injection of $115 million to buy up pesos isn’t helping much. Here’s how Reuters put it:

“The local currency weakened on the black market to 12.15 pesos per U.S. dollar, while the official exchange rate was unchanged at 8 per dollar in thin trading. Last week, the official peso slid nearly 20 percent as investors scrambled to make sense of the new currency regime.”

rupee decline

India’s Rupee in Decline

Two years ago this month, a dollar got you 50 Indian rupees. Today it gets you 62. That’s a 24% increase in what you get for your money. And you could already get a lot.

The government is intervening to try to keep this figure from falling further, mostly by raising interest rates. Who knows how well that will hold or not. But if you’re already planning on going there, happy days are ahead. (If you were going to Nepal, you’ll also get more for your money there, in what’s already probably the cheapest destination in the world. As the Indian rupee goes, so does Nepal’s currency.)

Let me take you to Indonesia

Two years ago a buck got you 9,000 rupiah. Today that same greenback will get you around 12,000. For those of you who flunked math class, that’s a 1/3 increase in your purchasing power. Maybe not in a chic Bali resort priced in dollars, but you weren’t planning on doing that anyway, right?

Indonesia was already one of the world’s best bargains, especially as soon as you leave Bali and head anywhere else. Yes, the country is getting wealthier and the middle class is rising fast—thus the horrible traffic jams in Jakarta—but if you stroll in with an ATM card linked to a bank account in a country that uses the US dollar, Canadian dollar, Australian dollar, euro, or yen, you’ll be feeling flush. Head to Sumatra and you can check out for months on a couple grand.

Unfortunately, the flight price is going to kill you for any of these if you’re coming from the USA or Canada, so it’s better if you’re already on the move and can get there from somewhere closer. At this time of year it’s hard to find a flight to any of the three for under $1,000, so sometimes you’re better off with a package deal that includes hotels.

Which leads us to the backyard choice:

Guadalajara

Mexico, Mexico!

I guess I moved back to Mexico at a good time. The exchange rate hasn’t dipped below 12 to the dollar since I got here this past summer and it just hit a new high of 13.3 when I took money out of the ATM yesterday. That means my “What you can get for a buck or less” list keeps expanding. Here’s a partial list

Two kilos of oranges or bananas, a large beer in a store, 12 ounces of fresh squeezed orange juice, a kilo of fresh tortillas, 2+ local bus rides, a few street tacos, a bootleg DVD, an ice cream cone or fresh fruit popsicle, a tamale, four breakfast buns, four sandwich rolls, y mucho mas,

A cheap meal of the day lunch in the market here is 30 pesos, which is now less than $2.50. A taxi from one side of Guanajuato to the other is less than $3. The average museum admission is $2 or less. As I always say though, those are prices in the real Mexico, not Cancun or Los Cabos.

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