Not Everything is Cheaper in Cheap Destinations

Eat what the locals eat

Two years ago I did a post called In Cheap Destinations, Some Things are Pricey. I was living in Mexico at the time and pointed out some items and services that were costing locals more than I paid in the U.S.

Since then I’ve traveled to ten other countries and will be hitting three more starting next week. I’ve come to recognize some patterns that don’t vary a lot from place to place. Keep these in mind when deciding what to pack and not pack for your next jaunt. (And for how careful you should be with those electronics!)

Usually Cheaper in the World’s Cheapest Destinations:

Restaurant meals
Local alcohol
Locally grown produce
Services fulfilled by labor (babysitting, house cleaning, a haircut, massage)
Cheap hotels/hostels
Locally made products
Repairs of almost anything (back to that labor thing)
Taxes on purchases
Drugs (legal and not)
Public transportation by land
Live entertainment
Museum/attraction charges

Hiring a limo to take you there would probably cost less than this Siem Reap- Saigon flight

Usually More Expensive than in the USA

Computers and smart phones
Clothing and toys from China
Many cosmetics from big multinationals
Imported food and alcohol
Name brand “luxury” goods (including Nike and Adidas)
Name brand travel gear/luggage/clothing/sunglasses
Cars – rental and purchase
Foreign brand soda
Online shopping and shipping

Items influenced by a monopoly status vary a lot from place to place. Phone and data charges are higher in Mexico, cheaper in more competitive markets not controlled by the world’s richest man. Beer is expensive in some places because there’s one company and high taxes, in others there’s competition and lower sin taxes. Domestic flight prices depend on many factors, including competition and whether fuel subsidies exist.

So what does all this mean for you? “Buy local” is not just good for the environment. It’s a practice that will save you money almost everywhere. Eat what’s in season and what’s popular where you’re traveling. Keep your electronic valuables safe with the right tools (and maybe some pickpocket proof pants) and don’t be sending stupid Facebook updates or tweets in a crowd when what you’re holding is worth more than a year’s salary locally. You might as well paint a target on your forehead.

Make room in your pack for sunscreen, bug repellent, and your favorite name brand toiletries. Pack the lightweight travel clothes and convertible pants, but remember that you can buy t-shirts along the way for cheap. You can get things like razors, toothpaste, and shampoo for cheap almost anywhere, but maybe not deodorant or tampons.

  1. Ian and Wendy

    Absolutely! Electronics are cheaper in the US than anywhere else we’ve ever been and that includes Hong Kong and Singapore. Especially if you’re good at ferreting out deals or are willing to line up on Black Friday. The “buy a t-shirt” idea is great…unless you’re tall. We always hear advice to just buy clothes along the way, but that can be really challenging and not cheap, either, if you can’t fit into the usual local sizes. Great lists! You make a very good point!

  2. Jonathan Look, Jr.

    Living like a local always seems to be cheaper. As a traveler it helps to know where the bargains are. Ask locals!

  3. lidia

    Great tips and it is also always better to experience local products and services, it is one of the essences of travel. But I am wondering, does it have any special significance that you added a picture about Hungary – and Hungarian products – to the post? Did you find Hungary expensive?

    • tim

      Hungary is quite reasonable overall. It’s just that while you’re there, you should eat…sausages! And drink Hungarian wine of course.

  4. Aaron Fisher

    This list is pretty concise list although I would like to add one other important factor, ELECTRICITY!. I live abroad in Mexico and everyone pays about 12cents / kilowatt as long as you don’t pass 3000 kilowatt-hours over the course of one year. Once you break the threshold of 3000 kilowatt-hours you are then charged an estimated 30cents for every subsequent kilowatt-hour. If you “Live like a local” and don’t use AC or don’t have a pool, your electric bill will be pennies but as soon as you start to enjoy modern amenities you will be charged exuberant rates. Best way to avoid a big electric bill in Mexico is to spend your summers somewhere cooler like Canada or US.

    • James

      That depends on where you are in Mexico. I rented a whole house in San Miguel de Allende last summer and the electric bill never topped $25. I think the last time I had a $25 electric bill in the USA was when I was in college and paying 1/4 of the total.

  5. Brian Harig

    Wow Tim,
    I love this blog. I am so into travel and I am always looking for a great deal. I am glad I found this. Finding places where your travel dollar will go further is very important to me.

  6. Jerry

    True on the electronics, but on the plus side at least all cell phones are sold unlocked in most countries, so you can use them everywhere, with any carrier. That saves the extra expense of getting you off the teet of Verizon or AT&T.

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