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10 Signs That Your Backpacker Travel Budget Is Too Low

How do you know if your backpacker travel budget is too low when you’re traveling around the world? In short, it’s if instead of just making some comfort sacrifices, you’re losing your money perspective, being extra risky with your health, and skipping great experiences.  

budget travel backpackers

I get asked a lot of the same questions from the media, but I liked one particular question in an interview that came up many years ago when I first put up this post:

Does the average backpacker slumming it in the hostel have a more authentic experience than the elderly couple staying in hotels as they visit Europe for the first time?

If you’ve been a backpacker already and kept your eyes open, you probably already know the answer to this is “not necessarily.” Backpackers have a tendency to look down their nose at tourists dressed in nicer clothes, staying in nicer hotels, and taking the best transportation from place to place. They smugly call themselves travelers, not tourists, feeling superior.

They don’t seem to notice that a large majority of those moneyed tourists are smiling and happy, really enjoying their vacation. They’re seeing and doing a lot after they land in those foreign countries. 

On the other hand, I’ve met more than my fair share of grumpy backpackers, travelers who are so hampered by their desire to spend as little as possible that they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves all that much while exploring other lands. Slow travel is great, but there is a very real danger of missing a whole lot by being too cheap. They’re just passing the time in a different place instead of passing time at home. 

Here are 10 signs you’re probably getting a less authentic experience than those short-term vacationers. This post originally had 8, but then two reader suggestions were so good that I had to add them in. 

1. You haggle with a shopkeeper or taxi/tuk-tuk driver for 10 minutes over what would be the cost of a pack of gum at home.

Yes I know, sometimes it’s the principle of the thing and nobody likes to get ripped off because they’re seen as a “rich foreigner” who can be overcharged. I’ve walked away from plenty of fruit sellers and taxi drivers over this. But if you’re buying something you really want or haggling over a taxi ride that you really need, you may not always get the absolutely “fair” price a local would pay.

Give them the extra 40 cents and consider it economic stimulus, grocery money for someone who probably needs it. You’ll probably forget the whole transaction in a week or two. 

2. You take the hellish basement room with dirty sheets and leaky plumbing over the sunny and clean one with a balcony because that will save you three dollars.

better cheap hotel room

A $33 hotel room in Mexico


I recently rented a cheap room for the night ahead of time on when traveling solo and then the owner wrote to make sure it was okay that the place didn’t have hot water. “It’s not listed in the amenities but some guests expect it so they leave a bad review.” Yes, for $30 a night, everyone will expect that your place has hot water! So I canceled, paid $3 more, and got a nicer place that did have what was expected. 

That was in Mexico, which is not such a bargain compared to some of the cheap travel clusters around the world. In some of those, an extra $3 can be the difference between a depressing hovel and a nice room that will make you smile. Sometimes $3 can be the difference in being by the beach and being a half-hour walk away from it. Between an amazing view and a room with no windows. 

I’m all for sticking to a backpacker travel budget to stretch out the time on the road, but if you’re slumming it every night in the cheapest possible place, that can really wear you down.

3. You don’t know what well-made local food with the best ingredients tastes like because you’ve only eaten at cheap market stalls and backpacker cafes.

dinner at a nice restaurant in Thailand

The first time I went to a fancy restaurant in Bangkok, I was blown away. I had been quite happy with the cheap Thai food I had been consuming up to that point, but didn’t realize how elevated the experience would be in a proper restaurant. Everything was beautifully presented. The service was attentive. The dishes were far more complex. It was certainly a worthy splurge. 

Everyday bargain Indian food is often not much to get excited about, but higher-quality Indian food can be amazing. It’s a terrific experience to go to a nice restaurant in a major foodie country like Turkey or Vietnam. 

I love eating at market stalls and I even ran a street food tour company in Mexico for many years, but every once in a while you need to take a break from the cheapest items and eat something more elevated. Budget some money for splurges now and then so you can see what upper-middle-class people in that country are eating, what a more refined version of that country’s food is like. Or take a cooking class even so you can learn the stories and origins behind the cuisine. 

4. You went to Jordan and skipped Petra because the entrance fee was too expensive or you skipped Angkor in Cambodia. (Substitute Peru/Machu Picchu, India/Taj Mahal, France/Louvre, Mexico City/Teotihuacan…)

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Sure, if you go to Jordan for just a day and only see the first 10% of Petra, like some cruise ship passengers do, that’s a crime against the country. (And Jordan charges the day-trippers extra for it too.) It’s not exactly admirable though if you putter around the country doing a whole lot of nothing and never see Petra, Jerash, or the Dead Sea because those will take too bit of a hit on your budget. You came all that way for…?

Yes, the cost to visit Machu Picchu is high, crazy high when you compare what you’ll spend that day compared to a normal day in Peru without sightseeing. But this is not going to be an ordinary day. You’ll remember this one the rest of your life. 

Sure, the great wonders of the world are touristy by nature and they pull in visitors by the tour bus load. But that’s because they’re unique, they’re special, they’re well worth the visit. Cough up the entrance fee and overpriced transportation to get there and go join the crowd.

5. You passed up the souvenir you really loved and would have cherished forever because that $10 would have put you over your budget. (Meanwhile, what’s your bar-hopping budget?)

backpacker budget is too low for buying souvenirs in other countries

We have some cool items around our house that we really love. Masks from all over Latin America, intricate wood carvings and a chess set from Bali, rugs from Morocco and India, Catrina statues and alibrijes from Mexico. Neither of us can remember with any certainty what we paid for these items someone made by hand. Whatever it was, it was worth it. I don’t look at any of those cherished items and wonder, “Did we pay too much for that?” 

If something speaks to you and you know you’ll still value it years from now, just get it already. You’ll probably earn that money back in a few hours in your home country when you’re a full-time worker again. It’ll cost you four times as much if you try to buy it from an import store after you get back home. 

6. You’ve had the runs for three weeks straight because you don’t want to spend the money to go see a doctor.

Based on a true story. An idiot in India we were on a bus with. I think he had had the runs for longer than that, actually, but didn’t want to spend the few dollars it would cost to get medical help. (His idiot wife ordered a salad at a roadside restaurant where we stopped. In India…)

I circled the globe a few times without health insurance, paying out of pocket when needed, but I wouldn’t take that risk anymore. You can compare rates at SafetyWing or Travelex and find that it’s not all that much money to be covered in case of a catastrophe. 

7. You spend more daylight hours in your hostel/guesthouse than you do visiting attractions that cost money.

Did you really fly halfway around the world to slouch around in a hostel or guesthouse and play around on your phone? A few signs of trouble might be that you talked to more travelers than locals, that your memories of a country are only what you saw when walking or riding, and you don’t have an answer for, “What did you see when you were there?” 

Sure, it can seem like a lot of money to pay for a whale watching trip or a tour through the countryside, but sometimes the most special experiences require a boat, a rental car, or a $200 park entrance fee. Or sometimes you’re supporting a community tourism project that keeps people from poaching or logging to feed their families. 

There are better ways to keep the monthly expenses in check than skipping every attraction that costs money. See this related post: How to do an around-the-world trip on a budget

8. You’ve never hired a guide, visited a local history museum, or bought a book about the country you’re visiting.

travel education with a guide

Travel can be a fantastic education. You have to get out there and soak it up though to learn anything though.

Visit a museum, take a guided tour, spend some money on some great excursions. You’ll regret what you didn’t do later far more than you’ll regret going over budget now and then. And you’ll feel much smarter as a result. 

9. All of your bad travel stories involve 100km bus rides that took a whole day of your life. While everyone else was already at your destination, enjoying themselves, because they spent 30 rupees more than you. (Submitted by reader Jeremy.) 

My personal experience with this was when I visited India for the second time and started splurging on upper-class train tickets. Maybe the price was 50% more, but the experience was 200% better. The cars were air-conditioned and the overnight bunks had sheets and pillows. Nobody could get robbed because the windows weren’t open. Nobody could take someone’s seat because there was a conductor checking tickets. There was a waiting lounge at the station. And on and on. 

Where I live in Mexico, an overnight bus with three seats across and much more legroom will cost about 30% more than a more basic bus. On the former though, you’re much more likely to get some sleep and arrive well-rested.  

10. To save a few dollars, you walk 30 minutes in the sun from the bus station to the hostel with your huge heavy backpack plus extra bags. You end up with back pain that lasts for days. (Submitted by reader Lea.)

backpackers on a low travel budget

Been there, done that, to save the amount of money that now ends up as coins in the couch cushions. 

Got another one to add? What’s another sign that your backpacker travel budget might be too low? Put #11 in the comments below! 

Kelly Duckham

Wednesday 5th of June 2024

Great post! Your list of signs that a travel budget might be too low is very insightful. I’ve definitely experienced a few of these on my own trips. It's a good reminder to plan realistically and ensure a comfortable and enjoyable journey. Thanks for sharing.


Wednesday 10th of November 2010

Ha! Ha! Ha! You are so amazing. I just love this article so much. It is always favorable for travelers to have minimal expenses during travel but of course you have to weigh it with the quality of the travel. Make sure that quality is not sacrificed when trying to cut down budget. Take not that travel is about having fun not limiting fun.