The Fallacy of Travelling Cheaply

I’m inspired to write this after reading a bunch of “How to travel <insert geographic area> for under US$50 a day!” posts. The bulk of them talk about how you can live off hot dog buns and the worst of them mention cheating on train/bus fares. The more reasonable ones talk about not entering much-hyped sites with a crazy entrance fee and to walk in some (free) park instead or to hang out with fellow travelers because the writers are ‘people persons’ which is still kind of debatable if you’re actually attracted to the spot by well, the sights.

Truth is, travelling is really not that expensive. I’d be quite hard-pressed to think of an instance where I had to spend more than US$50 a day on average including accommodation and sometimes, even airfare. I’ve been backpacking quite a bit over the last years and I daresay I spend less on some vacations than I would if I were to stay put. That’s including airfare. Here’s a list of what I do. (All prices stated in USD for convenience)

Find Deals on Big Budget Items

Don’t bother with saving $1 a meal. It’s not worth it. What’s more worth it is being crazy-proficient with geography. If there’s any good proof that your aptitude in a subject matter in school isn’t indicative of what you’re good at later in life, me and Geography are it. Most blogs talk about traveling from a very western view. I’m in Singapore so nothing holds. Travelling through Asia? Look up flights from hubs like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok. Amazing cheap flights. I’ve flown return to Vietnam for $50 and recently flew to Tokyo for $200, tax inclusive. China has tons of budget flights going for about $200 from Singapore these days. If you’ve lots of time, you can get to Russia from Shenyang -> Harbin -> Eastern Russia for about $300-500.

Europe from Singapore? The sale prices are usually in the $700-800 range. The best places to travel into are Madrid, Amsterdam, Paris and Munich because there’re really good connections. On the eastern front, apparently Istanbul is good as is Budapest. I’ve flown to Paris for $450 return.

Towards the US, things get more expensive. New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver flights are the cheapest. Sometimes Houston too. They’re usually in the $750-900 range if you’re lucky. Toronto is a bit pricier towards $900-1100. I don’t like flying with China airlines because I don’t like the vibe but if you do, they can be even cheaper. Look up prices from transit hubs like Tokyo or Hong Kong too.

Oceania is getting cheap these days too. To Western Australia, prices could fall to the $150-300 range and to the eastern part, $250-400. New Zealand? About $800 on a non-budget carrier.

I can’t speak much about South America. There are better prices for flights to Sao Paolo and Rio in general and this would still be in the $1000-1400 range. The west coast goes up higher but there are more connections from hubs like Hong Kong or even through Europe like Paris, London or Amsterdam.

The best aggregator to look up prices is still Google Flights because it shows a map BUT toggle your dates and you’ll get different ranges in prices sometimes. Still, prices reflected are usually from the airlines’ global sites so once you find an airline or two that show significantly cheaper prices, go direct to the airline’s site and search from there. That could save you a couple of hundreds. Also, domestic flights sometimes show up as cheaper on the local sites than on the international sites.

‘Cheap’ Accommodation

I’ve stayed in some really messed up places. In Madrid, my hotel was $30 a night but was an hour away from the city including a 20 minute walk in a dark street. It’s so remote that there wasn’t safety fears because NOBODY LIVES THERE. Screw that.

What you want is a balance of budget, comfort and location. Look up last minute deals. Some hostels and hotels do a discount if you book online for the next day or the next next day. If you’re staying just for a day, that’s perfect. I got a central bed space for 12 Euros in the heart of Barcelona in peak tourist season. I stayed in a suite in an amazing 3-star boutique hotel with a free minibar in the heart of Paris for 100 Euros. That’s just slightly more than a bed space in some hostels around.

When you’re travelling around for some time, you don’t want to be staying in a cheap dorm throughout your stay. Do yourself a favor and check yourself into a nice hotel. They don’t have to be expensive too especially in some big cities. Amsterdam for example has very expensive hostels that can cost 40 Euros a night. A small hotel room with shared facilities in a nondescript building 15 minutes away from the main tourist stretch costs the same. What’s better though is travelling a station away (About $6 one way) to Zaandam, a completely beautiful location that you’ll want to go to anyway where you (and a pal) can stay in this hotel for $100 a night. You’ll have a huge room, an amazing view and a bathtub to scrub at your callouses. If you’re staying a night, that’s just the cost of 2 hostel nights. You’ll save the money shopping for groceries at the cheaper nearby supermarkets and it’s nearer to Edam and the outskirts too.

Amsterdam Zaandam

Bulk Train/Plane Fares

Some train passes are a bargain. Others, not so. Japan’s rail pass is great if you’re travelling from Tokyo to say, Hiroshima and back in 5 days. Europass? Maybe, but you’ll have to plan out your route in advance. I don’t like planning to save a few bucks and restricting my travel options to just train. For the Amsterdam/Paris/London/Belgium stretch, buses are cheap. You’ll pay $20 for a bus ride one way. Local trains in eastern Europe are cheap too as are buses. For short, planned holidays, train passes are great.

Plane fares however are a separate story. I’ve read about how much of a bargain people feel they got from a round-the-world ticket. They’re notoriously hard to book – you’ll have to spend lots of time calling up the agents to finalize your itinerary verbally and then making quick plans on the spot when they’re not AND they don’t include budget airlines most of the time. The only passage that can be cheap is arguable the trip to Tahiti – Easter Island – Santiago and even then the Tahiti flight is seasonal so if you’re not in the right season, you’ll be wasting one way going back to Santiago.

Eating Out vs Cooking

I’m always in favor of cooking if I’ve the time. Western European cities, North America and Australia/New Zealand are expensive places to eat out in. Also, I like scouring supermarkets and picking out random local foods. More important to eating cheaply though is eating healthily (yes, says me, purveyor of the junkiest junk food). In Europe, cheese and tomato sandwiches are great cheap snacks and on-the-go meals as are fruit and milk. Fish is great in port towns. In Eastern Europe, generally food is affordable. I’ve bought a bag of strawberries for something like $3 and bread rolls costs 10c. I’ve seen a lot of hostels offer free pasta or rice in the pantries so really, all you need if you want to cook are some meat and vegetables and an egg. I haven’t been to Scandinavia so I can’t comment on food prices there. I’m also not going to comment about the US since I had more than a meal consisting of a pack of Kettle Chips dipped in a tub of Ben & Jerry’s because they’re all very cheap and I really like ice cream and chips.

Japan is notorious for expensive meals but there are also supermarket bargains after 8pm if you want a prepared non-restaurant meal. On my last visit, I’d have milk, natto, sprouts, soup, tofu and lots of fruit if I’m feeling cheap. On one of those days, another guest at the hostel actually told me what I was eating isn’t good for health. I didn’t know how to respond.

Want to really save on food? Skip the sodas. Skip buying bottled water. If you don’t like drinking from the tap, buy a filtration bottle. In most countries without portable water, bottled water is affordable and cheap so that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Buy Insurance (Sometimes)

Travel insurance isn’t cheap. The items you’re most likely to claim for are missed connections, delayed flights, missing baggage and if you’re unlucky, theft. The best value claim you can make are those for delayed flights and baggage. For certain flights when you know they’re delayed a good proportion of the time or when you’re carrying baggage that’s odd-shaped and prone to mishandling, maybe that’s when you should check out travel insurance.

I made sure to get insurance when I flew to Mongolia since the flights are perpetually delayed because of bad weather (Have you SEEN Mongolia’s weather??). My flight was delayed for a full day and my friend’s for 2 full days. It’s ridiculous. I reckon the same would happen in Beijing.

Bottomline

The cheapest trips I’ve made include 5 days in Vietnam for $150 all in and $1000-ish for 2 weeks in Hokkaido including a week of snowboarding. I spent about $4500 for 2 months in Europe including stays in nice hotels in Western Europe.

Travelling for less than $50 excluding flights isn’t a bargain. And yes, whenever that figure’s quoted, it’s always excluding flights. That’s $1500 a month. That’s more than the average income worldwide so of course you should be able to travel for less than that to most of the world. (The median worldwide is $9733 in 2013 FYI)