2020 update: Since first traveling to Southeast Asia in 2012, I’ve revisited the region nearly yearly, logging over 2.5 cumulative years. Over that time some prices have changed, and this post reflects those numbers.
Back in 2012, I spent a glorious 8 continuous months backpacking in Southeast Asia on a long-term traveler’s budget. This meant staying in dorms, taking local transport, eating street food, and generally traveling on a shoestring budget.
In 2016, I returned with a more middle-of-the-road budget, and since then, have experienced the luxurious side of the region as well.
Over that time I’ve learned that whether you’re on a tight budget or have a bit more money to play with, your money will take you further in Southeast Asia than almost anywhere else in the world. Today, let’s answer the question – what does it cost to travel in Southeast Asia?
On a Budget
I personally spent $7,958 USD (without SCUBA diving – $6,095) for six months in Southeast Asia, with a month each in Cambodia, Laos, northern Thailand, southern Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. With flights and pre-trip expenses, it added up to $11,000.
Some guide books will swear that $30/day or less is sufficient for traveling in Southeast Asia – this is generally not realistic.
So how much will you need to budget to travel in Southeast Asia in 2020? I wanted to give you the most up-to-date budgeting guide, and make calculations even easier with the addition of 1-month or 3-month breakdowns. With my recent trips back to Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia, a bunch of online research and the help of a BMTM team member who lives in Southeast Asia, here’s how much you should budget for an extended trip in Southeast Asia:
1. Travel Insurance
This is one of those costs that’s annoying, but necessary should the worst occur. I went with World Nomads travel insurance which happened to be cheaper than any other company I could find for US citizens.
Saving tip: If you know for sure how much time you’ll be away, buying more months upfront is definitely cheaper than extending periodically.
2. Flights: $1500
Flights might be totally different depending on where you’re coming from, but I usually end up spending about this much including flights from home and any inter-country flights once in the region. The first time I went, I bought two one-way flights to get from LAX to Southeast Asia and back. In hindsight, this may not have been the cheapest way to travel (I could have saved a couple hundred dollars by booking round-trip), however, I was unsure of my dates and departure city. Sometimes, the penalties and restrictions on moving flights ends up making a RT flight too much of a hassle.
Other ways to save are by making your itinerary logical, so that you can take overland transport most of the time and don’t have to cover huge distances all at once.
Saving tip: To reduce your flight costs, subscribe to flight deals like this one, especially if you are flexible on the traveling dates. Flights are also cheaper during shoulder and rainy seasons. You can also travel hack like I do to save money.
3. Immunizations: $350
You’re out of luck if you’re an American when it comes to travel immunizations, because chances are you’ll be covering them out of pocket. I personally elected not to take malaria pills nor get rabies vaccinations because of costs associated and unlikelihood of either becoming a real issue.
Saving tip: In order to get immunized the cheapest way possible, visit the travel specialist at your local county healthcare clinic.
4. Travel Gear: $400
My backpack alone cost me over $200, but was worth every penny as nothing ever broke and I’m still using it 6 years later. I also invested in Pacsafe products to keep everything protected, which I do not regret! Check my guide out for essential travel items.
Saving tip: Limit your luggage to carry-on only, so you can save on check-in luggage. Southeast Asia is generally hot and humid year-round, so you will only need thin and breathable clothes. Things are also incredibly affordable so you can always buy things you need as you go.
I am all about winging it when it comes to a backpacking trip, especially in Southeast Asia. However, if you are on a budget, it’s best to decide on your length of stay in each country to avoid unnecessary visa fees. Here’s a complete breakdown for most nations:
|Indonesia||Visa Free||30 days|
|Malaysia||Visa Free||90 days|
|Singapore||Visa Free||90 days|
|Philippines||Visa Free||30 days|
|Thailand||Visa Free||30 days|
1. Food: $10-$15/day
Eating local delights and choosing street food when possible are the best ways to keep food costs down. The food tastes better and costs much less when it’s a local dish vs. a western dish. Why order a disappointing burger for $4 when you could have amazing steamed pork buns, papaya salad, coconut soup, pad thai (the list is endless!) in Thailand for less than $1? If you are staying at a place with a kitchen, you can get groceries for cheap from the local market and make your own food. Note that at certain places, like Bali and Kuala Lumpur, eating out can sometimes be cheaper than cooking.
Saving tip: Check with your hostel receptionist for local recommendations. Eat where the locals eat. Don’t fear street food. It’s cooked right in front of you and may even be fresher and less processed than food available at home.
2. Accommodation: $5-$10/day
This really varied depending on high/low season and country. Cambodia and Laos were the cheapest while Indonesia and Malaysia tended to be more expensive and provided less value for the money. Here’s how much you should expect to pay per night, if you were to book a hostel bed a week in advance, and pick one that’s clean and strategically located:
|Cambodia||$2 – $7|
|Indonesia||$5 – $10|
|Laos||$4 – $10|
|Malaysia||$5 – $15|
|Myanmar||$5 – $11|
|Singapore||$10 – $18|
|Philippines||$6 – $15|
|Thailand||$5 – $10|
|Vietnam||$4 – $8|
3. Transportation: $2-$10/day
|1 month||$60 – $300|
|3 months||$180 – $900|
|6 months||$360 – $1800|
Land transportation is generally very cheap in all of Southeast Asia. Taking an intercity bus typically costs about $10. The cost of renting a bike is around $8-$15/day. On the islands like the Philippines, public boat trips take ages but they are extremely cheap at about $2/ride.
Diving: If you are a diver, you will be thrilled to find many, many affordable diving spots all over Southeast Asia. Prices go as low as $100 for a 3D2N stay with 3 dive trips, though when I returned to Southeast Asia in 2018, I went on a glorious 11-day liveaboard diving trip in Raja Ampat which now costs over $6000.
Island Hopping: An island hopping trip with 5-6 stops for less than $15? Only in Southeast Asia. Your negotiation skills will decide how much you pay for your island hopping trip, so negotiate away, and if the price offered does not make sense to you, walk away – there will be 5 more agents down the same street. Generally, you should expect to pay about $15-$30 for a full-day (typically 9am-3pm) trip.
Group Tours: A walking tour is often the best way to get to know a new city. There are many tip-based, free walking tours available, and some of them are actually really insightful and fun. It’s the best way to meet new friends too. Paid tours typically cost about $8-$15.
Hiking: I love that this activity is mostly free, save for the occasional entrance fee! Even some popular hikes, like Mount Bromo, can be affordable if you do it independently.
Cooking Class: This delicious activity runs about $20-$40 for a class. Consider the skills you will gain and the free food you will make. I’d say it’s pretty worth it, especially if you’ve fallen in love with the local cuisine.
Popular Tourist Sites: Angkor Wat costs a whopping $62 for a 3-day pass, getting to the sky bridge of the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia requires $20, and the beautiful Gardens by the Bay in Singapore also requires you to surrender $20 to enter. Pick and choose what you’d really want to see and factor the entrance fees into your overall budget.
Toiletries: If you can, buy from the small local stores instead of the big chain drug stores. They are likely to cost less, and you get to help the locals out. If you want to stick with familiar brands like Pantene and Nivea, the cost is similar to what you’d pay back home, if not slightly cheaper. Local brands cost less.
Clothes: They’re so cheap and awesome! You can get a funky top for $3, cliche but must-have pair of elephant pants for less than $5, and a beautiful silk scarf for less than $8.
Outdoor gear: There are many “counterfeit” hiking gear options available in Vietnam and Indonesia for a fraction of the original cost, but the quality is lacking, too. You can get a legit waterproof jacket for as low as $12, but if you bring it from home, it’ll last longer.
Why couldn’t I travel on only $30/day?
The $30/day benchmark does not take into account gear, insurance, flights, and immunizations. It’s also easy to forget that things like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, batteries, adapters, mosquito repellent, medication, and visas all need to be periodically purchased on the road. The cost seems small but when budgeting only $30 for one day, $4 on a small bottle of shampoo can really add up.
The $30 benchmark is more than realistic, if not a little rich, when staying in one place for an extended period of time in one of the cheaper countries. I was able to spend $3/night on accommodation and around $10/day on food and drink in Otres Beach, Cambodia, for example. I didn’t spend a dime on activities because the beach was free. But what about the days when I moved around? What about the times I had to spend $40 on a visa, $9 on a bus ride, and $3 on a water taxi? My budget was blown before I even bought food or a bed for the night.
What about the days that I wanted to visit Angkor Wat, go SCUBA diving, or jungle trekking? An extremely low budget is only feasible if you hardly move around and never spend anything on activities, but why travel to the other side of the world only to miss out on these things?
If I had not SCUBA dived, climbed Mt. Kinabalu, or gone trekking in Bukit Lawang or Mt. Rinjani, I would have shaved over $3000 off of my trip, easily. I also never spent more than a week in any one place. Had I moved more slowly, I could have saved a lot more.
More saving tips:
- All hope is not lost if you have a smaller budget to work with. To keep costs low, use services like Couchsurfing for free accommodation. Not into it? Stay in dorms. They are a great way to meet people and save some cash. House sitting is also a possibility though less so in Southeast Asia.
- Always travel local instead of by private or tourist coach, even if that means travel days are longer. If you’re rich in time but not in funds, this is the best way to do it.
- Eat local foods and abstain from alcohol. The biggest budget eater is partying, by far. If you never buy drinks, you’ll literally save thousands. Really, thousands!
- Use a debit card that doesn’t charge fees and refunds the ATM fees assessed by other banks. The only one I’m aware of is Charles Schwab.
For a country-specific budget guide on each place mentioned above, I go into more detail in each of these posts:
How much do you usually spend on traveling? Do you have any budget travel tips to share?