Southeast Asia has been a haven for backpackers and tourists looking to travel on a budget since the publication of Across Asia on the Cheap, the travel guide that birthed the renowned Lonely Planet travel guide series back in 1973.
But there are still things to learn about how to save cash when traveling through Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and other countries in the region.
Here are our best pieces of advice:
Don’t use a travel agent
This goes for many destinations, but especially when traveling to a location with notoriously low prices like Southeast Asia: Resist any temptation to use a travel guide.
When I traveled to Thailand from Sydney, a travel agent tried to sell me on a “bargain” travel package that included flights to and from Australia, a handful of tours through wildlife sanctuaries in the mountains of Chiang Mai, and lodging in town.
I used Travelocity to search for all the lodging, flights and tours individually, and was able to save myself about $300.
Book your travel way in advance
If you try to book a flight to Thailand within the next month, you’re going to spend way more than if you book eight months or so in advance.
And while 20-hour flight times will be the norm, you can find airfare for under $600 from certain U.S. cities if you utilize sites like Skyscanner months in advance (even during the busy winter travel months).
Find one event or attraction you want to take in while in Southeast Asia — like the Thai New Year in April — and book your flights months for that event, and the countries/cities you want to see in the days around the event.
But don’t be too rigid with your plans
Once you’ve booked your flights, don’t go crazy trying to micromanage what you’ll be doing while out there.
While it is ideal to have a few plans set in stone, once you get where you’re going you can find cheap alternatives by haggling with locals.
For instance, it might be tempting to book a guided tour of a city ahead of time since you’ll be in a completely new place.
But with a slight amount of wherewithal, a map and a willingness to ask for help, you can rent a scooter for as little as $10 for the day and be your own tour guide while traveling at your own pace.
Don’t go over the top with your lodging
From virgin beaches to lush, mountainous forests, the landscapes you’ll see while going through Southeast Asia are breathtaking.
And in those landscapes, there are plenty of sprawling estate-type hotels and lodges that will charge exorbitant fees because they offer world-class amenities like yoga retreats or all-inclusive spas.
But here’s the thing: There are a ton of hotels across the region that offer equally great accommodation for a fraction of the price, and those yoga retreats and massages can be booked for much less by just traveling into towns and bartering with locals.
Using the week of Thai New Year in Chiang Mai as an example, a search on Travelocity shows that there are 1,024 properties to stay at in town. Five-hundred-thirty-eight of those places cost less than $75 a night, while 12 properties cost more than $300 a night.
If funds get really thin, get to work
Let’s say you were hoping to go on an extended backpacking trip through the region, and after a few weeks you realize you’re running a bit low on cash.
The beauty of Southeast Asia is that there are a crazy number of hostels, many of which are mom-and-pop operations. And those smaller outfits are almost always willing to trade lodging for some labor.
Work can range from simply weeding the garden to helping the hostel owners run tours/bar crawls out of their lodge for other English speakers. If you’re willing to be put to work for a few hours a day, you can normally find a way to make some nominal cash or get free lodging.
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