RTW Budget Update: Southeast Asia

Our trip is now complete. Life is a little bit different here in the states (mostly much colder), but we’ll get to talking about that soon. For now, it’s time to take a look at how much we spent in Southeast Asia. This segment was the longest; all in, over 3.5 months. Originally it would have been a little bit shorter, but changes in plans to nix Australia and New Zealand put us in SEA for a while longer. More sunshine, more rice, more noodles, and more cheap beer is more my style. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Part 1: Major Transportation

Transportation in Southeast Asia is made for the backpacker. Five hour bus rides can go for $10 or less; Taxis, tuk tuks, and songthaews can be had for just a few dollars, and some routes can be easily done on a train across Thailand and Vietnam. When we decided to nix Australia and New Zealand form the tail end of our trip, we were left with quite a big cushion in the budget. Because of this, we added a few flights to the mix rather than going overland and booked the best class bus or train when we could.

  • Estimated Expense: $2,400
  • Actual Expense: $1,358
  • Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,042

Even still, we ended up on the right side of the line, well under budget.

Part 2: In-Country Costs

  • Estimated Expense: $12,320 (112 days at $55 / day / person)
  • Actual Expense: $9,323
  • Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$2,997

But just like before, we need to account for the fact that our budget was based on a different time period spent in Southeast Asia. We spent 11 days less than we planned and we should compare apples to apples.

  • Adjusted Estimated Expense: $11,110 (101 days at $55 / day / person)
  • Actual Expense: $9,323
  • Adjusted Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,787

We did really well in Southeast Asia. There were not too many times where we had to turn down an activity for the sake of money. We did everything we wanted to do and we ate everything we wanted to eat. We even stayed in some nicer hotels to mix things up a bit (but mostly because after several long months in hostels and dirty guest houses I needed a little bit of luxury in my life). We visited a rice farm and Kristin learned to weave and dye fabric in Laos. We did some snorkeling tours, some kayaking tours, and some food tours in Vietnam and Thailand. We ate at more upscale restaurants in Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok. All in, we lived with a whole lot less restrictions than we did in Europe and Africa and still came in far under budget.

True Cost for Southeast Asia: $46 / day / person

Ang-Thong-Marine-Park
Snorkeling in Ang Thong Marine Park
Krabi-Cavemen-Kayaking
Kayaking through caves near in Krabi Province in Thailand
Soul-Food-Bangkok
Full bar at Soul Food Mahanakorn in Bangok

How to Overspend in Thailand

On our first visit to Thailand, I want to say we were young and naive. It was several years ago, in 2011, and we were only 24 years old. We were starting to make more money in our respective careers and our pockets were as deep as ever. So when we visited Thailand with three other close friends, our spending habits were never kept in check. It was a short trip of course, just 12 days. And in those 12 days, we spent more than we would on our current “long-term” travel budget in over a month.

Bangkok-Skyline
The beautiful skyline of Bangkok, where it’s too easy to spend, spend, spend…

I found some notes on our spending, and part of me feels ashamed and maybe a little taken advantage of. On the positive side – I feel better now that we know better. We know how much things should cost and we know how to make our dollars work for us.

Looking at these numbers of past travels, it made me realize why so many locals try to scam the farang (Thai for western foreigners). On recent travels there have been all too many times where a taxi driver refused to take us when we asked him to run the meter, where a tuk-tuk tried to charge two to three times the going rate for a ride, and where we’ve walked by and peeked at the menus overpriced tourist-oriented restaurants. It’s just too easy for these guys to pass you up for a more unsuspecting visitor.

That’s exactly what we were on our first trip. Unsuspecting. Too charmed by the big smiles of the locals to think twice. And boy did they have their way with us.

Here’s a few notes that I found about our spending:

Beer

Singha-Beer
A big bottle of Singha beer from 7-11 for 55 baht ($1.69)

Our first night in Bangkok we arrived pretty late, about 11pm. Worn out by nearly 24 hours of travel, we asked the hotel for a place to go to grab a drink. We were in Silom. Just go down this road, turn right, and there’s a night market. We walked in the night and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Before long we had arrived at the night market. Turns out we were in Patpong. One of the seedy centers of Bangkok’s red light districts.

We sat down, ordered five Chang beers (the favorite of backpackers), and watched the working girls try to entice customers.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 800 baht (160 baht each) + a 25% tip = 1,000 baht (~$30).
  • The Real Cost: At a 7-11, five cans of Chang would cost 175 baht (35 baht each). At a normal bar, it would go for about 250 baht (50 baht each) + 10 – 20 baht as a tip = 270 baht (~$8.50).

Tipping for Tours

In Chiang Mai, we did a tour that included an elephant camp (which we shouldn’t have done in the first place, but that’s a story for another day), a ride on a bamboo raft, a nice lunch, and a nice minibus to drive us around for the day. The tour cost was a little overpriced, but not grossly. We spent 8,755 baht total, coming in at about 1,750 baht each for the day.

But here’s where we spent too much – tipping the driver and our guide for the day.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 500 baht for the guide + 500 baht for the driver = 1000 baht (~$30).
  • The Real Cost: Thai people do not tip often. When they do at restaurants, it’s likely only leaving the change and maybe 20 baht maximum. Although now with western influence, and likely due to America’s extravagant tipping culture, many locals working in the tourism industry come to expect a tip. Nowadays, I would go with something much more modest – 100 or 200 baht for the guide (if they were really good) and maybe 100 baht for the driver = 300 baht maximum (~$9.25).

Laundry

While in Phuket, we were lucky enough to have a Thai friend set us up with a beautiful room in a luxury resort for something like $40 a night. Just 1/4 or 1/5 the going rate for the room. But with a luxury room, comes luxury prices on everything else.

We had our laundry done at the hotel. Of course, being a nice hotel, they charged by the piece. Shirts had a fixed rate, shorts had a fixed rate, underwear, socks, and so on and so on.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 1,350 baht (~$41.75) for a couple of day’s worth of clothing for five people.
  • The Real Cost: Most local shops in Thailand do laundry based on weight. Some charging as little as 20 baht / kg and some as much as 50 baht / kg. For several day’s worth of clothes, I’m guessing we had about 5 kg max. At an average rate of 35 baht / kg, that bag of laundry should have only cost us 175 baht (~$5.50).

Food

Kanom-Jeen
Kanom Jeen found at a local market for 20 baht ($.60)
Nam-Prick-Aung
Nam Prick Aung at a local restaurant for 70 baht ($2.15)

They say Thailand has some of the best street food in the world. It’s true, you can eat great food for real cheap. But for a first time visitor, this can be intimidating. Some worry about cleanliness, some worry about the sheer act of sitting on tiny stools on the sidewalk, and some worry about not knowing how to order. So they eat in fancy tourist-oriented restaurants, with English speaking staff, English menus, and pretty decorations.

One meal at this same luxury resort I mentioned, was all that. Albeit delicious, it cost us a small fortune. We ate in a private room and we had dish after dish of excellently prepared Thai food brought to our table.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 7,000 baht to feed 8 people (875 baht / person).
  • The Real Cost: There is such a wealth of food options to satisfy any budget. On the street we can eat for 50 baht / person. At a local restaurant, we can eat 100 baht / person. Even at a nicely decorated, modern restaurant, we can eat for 200 baht / person.

Transportation

Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers are notorious in Bangkok for trying to overcharge. Taxis don’t want to run their meters and tuk-tuks want to charge double or triple the going rate. We were staying in Sukhumvit and wanted to go to the boxing match at Lumphini Stadium. It’s just a short 4km drive and we jumped in the first taxi that was willing to take us.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 250 baht.
  • The Real Cost: Taxis in Bangkok are super cheap if you can get them to run the meter and take a reasonable route to your destination. Frankly, I think the reason that taxis try to overcharge so much is that the meter rate is just too low. A four km ride should cost you 35 baht for the flag, including the 1st kilometer, and then just 5 baht for each additional kilometer. Total cost for 4 km = 50 baht.

Note: In comparison, the going rate in Vietnam is about 12,000 dong for the flag (19 baht) and then 16,000 dong per kilometer (25 baht). Seriously, Bangkok: you need to raise your taxi rates.

Foreign Transaction Fees and ATMs

This last misstep isn’t a Thailand problem, but a global problem. Banks in the US are notorious for finding a way to charge fees for nearly everything they can. And for an expensive international trip, these fees can add up.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: $5 for each ATM withdrawal; 3% on all credit card transactions.
  • The Real Cost: Now that we are on a long term trip, we managed to find ways to avoid these fees. Imagine if we had to pay 3% in foreign transaction fees on $10,000 in spend – $300 in unnecessary costs. Instead, we have credit cards that do not charge this fee at all. No foreign transaction fees anywhere. Kristin’s Capital One VentureOne card has no annual fee. Mine, however, charges $85 annually, but I get all sorts of good stuff from Marriott that makes up for that fee. In addition, we have a checking account through Charles Schwab that refunds all of our ATM fees. So the real cost of bank fees for traveling internationally – $0.

Hanoi’s Secret Courtyard: Cafe Pho Co

Tucked behind a tourist’s t-shirt shop and silk store is one of Hanoi’s not-so-secret coffee shops, except for the fact that it’s easily missed by the casual walker-by. It sits near a congested traffic “circle” in the old quarter, which is surrounded by numerous other similar shops enticing customers with a lakeside view.

But Cafe Pho Co, isn’t out front trying to lure the crowds in. It’s hidden behind these shops, down a dark alley, behind some bird cages, past a bonsai tree, and up several stair cases. Walking in you’ll feel like you’re intruding because in most similar alleys around Hanoi you’ll find local residences. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t at least one family residing behind the doors of this cafe.

We ordered at the bottom of the stairs, for me- a Vietnamese egg coffee. Super creamy, lots of sweet, but not enough kick for me. Either way, we enjoyed the view, sipped on my dessert of a coffee and peaked around to find the various eccentricities of the place.

Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
Hidden out in the open…
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… and down a dark alley…
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… behind some bird cages…
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… up several staircases…
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… awaits a great view!
Cafe-Pho-Co-Hanoi
… and some Vietnamese style egg coffee.

The 12 Months To Go Checklist

With a year to go from the big trip, it may not seem real and it’s far too easy to put off planning until time gets closer. But there are some things that can’t wait. As we plan for our trip, here are the current major items on our to do list.

Choosing Your Must-See Destinations

For an extended trip, it may seem too easy to get in the mindset that you can see everything. Frankly we could try, but I know that would quickly get drained and grow tired of moving from place to place every couple of days. Because of this we’ve tried to pick a list of our ‘must-see’ destinations that would serve as a framework for route planning.

On our first list, there was no rhyme or reason; it was just a list of cool or beautiful or fascinating places that we wanted to see. Here’s where it started:

  • Asia Pacific: Angkor Wat, Cambodia; Halong Bay, Vietnam; Southeast Islands, Thailand; Chiang Mai, Thailand; New Zealand; Borneo, Malaysia; East Cost, Australia; Phillipines.
  • Africa: Victoria Falls, Zambia; Marakkech, Morocco; Zanzibar, Tanzania; Cape Town, South Africa.
  • Middle East: Cappadocia, Turkey; Istanbul, Turkey; Jordan; Cairo, Egypt.
  • Eastern Europe: Plitvice National Park, Croatia; Prague, Czech Republic; Slovenia; Greek Islands; Krakow, Poland; Budapest, Hungary.
  • Western Europe: Cinque Terry, Italy; Venice, Italy; Bavaria, Germany; Paris, France; Granada, Spain; Switzerland; Bruges, Belgium; Iceland; Holland, Netherlands; Edinburgh, Scotland.

Do you think we could cover all that in 6 months? Doubtful. Now the hard part is narrowing it all down. So how did we go about that?

  1. Identifying travel ‘hubs’ / ‘cluster’s – If you purchased round the world airfare you may have some options with adding more remote destinations to your list, but for us we’re looking to save some cash and will be paying for airfare as we go. That means that a dedicated ticket for getting to somewhere like Iceland or into Africa, better mean we are going to spend enough time there to get our money’s worth. And that means some places just don’t make sense logistically if you only plan to spend a few days there.
  2. Finding route options – With a limited budget and time there is no reason to waste either on non-sensical routes. Avoid backtracking and take major thoroughfares whether by bus, plane, or train.
  3. Chasing summer – I dread the cold and don’t plan on bringing winter wear with us on the trip. That means that we’ll want to avoid the cold in places like Europe as it gets closer to winter.
  4. What we really want to see – We started this destination list separately to see where it overlapped. With this, we’ll likely end up visiting some of our shared choices.

So with these things in mind, we’ll continue to narrow down our destination list until we have a manageable itinerary to work from.

Determine if You’ll Work or Volunteer

3042199624_91226f33f9_o

Whether WWOOFing, working the front desk at a hostel, or teaching English, you may choose to spend a little more time in a destination becoming more engaged with the local community. If this is planned, spend some time researching where you might do something like this and what you would like to do. We had originally planned this trip to be a year long and more seriously considered a work stay option, but with only 6-months on the current schedule this will be less likely. Below are a few interesting options that I found in my search:

Telling People

While a year in advance may seem a little early to start telling people of our trip, I made the decision to do it. For me it was about making it a little more real; if no one knew we could always back down. But the more and more people that know, the more I told myself that we needed to make it happen.

For Kris, it was also a test on reasonability by telling her employer. Would she need to quit work or can she take a leave of absence? How would it affect her career prospects. Much more serious things to think about when we’re planning a trip that has a defined timeline.

Budgeting and Savings

Deciding on an appropriate budget and creating a savings plan to meet that budget is going to make or break if an extended trip can happen. The math is simple:

How Much Savings You Need / How Much You Can Save Per Month = How Many Months Until You Can Leave

I won’t get into the details about how to adjust your budget to make sure you can save enough because this is not a money personal finance blog. What I will say is that in order for the math above to work it needs to be strict and inflexible. Savings plans are much, much easier to work through if it can be automated and a very specific amount is put into a savings account each month. Even better – open a dedicated savings account just for your travel funds so you can track your progress over time. That’s what we did.

Immunizations

bandaid-doll

While many vaccinations can be handled much closer to a departure date, there are some that require some advanced planning (i.e. Hepatitis A which requires an initial shot and then a booster 6 months later). So start your research! Dig up your old shot records and put together a game plan for what you want to get and need to get. When I spoke to a travel doctor, here’s some of the items that he mentioned to consider (keep in mind prices can vary widely and some may even be covered under your health insurance). For accurate information on what is truly required and what is recommended, check out the CDC site on travel vaccinations.

  • Yellow Fever – Required if going from an at risk area to another area (i.e. Botswana into South Africa) – $100
  • Hepatitis A – $75 per shot * 2 shots.
  • Hepatitis B – $65
  • Typhoid – $70
  • Polio – $30
  • Japanese Encephalitis – $240 / shot * 2
  • Meningococcal Meningitis – $125
  • Tick-borne Encephalitis
  • Rabies

Consider What to Do with House and Car

12 months out it’s good to have a plan for how to manage some of your big ticket assets while you are away.

If you rent, you may consider trying to time your trip for when your lease ends or plan on subletting your apartment. If you own (like us), are you going to rent your place out or sell? Well our situation turns out to be a little difficult as we plan on leaving mid-month and returning 6 months later. This only gives 5 full months that our condo could be rented out which really doesn’t work out too well. Not only do the majority of renters look for year long leases, our condo association restricts renting units for periods of less than 6 months. So unfortunately, we’ll be eating the cost of the mortgage during our trip and we’re adding in an additional $7,000 into our fixed costs for the trip to cover this.

Regarding vehicles, we have 2 options – 1) Sell them. 2) Store them. Kris’ car is on its last leg already and storing it would cost more than it’s even worth at this point. So that’s getting sent out the door. Mine has a solid 5 years left on it so we’ll be putting it into storage. I did research storage options and found people with large heated garages that would store for about $100 month. Luckily, we have family willing to take it which will save us a few bucks.