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.
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:
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).
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).
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.
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.