How To Travel On A Budget In Expensive Countries

My boyfriend and I are currently embarking on a six-month sabbatical around Asia. Whilst some of the countries we’ve visited have been incredibly affordable, others definitely haven’t been budget-friendly. In this post, I’ll share the ways we keep our spending down in pricier places, while still having a fantastic time.

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  • Look for deals on hotel booking websites. We normally use Agoda and Priceline to book hotels and hostels and have found some absolute bargains. We’ve saved up to 60% on some lovely places, often with access to a pool and/or gym or complimentary breakfast.
  • If you’re staying in a hostel or budget hotel, try to find ones which offer free tea, coffee and snacks (like toast or fresh fruit). Many places offer complimentary breakfast as well. If you’re staying somewhere for several nights, choose somewhere with kitchen facilities where you can prepare and cook some of your own meals. Not sure what to cook? Cheap and simple meals like pasta with sauce from a jar, instant noodles, toast with your spread of choice, soup or microwavable rice with vegetables are your best bet. 
  • Stay somewhere with a water filter machine. Most of the countries we’ve visited on our sabbatical haven’t had drinkable tap water and we always try to avoid buying plastic water bottles. We’ve prioritized places with water machines where we can refill our bottles. As a backup, we have in-built filters in our reusable bottles which block all kinds of nasties from getting into our system.
  • Have breakfast before leaving your accommodation. If breakfast isn’t provided, visit a nearby supermarket or open-air market. We usually have access to a fridge and sometimes a proper kitchen, so we can stock on breakfast essentials like granola, natural yogurt and fresh fruit to start the day right. If you don’t have access to a fridge, buy some bananas or snacks that don’t need to be refrigerated. 
  • If there’s a kettle where you’re staying, buy some tea bags or instant coffee. It may not be a world-class beverage but it still does the job and costs the fraction of a coffee shop would charge. We still go to coffee shops in expensive cities, but usually when we want to savour a really good cup of coffee.
  • Stay in a cheaper neighbourhood. Read up on the different areas in the city you’re visiting. Avoid the main tourist hub, and anywhere described as ‘affluent’ or ‘up market’. For example in Singapore, I did some research, asked around and booked a very nice hostel in Chinatown. Although they are very convenient, accommodation near the city’s tourist attractions will cost more. Residential areas are a better choice because they will have restaurants, bars, cafes and supermarkets aimed at locals, without the inflated tourist prices.
  • If you’re a student, bring your ID with you to take advantage of discounted prices. People under 26 can save a lot of money in museums and art galleries in most European cities. I haven’t been a student (or under 26) for quite a while so make the most of those discounts on my behalf, kids!
  • Use discount websites like Klook to save money on everything from tourist attractions, museums, art galleries, train tickets, local SIM cards and restaurants. We saved almost £5 per person by booking tickets for Singapore’s “Gardens by the Bay” via Klook rather than at the ticket office.
  • Join a free or tip-based walking tour. You can get a good overview of the city and learn about its history from a local, knowledgeable guide. We’ve done a lot of walking tours, often with very enthusiastic, engaging tour guides who really want to showcase what their city has to offer. By the way, you are also expected to tip at the end of the ‘free’ walking tours.
  • If group walking tours aren’t your thing, download a self-guided walking tour on your phone. There are some really detailed, interesting guides to download and either read or listen to as you explore the city. When I’m travelling around Europe, I really like Rick Steves’ free audio guides. If you’re travelling around Malaysia, Malaysia Traveller has some excellent self-guided routes.
  • Skip the hop-on, hop-off bus. They are extremely expensive compared to local public transport and many tourist attractions are within walking distance from one another.
  • Avoid flights whenever possible. We’ve travelled by bus through Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore and although journeys take longer, they cost much less. Many expensive countries have very modern, efficient train networks so you can easily travel around from city to city. We knew we’d be taking the train a lot in Japan so bought JR train passes. These aren’t cheap but if you are going to taking lots of train journeys, they will probably save you money.  Use the JR calculator to work out exactly what you’ll save, as opposed to buying normal tickets as and when you need them.
  • Look for free activities to do in the city. A simple Google search: “Free things to do in X” will bring up a long list of options. There might be some interesting walks or hiking paths in or near the city that you can do. Some cities – like London – don’t charge an entrance fee for permanent exhibitions in museums and art galleries. 
  • If you plan to do lots of sightseeing in a short time, check out any tourist passes which may be on offer. Many cities offer discounted passes for 1 – 3 consecutive days. Do the maths to work out if you’re actually going to save money as some attractions might be included that you have no intention of visiting.
  • Pay attention to your direction of travel and the order in which you visit places. It can cost a lot of money to reach airports, especially if they’re far away from the nearest city. In Japan, we flew into Tokyo and out of Osaka so we didn’t have to spend money doubling back on ourselves.
  • If you’re going to be using public transport a lot, check if the city offers unlimited public transport passes. Better still, research whether there are any free bus routes. 
  • Be flexible about when you go. Travelling during the low and shoulder seasons will guarantee lower prices than during peak time. Booking mid-week flights and trains is cheaper than travelling at the weekend.
  • If you’re moving around a lot, investigate overnight transport options. We’ve taken night trains and buses to save time and money. That way you can combine the cost of travel and accommodation and will be on the move while you’re sleeping so you can wake up in your new destination.
  • Drink less alcohol. Maybe not a popular suggestion but when we’re in pricier places, we cut down how much we drink. You can also take advantage of Happy Hours and drink deals like 2-for-1 or 3-for-2. Hostels sometimes have ground floor bars which are very cheap. I wouldn’t stay in a hostel above a bar, but you don’t have to be a guest to make the most of their cheap deals.
  • Many restaurants offer special lunch promotions to entice customers in, such as set menus which include a main, drink and side. The same meals would cost considerably more in the evening so take advantage of those lunchtime bargains.
  • Stay in single-sex or mixed dormitories in hostels. We’ve done this in Taiwan and Singapore and it worked out much cheaper than renting a private room. Sure, they weren’t our best nights sleep and there’s always at least one loud snorer but if you’re on a mission to save a few pennies, dorms are a great solution. In case you’re wondering, we’ve never had any problems with safety in hostels as they come with lockers and storage space for your belongings.
  • Eat at food markets where you can try local specialties for a fraction of the price of nearby restaurants. We loved the night markets in Japan and Taiwan and ate most of our meals at ‘hawker’ food courts in Singapore. I am still daydreaming about the okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) I tried in Osaka… and the heavenly steamed bun stuffed with braised pork belly, pickled vegetables, coriander and peanut powder in Taipei.
  • If you’ve tried all of the above and need some more ideas: what about couch surfing, house sitting, volunteering or work exchanges (like working at a hostel in exchange for free board)? Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

 I hope these tips have given you some ideas about how to save money in expensive cities, while still making the most of your time there. If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.

Ciao for now

The Curious Sparrow