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Reflecting: The Cost of Travel

by becca on April 11, 2010

When I was very young a big financier once asked me what I would like to do, and I said, “To travel.” “Ah,” he said, “it is very expensive; one must have a lot of money to do that.” He was wrong. For there are two kinds of travelers; the Comfortable Voyager, round whom a cloud of voracious expenses hums all the time, and the man who shifts for himself and enjoys the little discomforts as a change from life’s routine. –Ralph Bagnold, Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World

In two weeks, we head back to the states after over seven months of traveling through/living in Southeast Asia. As we’re wrapping things up here, I have a lot of thoughts on travel — traveling being unique to you, what travel can teach us, and specifics on what to expect in Southeast Asia — but to kick off this series of reflective posts, I’ve answered a question that many people have asked me in the past few months: How are you doing it?

In August, Nate and I left our jobs, gave up our Brooklyn apartment, moved all of our belongings to the attics of our parents’ houses and spent a few weeks tying up loose ends. We bought a one way ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam, simply because it was the cheapest one at the time. We knew little to nothing about Southeast Asia except that it’s cheap so our money would last a while and it’s tropical so I wouldn’t have to suffer through the New York winter this year. We had a general route of travel in mind, but weren’t dedicated to anything.

During the weeks leading up to our departure there was a never ending list of things to do: get vaccinations and medicine for traveling, knock our cell phone plans down to the lowest possible, let our banks know where we were going, set aside money for school loan payments, build our blog, cancel our Netflix subscription, buy travel insurance, change our address back to our parents’ houses, get out of an unfortunately timed jury duty summons, not to mention wrapping up our responsibilities at work and moving out of our apartment. But off we went… to Vietnam. We jumped in, heads first.

We left the states with about $16,000 between the two of us — and we will have spent every penny by the time we arrive back in the states in two weeks. This doesn’t include money we set aside to pay bills while we were away or the small amount we stashed to use when we return home. We had been saving money for saving’s sake for the past year and a half, but saving specifically for this trip for about six months. In the months leading up to the trip we went out drinking less, ate at home more, and stopped buying things; if it couldn’t fit in our packs, chances are we didn’t buy it.

At first, we didn’t have a budget, we didn’t know how long we’d be gone. We figured we might find some work abroad or we might just come home when the money ran out, we’d see. But after talking to other travelers who had been to many of the places we were headed, we established a $50 a day budget (for the two of us). This proved to be a helpful guide for accommodation, food and entertainment on a day-to-day basis. In some countries, like Thailand and Malaysia, we exceeded our budget more often than not. But in the Philippines and Vietnam, it was easy to stay under this amount. We looked into working abroad but decided against it when Nate’s oldest sister announced her wedding date — we couldn’t miss it, so a few weeks into the trip, we knew we’d be heading home before June.

I have another post brewing about traveling through Southeast Asia specifically and about what kind of prices to expect. But here’s a sample from our experience, just to show how far your money can go on this side of the world:

— Average cost of a room in a guesthouse for two people: $10
— Beer in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos: Under $1
— Four hour bus ride (anywhere but Malaysia): Between $3 – $7
— Pair of flip flops: Between $1 – $6 (Philippines is the cheapest!)
— Dish at a night market: Under $2

There’s unexpected stuff though, that has to be covered — like costly transportation (damn you and your western prices Malaysia), the last hotel room in town with a high price tag, hiking boots and flashlights necessary for that trip into the jungle, or a new bathing suit when your strap pops. There are really cool experiences that will blow your budget too. Once we knew there was a cap on our travel time, we got to pick and choose our splurges; for instance, diving, the Gibbon Experience, and Uncle Tan’s Jungle Adventure. Some times after spending a lot on an experience like this, we’d do just about nothing for a day or two to save money. But, if we had really stuck to $50 a day, we could have lasted a few more months out here.

Dropping everything and going traveling takes sacrifices (and if not sacrifices, at least trade-offs). Giving up a fully furnished apartment with a deck to match in Brooklyn was not easy. Leaving a job that I loved was not easy. And I’m sure that replacing both of these when we return home will not be easy. Being on the other side of the world can really strain relationships with friends and family. Even with the internet, we miss birthdays, find ourselves alone on holidays and in the past seven months we’ve seen only three people that we knew before leaving the states. That being said, stripping away everything familiar and removing yourself from routine can help you learn things about yourself.

I know that everyone has unique obligations. I know that not everyone wants to travel long-term. But if you do, if the will is there and you really put your mind to it, I think anyone can do what we’re doing. A great reference for long-term travel, one that both Nate and I have read multiple times, and flip through regularly for inspiration is Rolf Potts’, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. Potts covers travel from top to bottom — from getting started to coming home — and peppers in quotes from poets, travel writers and common travelers.

If anyone has any questions about traveling — in general or through Southeast Asia — send me an email. I love talking travel.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Toby Garcia 04.11.10 at 12:14 pm

Wow Becca! Ignoring the pictures that accompany this post, this was fantastic for someone who has been contemplating a trip to Asia for quite awhile now…but when coupled with images of the excursions yall had, it was literally motivating. The only reason I’ve kept pushing the idea out of my mind reverts back to what it would cost to take off work for a month, pay all my bills back home, and still have enough to actually experience the countries I visit. I may have to start looking into it though if a $50 a day budget can more or less provide the experiences shown…

I do have one question for you though, how did yall deal with the language barrier? Both times I’ve been to Europe we had guides (it didn’t look like yall had one) and when I took a solo trip to Mexico where the people speak English fine, it was still really confusing….Just curious

becca 04.13.10 at 3:44 am

Hi Toby! Glad you enjoyed this. As for the language barrier, I’m tempted just to say What language barrier? English is spoken as the common language of travelers and in the tourism industry. So unless you’re way off the tourist track, the people you need to interact with on a day to day basis – the people running the guesthouses, tourist information, bus station attendants – usually speak at least a little bit of English. And then, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, people are usually excited to see foreigners and the game of charades necessary to communicate is fun for everyone 🙂

Hannah 04.21.10 at 4:01 pm

What a great post! This is truly a gem for any traveler. Have a wonderful last week and safe travels home. 🙂

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