News 8 top money-saving tips for travelling on a shoestring in SE Asia

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8 top money-saving tips for travelling on a shoestring in SE Asia

From taxi tips to 10p pints, useful advice for backpacking on a limited budget in Southeast Asia.

With cheap digs, food and beer, Southeast Asia is the perfect destination for anyone looking to travel on a budget. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos or Thailand; it doesn’t matter where you’re headed, SE Asia on a shoestring can be simple. But the cost of transport, trips and souvenir tat can all add up and you might end up paying more than you expected. Here are eight top tips for making sure all those little extras don’t leave you out of pocket.

1. Take night buses or trains

Always try to book on to a night train or bus when you can. Long distance transport in SE Asia is dirt cheap and the network pretty extensive. A lot of locals choose to travel overnight, when tickets are cheaper and your ride will be relatively comfortable. Most trains and buses have sleeper beds or reclining seats and decent air-con. Some travellers are put off overnight travel by safety concerns, but it carries the same risks as daytime travel, just be sure to always keep an eye on your luggage and be aware of your surroundings. It’ll save you on a night’s accommodation, plus you won’t have to sacrifice precious daytime that could be spent temple tramping or soaking up the sun.

2. Go for soft seat rather than sleeper berth

If you choose to go by night train, soft seats are the most economic choice. It may seem sensible to go for the sleeper seats, which are usually four beds on two levels per cabin, but these are often cramped and riddled with bed bugs. Don’t get the wrong idea, soft seats are no first class, but at least you get a bit more breathing space and they do recline all the way out, plus they’re the cheapest option for basic comfort. The trains in Vietnam are currently undergoing an upgrade and the rust buckets of the 60s and 70s are now slowly being replaced but more modern, often Korean, models. You’ll get the same facilities with soft seats as you would in a sleeper, including air-con and trolley service. Just don’t forget to pack your ear plugs.

Bangkok street food seller
3. Eat street food

A lot of travellers steer clear of street food, fearing upset stomachs or worse. The truth is that some of the freshest and cheapest food can be found on the streets of SE Asia. You’ll pay a premium for eating ‘Western’ food, compared with rock-bottom prices for tasty treats – from chicken noodles to sesame doughnuts – from roadside food stalls. Street food sellers buy their produce every morning fresh from the local markets so you’re sure to get the real deal. Pick a popular stand, do as the locals do and go for it.

More: Street food named desire – the greatest on-the-go grub: in pictures

4. Drink Bia Hoi

Go local on booze too if you’re sticking to a tight budget. Every day at about five pm, cafés across Vietnam spill on to the streets, filling the narrow pavements with miniature red plastic furniture and tubs of chopsticks. This means only one thing, Bia Hoi time. With 10p pints and Asian bar snacks, including fried spinach and beef dumplings for about 50p a plate, pull up a stool, watch the world go by and fill your boots for next to nothing. This daily ritual is quite common across SE Asia and each country or town will have its own version of Bia Hoi, Hanoi’s home brew. So take advantage of these ridiculous prices, sample some tasty home cooking and meet some of the locals.

More: 7 best places to visit in Vietnam

5. Haggle

Don’t be shy if you want to bag a bargain. Make sure you haggle in the markets to get the best price on everything, from tea and coffee to genuine fake designer goods. Stallholders will expect you to at least ask for a discount, so there’s no need to feel embarrassed. Often, the price will rise automatically once they’ve realised you’re a tourist, so you can guarantee he’ll have wriggle room on that ‘Prado’ handbag or those silk slippers. Get stuck in and you’ll grab a few bargains, as well as have a few more coppers for the Bia Hoi fund.

6. Don’t bother packing a toothbrush

Many of the hostels and cheap hotels in SE Asia provide complimentary toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and even free razors. Granted they’re not the best quality, but they’ll do the job and you won’t have to buy all those toiletries which, like razors, can often be quite pricey. Plus, by not packing them you’ll save a bit of luggage space for an extra bikini or a paperback for the beach.

7. Avoid organised tours where possible

Sometimes organised tours are the easiest and cheapest way to get out and see some of the stunning sights SE Asia has to offer, especially when you’re short on time or have to take ferries or infrequent local buses to get there. But, wherever possible, try and organise it yourself. In bigger towns, the local bus system will take you where you want to go for a small fee. Alternatively, hire a bike for a couple of pounds and cycle out, this way you’re guaranteed an adventure! For example, if you’re planning to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia, rather than fork out on a bus tour through a travel agency, hire a bike and cycle out there at dawn. You’ll catch the sunrise and save yourself some cash.

More: 7 best places to visit in Cambodia

taxi driver, Bongkok
8. Agree taxi prices before you jump in

If you’re looking for a ride, tuk tuks and taxis are in abundance in most towns and cities. However, before you jump in, be sure to agree a price for your journey, and try asking for a discount. This ensures the price of your lift won’t suddenly sky-rocket when you reach your destination. Make sure you know the exact address of where you want to stop off at. It’s been known for taxi drivers to take detours to travel shops or other hotels to try and persuade travellers to book tours or change accommodation, then charge more for the extra trip. Agreeing a price and knowing where you’re headed will help prevent this and make sure you’re not short-changed.

Want more? Check out the Skyscanner Travel Podcast to get more Tips for travel in South East Asia. Listen below or download it and listen later: