Backpacking SE Asia – What We Spent in 3.5 Months

And now, it’s time for that end of trip post about the budget. I hope that writing about how much it costs to live our life of moderate luxury and high adventure inspires someone to get out and travel or helps them plan their next trip. I’ve said it before, but writing about budgets always reminds me that Adam and I are incredibly lucky to be able to wander the world and I’m thankful for that every day.

So anyway, here’s what we spent in total during 81 days in SE Asia:


Our total expense were of $152 per day. Surprisingly, this was in line with our daily spending on our US Road Trip, which was $145.  Like the US trip, there were a lot of times where we spent more than was absolutely necessary. However, SE Asia was much more luxurious since we slept in hotels and ate out nearly every meal, excepting the meditation retreat.

Jump to the spending breakdown on Flights, Insurance, Gear and Other, Spending by Country, and Country Level Hotel and Beer Costs, which are a good metric for the relative costs across countries.

Before I get to the fun stuff, when we actually spent money in countries traveling, I wanted to talk about the three other buckets that collectively made up almost half our spending. I read a lot of posts about traveling on $30 or $50 or some very small number of dollars a day. While I think that’s probably possible, it’s hard to tell because many sources don’t speak directly about baseline costs of insurance or flights to and home from somewhere far away. Fortunately for you, I would never provide such an incomplete analysis and I will tell you all about those expenses in riveting detail.


Our flight expense of $3,282 was a big chunk of our spending. This number includes our flights from Chicago to Vietnam, through Vietnam, to Thailand, to Malaysia, to Phnom Penh, to Bali, and finally to New Zealand, but not all the way home to the US, since we didn’t fly straight back. The ~$3200 is a reasonable number for 3.5 months in Asia, because if we’d skipped Mulu ($700) but flown home to the US instead of to NZ (~$800), we still would’ve been in that ballpark of price.

We could also have planned a better country route ahead of time so we could take buses and trains (or shorter flights), like most backpackers we met. Traveling from south Vietnam to north Vietnam to Bangkok, Thailand and then Cambodia is not optimal, as you can see from the mess of our route on this map.

Our route was not the most efficient...
Our route was not the most efficient…

Alternately, planning big flights out in advance, or also purchasing something like the Air Asia ASEAN multi-flight pass, would’ve saved us even more money, but I wouldn’t have wanted to pin down our itinerary that much ahead of time.


I love that Obamacare guarantees we can get insurance at a reasonable-ish price. Without Obamacare, there are travel insurance policies that would cover pretty much everything for cheap, but they’re not Obamacare-compliant so we’d end up with a hefty fee at tax time. If we wanted to avoid the coverage requirement, we would need to be out of the country for 330 days this year or change our permanent address to somewhere outside the country.  So, we’re stuck purchasing our slightly expensive Obamacare policy plus travel insurance. Our 2015 bronze level, high deductible HSA plan was $470 a month, but it’s going down to $380 in 2016 because I switched carriers.

For travel insurance, we’re using World Nomads, but I can’t review them yet since we’ve had no claims or contact. I chose them because they’re positively reviewed by a lot of travel bloggers and it was easy to get a quote and policy online.  The total cost to ensure us both for our 111 day trip was $676, so most of that falls into the SE Asia budget.

I was happy to find out that Geico, our auto insurance company, will refund the collision part of our insurance premium while we’re out of the country if the car is in storage, specifically parked at Adam’s parents’ house. (We don’t have comprehensive insurance so if there’s an act of god or theft we are out of luck.) When we get back to Arkansas and want to drive the car again, I will just call Geico and reactivate the plan. That’s a nice little savings for us. Given our lack of house and kids, we also didn’t bother with renters, home, or life insurance.

Gear and Other Stuff

Before our trip, we spent about $600, mostly on clothes, with more for Adam, which are all mentioned in his packing post. This included lots of wool t-shirts and quick drying but sturdy pants and shorts. All of these clothes are still in great shape, and I expect you’ll continue to see them on the blog. I included them in the costs for this trip, but it’s certainly not a necessary expense.

We don’t have any other ongoing expenses, except some random fees here and there to keep this blog online, make skype calls, and maintain our t-mobile phone numbers in the US. We are really lucky to have been able to leave all our stuff with Adam’s family, so we don’t have to pay to store those things we might need if we ever re-enter polite civilization.

One item we didn’t end up purchasing was local SIM cards. Free wifi was available everywhere we went: hotels, restaurants, cafes, even stores and some airports.

So while there are some pretty major upfront costs of insurance and flights, and if you really want to travel for a while I would absolutely recommend figuring out how to keep any other costs as small as possible.

Spending By Country

After the boring expenses of flying and insurance, here’s the fun stuff about what we spent per day in each country. All the numbers are in USD based on the exchange rates while we traveled, in late 2015. These numbers include buses and trains when we took them, but exclude all the flights between countries. I also excluded when we stayed with Adam’s family and broke out the meditation retreat since it was absurdly inexpensive.



I wasn’t surprised to see that staying longer in a country and spending less cash went hand in hand. Staying put reduced our expenses because we didn’t spend money on trains or buses, and we also tended to frontload our touristy activities.

Aside from length, our spending in each country per day was comparable, because we typically stayed in hotels, ate out almost all the time, and did a few touristy activities depending on the place.

And to repeat for clarity, all these daily costs are shown without our flight, gear, and insurance costs, which were $66 a day.

Costs by Type – Hotels and Beers

In almost all of the countries, we stayed in private rooms in moderately nice hotels.  Internet was alway a must, and air conditioning was almost always a must.


Comparing these countries on hotels isn’t exactly fair. We stayed in a very rustic guest house with limited electricity in Malaysia, and we splurged a bit in Cambodia for a place located close to our friends with an amazing breakfast buffet. However, in all these cases, we didn’t need to spend very much money to get a solid stay. These rooms were usually a lot nicer than a cheap motel in the US.

I didn’t track all our cash spending by type, but I did look at how much we spent outside hotels. The “Other” bucket is everything else we spent, including eating and drinking, transportation, entertainment (tours, some admission fees, sometimes scooter rentals) and gym visits. We almost always had a few beers a night, but rarely had a huge night out.


Another good indicator of prices is average beer costs in each of the countries we visited.


Keep in mind the Malaysia prices are from our stay in Mulu National Park, a place inaccessible by road, so those beer prices are probably overstated. Similarly, northern Thailand is supposed to be slightly cheaper than the southern part of the country. Ultimately, if you want to live cheaply and eat really, really well, head to Vietnam.

Final Thoughts

It was surprisingly easy to live a luxurious life while traveling in SE Asia on a reasonable budget. I know we would’ve reduced our costs even more if we’d stayed put in one place longer since we would’ve cut transportation significantly and also continued to reduce touristy entertainment spending. I know that there are a number of other limiting factors for most people in taking an extended vacation to SE Asia, but the budget shouldn’t be one of them.

As always, let me know in the comments if you have questions or want more specifics about planning your trip!


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