7 Reasons Southeast Asia is much better than Europe for budget travelers
As an American, Canadian, Australian, or even a Brit, the first major trip you dream of is tramping around continental Europe. And for good reason. Cities like Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Berlin, and Amsterdam should all be on everyone's destination lists.
Many of us take a big trip or two that connects all those famous cities, and then we either keep going back or maybe we get lazy and start going to Mexican beach resorts or Hawaii year after year.
The thing is, if you've got at least a normal sense of adventure, and especially if your travel budget is limited, then Southeast Asia is likely a better choice for your next holiday. The common definition of that is Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, but this is also true of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines, not to mention India, Nepal, and Bangladesh as well.
1 – SE Asia is WAY cheaper than Europe
For some people this is the most important reason on this list, and for others it's just a bonus on top, but it must be said that there is a stunning difference in costs between Europe and SE Asia once you are on the ground. This whole site is about the economics of travel and where your money goes furthest, so just take a look at the European Backpacker Index and the Asia backpacker Index to see what I mean. Or check out our Europe vs. Asia itinerary price comparison, which reveals that a slightly more expensive flight can save a fortune in a cheaper destination.
The cheapest city in Asia is Hanoi, where a backpacker can have a pretty decent time for a bit over US$10 per day. Compare that to, say, Paris, where the same group of expenses currently goes for US$75 per day, and you'll recognize the value. Realistically, when you are in a super-cheap area you are more likely to splurge a bit more since everything on the scale is a deal.
Instead of a dorm bed for US$6 you can get a private room for US$10 per night, including in-room wi-fi, TV, a small fridge, and a big comfortable bed. You practically live like a king for US$30 a day in many cities in the region, compared to US$30 not quite even paying for a dorm bed alone in some European cities.
2 – The weather in SE Asia is good all year round
One major weakness with Europe is that most of it has a pretty lousy climate for most of the year. Except for the Mediterranean coast, the entire block from November through March is either frozen or deeply gray and drizzly in most cities. I've done quite a bit of European travel during this colder, cheaper, and less crowded period, but honestly it's far from ideal when you always have to carry gloves, a hat, and a heavy coat with you.
On the other hand, most of SE Asia is tropical and therefore has only 2 seasons. There's the dry season (mostly from November through May) and the so-called wet season (June through October). However, the wet-season thing is rarely more than a minor inconvenience, and it actually brings temperatures down to more welcoming levels in some places.
During the wet season in SE Asia you'll usually have a few days a week where it either pours for an hour overnight, or for an hour in the late afternoon. If it's in the afternoon it's a perfect excuse to pop into a sheltered restaurant for a US$1 beer or two while you wait. In very rare cases there can be flooding, and while this does create problems for locals, tourists are almost always able to get elsewhere or to higher ground in plenty of time.
3 – Crowds of tourists are very rare in SE Asia
Sort of the flipside to Europe's weather situation is that during July and August the weather in the big cities in the south (Madrid, Rome, Athens etc) gets so steamy that it can be pretty miserable outside. And as a result of that, the beach cities and resort areas get unbelievably crowded during these months, driving up prices and taking a lot of the fun out of being there as well.
And it's not just the beach cities that get jammed. Go to London or Prague or Amsterdam during those two months and you'll be in a sea of fellow tourists. Add these things up and Europe only has a couple good months on either side of summer where the weather is decent and it's not insanely crowded.
In SE Asia, you'll find crowds in many islands and resort areas around Christmas, and in Bali and a few other places in August, but in most SE Asian cities you couldn't really call it crowded for at least 11 months a year. This means that finding cheap hotels is always easy, usually with no reservations in advance, and intercity tourist buses can usually be booked the night before with few worries.
4 – There's no pressure to learn the languages in SE Asia
Some people are really good at learning foreign languages, and many others enjoy the process and the deeper cultural understanding you get when you can speak the native tongue. In SE Asia you can do as much of that as you like, and many travelers become quite successful at it, but at least there is zero pressure (or need) to learn the local language if you don't want to.
The same thing can be said for most of northern Europe (thanks to the English skills of residents there), but in countries like Spain, France, Italy, or Greece, you really are at a disadvantage if you don't (or aren't able to) absorb the local language. For some people it can be stressful or even make them much less outgoing, which can detract from the overall experience.
For better or worse, the people of SE Asia have accepted the fact that they have more economic opportunity if they speak at least some English, plus have all important signs and menus and such in English as well. Many of them love practicing their English on tourists, so it can be surprisingly easy to do anything you want and even make a few friends.
5 – SE Asia is way more exotic than Europe
If English is your native language then chances are very good that you are of European heritage, one way or another. Whether you are starting in Cleveland or Melbourne or even London, there is nothing in Europe that will truly feel exotic to you. Sure, you might not be used to seeing a canal city like Amsterdam, but for lunch, the locals there usually eat a sandwich or pizza or a hot dog or French fries just like you do at home.
With the exception of parts of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, there is almost nothing in SE Asia that will NOT feel exotic to you. From the temples to the street food to open-air markets to even the kitchy souvenirs, nothing will look familiar, and this should be thrilling.
You can get eggs and toast for breakfast anywhere you go, but you might soon be hooked on spicy chicken noodle soup instead. It's easy to start from scratch and take nothing for granted when you are exposed to a totally different way of doing things.
6 – Air Asia is cheap, and actually a good airline
While it's true that Easyjet and Ryanair do offer some incredibly cheap flights around Europe, it's also true that their customers almost all complain about them in the process. The same is true of all of Europe's many low-cost carriers. A €10 one-way ticket might end up being €50 after you've added in luggage, a reserved seat, and a stale sandwich. But usually, the fares even start out much higher unless you book 6 months in advance.
There are several low-cost carriers operating in SE Asia, and many aren't much better than the European ones, but Air Asia is the biggest and best, and with a bit of advanced planning they can make your trip much cheaper and more efficient.
Like the others, Air Asia starts with extremely low prices and then the price keeps moving higher as the plane fills up. So booking a month or two in advance (or flying early in the morning or late in the evening) will get you a very low base fare for your flight, maybe US$30 between their major Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok hubs.
Their service is good and professional, and the planes aren't as cramped as you might fear, but probably the best part is that the add-on prices are very low as well. Reserve a seat with extra legroom for maybe US$6 extra (instead of $50 on a US airline). Order a lunch for US$4 extra, and bring a big heavy suitcase with you for maybe US$10 extra. It makes you feel like a big shot when those upgrades are each so cheap that you can afford all of them.
7 – Your money is helping people who need it more
This is much more important to some people than it is to others, but there's no getting around the fact that your tourist money in SE Asia is usually going directly to family businesses that would struggle or go under without Western tourists. If you stay in an Ibis Hotel in France, or even a St. Christopher's hostel anywhere in Europe, most of your money is going to huge companies that have little loyalty to their individual locations.
Seriously, most tourist restaurants in a country like Vietnam are owned and operated by a single family. Often it's the mom running the operation with the children as the staff, while the father has another full-time job. It's a nice feeling knowing your (meager) travel funds are going directly to pay the rent and buy food for an appreciative family that is cooking for you and serving you.
Air Asia photo by Simon_sees on Flickr