11 Luxuries that even backpackers can afford in cheap countries
The standard backpacker financial philosophy is that the less you spend each day, the more days your travels can continue. This means that corner-cutting is the norm rather than the exception. It's easy to have fun when spending US$100 per day or even more, but it's a bit of a challenge when you only allow yourself half that or even less.
In addition to helping travelers figure out reasonable budgets, this site was created to help the adventurous know where their funds will go furthest. If you are new here you might check the Europe Backpacker Index or the Asia Backpacker Index, which both show that the expensive cities can be 4 or 5 times more expensive than the cheap ones in the same region.
With that in mind, there should be a lot of joy in store for backpackers and other budget travelers when they first reach those cheap (and lovely) places. You can stay within your budget and still afford many things you wouldn't dream of when in the expensive cities.
11 Luxuries that backpackers can afford when in cheap places
1 – Taking taxis just for the hell of it
Those of us on the lowest budgets only take taxis when we have to, like after a late night flight, because in most of the world they are a budget killer. We tell ourselves that we learn more about the culture by taking public transportation or even walking extreme distances, but it's damn nice to be able to afford a taxi at times.
Fortunately, in many cities, including some surprising ones, taxis are actually affordable for the backpacker set. A couple years ago I compared taxi prices around the world for a 3km ride, and discovered that in cities such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Panama City, a short ride can be under US$2. For groups of 2 or 3 they can sometimes be cheaper than public transportation. Bangkok might be the best for its modern Camry fleet, cheap prices, and that drivers almost always use the meter (unlike the tuk-tuk drivers who are usually scoundrels or con men).
2 – Getting massages or spa treatments on the beach
I'm not much of a spa person, but I do know that if you go to a luxury hotel in most parts of the world, a massage or similar treatment will usually cost a minimum of around US$75 per hour, and it can go way higher in places like Bora Bora or the Maldives. “Massages are only for the rich (and horny guys)!” you might be thinking.
The good news here is that if you go to beach resort areas in the cheaper parts of the world, you can still get a one-hour massage for between US$5 and US$10 from a skilled professional. Almost anyone can afford that once in a while, and it's an added bonus that in these areas that fee helps make for a pretty good living for the masseuse or masseur. So you get a cheap massage right on the beach, and they make good money, which is a happy ending for everyone.
3 – Sleeping in a hut right on the beach
Another somewhat sad reality of a backpacker budget is that when we visit beach resort cities it almost always means staying at a hostel that is a long walk from the sand itself. In glamorous and expensive cities like Miami Beach, Rio de Janeiro, or Sydney, a room overlooking the waves would cost at least US$100 per night at even the crappiest hotel in town.
But in many parts of Southeast Asia and Central America, you can literally rent a little private hut that doesn't share any walls for around US$20 per night. That usually means a ceiling fan instead of air-con, but in some places it doesn't cost too much more to get something modern. Thailand's islands and the Caribbean side of Central America are famous for backpacker-friendly beach huts that feel like a splurge.
4 – Ordering the most expensive thing on the menu
When we are trying to keep our funds intact for a long trip, the typical strategy is scan restaurant menus until you find one that has at least a few cheap things on it, and then choose the cheapest thing that seems decent once inside. It's easy to find a US$25 main course in any city in the world, including most of the cheapest cities, but not all of them.
For this reason it can be a minor thrill to enter a restaurant popular with locals (rather than tourists) in India, Nepal, much of Southeast Asia, and even many parts of Latin America. I've eaten in dozens of nice restaurants where main courses range from US$1.50 to US$4, and it's fun to be able to literally order the best thing on the menu without having to balance it out by having only ketchup soup the following day.
5 – Hiring a car and driver/guide for a day
This is one that's still hard to believe, even after I've done it close to a dozen times now. Since even paying for a single taxi ride is often out of the question in most of the world, the concept of hiring a vehicle and a guide-driver for an entire day seems like something only for the richest and laziest among us. But it can be affordable.
Granted, this is only viable in certain areas, although if you have a group of 4 to 6 people it's probably worth considering almost anywhere. Many times in Mumbai, Delhi, and in Bali, I was shocked to discover that I could hire a van and driver for around US$30 for most of the day. In places with terrible traffic and that are very spread out, this is a fantastic way of seeing a shitload in a short time, including places you could never find on your own.
6 – Travel first class on a train
In Europe we feel fortunate to be able to afford a Second Class train ticket, and in places like the US and Australia, even those are barely worth it. Also, when high speed services are even available they are often very expensive even in Second Class, so many of us toss and turn on an overnight train instead. My first taste of First Class was when I had a Eurail Pass, but at a 50% premium over Second, it's hard to justify in most cases.
However, in places like India, Thailand, and Egypt, just to name a few, a First Class train ticket still seems ridiculously cheap to us. When a 10-hour journey is only US$20 including air-con and a reasonably comfortable bed, who wants to save US$1 per hour by riding on a wooden bench with 499 other people in the same carriage? Not me.
7 – Take a VIP or Executive bus instead of a normal one
Similar to the train one just above, most of the world's buses are basically the same width, and the standard is 4 seats per row on the long-distance coaches. With enough leg room these are adequate for most people, unless you want to sleep or be actually comfortable.
In much of Thailand and all of Malaysia (and hopefully at least a few other parts of the world) they have what they call “VIP” or “Executive” coaches that are aimed at the middle class and business travelers. There are 2 seats on one side and 1 seat on the other, and they have the width and legroom of a first class airline seat, sometimes with a TV in the seat back. Amazingly, they usually only cost about 20% to 30% more than the normal ones. As in, a normal bus from Bangkok to Phuket might be US$15 and the VIP bus might be US$21. For most of us, it's easily worth it.
8 – Staying in a 3-star hotel instead of a hostel dorm
For the committed backpacker who has resigned him or herself to sleeping in crowded dorm rooms indefinitely, perhaps the greatest luxury pleasure is that moment when you arrive in southern Asia or non-urban Latin America. Even a hostel dorm bed in Oslo or Zurich will cost over US$40 per night, so it seems like a dream when you realize that entire private hotel rooms (with air-con and en-suite) can start even under US$10 in other parts of the world. OMG indeed.
Your first clue might be when you research hostels in cities like Hanoi or Cairo, only to discover that there are only a few places. It turns out, there isn't much demand for hostel dorms in cities where decent hotel rooms are so cheap. You can usually find a 1-star or 2-star hotel for less than two hostel bunks in these cities, and often you can even find a 3-star hotel for under US$15 per person when there are 2 or 3 of you. To finally have a soft bed and your own TV and bathroom after all those nights sleeping in public is blissful.
9 – Drinking beer, wine, or cocktails with lunch
Backpackers tend to be very social people, and that sort of gives us an excuse to have a few drinks in the evening, if only to put those around us at ease. But of course the price of alcohol can be a killer in rich, Muslim, and nanny-state countries. In Stockholm, Dubai, Melbourne, or Singapore, the price of a single beer is so high that it's barely worth even getting started because you just can't afford to get where you want.
So leaving a place like this and arriving in one where you can get a large bottle of beer for around US$1 feels like magic. I've covered the best destinations for cheapskate alcoholics in the past, and again, most of them are in Asia and Latin America. Vietnam with its bia hoi (cheapest beer in the world) and Laos with its Beerlao might be the best, but it's a long list of places where a fun-loving backpacker can actually afford to catch a buzz at lunchtime and then again in the evening.
10 – Sleep on an overnight ferry that feels like a cruise ship
In almost every way, an ocean cruise is pretty much the opposite of a backpacking trip. There's no punishment for overpacking, you stuff yourself with food because you've already paid for it, and you only get the most superficial look at the places you are “visiting.” Still, it sounds pretty nice once in a while, right?
An overnight ferry ride might sound horrific until you've actually taken one and realized that the ships actually resemble cruise ships much more than you'd expect. Better still, they can be incredibly cheap as well. I've taken modestly priced overnight ferries across the English Channel and in Greece, but (as usual) Asia is where the bargains are. I recently paid US$25 for a 9-hour ferry ride in the Philippines, which included a comfortable bed in a 4-bunk cabin (with TV and en-suite), a buffet dinner, and live entertainment up on deck (with cheap drink prices as well). As long as you avoid monsoon season, it's likely to be one of the cheapest and most pleasant ways to spend a night at sea.
11 – Tipping like a crazy rich person (percentage-wise)
The heavy-tipping culture of the US seems to be spreading around the world, and this is certainly a controversial topic, especially for budget travelers. Even tipping the “standard” 15% in a semi-expensive restaurant in New York or Toronto can feel like a rip-off, especially when it's obvious to all that your server earns several times what you do each year.
On the other end of the scale, when you are eating a US$2 lunch with a US$1 beer at a restaurant in Nicaragua or Nepal, you can keep yourself in a good mood by sometimes throwing down a US$2 tip. As long as you aren't patronizing about it, this can be a very nice feeling knowing that your server might literally have just doubled their earnings for the day. Tipping tends to be unusual in cheaper countries (especially ones with a lot of European tourists) so even a tip of 10% or 20% can make you feel like a big shot, at very little cost to you.
Additional photo credits: Thai beach hut by @10 on Flickr