Seven Tips for Traveling on a Budget

Things we’ve learned, after six months on the road:

  1. Keep a diary of expenses. This is the most important tip I have. It works in two ways: first, I’m less likely to make impulse purchases because I know I’ll have to write it down. Second, and more importantly, it’s crucial to keep tabs on our daily expenditures.

    Our spending during our first week in Malaysia

    I might think that we’ve only spent $35 in one day, but invariably I forget about random bottles of water, snacks, museum admission fees, or other purchases without receipts. Every so often, I total it up, just to see how we are doing and if we need to be more judicious. If I didn’t do write everything down, the money would dry up a lot more quickly.

  2. Price-check EVERYTHING. As I walk down the street, whether I’m hungry or not, I’m always checking restaurant menus. Many places offer the same kinds of things. Whether it’s fried noodles, a souvenir keychain, or a bottle of beer, I always try to find the best deal. A few cents may not seem like much, but when I make these decisions several times a day, every day, it adds up. It’s also handy when bargaining, which leads me to…
  3. Bargain! I know a lot of Americans are used to fixed prices and don’t like bargaining, but in much of the world, it’s a way of life. My technique is to first price-check at the fixed-price shops, then go back to any vendor and say “At another shop, I saw that for $3….” Hesitation as well as buying more than one item also helps. I also always bargain for a room whenever we’re staying more than one night or if it’s low season.
  4. When possible, avoid shopping in tourist districts. Everything comes at a premium in those areas. Venture to the local supermarkets to buy postcards; try eating in small, local restaurants instead of chains; or go to a suburban mall for shopping. Think about it: at home, everything costs more in the big cities, especially in the touristy areas. Same goes for the rest of the world.

    Nightly street market, Pai

  5. Seek out university areas. Students the world over don’t have much money, and the shops around universities reflect that. This is usually the best place to find cheap eats and sometimes other services as well. In Yogyakarta, Indonesia, the going rate for one hour of internet access at an e-cafe in the tourist district was 9,000 rupiah per hour: that’s about one dollar. Cheap, but that’s pricey for Indonesians. We walked over to a university district and the price dropped to 2,000 rupiah per hour, or 22 cents.
  6. Cook. This is what saved our budget in Australia and New Zealand. Both countries are on the expensive side, especially when it comes to food. We stayed at both campgrounds and hostels, which provide fridges and kitchens. We carried our own cooking oil spray, salt, and pepper, and we were able to cook dinner nearly every night.

    An enterprising taxi driver in Bali

  7. Walk, whenever possible. We mix it up- subways, buses, an occasional taxi ride- but walking is the most economical way to see a place. I prefer it, honestly, because taxis and buses move too quickly for me to take in my surroundings. Plus, you can price check while you walk!

How to do Laundry on the Road

Where there are backpackers, there are laundry services. Across Southeast Asia, these are inexpensive- usually 50 cents to one dollar per kilogram- and quick, promising your clean, folded clothing back in your grubby hands within a day. Bob and I have used these services only once since we’ve been traveling. Although they’re convenient, a dollar a kilo adds up quickly (and it’s more expensive in other parts of the world, especially in industrialized countries.) For the same price, we can go down to just about any convenience store and buy a package of laundry powder, which can wash about 25 loads of clothes. For example: we bought a bag of laundry powder the day after we arrived in Indonesia- that’d be January 14th- and I just used the last of it today. The small savings are the ones that really count. Plus- and I know I am in the minority here- I like washing my clothes by hand. I can make sure the really dirty spots get clean, and the clothes don’t wear out as quickly.

On average, we do laundry every two to three days; that’s mostly because I’m carrying only three pairs of underwear. However, I try not to do laundry the night before leaving a city (the clothes may not have time to dry) so it varies. There’s another complication: nowadays, quite a few hostels and guesthouses forbid guests to do laundry in the sink. I understand where they’re coming from- hanging wet clothes in your room doesn’t look nice, doesn’t smell nice, and makes the room damp. And it means you’re not using their overpriced laundry service! However, if you wash your clothes properly, these problems can be avoided. They don’t forbid you from hanging towels, do they? A few extra items won’t make a difference.

Gather your supplies: a universal sink stopper, a drying line, washing powder, a towel, really strong forearms, and if you wish, inflatable hangers. Those things are really nifty- they help your clothes dry more quickly by allowing air to circulate and I’ve even heard of people using them as backrests on the airplane. If you’re brave enough, you could also use latex balloons, popping them afterward.

Sidenote: I accidentally left our sink stopper at the house of my friend Dave’s brother, so when I took these photos, we were without one. Luckily, in Indonesia and Malaysia, buckets are commonly found in bathrooms, filled with water for… wiping and flushing. They’re also perfect for a load of clothes. Don’t worry, I washed this one out before using.




1.  Fill the sink/bucket with water and add the washing powder. Don’t use too much; extra detergent doesn’t actually make your clothes cleaner.




2.  Add the clothes. I sort of pretend to be a washing machine and agitate the clothes in the water. I just make sure that all of them are soaking wet and then I squeeze them a lot. Then I leave them to soak for awhile, usually 15-20 minutes.





3.  Now that they’re done soaking it’s much easier to scrub the dirt off. I concentrate on the problem areas, especially the collars and underarms of shirts, and scrub by rubbing the fabric against itself. After scrubbing all of them, I rinse them in clean water, making sure all of the soap is out. If there’s still some soap left on the clothes, it will feel a little slippery.






4. Next step is wringing. This should be fairly self-explanatory. Bonus if you have a helper with extra-strong forearms.




5.  Take the wrung-out clothes and one by one, roll them up in a dry towel like a burrito. Then stomp on them. This gets some more moisture out (by transferring it to the towel. Hopefully you have a good place to hang this.) Finally, hang them to dry. Towel racks work, outdoor drying lines work, but most budget hotels and guesthouses don’t have those. So we carry our own drying line along with a carabiner, and exercise our creativity by finding a place to rig it up. Door frames, handles, bedposts, random nails sticking out of walls… they all work. Our line is braided,  so to hang the clothes, all we have to do is wedge a bit of fabric between the braids. DON’T get the kind with dinky little suction cups at the ends… do you think that’ll really stay up?

The kind with loops is much better.

Hopefully this takes a bit of the mystery out of our travel lifestyle. Go forth and do your own laundry!

Eating Cheaply (and Well!) in Sydney

While Australia was a little hard on our wallets, Sydney (surprisingly) was not so bad. It’s a great place to go for budget travellers. Due to the size of the city, there is fierce competition between restaurants, hostels, internet cafes, etc. We ate very well the entire time we were there, and never spent more than $10 per person per meal- sometimes only $5. An obvious choice for cheap eats (and cheap internet, cheap haircuts, cheap anything) is Chinatown. It can be a little touristy, but just venture beyond the main drag and you’ll find more authentic restaurants. From George Street, turn left onto Ultimo Road and left again onto Thomas Street. The whole next block is lined with restaurants, and near the end of the block on the right-hand side there is a food centre- like a shopping mall but filled with cheap restaurants. Many of them specialize in homemade noodles or dumplings. It’s not just Chinese over here, either; you can find Korean, Indonesian, and more.

For inexpensive Middle Eastern food, head to Surry Hills. The whole area is good hunting ground, but Cleveland Street between Elizabeth and Bourke Streets is a good place to start. Actually, this area used to be called Little Beirut about 100 years ago. It’s been somewhat gentrified now, but it still retains a fairly large Middle Eastern population. Devonshire Street between Chalmers and Elizabeth Streets has a string of cheap Asian restaurants- we enjoyed some Thai here one night.

For the cheapest harbour-view lunch in the city, here is what you can do. Leave your accommodation around an hour or hour and a half before you want to have lunch. Make your way over to the Central Baking Depot on Erskine Street and pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread. Your next stop is 1 Martin Place, underground level. There is a little shop here called the GPO Cheese and Wine Room. Pick out a couple of their lovely cheeses- I would estimate 100 grams per person, but that depends how much you like cheese! Don’t get any wine, though, you can’t drink it (at least not legally) where you’re going. Finally, stop by the David Jones Food Hall, on the underground level of David Jones department store on Market Street. They sell all kinds of wonderful dips and spreads by weight. We liked their red capsicum dip and eggplant & garlic dip a lot, and I thought the Moroccan dip was very interesting (Bob thought it was too sweet.) They also have antipasti, if you prefer to go that route. You can pick up something to drink here, too. Finally, take all your purchases over to the Royal Botanic Gardens. For less than the price of a restaurant meal (depending on the dips/ cheeses you have chosen,) you can have a lovely picnic overlooking the Harbour Bridge.

Our picnic lunch

For a foodie excursion, take a trip to Cabramatta. Cabramatta is a suburb of Sydney, about 45 minutes away by train, and a return ticket costs a very reasonable $6.40. When you get off the train (coming from the east), immediately cross over the tracks, then cross the street in front of you, Railway Parade. The street ahead will fork; take the right fork (John Street.) It should be fairly obvious by now, but Cabramatta has a very large Vietnamese and Chinese population, and the area near the train station is jam-packed with noodle shops, banh mi stalls, Asian supermarkets, and all manner of consumer goods. The main area is bounded by John St to the south, Hughes St to the north, Hill St to the west and Railway Pde to the east. Inside this square is a warren of alleys. It’s easy to spend an afternoon getting lost inside. The local government sponsors a food festival here in October, which I think would be great fun. Even if you’re not here at that time, you can still see the posters many restaurants display in their windows, denoting their signature dishes. Very helpful- good going, Fairfield City Council!

Finally, I’ll share with you our best cheap food “find” in Sydney- $5 Thai food in Glebe. $5 for pad thai, red curry, green curry, and I think they had pad see ew  and a few more as well. All come with chicken- and to add tofu is free. Shrimp costs $2 more. To top it all off, cans of soda are $1- a rare find in Australia! You can find this magical little restaurant on Bridge Rd, near the intersection with Glebe Point Rd. Enjoy!