Every time I return from a backpacking trip, many people ask me how much money my trip cost me because they would like to know how much they need to save when they do a similar trip. Even though it’s a completely valid question, I really dislike this question because it’s very difficult to answer.
The reason why it’s a very difficult question to answer is because I can’t tell you exactly how much you need to save for your trip because we likely have different travel styles, meaning we have different budgets. The best I can do is give you an idea and examples of how expensive or inexpensive a country is and how much certain things cost and then you can go from there.
The three essentials that you’ll spend most of your money on are food, transportation and accommodation. The rest of your money goes towards partying, shopping, tours, frequent gloriously cheap $5/hour body massages in South East Asia, etc.
I’m a backpacker, so I do the hostel thing and I travel very cheaply in comparison to how my parents travel. But by true backpacker standards, I do tend to “splurge” on certain things, like food and transportation.
Food is very important to me. Trying the traditional food from a country is one of my favorite things about traveling, therefore, you will not see me eating Mr. Noodles every day to save a few bucks, like many backpackers do (which is totally cool, I just like food too much). In South America, for example, you can get either street food or a casual restaurant meal for a few dollars, depending on where you are. You can also stay in hostels that have a kitchen, so you can cook your own food, which is a nice option that I take advantage of when I can. In South East Asia, there aren’t any kitchens in the hostels because you can get a ridiculously delicious meal for $1-1.50. Amazing!
Bus, plane, train or boat? Typically, bus or boat are the cheapest ways to go, but they’re also the slowest. To be honest, I am a bit of a transportation snob, meaning I am willing to pay a little more money for more comfort on an overnight bus and if a bus ride is 24+ hours, I check prices on flights. I hate overnight buses. I don’t care if it saves me an extra night’s accommodation (which is quite popular in the backpacker world) because I value my sleep. And sleep is a rare luxury as it is while backpacking. Whether I get a decent reclining seat or not on an overnight bus, I never sleep well. I’m very envious of people who have the superpower of being able to sleep wherever, whenever, no matter the position.
As for hideously long bus rides, if they can be avoided with a quick, cheap flight, I’m sold. I prefer to not waste my life on a bus because it’s an inefficient use of my precious travel time. Many backpackers don’t look into taking a flight instead of the bus because they think it’ll always be much more expensive.
This isn’t always the case – in Brazil, I flew from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro during Carnival in an hour or so for $120 in order to avoid the 27+ hour bus ride. Expensive? Maybe… but not compared to the Austrian girls I met who paid more than $120 to take the 27+ hour bus ride instead (Brazil is not cheap). Ouch. But if a flight is ridiculously expensive and it doesn’t save me a few days of time, I’ll suck it up and take the bus.
Accommodation can be quite cheap or quite costly, depending on your personal preference. Location is important to me because I want to be in the middle of or within close walking distance of all the action. It’s pointless to save a few dollars per night on accommodation if you need to spend a few dollars and waste your time each way on transportation just to get to your hostel. Again, that is not an efficient use of my precious travel time. But to be fair, you can certainly get very cheap hostels in the heart of the city. I always opt for the largest dorm room possible in my hostel of choice because it’s always the cheapest AND you meet more people.
Some of the best people I’ve met while traveling have been from my dorm rooms. To give you an idea of prices, when I was in Cambodia a year and a half ago, I stayed at a great, but very simple hostel for $2/night (I “splurged” because I could’ve opted for the $1/night “dorm”). Had I wanted a dorm room with air-conditioning, I could’ve paid $6/night. Had I wanted a private room with a shared bathroom, I could’ve paid $6-10/night. If I wanted a nice hotel room all to myself, I could’ve paid $25/night. These are all extremely cheap options, but if you’re traveling for a few months, consistently staying in $3-5/night dorms versus $10+/night rooms, will make a big difference.
To be completely honest, I don’t know exactly how much my recent South America cost. I could do the math, but the truth is that I don’t really want to know. At the end of the day, every trip is more expensive than expected. The trick is to try not to worry about it too much and let it stop you from enjoying yourself. You’re there once, so you need to enjoy it to the fullest. You can always make more money, but you can’t buy more time.