How to Do Southeast Asia on a Budget While Staying Chic

Jul 23, 2017

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We love to give readers insider access to luxurious travel experiences, like using 74,375 KrisFlyer miles to fly in Singapore Suites or snagging an overwater villa at the St. Regis Maldives for 32,500 Starpoints per night. But when your points stash runs low, spending thousands on luxury hotel rooms or pricey plane tickets probably isn’t an option.

Traveling on a budget doesn’t have to mean backpacking, sleeping in 10-bunk hostel rooms and taking buses everywhere. It is possible to have a low-cost yet comfortable getaway, and the first trick is to head somewhere cheap. If you want to experience Champagne on a lemonade budget, skip pricier destinations like Copenhagen or Tokyo and instead head to Southeast Asia, where you can really stretch that dollar. Here’s how to do Southeast Asia on a budget while still being chic.

Choose Your Destinations Wisely

First, consider the style of vacation you’d like: urban exploration, temple touring, beach basking, adrenaline-fueled adventure or just soaking in the beauty of nature. Then consider more specific destinations that fit your ideal getaway. Just doing about an hour of research is an easy way to save money; tourist hotspots are always going to be pricier, and you can often find more affordable alternatives that pack as much punch. If you love temples, Angkor Wat (Cambodia) is amazing, but you may find better deals and prices in Bagan (Myanmar) or Yogyakarta (Indonesia). For the perfect Thailand beach trip, skip Phuket and head to a quieter island like Koh Samet — you won’t find a Sheraton there, but a quaint beachfront bungalow will be much cheaper, hammock included. Thrifty city lovers should select Bangkok over Singapore, because yes, there’s delicious street food in Bangkok, too, and it’s cheap.

The White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Pick the Right Hotel

While it’s easy to default to American chain hotels, they’re not usually as cheap as local properties, especially if you don’t have enough points to play with. Finding the best hotel for your wallet is key to enjoying Asia without emptying your bank account.

When choosing hotels in Southeast Asia, I first do a search on or Agoda, starting by selecting a price range and then moving on to filters. This section is really important, as air conditioning, elevators and Wi-Fi aren’t necessarily a given in smaller guesthouses, so make sure you know what’s essential to you. Next, I scroll through the properties, checking out the photos and descriptions, eventually selecting five or six that meet my needs and price range. Finally, I check out each place on TripAdvisor and read the reviews: If you’re a light sleeper, you will want to know that the roosters start crowing at 4:00am; if Wi-Fi is a deal breaker for you, you’ll treasure the complaints from similarly wired-in reviewers. Using this system, I’ve stayed in incredible boutiques and local properties for as little as $40 per night. Some of my favorites have been the Maison Dalabua in Luang Prabang, Laos; Angkana Hotel Bungalows in Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand; and the Nam Keng Hotel in Penang, Malaysia.

A sunset from the Angkana Bunglows in Koh Phangan, Thailand.
Sunset from the Angkana Hotel Bunglows in Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand.

Consider a Home Rental

My rule of thumb is to use sites like Airbnb or PandaBed when I can’t find a hotel that’s cheap and has what I want, or whenever I’m traveling with a large group. On a recent trip to Koh Samui, Thailand, I stayed with a group of nine in a fantastic Airbnb villa for approximately $650 per night — Villa Syama has six bedrooms and seven bathrooms, a huge living area, a pool table and, best of all, a private infinity pool with stunning ocean views. The live-in staff was amazing during our trip, and prepared a daily breakfast, cleaned the rooms, organized transportation and prepared lunch or dinner for an additional fee.

Meanwhile, The Points Guy himself tested out the nearby W Koh Samui for $748 per night before taxes. While the hotel was pretty impressive, it seemed crazy that nine people could stay in a luxury villa for almost $100 less than a two-person room at a swanky hotel. The moral of the story? If you’re traveling with your family or a large group, consider staying in a vacation rental since you’ll likely be in a place just as nice as a hotel for a much lower price.

Eat What the Locals Eat

You don’t need to eat street food at every meal, but occasionally opting for local dishes will save you money in the long run — ordering Western food at restaurants in most Southeast Asian countries can cost up to three times as much the cost of a local curry or noodle dish.

I’ll never forget sitting at a restaurant in Cambodia, enjoying the local fish, amok, when I heard tourists complaining how expensive the food was. Confused, I double-checked the price of my fish, which was just $3 or $4. When I took a closer look, I saw the visitors were all eating spaghetti bolognese and hamburgers, which were $13 each.

Even if you have a sensitive tummy, are vegetarian or vegan or are just a picky eater, you’ll likely find something local you can stomach. A serving of fried rice, steamed vegetables or rice noodles can be found almost anywhere in Southeast Asia for mere pennies. If you are absolutely craving a Western food fix, head to 7-Eleven, where they’ll toast you up a ham-and-cheese croissant for about $1. You can find them everywhere, and yes, it’s shockingly delicious.

Eat local. You'll save money and fall in love with all sorts of new foods.
Local delights in Vietnam.

Don’t Pre-Book Tours

Booking day trips and guides in Southeast Asia is almost always going to be cheaper after you arrive at your destination as opposed to when you buy tickets online ahead of time. Sure, it’s always good to do a little research before your flight, but once you get there, you’ll find great agencies that just aren’t big enough to have an online presence. You can also bargain if you have a group or do more than one excursion with the same company — always ask if they can offer you a discount. A good rule of thumb to avoid scams and disappointment is to never book the cheapest or the most expensive tours, but to try for something in the middle.

This rickshaw day tour of Mandalay, Myanmar cost me just $2.
A rickshaw day tour in of Mandalay, Myanmar, cost me just $2.

Don’t Change Money at the Airport or Hotel

With the exception of Myanmar, which has specific rules about currency, avoid changing large quantities of money at the airport or your hotel. Your best bet is to take a large chunk out of the ATM or visit a local currency exchange or bank, as they almost always offer a better rate.

Laotian money.
Laotian kip.

Don’t Discount Low-Cost Carriers

AirAsia is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular low-cost carriers, and as long as you read the fine print about baggage and checking in, you can travel hassle-free for very little money. AirAsia even has its own frequent-flyer program, Air Asia BIG. Other Asian low-cost carriers like Tigerair, SilkAir, Peach Aviation and Vanilla Air are slowly growing in popularity, so give them a chance if you want to save big.

An AirAsia plane in Bangkok. Image courtesy of NurPhoto / Colaborador via Getty.
An AirAsia plane in Bangkok. Image courtesy of NurPhoto/Colaborador via Getty Images.

What are some of your favorite tips and tricks for a budget-friendly vacation in Southeast Asia? Let us know, below.

All images by the author except where otherwise indicated.

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