At the end of last summer, travel writer Rolf Potts set off on the no baggage challenge, a RTW (round the world) adventure that saw him traverse the globe with no bags. Many readers of Rolf’s challenge wondered how much money a similar trip would cost. In November, I broke down the costs of Rolf’s trip, using the same exact route he took while offering tips and ideas for those wanting to do it on a smaller, backpacker-type budget. After crunching the numbers, we found out that Rolf’s trip would have cost about $6600, or $160US/day for everything excluding airfare. The backpacking tips I offered nearly cut that total in half, to about $3600US, or $85/day, excluding airfare.
Some may see those numbers and think that’s manageable for a seven week trip around the world. Some may think setting aside that much for travel is impossible. But what if I told you that you could take an extended trip for half the backpacker cost? What if I told you that it is possible to travel around the world on $40US/day for on the ground expenses (everything excluding airfare)?
The mistake most make when dismissing the possibility of being able to go on a RTW trip is that it is simply too expensive. That is just not true. While you may not be able to travel to Western Europe or around the United States on a small budget, plenty of amazing regions around the world offer the chance to travel in relative comfort for rock bottom prices.
Many may be thinking that article only applies to college kids and dirty hippies, and sure, you’re going to have to make some comfort sacrifices here and there. But even if you’re a bit older, married, or past the shared-dorm stage, it is still possible to set off on an extended adventure and not break the bank doing it. I will break down costs for traveling through nine countries across four regions, with plenty of tips along the way, and show how anyone, with some homework and organization, can travel the world on $40 per day.
Southeast Asia has long been a hotbed for backpackers, starting back in the 60’s and continuing on today. The low costs keep the youngsters coming back year after year, but you don’t have to be a gap year traveler to take advantage of traveling in this region.
>> Read about the many weird fruits of Southeast Asia
A night in a nice, private, air-conditioned room in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap can run as little as $20 per day. If you’re a solo traveler and don’t mind staying in a dorm bed, costs can be less than half that. Too many travelers have a misconception about hostels and guesthouses. While some may be horrid, there are just as many that are charming, clean, and nearly as nice as boutique hotels. The key is to walk around and check out different accommodations instead of booking in advance.
Sometimes food is a major expense while traveling. Not in Cambodia. It’s possible, without much effort at all, to get by on $10/day for food. Street food is king in Southeast Asia, and Cambodia is no different. While you may not find as many street options as in neighboring Thailand or Vietnam, there are still plenty, and meals in restaurants, particularly if you eat local Khmer food, are only a few bucks.
Transportation costs remain low as well, and while it may not be the most comfortable taking minibuses around the country, who can argue with a few dollars for a five-hour bus ride? Visiting a famous site like Angkor Wat adds costs to the budget, but entrance fees are still only $20/day, $40 for 3, or $60 for a week. Options abound for transportation to and from Angkor, from a few dollars/day for a bicycle to $25/day for a private tuk-tuk.
Malaysia is a country that seems to get lost in the shuffle when talking about travel in Southeast Asia. Thailand has been a mainstay for decades, while countries like Vietnam and Laos have gained steam lately as popular travel destinations. But if you are in the region already and looking for another cheap country to travel in, consider Malaysia.
Like Cambodia, accommodation is cheap in Malaysia. A private room, with air conditioning, will only set you back about $20-$25. Kuala Lumpur may see those costs rise a bit, but travelers can still get a nice room for as little as $30.
If you’re a foodie, then there aren’t many better or more unique cuisines than in Malaysia. A fusion of Chinese and Indian, amongst the other flavors of Southeast Asia, creates a cuisine that is not only top notch and unlike any other you’ll find, but also super cheap. Street meals only cost about $1-2, while restaurants won’t see your wallet hit much more. Even if you eat out all three meals, $10/day is a realistic food budget, provided you’re willing to forego western options. And with the range of options in Malaysia, why wouldn’t you?
Taking the bus or train around Malaysia is similar in cost to other SE Asian countries, meaning it won’t be much. If heading to Borneo or outlying islands, you’ll need to go by boat or air and may have to sacrifice a bit in other areas to make your budget work. Air Asia is a great budget airliner that serves all of SE Asia and has really cheap flights around the region, so be sure to check out their options.
>> Search budget accommodation in Kuala Lumpur
Most countries in South America are pretty cheap when it comes to travel, especially for westerners. The continent is huge, and travelers have tons of options depending on their interests.
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Peru offers a multitude of activities to participate in and cities to visit, and the bank account won’t move much as a result. Lima is a bustling metropolis and a great hub for South American travel, and a trip to the famous Machu Picchu will create memories to last a lifetime.
Lima and Cusco are most expensive when it comes to accommodations, but a private room at a hostel still only costs about $25. Dorm beds only cost about $10, and most hostels include a real breakfast – that is to say, more than just bread and jam.
Food in Peru can be had for cheap as well. You’re probably noticing a theme here, but markets and street food tend to always be the cheapest option when traveling. And while South America doesn’t have the options of SE Asia and the Middle East, there is still plenty of great food to be had for cheap. It’s also a good idea to frequent the local places, especially for lunch. They usually have set meals for a few dollars that will have you coming out stuffed. It’s also a good idea to look for a hostel with a nice kitchen to enable you to cook your own meals.
When coming to Peru, the biggest hit to your budget will be a trip to Machu Picchu. If you’re dead set on hiking, consider alternate treks other than the classic Inca Trail. They often cost half the price; hiking the Inca Trail can set you back $500, but it is worth the splurge.
Traveling by bus in Peru isn’t quite as posh as nearby Argentina, but it is still very comfortable. A 15-hour overnight bus journey can cost upwards of $70, but you will get fed two or three meals and don’t have to worry about accommodation costs for a night.
Bolivia is one of those destinations where you’d really have to work to spend $40 per day, which means you can see the varying landscapes of one of the most unique and beautiful countries in the world on a very small budget.
Finding affordable accommodations is not very difficult in Bolivia, with the exception of La Paz. A massive lakefront private room in Copacabana will only cost about $15, and other cities like Oruro, Coroico, or Tupiza can be even cheaper. While you won’t get much luxury, if you poke around it’s not very difficult to find simple and clean private rooms for $10-20. If you’re willing to rough it a bit more, you can get by for even less.
Bolivian cuisine isn’t going to make any top 10 lists, and while street and market food isn’t super popular, it is easy to find cheap food at grocery stores and markets and cook yourself. Nearly every hostel has its own kitchen, and even if you need a western splurge here and there, it won’t kill your budget.
What you save in food and accommodations you’ll be able to spend on the incredible activities offered in this stunning country. Costs for a 4 day Salt Flats tour originating in Tupiza runs about $180/person for a comfortable four-person tour (including everything-accommodations, food, entrance fees, etc.). If you want to save some money, consider beginning in Uyuni or taking a tour with a group of six. About $115 will get a travelers a three-day Pampas Tour in the jungles of Bolivia (with one of the largest and more expensive tour operators, also including all accommodations, food, and activities).
If you travel by bus in Bolivia, it is extremely cheap and extremely uncomfortable. An 18-hour bus trip only costs about $10, while flights of similar length can run about $75-100 (one way). Transport is cheap, but Bolivia is a very poor and underdeveloped country, so prepare. The amazing landscape makes up for any discomfort you may experience.
Central America is a great starting point for heading off on a long term adventure, particularly for Americans. It’s close, so chances of getting a cheap flight are high, and travel in many countries is dirt cheap.
If you pay attention to top 10 lists, you may have noticed Nicaragua’s inclusion as an up-and coming destination. With good reason, too, as this country’s stunning landscapes include a myriad of gorgeous lakes, volcanoes, and rivers.
Like most developing countries, accommodations in Nicaragua vary. Depending on the level of comfort you desire, you can sleep in a hammock in places for as little as $3 per night or have a private room in a hostel with air conditioning and cable TV for $30. Of course there are many other options in between.
Food in Nicaragua, like many other countries in this region, is cheap if you’re down to eat locally. A plate of meat, rice, and beans (almost always accompanied by plantains) can be had on the street for less than a dollar, while a similar meal in a restaurant should only run $2-3. As with any time you decide to eat street food, use caution. Most of the time it’s perfectly safe, but check around and make sure they’re cooking meat and fish to order; any time there’s a crowd waiting, that’s a good sign.
Many activities in Nicaragua revolve around the outdoors and therefore can be done pretty cheaply. Renting kayaks on the various lakes and rivers are a cheap way to spend a pleasant afternoon, or consider taking a day-long surfing lesson for as low as $25. Of course hiking is always a cheap way to spend a few days, and if you are willing to splurge a bit, you can hike to the top of several active volcanoes around the country.
Transportation around Nicaragua is much like the rest of Central America. And that means if you want to travel cheaply, then the infamous chicken bus is the way to go. You’ll rarely pay more than $7-10 for a trip of any length, and shorter trips (a few hours) only cost a couple bucks. Chicken buses are old US school buses; crowded, dirty, and not very comfortable. There are nicer buses, but you get what you pay for.
World class national parks, tons of interesting wildlife, white sand beaches, and some of the best diving in the world await travelers in Honduras. Like Nicaragua, Honduras is another country on the upswing when it comes to tourism, so prices aren’t going to stay as low as they are forever.
Backpackers can find a place to lay their heads down for about $10 per night, but don’t expect much. If looking for a nicer, private room, maybe with air conditioning, then you’re going to have to pony up about $20-25/night.
By administering all the cheap eats tips given throughout this article, travelers can expect to get by on about $10/day for food, a bit more if you want to eat out at restaurants or have some drinks.
If you’re a diver, then this is the one activity that is going to blow that $40/day budget out of the water. Even if it does kill the budget, Honduras is extremely cheap compared to other world class diving destinations. If you are interested, expect to pay $200-240 for a class to get certified for open water diving. Fun dives can cost anywhere from $20-35 per tank.
Transportation is the same in Honduras as in Nicaragua, with chicken buses being the norm, particularly among backpackers. If this is just not your thing, you can pay about three times more for luxury buses that go between top destinations.
For some, the Middle East evokes images of war-ravaged countries and terrorism. But for those in the know, the Middle East conjures up thoughts of countries with thousands upon thousands of years of history and tourist sites on any serious traveler’s bucket lists.
Best known for one of the most famous sites in the world, Petra, Jordon has so much more to offer than this infamous lost city. Warm and friendly people, great food, and a history unlike any other, a trip to Jordan is a budget traveler’s dream destination.
There are certainly cheaper places to travel in this region, but Jordan can be affordable for those on a tight budget. A decent budget hostel runs about $7 for a single and $10-15 for a double. A step up in quality, with air conditioning and other amenities, will set a two people back about $30 for a private.
If you enjoy Middle Eastern staples like shwarma or falafel, then you’re in luck and won’t have any trouble eating on the cheap. Street stalls can be found everywhere, selling these delicious sandwiches for only a dollar or two. If you want to get off the street an into a mid-range restaurant, expect to pay about $5 for a meal, more if you add liquor into the equation.
If heading to Jordan, you’re going to want to see Petra, which will add to the budget. The entrance fee alone is about $80 for two days (rates change depending on time of year), plus more if you want to hire a guide, which many people recommend. Most other famous sites around the country cost a dollar or two for admission, and many are free.
Transportation around Jordan is super cheap, and even if you want to splurge on a private bus instead of a public one, expect to pay about $1.50 per hour of travel. A minibus or public bus would be about half the cost.
Perhaps no other country on this list will surprise travelers more than Syria. A very modern and progressive country for this area of the world, Syria, , like the rest of the region, also has a long, rich, and storied history.
Many Middle Eastern countries have hostels that offer rooftop sleeping for the economical price of $5-8 if you’re really looking to pinch pennies. A private room can be had for just under $20, so splurging isn’t going to put the budget in the red.
Like Jordan, if you’re willing to eat locally, you can have street meals for $1-2. Even mid-range restaurants don’t cost too much, though, so the occasional meal out shouldn’t set you back much more than about $5-8 per person.
One of the best parts about Syria is the fact that many of the sites are the cities themselves. Ruins dot many of the famous cities as Damascus, Aleppo, and Bosra are all Unesco World Heritage sites. Simply wandering around any of these famous cities will provide days and days of entertainment, particularly for photographers, and wandering cities is absolutely free.
For city to city travel, consider the bus or train. While air-conditioned coach buses are nice and cheap, the schedules aren’t exactly trustworthy, so be aware. But the price makes up for any inconvenience, as a three-hour bus journey costs as little as $3.50. The trains in Syria are also surprisingly nice, so be sure to check that option for getting around the country.
>> Read about other difficult places to get to, and how to get there
The subcontinent deserves its own space here as the country is huge, and travelers could spend their entire long term trip here, if they’re up for it. There aren’t many other countries in the world that punish your senses like India, but if you can maintain patience and channel your inner yogi, there aren’t many better budget countries to travel in.
>> Read about ten ways to experience India now
Travelers could spend years in India and still not make it around the entire country. Trying to summarize the entire country of India in such a short amount of space is impossible, but no matter where you go, you will have the option to do it on the cheap. Even icons like the Taj Mahal are not expensive, with a minor $16 entrance fee to one of the world’s most famous sites.
It’s impossible to break down average costs for the entire country since it’s so big and so varied. If this is your first visit to India, the state of Rajasthan is a great place to start. The tourist trail is well trodden, the sites fantastic, and the budget small.
Private, air conditioned rooms in most cities in Rajasthan can be had for as little as $20. If traveling outside of Rajasthan and in major cities like Delhi or Mumbai, expect to pay a bit more, upwards of about $30. If you’re willing to rough it, beds can be had for a fraction of the price, for as little as $4-5, but be forewarned, they won’t be nice. Even in the beach towns of Goa a nice private, air conditioned room can cost about $15-20.
When it comes to food, there aren’t many other countries in the world where you get more bang for your buck. If street food in India scares you (it shouldn’t), then local restaurants are the way to go, with tasty meals costing only $2-3. $10 per day will have you eating well in India, provided you’re down for Indian food.
If traveling all around India, I highly suggest the train. It’s relatively reliable (reliability and travel in India don’t exactly go hand in hand), and the costs are affordable. Save the hassle of having to deal with Indian railway and bus stations and just book online. A five-hour train ride can cost anywhere from $2-$15, depending on what class and what type of train you take.
These nine countries are just a small sampling of places around the world to travel comfortably on a tight budget. Whether you’re considering a gap year, a career break, or a sabbatical, research all your possibilities. If you’re willing to forego a little comfort, you can travel for so much less in some of these developing countries.
Where are your favorite budget destinations? Comment below and check out these other articles on round the world budget travel:
- 10 Free Ways to Discover Your World
- 10 Things You Should Know About Round the World Tickets
- The Art of Traveling in Developing Countries
- The Real Cost of Traveling the World Like Rolf Potts
- 8 Lessons to Learn from My Round the World Trip