Cheap Travel vs. Budget Travel: There’s a Difference

“Pssht, I only spent $8 a day when I was in India.”

“I traveled the world for a year, and I only spent $6000.”

“Dude, you spent waaaay too much on that.”

“Brah, I spent half that during my time in Thailand.”

“How did you spend that much in Southeast Asia?”

We’ve all heard the comments. We’ve all had these conversations with the headier than thou backpackers who wax poetic about how little money they have spent on their trips. We see them comment on Facebook or Twitter or in the comment sections of articles. You know the ones. Those travelers who clearly think they’re better than you because they spent the least amount of money out of everyone else in the room.

We published an article a few years back chronicling the The Real Costs of RTW Travel, where we highlighted 11 trips and what people spent on those trips. I was kind of surprised at the comments. There were lots of people coming out of the woodworks to comment about how everyone in the article must have been doing it wrong because the dollar amounts revealed.

We absolutely promote the idea of budget travel, there is a massive difference between traveling on a budget and just being downright cheap. BootsnAll is full of budget travel articles and tips for making the most of your trip with the money you have, and in my eyes, that’s what budget travel is all about. It’s not about who can spend the least.

It’s not a contest.

Travel is a not a contest. The traveler vs. tourist debate is a tired one that simply makes people sound stuck up and pretentious. Just because you spent $10/day in Thailand doesn’t make you an awesome traveler that everyone should bow down to. Making snide comments like “How someone can spend that much in Laos I’ll never know” simply makes you sound like a douchebag.

There is no prize for traveling the right way. Actually, there is no right way to travel. While we promote the idea of indie travel, we also completely respect a person’s wishes to take guided tours, go on cruises, and head off to an all inclusive resort – if that’s your style, go for it!

There is no prize for traveling the right way. Actually, there is no right way to travel.

The same goes with the budget. I certainly respect those who manage to get by on a paltry budget (though I have to question what one can actually do on $10/day, but more on that later), but I also respect those who like to stay in hotels and have air conditioning when it’s 100 degrees and humid outside. You don’t get an award by spending the least, so stop bragging about how little you spent and get out of the hostel common room and actually do something.

Read Stupid Travel Arguments (And Why We Should Stop Having Them and check out the Six Travel Types You Love to Loathe 

You can’t do/see anything on $10/day, no matter where you are.

Sure, there’s nothing wrong with trying to get the best experience for what you spend, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and pay more for something you really want to do. There are plenty of travelers out there who claim to be able to travel in countries like India, Nepal, and areas of Southeast Asia and Latin America for $10USD/day. I am not calling them liars, but I certainly have to question what it is they are doing on a daily basis. Yes, there are plenty of free activities when visiting a new place. Simply wandering around different neighborhoods, hanging out in parks, and just taking in the natural beauty of a place or hustle and bustle of a city are all things you can do for nothing. But sooner or later, you’ll actually want to visit a museum, see a famous site, or take part in an awesome experience that may actually cost some money, no?

So say you spend $5 on a bed, get breakfast for free, and then eat at a street stall for your other two meals, you’re at $7. What the hell else can you do for $3?

Let’s take a look at the numbers, shall we?

Even if you can get a bed for $5/day, which is still possible in some areas, you still have to eat. I’ve eaten plenty of $1 plates of curry from the streets in Bangkok and $1 bowls of pho from an alleyway in Hanoi. I’ve shopped in markets in South America and cooked my own meals in hostel kitchens. I usually try to find hostels with breakfast included.  So say you spend $5 on a bed, get breakfast for free, and then eat at a street stall for your other two meals, you’re at $7. What the hell else can you do for $3?

Even in the cheapest areas of the world, doing things cost money. And while you can certainly maintain that $10 budget for a while, I would imagine you’d actually want to do something at some point or another.

Read 12 Reasons Why Southeast Asia is the Best Place in the World for Backpackers, find out 8 Ways to Travel for Free on Your RTW Trip, read How to Travel Around the World for $40 Per Day

Comfort is not a bad thing.

The travelers who like to brag about how little they spend are also the ones who like to say things like, “I don’t need comfort when I’m on the road, bro. I like to get back to the roots of man and keep it simple.”

Hey, I’m all for keeping it simple. I’ve embraced my inner hippie many a time while on the road. There’s nothing wrong with sleeping in a dorm bed, camping in order to get closer to nature and save a few bucks in the meantime, or cooking your own food in order to save money for something else. Comfort is all a matter of personal preference, and we all have our levels of comfort we prefer.

If you can stay in a room in Southeast Asia with no windows, a tiny fan, and a pet rat, more power to you. But it doesn’t make your experience more authentic than mine.

Usually our ability to deal with uncomfortable situations declines with age. When I was 20, I had no problem sleeping on the ground or having questionable cleanliness in the shower that’s supposed to be helping me get clean. Back then I was following Phish around the country, sleeping in rest areas, and showering in those rest area sinks. But now that I’m in my 30’s, I tend to like a bit more comfort, and I’m sure as hell not going to apologize for that.

The thing that irks me are the travelers who act like they’re better than me because I want air conditioning in April in India. I’ve stayed in non-air conditioned rooms while it’s hot as hell more times than I wish, and there’s nothing cool about having to take ice cold showers every hour just to temporarily stop sweating. In fact, it sucks. If you can stay in a room in Southeast Asia with no windows, a tiny fan, and a pet rat, more power to you. But it doesn’t make your experience more authentic than mine.

>>Read Five of the Worlds Most Expensive Countries and How to Visit Them on the Cheap

Saving for a trip is hard work. Don’t you want that hard work to pay off?

Usually when someone goes on a long-term trip, he or she has to sacrifice to do so. We forego nights at the bar or meals out. We bypass that concert or ball game in order to save more money. Saving for a trip, no matter the length, can be hard work. We did without a lot for 18 months to be able to save for our RTW trip.

Because we were on what we thought was a tight budget, I continued that mindset for the first month of our trip. We bypassed activities in order to not spend money. We didn’t try new food or go hang out with new friends because it was going to be too expensive. We’d walk around for an extra hour trying to find a hostel that might save us an extra $3. After a while, it became old. We were fighting about money way too much.

We weren’t being budget travelers. We were being cheap travelers.

And then something clicked. We sacrificed so much, we saved for so long, we quit our jobs, we gave away or sold so much of our stuff. And we did this to be able to travel the world and have the trip of a lifetime. But we weren’t doing that. We weren’t being budget travelers. We were being cheap travelers.

So we changed our tune. We decided that we’d bypass some comfort here and there for an awesome meal out. We decided to get that non-air conditioned room every so often so we could climb Franz Josef Glacier, ride the World’s Most Dangerous Road, and go on a full moon trip to Iguazu Falls. Our trip instantly became better. Our mindset improved, we stopped fighting, I stopped fretting about money so much, even if that meant we had to come home sooner.

What’s the point of going on a trip and then not doing the things you really want to do?

Read the Step-by-Step Guide to Visiting Machu Picchu, and check out these 10 Delicious Discoveries

Budget travel isn’t about spending the least. It’s about getting the most value for your money.

Budget travel is not about who can spend the least amount of money or who can travel in Thailand on $10/day. It’s not about finding the cheapest, grubbiest room. It’s not about eating ramen noodles for all your meals and sitting in the hostel common room watching a movie while everyone else is out having drinks and dancing.

Budget travel is all about getting the most value for your money while you’re on the road. There is no monetary value attached to the phrase “budget travel.” If someone sacrificed what they consider to be comforts and still spent $40/day in Laos, then that’s budget travel for that person. Just because you did it on $10/day doesn’t make your experience more authentic, or indie, or better.

Budget travel is all about getting the most value for your money while you’re on the road. There is no monetary value attached to the phrase ‘budget travel.’

There are many different types of travelers. Some would never think of setting foot in a hostel. Some would never think of paying more to stay in a hotel. Some prefer to eat out at decent restaurants on the road. Some only eat at street carts and cook their own meals. Some always do guided tours. Some never do. Our society likes to label everything, and that’s fine.  Budget travel, like all types of travel, isn’t a black and white definition – there’s a huge amount of gray in there, too.   And you certainly aren’t a better traveler because you spend less money than the guy next to you.

Read about these 12 Budget-Friendly Sustainable Travel Experiences, save some money by checking out these Eight Tips for the Newbie Hitchhiker, and check out these tips for Saving Money for Your Trip

 What are your thoughts on budget travel? Do you agree with the above statements? Comment below to share your thoughts.

Photo credit: 1, 2, 3, 5; picture 4 belongs to the author and cannot be used without consent.

Leave a Comment

  • Bobo and Chichi said at 2014-03-01T04:55:12+0000: That is a great point! The first time I travelled (6 months) I was so worried about money that I passed up a lot of things that I regret now. It carried over into day to day things like should pay for a rickshaw/taxi or just walk it? My travel partner and I ended up wasting lots of time and bickering a lot and missing out on some memorable experiences. So now I'm back at it again travelling with a different mindset about budget and being cheap because we travelled all that way to have experiences. We could have stayed home if we were going to be cheap! Happy travels
  • Pat Bunyard said at 2014-02-28T18:35:29+0000: Well expressed! Could not agree with you more (but I do have to get that snobbery under control with my 'name brand, nothing but first class' friends). And yes, we do get more demanding as we get older. On my first grand tour of 10-weeks to Europe in 1972, I left (alone) with my Eurail Pass, Passport, and addresses for AMEX offices. And yes, I did travel for $5 a day with little sacrificing. Today, with internet, no need. With some homework, I can travel on a reasonable budget and still have a wonderful experience. No need to be cheap when you can be smart. But then too, if I was 20 again, I might try to rough it one more time(;-)
  • Bali Yoga Travel said at 2014-03-06T01:30:14+0000: Great article!We often encounter those who are trying to travel at their cheapest while in Bali. Bali can be less expensive than other places in the world. But prices have also risen quite a lot. And some experiences are not lived by being on a budget.
  • Joe Martinak said at 2014-02-28T12:54:46+0000: Right on! EVERY time I have been to Thailand or Vietnam or Cambodia I run into the dudes who brag on how they have been there for months and are living on just a few bucks a day. I like air conditioning and hot water, thank you. The difference between $5 a day for a bed and $15 a day for your own private room with bathroom can make the entire day just so much better. If you want to travel cheap good for you, but don't be a hater for those that like a little bit better. It's not a contest.
  • Agness Walewinder said at 2012-07-22T04:57:13+0000: I remember myself and my friend being in Vietnam spending hours to find the cheapest hostel, trying to bargain very hard and not spending much money on attractions, which was pointless and frustrating. Cheap doesn't mean better sometimes.
  • Barbara Adam said at 2012-02-23T02:11:27+0000: This sums it up for me: "What’s the point of going on a trip and then not doing the things you really want to do?" I am more than happy to pay for a little comfort, and not just because I now travel with a two-year-old. It's not a competition, it's my current lifestyle PLUS I need to keep my daughter safe and secure, emotionally and physically. Some people are far too obsessed with the cost of things. I recently had someone tell me I paid too much for a baguette in Vietnam. Apparently paying 15,000 dong (72 US cents) for a sandwich is scandalous when you could travel across town and get one for 6,000 dong (28 cents). I mean -- PLEASE.
  • Agness Walewinder said at 2012-07-22T04:55:34+0000: It is always good to set your budget up and try to control it but worrying about money and making everything cheaper isn't a good fun. You start annoying yourself and locals around because you keep thinking about the money limit you have. The best way is to have your budget fixed up but also being flexible with it. Once you spend more, the other time you spend less.
  • Agness Walewinder said at 2012-07-22T04:52:58+0000: I am biking in Vietnam now and I spend less than $10 for my accommodation and the food, however you are right you can't see everything living for $10 a day, the excursions are pretty expensive but if you spend less during the week you actually might save some money up not spending more than $10 if it makes any sense. I agree with the main differences you pointed out.
  • Snook Chaipornvadee said at 2012-06-07T06:13:46+0000: It's all about experience. I think when people first start to travel, they tend to try to spend at least as possible if they know they're on a tight budget, but after a few trips on even during the trip, they will learn how to balance. Sadly, I have not done the things I wanted to simply because I didn't have money to. It's all about allocating $$ to different areas. Planning and budgeting things before hand can help a lot but don't go overboard because it will just make the trip to limiting.
  • Lyndy Boyd said at 2012-02-22T16:57:21+0000: Great article! I have done the resorts and backpacked, done tours and gone on my own - there are many ways to travel and each is an experience in its own. I too find it interesting meeting people who are sitting in their hostel and missing out on seeing sites and trying new things and BRAG about the money they haven't spent. Funny how they never tell you what they haven't done......
  • Nicole Garcia said at 2012-03-09T02:38:45+0000: I agree with many of the points this article makes. Why bother savings up for the big trip and then be too cheap to do the things that will make it memorable/enjoyable/comfortable. However, I have to disagree on the point that you can't do anything good for $10/day. I've spent time in SE Asia where you can travel very cheaply, especially in places like Laos or Cambodia. Some of my best memories are from those days when we spent less than $10. Those were the days when we just wandered around town off the beaten track, chatted with the locals, played with the kids and ate amazing food at hole-in-the-wall joints or street stalls. I wouldn't have had those experiences if I had spent a bunch on some tour or hung out in the most touristy parts of town.
  • Joan McKniff said at 2012-02-22T22:53:59+0000: Just back from Cuba at age 71, yes I need more comfort than I did as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1963! I loved this article. Yes, travel is a joy, not a competition. My pet peeves: 1. a well off person bargaining for the last 2 cents off from a vendor, possibly the sole wage earner for an extended family, in a country where average annual income is $400. I bargain, am street smart, but take no joy in forcing a vendor to sell an item for a 2 cent profit, not the hoped for 14 cents. 2. I think the bragging cheap traveler who can't imagine traveling w/o iphone, kindle, music system, headphones, ipad, and the like and daily tweets, FB, emails, reading US papers and blogs, hottest YOU TUBE clips is both a hypocrite, bragging about being independent traver on the cheap while wearing/carrying thousands of dollars of egear, and missing so much of local music, news, experiences, feeling of being there when so wired to home, to own culture and friends.
  • Scott Hadfield said at 2012-02-22T12:28:29+0000: Nice post. It really comes down to what kind of an experience the traveller is after (some people just want to sit on a beach for two weeks and drink cocktails, and who can blame them when they're working day in and day out for the other 50 weeks of the year :)).The $10/day thing is a pretty outrageous claim though. Those RTW daily cost trips in the other article include all travel costs too (airfare, etc), do they not? If a RT flight costs you $1000 to get to thailand, and you're there for 100 days, you're at $10/day already. I would say that very few people bragging about the low costs of their trip are actually taking into account all costs.Oh ya, and "What the hell else can you do for $3?". Anyone traveling on $10 per day would definitely have to spend that $3 on booze... how else could you survive! ;)
  • Gillian Duffy said at 2012-02-22T14:07:39+0000: Traveling at your true budget point can make, or break, a trip. Budgeting too low and incessantly worrying about money is no fun. Be realistic in setting a budget and you'll enjoy your trip that much more. It's worth putting it off just a little while longer to save rather than scimping every day on the road.
  • Jeff Read said at 2012-02-27T02:12:00+0000: I enjoy your site and stories. if you love road trips & travel, visit our page and be a 'road warrior!' JR -
  • Kirsten Teal said at 2012-02-22T16:00:54+0000: I really like this article, mostly because I've been on both sides of the coin. I'm sure I have bragged about spending small amounts of money on something, and being dumbfounded by someone who spent twice as much. But I also traveled in my 30's and quickly realized that not only did I not want to sleep in a hell hole of a room, but I didn't have to either. I do think the $10 a day exists, but not EVERY day. You can certainly average that in India and Laos, and some days you'll spend $7 and some $15. WHen people asked me about my traveling budget, I tried to do averages, and clarified that this included lodging, food, some transportation and some sightseeing. It didn't include big budget items, like swimming with whale sharks in Oz which completely blew my budget out of the water.I still would have issues staying in a $200 hotel room in Thailand when I know that I can be relatively comfortable for $10 or $15. But again, everyone's level of comfort is different. (The people who won't spend $.50 on a beer (or coke or whatever) out with rest of the group because it's not in their budget drive me insane though, and probably always will.)
  • Jolien Dekker said at 2012-02-22T23:39:12+0000: I so agree with this! I personally hate worrying about money and that's why I only go traveling when I know I have more than enough money to cover any expenses I could face. I'm not going to spend $1000 on a plane ticket to miss out on all the great experiences I could have had for just a few dollars more! Which doesn't mean I just splurge all the time - I ask myself if I find it worth the money and if the answer is yes, it's good.
  • Wendell Glenn DrWends Cagape said at 2012-02-23T07:09:39+0000: In sound stark realization, after having read this post, I say no one can place the right price on the experiences one gets out of traveling. It is far more than one gets to spend a little or spent much. It is through which one may define oneself's perspective of life and those others around him.
  • Laura Ann Klein said at 2012-02-23T04:28:01+0000: In 2002 I was in the Yucatan and a youngster scoffed at us for bagging the bungalow for a nice-ish hotel: "Oh, it's just because you're too old for this sort of thing." (I was in my early forties) I crisply explained to him that I have always been "too old" for roughing it.
  • Nik Rielo said at 2012-02-23T02:42:53+0000: travel is how much one can afford. nothing more, nothing less.
  • Leslie Guevarra said at 2012-02-23T03:59:02+0000: ang ganda anvilable.
  • Craig Thompson said at 2012-03-08T02:21:52+0000: I remember being in Tibet with a young couple on a budget, 6 month, multi country trip. They didn't visit Potala Palace as they didn't have the money. Traveled all the way to Tibet and didn't have the money to go inside. Stupid
  • Paul Elverstone said at 2012-03-07T18:17:35+0000: You don't go halfway around the world to tell yourself that you can't afford it! The very reason I budgeted anything was so I could afford the things I really wanted to do. But that's just me..... and a few million others too I hope.
  • James Fisher said at 2012-02-25T03:30:21+0000: I know how they do it.They bum, borrow, short change, and steal from other people!1. I buy a round, you buy a round, another friend buys a round...the cheapskate is nowhere to be found when it's their turn.2. We pay for dinner as a group - Oh, wait. We are short $2. I wonder who didn't throw in...3. We both throw in $5 for lunch and the change arrives...the cheapskate pockets the change. And then steals the tip money we left for the waitress on the table.
  • Megan Mallon said at 2012-02-22T19:33:42+0000: Thanks for this! Throughout my planning of a shorter term RTW, I've come to learn that the amount per day is a topic of pride for many travellers out there. I've also learned that my vision of "Round the World" includes places and experiences that aren't South Asian hostels and backpacker bars.I'm taking time off work and spending a lot of money to get the experience that I want, it's so much more than just getting there and surviving-- it's hiking Machu Picchu, scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, finding gorillas in Uganda. There's so much out there to experience that doesn't come at $10/ day in Laos.