Unbrave Girl on a Shoestring: How to Get your Travel Budget Back on Track

August 30, 2010

Budgeting is a lot like dieting.

They both take commitment and hard work.

They both require you to deprive yourself of many of the things you dearly love.

And they both make you really annoying to hang out with. No one wants to go out for nacho night with the girl who’s going carb-free this month (Trust me, I banned myself from eating carbs for the entire month of January 2008. By February, I had lost twenty pounds and every friend I ever had. Heck, even I wanted to stop hanging out with myself!).

Likewise, nobody wants to go out for drinks with the girl who’s making math fractions on the cocktail napkin to figure out her fair share of the margarita bill (And, God forbid, she opt for the cheap margaritas made out of Sprite and lighter fluid because she’s “on a budget”. That girl will be banned from the invite list to Habañero Happy Hour for the rest of her life!).

Seeing as both budgeting and dieting tend to make me cranky and friendless, I try to avoid them. But, every once in a while, I get a bit carried away (usually while under the influence of tequila or a pending new year), and I convince myself that I am one of those people who actually has willpower.

Right before I started out on this trip, I gave myself a strict monthly travel budget. Calculated on a salsa-splattered placemat while at a Mexican-themed going away party, my budget was based on the little bit of money I had saved up, divided by the number of months I planned to travel and then multiplied by the number of margaritas I had drank that night.

In order to keep to my new self-imposed financial plan, I knew I’d have to be careful with my spending. I bought a mini-notebook where I could record all my daily expenses. I had heard this was a good way to keep track of your purchases so you know where all your money is going. Usually, I like to just blame pickpockets or money-thieving elves when my money disappears, but this whole notebook thing seemed like a much more technical method.

I did a surprisingly good job of writing down all my purchases and keeping to my budget during the first two months while I was cat-sitting in Thailand… probably because I had little to do aside from scribbling in a mini-notebook and talking to cats. Plus, there wasn’t too much to splurge on where I was living in Chiang Rai. There were no malls or Mexican restaurants. If I really wanted to splash out, I might make the trek into town and buy myself something pretty (like a donut… or five).

Then I moved to Malaysia to volunteer, where I found better things to do than writing down how much I spent everyday — like talking to people instead of cats.

Besides, there wasn’t much need for me to jot down my daily expenditures while I was volunteering on the rice farm or on the sailboat as there were very few expenses to write down. All my meals were paid for, my accommodation was provided and any extras (like a shiny new garden trowel or a brand new can of paint thinner) were on the house (or on the boat, as the case may be). As both of these gigs were located far from malls or donut shops, there was also very little for me to splurge on.

But, after leaving my boat-building gig three weeks ago, I’ve been on the road and have had to foot my own bill for my food and accommodation (not to mention, any miscellaneous garden tools that might strike my fancy).

Since then my budget has gone off track — and not just a bit off track, but more like in-a-totally-different-continent-off-track. While I’ve been traveling through Malaysia, judging from the amount of money I’ve been going through, my budget has been hanging out in Paris… possibly with Paris Hilton… on a private yacht.

Sure, Southeast Asia can be really cheap if you don’t mind shacking up in a hostel and restricting your diet to a measly three meals a day (none of those meals being of the liquid and laced-with-tequila variety). But it can also be really expensive if you like to splurge on the occasional five-star hotel room or a margarita the size of Kansas.

So in order to get my budget back on track (or at least in the same continent), I’ve come up with a few quick, cost-cutting tips to help me cut back on my everyday travel expenses without making me feel too cranky… or reducing me to that sad, pathetic girl who’s busy converting currencies on her cocktail napkin.

Cheap Sleeps

I love hotels. Nice hotels. Hotels with crisp, clean, white sheets and cable TV and room service. Hotels with daily maid service and newspapers delivered to my door. Hotels with both a shower and a bathtub (because I like keeping my options open).

Some people dream of one day owning a home of their own. I dream of one day living in a hotel — preferably one that will allow me to wear my hotel bathrobe to the breakfast buffet.

The problem with nice hotels, aside from the fact that they usually, as a rule, do not allow you to wear your bathrobe to breakfast (even though the bathrobe is a fair bit cleaner and more fetching on you than any clothing items you currently own), is that they cost money.

A lot of money.

Money you could be using to keep yourself fed for the next couple months or to help you buy a plane ticket home. (Rather than, say, crafting a water-bearing vessel out of styrofoam peanuts and goatskins, plopping it on the Pacific Ocean and pointing it in the direction of North America… which just so happens to be my current get-myself-home plan).

Should you be a luxury hotel lass like myself, I’d recommend you work your way slowly towards the big, bad world of budget accommodation. There’s no need to book yourself a bunk in a shared hostel dormitory right away. You’re going to need time (and, should you be over the age of twenty-five, possibly a time machine) to get yourself to the point where you’re willing to share your room with ten strangers.

After shelling out for super fancy hotel digs in Kuala Lumpur for a weekend (and, yes, room service was involved), I’ve been staying in a number of budget guesthouses all of varying degrees of budget.

For less than ten dollars a night, I stayed in what appeared to be a converted silo in the Cameron Highlands. While my room lacked amenities like air conditioning, a private bathroom and electrical sockets, it did have it’s very own, unique built-in entertainment system. The walls, which I imagined had probably been fashioned out of discarded cookie boxes, were so thin I could hear every word uttered or plastic bag crumbled in the neighboring rooms. Who needs cable TV when you can listen to your neighbors having intimate conversations… at three o’clock in the morning… in French?! (Followed by them waking up at six o’clock in the morning to pack away their collections of plastic bags).

I splurged a bit more while in Penang and opted for twenty-dollar-per-night rooms with air-conditioning, en suite bathrooms and walls made out of actual building materials.

After almost two weeks of AC and my own personal shower, I felt I was ready to re-enter the world of basic, budget, shared-bathroom accommodation. This weekend, I’m in a tiny, ten-dollar room at a backpackers’ guesthouse in Langkawi. The room’s furnishings include a single bed, an electric fan and a window which faces a small dark alley occupied by the dripping air conditioning unit of the neighboring “Kung Fu Live” Chinese seafood restaurant — which means my room reeks of mildewy dampness and, occasionally, sweet and sour shrimp.

Maybe it’s because I’ve gradually worked my way up (or… err, down) to this point, but I don’t seem to mind my dingy digs that much. My room is clean, the guesthouse staff is friendly and no one seems to care when I show up to breakfast in a tattered sarong and a baseball cap. (It’s no hotel bathrobe, mind you, but I’d like to think it’s a look I’m managing to pull off with a certain level of aplomb).

Bargain Bites

While I am a sucker for high class hotels, I’m more than happy to fill my gob with cheap eats. It helps that I have a palate that tends towards deep-fried and served-on-a-stick rather than refined and served-on-bone-china.

There is definitely no shortage of night markets and hawker centers where you can feast on the cheap in Malaysia. Not only can ordering your meal from a cart manned by a guy in a plastic apron covered in grease and goat blood be a money-saving experience, it can be also be a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

For example, at a night market in Penang, I dug into a plate of a popular dish called pasembur. It was piled high with deep-fried odds and ends covered in a thick gooey red sauce. The odds and ends turned out to be deep-fried fish sausages (the one and only thing on the planet that does not taste better after being deep-fried) and the sauce, I learned, is made from sweet potatoes, ground nuts and chili paste. Now, I ask you, when on Earth am I ever going to have that experience again?! (Please, dear God, I’m hoping never!).

Another way to eat on the cheap while on the go is to opt for self-catering. Wait, wait, don’t get too excited. While self-catering sounds fancy and like it might involve getting your very own hotel-room waiter who comes complete with a tray full of cocktail wieners and white wine spritzers, I assure you it is nothing nearly as exciting. Self-catering is just fancy travel-talk for grocery shopping. (Yeah, I know, ho-hum, right?!).

My usual self-catered “meal” consists of potato chips. For extra nutrition, I might add some fruit (or maybe a Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut bar… you know, for protein. After all, it’s important to keep your strength up while traveling!).

This week, since my guesthouse allows you to use their kitchen and fridge, I decided I’d attempt to buy a few healthy options for breakfast, so I stocked up on yogurt and Special K. This seemed like a good idea until I sat down to breakfast one morning across from my dining companion, a friendly, German girl I had met on my first day in Langkawi. Her breakfast consisted of a stack of chocolate chip pancakes with a side of Nutella. Let me just explain: these were CHOCOLATE CHIP PANCAKES… with NUTELLA. If heaven had a scent, it would smell like those pancakes. As she dug into her delightful, chocolatey breakfast, I eyed my tiny plastic yogurt spoon and wondered if I couldn’t use it to take her down and steal her pancakes.

Twopenny Transportation

Sure, public transportation is cheap in Southeast Asia, but you know what’s cheaper?


Walking is the best way to save some cash and work off a few of those Nutella pancakes you just ate (and, you know, get a jump start on your escape from the law after your new guesthouse friend calls the police on you for assaulting her with your yogurt spoon).

Plus, you get to have all kinds of experiences while walking to your destination that you might not otherwise have while cooped up on a bus.

While I was in Kuala Terengganu, I decided to hike the five kilometers from the city center to the city’s main attraction, the Taman Tamadun Islam Civilisation Park (the world’s only Islamic theme park!) rather than taking the tourist bus.

After trudging along for a couple hours, I accrued a whole host of experiences I never would have had while taking public transportation. For example, some fisherman invited me aboard their fishing boat (or at least I’m pretty sure that’s what they were doing through their series of hoots, wolf whistles and wild gesticulations in my direction). Although this was awful sweet of them, I declined their offer and carried on with my stroll.

I also received a number of honks from passing cars, a blister the size of a chihuahua on my left foot and a second-degree sunburn on my forehead. I ask you, when’s the last time you got a blister from sitting on the bus?! (Wait… nevermind. Don’t answer that).

Short on time (and sporting some seriously sore muscles and an oddly aching hip), I decided to grab the tourist bus back to the city after my time in the park. The bus cost me a whopping two ringgit — which is like seventy-five cents. Phew, it’s a good thing I saved myself the fare on the way going there! After all that’s seventy-five cents I can put towards my next deep-fried dinner or maybe hip replacement surgery.

The Unshopping Spree

One surefire way to save pennies while traveling is to stop buying souvenirs. After all, memories last a lifetime… and that handbag fashioned out of sequins and coconut shells won’t. Sure, it’s hard to resist the siren call of shiny, pretty things… especially when all those shiny, pretty things are so cheap (and made out of coconut shells!).

But you can easily resist the urge to shop until you drop, if you remember a few basic principles:

1. You don’t own a house. Your current “home” is a twenty-two inch carry-on bag. Last time you checked your luggage wasn’t in serious need of a pair of hand-carved, candle stick holders in the shape of the Hindu god of destruction.

2. You have hips the width of Texas. That floaty sundress the size of a handkerchief will never fit you. And if it does (by some miracle of man-made fabric), you still shouldn’t buy it… just saying.

3. Admit it. That adorable, silver pendant that you just picked up and are staring longingly at, and are telling everyone would make a perfect gift for your mother will never ever be handed over to your mother. You will keep it for yourself. When your mother compliments you on it, you will feel only a slight tinge of guilt… followed by a smile, after which you will say, “Thank you. I was going to buy you one… but they, uhh, ran out.”

What To Do When You’re Down & Out

The cost of museum admissions, group tours and day trips can really add up. As you plug the costs of all these excursions into your travel budget spreadsheet (or on to your beverage napkin… depending on how you like to do your calculations), it’s important to remember that the best things in life are free.

You know what’s also free?


That’s right — you can do absolutely nothing and it won’t cost you a dime!

Of course, it’s easiest to do nothing when you’re in a location that offers very little to do.

This Thursday, I arrived in Langkawi, a tropical island off the northwestern coast of Malaysia. The island houses a handful of waterfalls and caves, an aquarium, a cable car (which is closed at the moment), a couple wildlife and agricultural parks, a half-dozen duty-free shops and something called “The Field of Burnt Rice” (which one tourist brochure honestly describes as “a very, very low-key tourist attraction and it won’t be tragic if you miss it.”)

The number one attraction of Langkawi are the beaches, where you can lounge around and do nothing at all (or, if you’re like me, you’ll get a sunburn on your first day… making your dark guesthouse room your number one attraction).

Should you be one of those people that feels like you should actually be doing something while you’re traveling but still want to save some cash, I recommend signing up for the cheapest trip option possible. Usually there’s a reason why this trip is cheap — and that reason will remind you of all the benefits of doing absolutely nothing.

On Saturday, my new German friend and I signed up for a four-hour “Island Hopping” boat trip. The trip, which cost a mere eleven dollars, promised a chance to visit a freshwater lake, see eagles feeding and a stop at the “secluded beach” of Beras Basah Island.

What the brochure didn’t mention was that the freshwater lake was housed on the same island as a herd of roving, indignant monkeys, whose favorite activity was attacking tourists, particularly those carrying snacks and soda bottles. As soon as our boat landed at the dock of the island, the monkeys rapidly descended upon any tourist carrying a plastic bag full of goodies… or anyone smelling suspiciously of cookies.

Rather than spending a relaxing hour dangling my feet in the lake and snapping photos of the foliage, I spent the hour listening to the screams of my fellow tourists being attacked by monkeys and guarding my backpack with the ferocity of a pit bull.

What the brochure also didn’t mention was that the island-hopping tour is an incredibly popular tour (probably because it’s so cheap), so that at any given time there are about twenty boats packed full of twenty tourists doing the exact same tour. When we showed up at our last stop at the “secluded beach,” the beach was packed with approximately four hundred other “island hoppers” (not to mention a couple dozen monkeys). In addition to the throngs of tourists, a water sports company had set up a parasailing operation in the middle of the beach and jet skis zoomed off the shore.

As my friend and I sat on a beach mat trying to avoid monkey attack or being landed on by an errant parasailer, we watched the madding crowd.

While the scene was not idyllic, it was definitely entertaining.

Children were screaming and splashing and building sand castles. Big groups of adults lounged in the shallow end of the water. Families were picnicking on potato chips and dried squid as monkeys looked on (and waited to pounce). A girl in a skimpy bikini practiced her model posing as her boyfriend snapped countless photos of her. An elderly gentleman dangling from the parasail whooped and swung his legs gleefully as he was lifted abruptly in the air. A middle-aged Chinese woman walked by wearing a bright, purple t-shirt that read “Buy More Heroin”.

Yes, sometimes the best things in life are free…. and sometimes they only cost eleven dollars.


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On January 19, 2012 at 6:23 am TG said:

    Wonderful UG. I so liked it 🙂

  2. On January 20, 2012 at 3:34 am Divya Anand said:

    In love with your posts !!! So much to learn…. 😀


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