A Year in Asia: Dollars and Sense

A Year in Asia: Dollars and Sense

Stay tuned for next week’s Part II of our Dollars and Sense Year 1 Review: Why Budgeting for Long-Term Travel is Stupid.

As we visited 109 cities in 15 Asian countries, we wondered: how much is this costing us?   $36,524.  $3,045/month.  $100.09/day.  Overall, in costs, places and experiences we went above and beyond expectations.

This took two of us to the eastern half of Asia minus Mongolia and Russia, a total of 15 countries and 109 cities.  Admittedly we did too much, moved too fast, and spared very few expenses when it came to sightseeing.  Conversely, we saved massive amounts by staying in hostels and preferring street food, but opened our wallets on 18 flights, mostly involving literal or political islands (North Korea, South Korea, and Myanmar, which have closed land borders).  We did not use any reward points, miles or other “travel hacking” methods; we paid cash for everything we did.





As you can see North Korea and Tibet were our most expensive “trips”, costing us almost $6500 for 15 days of travel. These were highlights of the year and we do not regret a cent we spent on these trips.  Note that we separated Tibet from China as it would have substantially skewed our China travel costs.

The costs for Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan costs are artificially low due to free lodging through Couchsurfing, family and friends.  For more information on the per country costs see “Behind the Country Numbers” at the bottom of this page.




By far the largest expense was transportation (airfare and ground transportation), a whopping 31% of our spending.  Of course, without transportation there would be no travel, so it’s a necessary evil.

We took 18 flights during the year, at an average cost of $211 per flight, per person.  While many travelers have been brainwashed into thinking that airline miles and reward points are the only way to travel, the costs demonstrate otherwise.  Simply put, flying discount airlines makes travel easier and more flexible at a negligible cost.  Discount airlines neither requires scheduling months in advance to get a seat nor using a hub-and-spoke model sending you on unnecessary flights; discount airlines allow you to book a week in advance and fly direct, often for $100 per flight (learn how we save money booking flights).  We would not have been able to travel to the places we did, travel when we wanted, or enjoy the amazing experiences we did if we hadn’t bought tickets as we needed them.


“Gear” was another anomaly that is probably not typical of other travelers.  The majority of this cost was new camera lenses ($2100) and travel/medical insurance ($1400).

“Entertainment” is the cost for nights out, it can be translated into beer.




Overall we’re happy with what we spent.  Taking out North Korea, Tibet and gear, our per day cost was inline with what we had “hoped” to spend.  The reality though is we didn’t have a set budget, we weren’t attempting to maintain daily spending limits; we focused on doing what we wanted, having once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and taking opportunities as they arose.



While I would love to believe that the best things in life are free or our experiences are priceless, the reality is that travel isn’t free.  Without even addressing the lost wages from skipping a year of work, the costs are real.  The key lesson from last year: experiences are way more valuable than expenditures.  We made the most of our year by focusing on our wealth of time and the fact that the cost of returning to do something dwarfs the cost of doing it while you’re there.

I’ll expand on the true value of our last year and the benefits of traveling without a budget next week in Dollars and Sense Year 1 Review: Why Budgeting for Long-Term Travel is Stupid.




Visitors to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan should expect to spend more than we did.  Most of the nights in these countries we Couchsurfed, thereby saving accommodation costs which ran $30-50/day for hostel dorm rooms, or up to $100/day for private rooms.  Couchsurfing made the experience of visiting these countries much richer (read about our Couchsurfing Experiences).

Singapore is not the cheapest place to visit in Asia! It was our “cheapest” country because we stayed with family, ate with family, and were taken care of by our aunties, uncles and cousins.  If we actually paid for meals and lodging of the quality we enjoyed we would have probably spent at least $400/day.

In Hong Kong we were hosted by a friend, but the savings we may have enjoyed due to free lodging was spent on enjoying the nightlife.

The Philippines and Cambodia suffered from transportation costs.  In Cambodia we toured the country by motorcycle, which cost more than taking buses.  The Philippines required flights between islands and a short time (3 weeks), if we had stayed longer the flight costs would have been spread over more days, thereby reducing the per day cost.

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» Donna :
Feb 7, 2012

Ha! You had me there for a minute … I was looking at the drinks total and thinking “wow, they really did find cheap beer!” Until I got down to your explanation that entertainment really reflected the beer! :-) Still $1300 for a year for two certainly isn’t bad, eh? But your trip is more than sightseeing … the copious notes you’ve got to be taking to summarize your expenses, not to mention all the places you’ve seen and the details you’ve written … w-a-a-y beyond my comprehension. I know how much money I’ve got to spend and once it’s cash, it’s spent on whatever! At the end I still know how much I’ve spent, but could never tell you how much of that went for beer!

Hope you’re having a great time with your folks … am getting frequent and interesting emails from your dad and trying to figure out Dropbox with your mom! Have fun! Wish I were there! Toby sends a big wet kiss and says to get home so he can meet you! He’s not very patient. :-)


LOCAVORista Reply:

Donna, yeah I suppose the “entertainment” heading somewhat conceals our true expenses. It’s pretty interesting to see where all the money goes. Wish you were here to share a beer with you. Give Toby a nice scratch behind the ears from us.

» Christina :
Apr 4, 2012

A great post. Definitely India is worth exploring. Many of my friends have been on tours to India and they also share their great experiences.

LOCAVORista Reply:

Christina, Thanks for the link and comment. India is truly an experience and definitely worth exploring, we’ll be spending four months here all together.

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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