If you're looking for maximum value for your next vacation, Asia is your best bet! It's one of the cheapest, and most rewarding areas you can explore in the world, once you get past the pricey airline ticket. With so many different countries and cultures to visit, I find myself going back to Asia time and time again.
If you want to see as much of Asia as possible, it's essential that you budget well and make sure you save in as many ways as possible, namely on your biggest expense, airfare. Luckily I have a few tips and tricks up my sleeve.
Whether you're travelling to Japan to see the cherry blossoms, or planning an epic three-month backpacking adventure through South East Asia, with stops in Thailand, Bali, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the key to maximizing any Asian adventure is getting the most out of your money. Asia is an area ripe with tourist scams and rip-off tours, so if you want to plan your trip right, here's some advice.
I can't count how many times I've read that buying tickets three months before you travel, or on a Tuesday, or at midnight, will help you get the best deal possible on your flight. Well, it's a myth! If you really want the best deal, don't wait until three months before. The second you know you want to travel, book your tickets.
I normally buy my plane tickets as soon as they become available, which depending on the airline, is one year in advance. I know, not everyone is able to do that with work constraints etc, but the sooner the better, always! If you're the first to book on a popular route, they're normally the cheapest available.
That's because prices just keep going up and up for in-demand routes. There is always the possibility of a sale, or a dip in price, but the price for flights to Asia consistently increase over time. If you see a route you like, at a price you can afford, don't wait! Monitor it with Google Flights and see how it slowly creeps up, getting more and more expensive with each week that passes.
What goes hand in hand with booking early, is booking with flexibility. If you are travelling for a wedding, or you have a limited number of days off work, your hands are likely tied. But if not, choosing your departure and return dates based on the day when flight tickets are cheapest in order to potentially save hundreds of dollars.
Most airline booking websites, my favorite being Google Flights, will show you a calendar view of the month you'd like to travel, with the lowest price available on each day in that month. You can use this to scan months, pick a season or time that suits your budget, then narrow in and choose your specific dates. The more flexible you are, the easier it is to save money.
The absolute best way to save money when travelling to Asia is to go during low season. However, you won't have the same experience you would if you travelled during the continent's peak.
Asia experiences pretty heavy rainfall during its low season, which makes it not only unpleasant for tourists, but on some days downright uninhabitable. If you're open to daily rainfall, then you can not only save hundreds on flight tickets, but you'll also save on discounted hotels and food. Everything increases in price during peak season, and drops drastically during low season since there are so few tourists. Rainy season, or low season, varies from country to country but is mainly between October and December.
I love layovers! There are so many possibilities with a nice long layover (24 hours or more) and it can really help you explore more of the beautiful continent.
For one, long layovers drastically cut down the cost of a flight ticket because everyone wants either a direct flight or the fastest route.
Secondly, I prefer the motto, it's not about the destination it's about the journey. For example, if you're travelling to Bali, but you're flying with China Eastern (one of the cheapest airlines you can get) you can find a flight that will allow you to spend some time in China first. You'll get to visit another county, and you'll be able to break up the long monotonous flight from North America to South East Asia.
By booking in advance, we even had our room in China compensated since the airline changed our flight several months before departure.
If you travel often, or long distances, you absolutely must get a frequent flyer card for the corresponding airline alliance you'll be flying with. For example, I live in Canada so I fly with Air Canada often, which is part of Star Alliance. Whenever I fly with an airline that's part of Star Alliance (like United, Air China, Air India, Singapore Airlines etc.) I can collect points towards free flights in the future, and I open myself up to the possibility of getting upgrades.
Getting a frequent flyer number is easy and free. Sometimes I do it while I'm waiting in line to check in at the airport it's that easy! I have a frequent flyer membership with all the major airline alliances, and thank god I do, because I was able to get a pair of free tickets for my honeymoon thanks to saving up my points, and I even got a free upgrade thanks to using my frequent flyer number at checkin.
When you walk off the plane, you need to mentally prepare yourself for potential scams and harassment. It's not only Asia, of course, there are scammers across Europe and Africa and South America just the same, but it's important to be extra vigilant.
They will see your backpack or your suitcase, and offer to help. There are lots of travel agencies selling the same tours, and they know if they are able to get you inside their doors before you have a chance to shop around they can double their prices.
We were ignorant enough to think we were making the right decision to book all our hotels, buses and transfers in a travel agency minutes after we landed in Thailand, but boy were we wrong. Give yourself time, don't feel bad saying no, and do your homework, otherwise you could be scammed out of hundreds of dollars.
When you walk up to a hotel or hostel without a reservation, the receptionist could choose what to charge you whatever she wants, and you'd be none the wiser. Communication is limited in Asia, and miscommunication is high! But if you check online, numbers are universal, and you should be able to get a good idea of what a room's value is before you check in or book.
I love to go with the flow and book my accommodation last minute, after I get a feel of which areas I like and where I want to spend most of my time, but be careful. You could end up paying more just for booking at the front desk instead of online, where there's always perks and discounts.
It's tempting to want to be right in the heart of the action. It's fun to look out your window and see the neon lights of the big city, but it'll cost you.
Asia is crowded, that's an obvious fact. If you want to stay in the city, you have no bargaining chips at your disposal. You and a million other people are fighting over the same room. If you venture out and find a nice place several blocks or train stations away, you'll save so much money. Enough to cover you for a few extra nights, at least!
Plus, when you stay farther away from the city or tourist centre, you get to explore more, and that's when you'll find the area's hidden gems and best bars and restaurants, so it's really to your advantage.
I have a bad habit of always saying "your hotel", but if you really want to save, stay at a hostel instead. If you're hoping to explore and make friends while you travel, all while saving money, a hostel is the place for you. By sharing your room with other travellers, you dramatically cut down on costs. Plus, some hostels are completely free for those willing to clean the bathrooms or work while they stay.
If you're reluctant to share a space with someone, or you don't want to give up the comforts of housekeeping, then maybe a hostel isn't for you. But if you can do away with the luxuries of a double bed and a private bathroom, you will actually be able to experience some of the most fun and unique places to stay in the city.
Like the popular Book and Bed in Tokyo, some hostels are attractions in and of themselves.
If you're high maintenance, maybe Asia isn't for you, because some of the best food you'll eat, and some of the best food in the world, is sold on the streets. There are countless kiosks, stands and street carts selling local specialities. If you follow your nose and give them a try, you'll be surprised at what good quality the food actually is.
In most Asian areas, there are open air markets with fresh produce available, as well as several vendors selling prepared fish, Pad Thai, pancakes, you name it! I've had sushi on the street, we've seen people eating crickets or scorpions (which is more a tourist novelty than a reflection of an authentic Asian diet) and I had the most surprising and best Shawarma all on Asian streets. (And no, none of it made me sick!)
Asia has some of the best food in the world. Anything from street food to snacks at the corner store to a five star dining experience, Asian cuisine does not disappoint. Those delicious desserts and smoothies and sushi and fresh fish all come with a hefty price tag. After airfare and hotels, most of your money goes into food and drink.
If you're the type of person to eat with your eyes, and buy everything that interests you, not only will you roll your way back home after all the weight you gained, but you'll bust your budget as well.
Try not to have more than one sit down meal in a day and try not to splurge at too many nice restaurants. There is so much delicious food to eat so you can enjoy yourself at any budget.
Practice bargaining in the mirror before you leave if you need to, because you'll absolutely need some serious negotiation skills anywhere you visit in Asia.
If you're a spender, or someone that likes to go home with a bag full of souvenirs, you can save hundreds of dollars if you're a strong bargainer. Anything you buy, across all the major areas of Asia, will have a price tag that is up for negotiation.
There's an expression you'll hear during your travels, "same same, but different." In each major city you'll have the same stock, give or take, in each store front. There might be slight differences, and the clerk will always try to explain that theirs is different or better, but you will see the same sort of style over and over. That gives you the power to walk away and find what you want somewhere else. Use that to your advantage and you'll head home with some amazing deals.
Since everything is the "same same, but different," once you see something you like, it's easy to get excited and want to bargain for it right away. Retrospectively, all those impulse purchases will be your most expensive.
Give yourself time to look around, and time to figure out what the going rate is. Then you can go back and buy whatever it is you wanted. I made the mistake of buying all my souvenir soap flowers at the first kiosk I went to, only to realize that what I thought was a great deal was really several dollars more than the kiosk just a few feet away. If only I'd waited!
Of course, if you see something perfect and you have to have it right away, at least keep a poker face and bargain as much as possible. But in all other cases, just remember that you'll find it again later, and you'll likely even find something better.
There are two types of taxis in Asia, those that run the meter and those that charge you whatever they want at the end of your ride. Of course, the meter taxis will save you a lot of money over the course of your trip.
Before getting into a taxi, you need to ask them to run the meter. Many of them will refuse, and you can let them drive away and find another sucker to scam. There are legitimate taxi drivers willing to run the meter, but you need to ask each time you get into a taxi.
At many airports, there will be someone at the taxi line to pay upfront before you enter your taxi. He'll likely charge whatever he deems fit given the season and time of day (rush or slow), and if you're lucky enough to get a taxi with a meter running from the airport, you'll easily save ten to twenty dollars!
There are ways to save on taxis, like running the meter, but the best way to save on transport in and around Asia is to avoid taxis altogether. Depending on which city you visit, there will be Tuk Tuks, trains, buses, ferries, a metro system and lots of ways to get where you want to go for as little as possible.
For example, there's a long line of people waiting for expensive taxis after their plane lands. Well, skip that line and head to the metro or train line connected to the airport. If you're in Singapore, that'll be the Maglev, which is an attraction in and of itself (going at speeds of more than 300 kilometres an hour).
By getting a bus pass or metro card, you'll explore more of the city and avoid expensive and unreliable cabs.
For anyone travelling around Asia, hopping from one country to the next, buses are the way to go. A bus ticket might cost you ten dollars while an airplane ticket could be upwards of $100. Of course, the bus will be a lot longer, but at least in my case, the bus ride was part of the experience. I got to see more of the country and it was the time when I interacted with locals the most.
If you're crunched for time, planes may be the best option, but if your budget is a top priority, you have to book a bus instead of a flight, especially when travelling internationally. The ride from Thailand to Cambodia was comically long, and full of ridiculous obstacles, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
If you're travelling to multiple Asian countries at once, make sure you have all the exchange rates settled in your mind. If you get them mixed up, you could end up buying something really expensive without realizing it.
During one of my trips to Asia, we were visiting Bali, Singapore and Shanghai, and we unfortunately miscalculated the exchange rates in Singapore and especially China since we were used to the inexpensive Indonesian currency.
100 Thai Baht is $3 US - 20,000 Cambodian Riel is $5 US (but they accept and prefer USD, so don't exchange) - 15,000 Indonesian Rupiah is $1 US - 70 Indian Rupees are $1 US - 23,000 Vietnamese Dong is $1 US - 8,500 Loatian Lip is $1 US - 110 Japanese Yen is $1 US - 20 Chinese Yuan is $3 US - 4 Singapore Dollars are worth $3 US
Confused yet? If you memorize the exchange rates, you'll be able to bargain better and avoid overspending due to mixed up math!
The best things in life are free, and once you arrive in Asia, that motto rings true. You don't need to spend money on activities everyday when you're surrounded by some of the world's nicest beaches. Just bring a blanket (don't take a chair or it will cost you) and swim to your heart's content in one of the many free beaches open to tourists.
There's a lot of action in Asia, and a lot of beautiful and rich history to learn, but between your jam-packed exploration and education days, reward yourself with a relaxing beach day and it'll give your wallet a rest as well. Don't cram your vacation with a million things to cross off your bucket list and ignore what the continent has to offer naturally.
The best way to over spend on an Asian vacation is to book too many activities and organized tours to places you could visit on your own. There are so many beautiful places to visits and areas to explore where you don't need to spend much or any money at all. If you spend most of your trip in a tour bus, you'll miss a lot of what makes these countries beautiful and authentic, and you'll spend a lot more money doing it.
Limit your activities to those you can't do on your own, including the country's gorgeous temples. There's nothing better than walking through an Asian temple as your own pace, without a guide or a group to follow. Go where you like, spend only what you need to enter, and enjoy the experience on your own terms.
There are some attractions that require a tour guide or at least a Tuk Tuk, like Siam Riep, but by cutting back on organized tours, you can go at your own pace and save money.
My best advice for anyone travelling as a couple is to pretend it's your honeymoon. It's a magical card to play and it can help you get reservations are restaurants, hotel upgrades, free souvenirs, and lots of free food and drinks.
Asia is a great place for a honeymoon, but there aren't that many couples there celebrating. It's not like Vegas for a bachelorette (where there are so many that no one cares to give you any perks) or Europe for honeymooners, where you might get a smile, but not much else.
The staff and people across Asia are so friendly and helpful, if you tell them it's your honeymoon or birthday, they will go above and beyond to make you feel special. I'll be honeymooning for the rest of my life, and I'll never get tired of the free "Congratulations" cake!