Coming back to the states was a strange feeling. I didn’t want to come back… at all honestly. But there were a few reasons I felt I had to. The first was the two of my incredibly inspiring and amazing friends were about to have a bad-ass wedding in Denver (and who wouldn’t use any excuse to go to Denver, right?). The second, and the reason I ended up returning to the States earlier than expected, was to surprise my mom. After FaceTiming her one day in Thailand, tears welling up in her eyes when she could barely get out an “I miss you,” I knew how much it would mean to her for me to come back home, even if for just a little bit.
So back to the States I went. From Indonesia, to Singapore, to Malaysia, to Thailand, to Cambodia, to Laos, back to Thailand, to China, to Japan, and eventually made it back to the US. Around 4pm on the day I was arriving, I was sitting in the Atlanta airport, on the phone with my mom, explaining to her how it was 4am where I was “in Vietnam” and how I couldn’t sleep. Needless to say, the surprise was a MAJOR success. Check out the video below:
After the surprise excitement settled in, and I slept a few hundred hours to readjust, I managed to start going out to my old stomping grounds and seeing the friends I had missed so much over the previous six months. But what started happening next was what I was definitely not prepared for.
“We’re so glad you’re back!”
“How was it?!”
“The pictures looked amazing!”
“How long are you here for?”
“What was your favorite place?”
But all of those led to one specific question…
“How did you afford to do all that?!”
To me, this question was so beyond absurd. People in the States treat money as such taboo. Never ask how much someone paid for their house. Never ask how much someone is making at their job. Never ask how much someone has in savings. But somehow… SOMEHOW…. this question just rolled off people’s tongues like it was nothing. And honestly, it drew me back every single time.
You know what they say when you assume… Don’t be an ass.
I’m a pretty open person if you want the truth. So I had no problem answering this for anyone that asked. But it was the assumptions of how I am affording my year of full-time travel that blew me away. So I figured since this was such a common question amongst my friends and followers, I’d clear the air and explain how traveling the world DOESN’T HAVE TO BE EXPENSIVE!!
Let’s power through the major assumptions first.
1. “Oh wow, your dad must have left you a ton of money.”
This one genuinely pissed me off, but no offense to those of you that said/thought this. It’s just, my dad passing away had nothing to do with me affording this. Did I inherit something after his passing? Yes. Was it a lot? Hell no. Did most of it go to paying for my $5k 20-year old Jeep wrangler almost two years ago? Yes. So that’s been long gone. But also all I want to say to that is it’s none of your business. The only thing my dad left me that “got me through my journey” is the sense of adventure and belief in myself. Meaning it all would have happened regardless. In fact, if he was still with us, he would have been the one to push me the most to do what I’m doing.
2. “Your mom helped you afford a lot of it, right?”
Again, no. Did she push me to do it? Yes. Even when I was terrified of leaving after getting accepted to the sea turtle program, she comforted me as I cried that I couldn’t leave my dogs and cat for that long. So actually, let me take that back that she didn’t help me. She is THE MOST incredible mom in the whole world, that even when I told her I was thinking about turning it down because I didn’t want to leave my dogs and cat, she not only told me I HAD to go, but that she would make sure my dogs and cat were even more loved while I was gone. So she saved me money by being a free (and much willing) dog/cat sitter… I guess that counts for affording it then? Either way, dumb question.
Oh and my absolute favorite one, sent to me in a just wonderfully entertaining text message from a “close” relative (and I say “close” because while we’re VERY closely related, this relative obviously doesn’t know me well at all)…
3. “We all know you have a rich guy in Indonesia who paid for you to go there and is taking all your pictures for you. Just stop lying to us. It’s enough.”
The second I got this text message while I was in Indonesia (take note: I was surrounded by six of my female friends and ZERO dudes), I hysterically started laughing and proceeded to show my GIRL friends the lengthy ridiculous text. I had been in Indonesia for two weeks at this point, and the only interactions I had with men were:
- my driver from the airport who spoke zero English
- the employees of the conservation I was working for (again, most not speaking English)
- the random server at a restaurant who took photos of me and my girl friends for us.
Ah, shit, I guess the rich guy in Indonesia they were talking about HAD to have been the server I had just met. Damnit. But seriously, if any rich Indonesians want to sponsor me on a trip back to my little island, let me know haha 😉
What really pissed me off about all of this is not a single person took a moment to think, “Oh shit, Paige has been working as a marketing producer for a company in Boca for almost five years, making closer to six figures yearly, and hustling on the side to always make extra money.” Not a single person took a moment to think, “Oh wow, Paige just called off her wedding of which she had paid for on her own (since the deal with the ex was that he paid for the down payment on the house) and she got most of the money back that she had put down on everything.”
Because wouldn’t those be the obvious assumptions?
Problem is, people just want to have an excuse for why they CAN’T do what you’re doing. People want to have a reason why it would never work for them. For why THEY have just settled into a life they may be unhappy in. So they look for reasons from you that are so beyond real life to give them some sort of satisfaction that you weren’t a badass woman that managed to save a good amount of money and researched how to backpack Asia for cheap… then actually did it.
It was the perfect time for my adventure… mentally and financially
But what I’m here to tell you is it’s totally possible for you to do it. What you have to decide is if it’s the right time for YOU.
It was the PERFECT time for me. Why? I had just called off a wedding. With that, I had just moved out of our house and was living on my mom’s (or any friend that would take me) couch. The company I was with had just sold and became even more horrendous than it already was. And I had ZERO debt. So once more:
- No financial responsibility to a house/apartment
- No financial responsibility to a car payment (I paid for my car in cash a year before. It was a little over $5,000. Chill.)
- No financial responsibility with human children (I had food automatically delivered every two weeks for my animals to my mom’s house—shout out to Chewy.com—and Venmo’d her for any additional needs.)
- No responsibility to a standard 9-5 job
- No financial responsibility to outstanding school loans (I had 100% scholarships to both my universities.)
- No credit card debt
So if you’re reading this, while I’m sure you might have at least one of these, it is possible to work around them. However, I’m no financial advisor so find out how to solve those elsewhere. I’m just here to tell you how to travel INEXPENSIVELY once the time for you is right (and responsible).
The Cost Breakdown of Traveling Southeast Asia
First, let’s talk about the plane ticket over to Indonesia, since this was the second most expensive item on my trip. The one-way flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia was around $450. Not too bad honestly. But also, not money that I wanted to spend.
For the last 4-5 years, I have been purchasing EVERY. SINGLE. THING. I buy with my Chase Sapphire credit card. I never spent above my means, which means I was able to pay it off almost every month. I was strictly using it like a debit card, but racking up points along the way. So many points in fact, that I could have flown around the world a few times for free. So, instead of spending that $450, I used points. My bank account thanked me. And not a dollar was spent.
Once I was over there, my housing and all meals for almost two months were paid for by the conservation program I was with. Not that this would have mattered much, however. I moved into an adorable little place (that was much nicer) with a girl friend of mine for a majority of the time I was on Nusa Penida… for $50 USD A WEEK! Read that again…. FIFTY DOLLARS PER WEEK. That’s $200 a month. Not $2000 like I would have likely been spending if I had stayed in the States and rented a place alone, with internet, water, and electric. As well, meals were the equivalent of $5USD max if I did decide to eat out at one of my favorite restaurants on the island.
Once I knew I had to leave Indonesia (my visa had expired so I had to leave to avoid any major fines from the Indonesian government), I searched for flights. The best part of SE Asia? You can travel anywhere for next to nothing. I’m not kidding. Here’s how my flights/travel throughout the rest of SE Asia broke down:
- Flight from Bali, Indonesia > Singapore: $20 USD
- Flight from Singapore > Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: $22 USD
- Bus ride from KL, Malaysia > Cameron Highlands, Malaysia: $9 USD
- Bus ride from Cameron Highlands > Penang, Malaysia: $11 USD
- Flight from Penang, Malaysia > KL > Krabi, Thailand: $23 USD
- Flight from Krabi, Thailand > Chiang Mai, Thailand: $50 USD (By far the most expensive flight within SE Asia since it was booked really REALLY last minute, and a longer route)
- Overnight train from Chiang Mai, Thailand > Bangkok: $30 USD
- Bus from Bangkok > Siem Reap, Cambodia: $10 USD
- Travel throughout Cambodia (through single ticket with company): $30 USD
- Bus from Cambodia > Don Khong, Laos: $9 USD
- Flight from Champasak, Laos > Luang Prabang, Laos: $20 USD
- Travel throughout northern Laos (through single ticket with company): $22 USD
- Overnight train from Vientiane, Laos > Bangkok, Thailand: $30 USD
That’s it. So what I’m telling you is the MOST expensive flight/train/bus I booked my entire time in SE Asia was $50 USD. FIFTY dollars. That’s what it takes to fill up my gas tank on a more expensive day. And I had just traveled through six countries. On top of that, please know that I was definitely living a lavish life out there. So I could have gotten many of those trips for a bit cheaper if I had either booked ahead of time or booked odd hour or red-eye flights.
This is where you yourself have to find your comfortability in order to save a ton. While really nice all-inclusive resorts in Asia are wildly cheaper than in the states (I’m talking maybe $150 a night for what would be at least a $600 a night hotel in the states—EXCEPT for Singapore. Singapore is expensive.), they’re still expensive. I promised myself that I would not spend over $20 a night for a room, and aimed to stay under $10 a night. This was MUCH easier than I expected, but with flexibility.
I figured out that I could stay in hostels for about 5-6 nights, then I would splurge on a “reset” hotel room for some privacy and repacking. Hostels ranged from $4-11 USD a night, so this was perfect. And the most I spent on a hotel… $20 a night… for a private suite, with a balcony over the main strip, and a rooftop infinity pool. Totally worth it. This means I was spending an average of $180-200 a month on rooms, which obviously included electricity, water, and cable, and often included laundry and breakfast. MUCH better than the $1500+ a month I was used to paying in the states.
However, remember what I said about this being a major area where you have to find your own level of comfortability. Hostels are not always nightmares. I had the best night’s sleep of my life at a hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. One of the best and biggest and cleanest showers I had ever been in was in a hostel I ended up staying in for over a week. They’re not always as terrifying as movies like The Hostel make them out to be. But, with that, DO read reviews and know what you want. Party hostel or peaceful? Close to the city center or a little farther away? More amenities or cheaper pricing? Just go in with an open mind, know that not every situation is going to be ideal, and that you’re paying next to nothing to have the time of your life, not sleep in your hotel room all day. I never slept more than four hours the entire time I was on the go, mainly because I was simply just too excited and had a serious case of FOMO in every new city or country I was in. Think of it as simply a bed. If it’s clean with no bed bugs and in a walkable area, it’s good in my books.
FOOD & ALCOHOL
Simple as this: food in Asia is cheap. SUPER cheap. Like $1 USD for a massive plate of pretty incredible food. But again, open mind here. Some of the best food I had was from street vendors with no gloves on. Trust me on this, leave your germophobia at home and you’ll eat some of the best tasting food you’ll ever have in your life. With that, I couldn’t get myself to eat a bug. Sorry. I just couldn’t.
Oh alcohol. How I LOVED learning how much I didn’t need you. I’m not that much of a drinker in the States, honestly. I do love a good beer and a good glass of whiskey, but I rarely RARELY over drink. Real reason: I get full within two beers, so I simply just don’t get drunk, therefore wasting a ton of money along the way.
In Asia, alcohol is just as expensive. No, a beer isn’t $7-10 USD. However, in comparison, alcohol is really expensive for what locals make an hour over there, which is why in Indonesia you’ll hear a lot about Arak, their homemade liquor. It tastes like gasoline and doesn’t get you drunk if you have a high tolerance, so take my word and don’t even bother. If you do decide to buy a cocktail, be ready to buy at least four to make the equivalent of just one back in the States. Many of the countries in Asia have different regulations for liquor, which means that much of the liquor you may be getting will be a lot weaker than your shot of rum you have back in the States.
So buying alcohol or drinks was mostly out of the question. While I did love a good Bintang or Chang, I ended up drinking a ton of water. Perks of this? Saved a TON of money AND lost a TON of weight. Tricks of the trade, ladies and gentlemen.
Now, let’s take a look at a low-end day VS a high-end day of spending during my months living in SE Asia:
Room and Board: $4
Food: less than $5 (with free breakfast)
Travel: less than $5 (averaged out)
Total = less than $14 USD
Room and Board: $20
Total = $40 USD
This means, on average, I was spending around $500 a month, give or take. And I was LIVING life. I was doing every single tour I wanted (mainly booked through hostels for free if I volunteered to help out or bargained to get them very cheap), was getting a massage every single day (they cost less than $5USD), and eating the best food I could find. So over six months, that’s only $3,000 USD.
Let me put that in even more perspective for you. An average meal where I am from in the states can be $15 USD plus tip. A cheap beer is $5. Gas for the week can be around $40. Add in rent and utilities at a modest $1200 a month. That’s roughly $2500 A MONTH if you are eating breakfast at home, and not including groceries.
In the two months after I came back from SE Asia, I had spent MORE than the entire six months I was traveling. And I had no rent, no car payment, and my only major bills were cell phone and car insurance. That blew my mind the most.
American health insurance is a joke
Last important thing, health insurance in the States is a bigger joke than I actually realized. I had insurance through my job the last ten years, but when I left my last position, I had to start looking into plans that would work for me. That’s when I realized how expensive and insane it all is. $250 a month for me was apparently a steal?!! Oh, and good luck finding someone good in network on that plan. I stopped looking, and honestly just crossed my fingers nothing bad happened.
But when I left, I got travelers insurance. For six months, I paid $200. That’s it. And practically EVERYTHING was covered: lost baggage, delayed flight, hospital visit, tsunami evacuation, even helicopter lift if I was hurt. All for $200. Was I worried I’d have to battle them for the reimbursement IF something did happen? Of course. But that’s where my fun story in a Thai emergency room comes in.
During all the running around with water guns during Thai New Year, I somehow scratched my eye… bad. Bright red, swollen shut for almost a week bad. I kept putting it off, but finally had to go to the emergency room when it got worse. Scary experience, right?
Not. At. All. The hospital was the cleanest, most professional hospital I’ve ever been in! I was seen within five minutes of checking in with an optometrist, got a full eye exam of both eyes, was handed a medicated drop for my eye, and was given the phone number of the doctor directly in case I had issues, all for $20USD.
Not only that, but I was reimbursed immediately after returning to the states by my traveler’s insurance with zero questions asked (apart from sending them the hospital receipt and doctor’s name).
In the most Rob Schneider way ever…
The one thing I tell everyone is that it’s been cheaper for me to travel abroad than to stay put in the States, and honestly it’s the truth. Even if I’m spending a couple hundred dollars for a ticket to get to a country, if I stay there long enough, that money is earned back in how much I’m saving on a daily basis.
So no, I don’t have some rich man paying for everything for me (although, I’m taking applications). No, my parents did not help me financially. Yes, I worked my ass off and saved every dollar I had in a private account knowing I was going to need to escape the relationship I was in. And yes, I researched like crazy to make sure I was spending as little money as I could.
My whole point to this way too long blog post is that you can do it, and I hate hearing my friends say they can’t, or they’re jealous, or whatever it might be. It’s possible; you just have to want it bad enough.
And I wanted it bad enough.