Credit and Debit Cards: Transaction Fees
- Many Visa, MasterCard, and American Express cards charge a 2-3% foreign transaction fee for any purchase made in another currency. Those fees can add up fast if you're spending an extended period of time way from home.
- Paying in cash, and therefore withdrawing money from ATMs, is generally the best way to go, because the exchange rates are better than when exchanging cash or traveler's checks, and many places won't accept plastic. However, watch out for fees. Your bank may charge you an ATM fee any time you use an ATM that is not associated with your bank. In addition, most ATMs also charge their own fees. So, you'll often get charged two fees each time you withdraw money from an ATM that is not your bank's. This can mean $5 or more in fees each time you withdraw cash.
How We're Paying for Things as We Travel
- Both of our banks that we use in the US fall into the category described above (two ATM fees every time we withdraw money from an ATM that's not ours), so we found a bank that not only does not charge you for using an ATM that isn't theirs, but also refunds up to $15 of other ATMs' fees per month (which allows us several transactions per month without paying any fees). I've heard of a few banks that offer this; we chose First Command Bank.
- We also opened a savings account with First Command, which accrues a tiny bit of interest, and we can transfer money easily between the savings and checking accounts.
- First Command also offers a Visa card without any foreign transaction fees, so we got one of those as well. We accrue points that we can later redeem for flights, hotels, etc.
- We've been taking cash out at ATMs every week or two and paying for pretty much everything with that. We've found that the countries we've visited so far much prefer cash to plastic, especially because we're staying in smaller hotels, eating at small restaurants, and buying the occasional snack on the street.
We didn't sit down and draw up a full budget with our intended expenses for housing, food, transportation, and so on, and we decided not to meticulously track our expenditures, as that would quickly get tiring and add unneeded stress to our travels. At the same time, however, we don't have unlimited funds, and we're interested to see what we're spending (and to make sure we'll have enough to get through the year), so we'll be checking our bank and credit card statements after every country and trying to make the most accurate calculation of what we spent. Based on what we've read in guidebooks and heard from other travelers, and taking into account our financial situation, we've set a goal for ourselves of living on around $60 per person per day, attempting to travel for the whole year on under $25,000 per person. For comparison, this is probably less than half of what we normally spend in DC, but of course we won't be making any money this year. Also it feels very different to pay for everything in cash, and to pay for housing and food daily, instead of once or twice a month. Having to make frequent trips to the ATM, and parting with cash for every expense (instead of auto-paying bills and large credit card statements paid with invisible bank transfers) definitely makes it feel like we are spending more money, even if we're not. Maybe we will take that lesson home with us as a money-saving strategy!
What We've Spent by Country
Below we've described our expenses per country. Keep in mind that since we're on the road for a year, these expenses include everything we need to pay for while we're traveling: not only food, hotels, transportation, visas, tours, and entrance fees, but also toiletries, any gear that we may need, haircuts, visits to the doctor, classes, etc.
Colombia can be a pretty inexpensive country. Decent accommodations for two people with a shared bath can be had for $25/night (a bed for one in a shared dorm-style room would usually only set you back $10/night). Meals can be very cheap ($1-3), especially if purchased from street vendors or cheaper restaurants with a set 'meal of the day' (a filling, 3-course meal), or cooked in your hostel with food bought from the market. A 3-hour bus ride would generally set you back about $3-10, while a longer bus ride (15+ hours) could cost upwards of $50. We treated ourselves to comfortable accommodations in Cartagena, as well as a domestic flight (instead of a long, but cheaper, bus ride) so that we could see one more part of the country. In total, we spent $2708 for 14 days, working out to $97 per person per day, though this includes the $250 flight into the continent from DC. We also calculated a fictional budget, without either the intercontinental or the domestic flight, and if our Cartagena hotel had been closer to what we spent on hotels in the rest of the country. With these omissions, a more frugal budget would have come to $48 per day. Note: Cartagena was more expensive in general than the other parts of the country we visited.
Mainland Ecuador is pretty much on par with Colombia in terms of food, hotel, and transportation costs. Quito is a bit more expensive than other areas since it's the capital. The Galapagos are a lot more expensive than mainland Ecuador-- mostly because a trip to the Galapagos involves a $400 flight, $110 in entrance fees, and usually an expensive cruise to see the islands. Our 19 days there included volunteering, some independent travel, and a 5-day cruise, so on average, we spent a bit less than most tourists do there, but it was still much more expensive than anywhere else in South America. However, a visit to the Galapagos islands is a once in a lifetime event, and is well worth the hefty price tag. On average, we spent $52 per person per day in mainland Ecuador and $133 per person per day in the Galapagos.
Peru can be more expensive than its neighboring countries. It gets more visitors and therefore many parts of Peru (such as Cusco/The Sacred Valley and Lake Titicaca) tend to be more expensive: food can be pricey (especially if you're tempted by the many high-end places!), bus rides cost more (but are much more comfortable), and entrance fees to the many archaeological sites can really break the bank. Peru is a very large country, so travel costs entirely depend on where you go. However, much like the Galapagos, visiting Machu Picchu is an awe-inspiring, not-to-be-missed experience that we think is worth the price. We were only in Peru for 18 days, and we spent most of our time in Huaraz (trekking), Lima (eating in really nice restaurants, going to the doctor, getting a haircut) and Cusco/Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu (exorbitant tour fees, entrance fees, and train tickets). On average, we spent $78 per person per day in Peru.
Bolivia is quite inexpensive. Lodging is generally a bit cheaper than the previously mentioned countries. Food can be had for next to nothing ($1-2/meal), especially if you eat in basic restaurants or buy your own fruits and vegetables at the market. Long-distance buses are cheaper but also less comfortable and slower, stopping for everyone and everywhere. We were not in Bolivia for very long, but we did two tours: one was the World's Most Dangerous Road bike ride, which was quite costly at $105 per person, and the other was the guided four-day tour of Southwest Bolivia, which was less than $50 per person per day, including everything (transportation, lodging, driver, guide, food, etc.). We were in Bolivia for 13 days and on average, we spent $65 per person per day, but this includes the $135 we spent per person for a visa to enter the country. Without the cost of a visa, we spent $55 per person per day.
While accommodation and food in Argentina were more expensive than in the previous countries, we didn't do too many expensive tours or activities (except skiing), so it came out somewhere in the middle of the pack. A great steak or bottle of wine can definitely be had for less than $10, but gone is the three-course menú del dia for $3. Buses were drastically more expensive, and we took three 17+ hour bus rides that each cost over $110. Granted, you get wine and several meals, but still. There are also many more tempting shopping opportunities, so we bought a few keepsakes. We were in Argentina for 25 days and on average we spent $70 per person per day.
South Africa can be on the pricier side. Cape Town is especially expensive; it's hard to find a bare-bones double room for under $60 or a dorm bed for under $20. To save some money on lodging, we bought two sleepings bags and pads for about $80 (which we later sold for $70!) and were given a used tent by our Couchsurfing host. We paid $6-13 per person per night to camp at the backpackers', for which we also got access to all the facilities. We also chose to rent a car so that we could go everywhere we wanted, and this came to $35/day without gas (which was costly, around $1.40/liter). The other main tourist transport option is the Baz Bus, which is ideal if you're traveling alone but if there are two or more people together, renting a car can cost about the same or less. Meals vary in price; the majority of the time we bought food at supermarkets and cooked our own meals, which also saved money. A trip in South Africa usually involves a visit to one or more national parks, and entrance fees for those range from $6 to $25 per person per day. (See our Addo post for information on how to save money on park entrance fees.) Despite the fact that we camped and cooked most of our meals, we still spent $73 per person per day during the 30 days we were there. Including the cost of our flight to South Africa from Argentina, that cost comes to $95 per person per day.
Mozambique was surprisingly costly. It's not that accomodation can't be found for under $40, it's just that what you get for that price is extremely bare-bones. For instance, a poorly ventilated hut cost at least $35/night and only contained two shabby twin beds and mosquito nets. (For the same cost in many places in South America you could literally have a large furnished apartment, or at least more furniture, a fan, towels, wifi, breakfast, etc.). In addition, it was hard to find cheap meals (under $10), especially in the touristed areas. Transport is uncomfortable (20-30 people crammed into a chapa that should only hold 15 max) and cost about $3/hour (i.e., a 3 hour ride was about $10 and a 6 hour ride about $20), which also seemed expensive considering the quality of the vehicle. Taxis are also pricey and usually not worth taking unless there is no other choice. In terms of activity/tour prices, we can only speak to diving and snorkeling/boat trips, which are certainly on the higher end for Africa. A standard 4-day PADI open water diving course costs $600-700, compared with $350 in neighboring Malawi. A single dive cost $80 or more. Snorkeling/boat trips, ranging from 2 to 8 hours, cost around $70. In addition, most people need a visa, which cost around $100 for US citizens and around $70 for EU. During our 12 days, we spent an average of $88 per person per day, but a large part of what we spent was on Claudia's PADI course, so without that, we spent $62 per person per day. Taking out the cost of the PADI course and the visas, we spent $54 per person per day.
Malawi was the cheapest country we've been to yet! We had decent accommodation for under $20/night, meals could be had for $1-5, and buses were also cheap (and accordingly uncomfortable). One of the reasons Malawi is inexpensive is because there are not too many "touristy" activities on offer, nor are there a ton of pricey restaurants, so most of what we did was walk around, hang out, and eat at local restaurants. The only costly activity we did was diving in Lake Malawi, and that was relatively cheap for SCUBA diving ($45/dive). During our nine days there, we spent an average of $37 per person per day.
Oh boy. Tanzania... we spent $6 on a hotel room in the western part, and $340 on an all-inclusive hotel on Zanzibar. It's one of those countries that can be done on the cheap, but most of the stuff any tourist or traveler would want to do is quite expensive. For instance, a safari in the Serengeti will cost you, on the "budget" end, $150 per person per day staying in a tent. The national parks will run you $50-100 per person per day just for park entry. Climbing Kilimanjaro, another popular activity, will cost $1000-1500 on the "budget" end for a 5-7 day trek. Zanzibar can be cheap if you stay in Stone Town, but as soon as you go to a resort on the northern or eastern side of the island, you will have a hard time finding accommodation for less than $100/room. If you get off the beaten track, for instance in western Tanzania, you can find extremely cheap hotel rooms and food, but then again, there probably won't be any reason for you to be in those areas. We also took two internal flights to avoid long and messy bus rides and ferries. Finally, visas for US citizens cost $100 and for most EU citizens cost $50. During our 37 days in Tanzania, we spent an average of $134 per person per day [ed: but there's a pretty high standard deviation on this one -nv].
Uganda was refreshingly cheap. Good accommodation could be had for $10-30 per night for a double room, and meals, especially street food, were incredibly cheap. Public transportation was also very affordable. Visas cost $50 for pretty much everyone. We volunteered for a week, did not go to any national parks, and only did one costly outdoor activity (white water rafting), so we probably could have spent a lot more money here if our itinerary had been different. We did, however, fly here from Zanzibar to avoid a very long journey, and we also made a donation to an NGO. During our 16 days in Uganda, we spent an average of $56 per person per day; without the flight and the donation, we spent an average of $38 per person per day.
India is overall a pretty cheap country in which to travel. We spent anywhere from $6 to around $30 per night on a double hotel room-- some were pretty basic and dingy while others were quite nice, with private bathrooms and balconies. Food is especially cheap (and delicious), with a street snack as cheap as $0.10 and a good meal in a midrange restaurant $5-10, including drinks. There are tons of sights to see (temples, palaces, and other historic places), and entrance fees range from $1 to $15 (the Taj Mahal-- the most expensive entrance ticket we paid). For domestic transport, we mostly took trains, which can range greatly in price according to class (A/C Tier 1 all the way down to Unreserved seating). We took a range of classes, so our tickets ranged from about $3 (an overnight trip in the Sleeper class) to $25 (an overnight trip in A/C Tier 2). We also took one domestic flight. India also offers some amazing shopping opportunities which we happily took advantage of, so we spent a fair amount of money on goods such as textiles, jewelry, leather, and artwork. Another cost we incurred was our India visas: we opted for the 10-year visa which costed $166 per person. On average, we spent $56 per person per day in our 37 days in India. Excluding the cost of our flights from Uganda to India and the cost of our visas, we spent $37 per person per day.
Nepal, similar to India, is a cheap place to visit. Hotel rooms, food, and domestic transport are inexpensive (comparable to prices in India). Entrance fees to temples and old cities are surprisingly expensive (visiting the old city of Bhaktapur, for example, will set you back $15). Aside from sightseeing, we spent the bulk of our time doing two things: 1) a three-day kayak class which set us each back $200 and included food, lodging, and transportation and 2) trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area for five days. The latter activity involves sleeping and eating in tea houses in the mountains, which costs around $10-20 per person per day (depending on how much you eat and drink and what kind of room you choose), but both a park entrance fee ($25) and a TIMS trekking permit ($20) must be paid as well. Pretty much everyone needs a visa to enter Nepal, and our 30-day visas cost $40 each. On average, we spent $45 per person per day. Without the cost of our flight from India to Nepal and our visas, we spent an average of $38 per person per day.
Thailand prices can vary greatly. At some of the beaches, you can find bungalows for under $5/night, and at others you can find luxury accommodation that will set you back hundreds of dollars per night. When it comes to the beaches and islands, there is something for every budget if you look hard enough. Bangkok is a large, developed city and you can find a filling street food meal for $0.30, or eat at a famous celebrity chef restaurant for NYC prices (we only ate cheap, delicious street food in Bangkok). Bangkok accommoation follows a similar pattern. Transport can also vary greatly: a 6-hour train ride in third class costs under $2, but a tourist bus ride of similar length would cost closer to $15. We flew into Thailand from Nepal, but once there used buses, boats and trains to travel within the country. Bangkok also offers amazing shopping opportunites, so Nick got a few tailored suits and shirts, but we are not including the cost of those in our calculations, as those are not a typical travel expenditure. Other than eating, sleeping, and getting around, we also paid for some activities like diving and rock climbing which set us back about $30-50 per person per day. On average, we spent $61 per person per day. Without the cost of our flight into Thailand, we spent an average of $45 per person per day.
Something to note about money in Myanmar is that they have no ATMS that foreigners can use, and there are only one or two hotels in the country that will accept credit cards (with a hefty 10% commission charge). So, foreigners must come armed with all the money they will need for their trip in crisp, perfect (we mean PERFECT: no stains, tears, fold marks, etc.) post-2006 US Dollars. Once in Myanmar, you can pay for many things in USD (hotels, transport, some restaurants and stores), but you should change some USD into Myanmar kyat for use for purchases of goods markets, street food, trishaw rides, etc. There are three main methods of changing your money: banks that do currency exchange (good rate and safe, but only available in a few cities), hotels (worse rate, but also safe), and money changers on the street (best quoted rate, but least safe option as they do counting tricks to rip you off, which we found out the hard way; we're not sure anyone ever actually get the quoted rate because we heard that if you call them on their mis-counting and demand the correct amount they will refuse to do the exchange). [Note that while we were in the country, they introduced their currency to the international market for trading for the first time ever, and many countries are starting to lift sanctions with Myanamar, so all this could start to change and perhaps sometime down the road foreigners will be able to use plastic.]
We found Myanmar to be cheap when it came to food, activities, and most transportation, but the hotels seemed a bit pricey. We ate most of our meals on the street or in simple restaurants ($1 to $4 per meal), used buses (cheap), boats (more expensive), and one internal flight (most expensive) to get around. It is also possible to hire private or shared taxis to get around between cities, but this is quite expensive. Hiring a private guide for trekking or a boat to take us around Inle Lake cost around $10 per person per day. However, most hotels we stayed in cost around $25-30/night, which isn't terrible, but didn't seem as good value compared to everything else in the country. It's not possible to enter or exit Myanmar overland with very few exceptions (i.e., doing a visa run from Thailand, but not being able to go further than the border town once you've entered Myanmar), so travelers must fly in and out of Yangon, the only international airport in Myanmar (we flew from Bangkok). On average, we spent $62 per person per day. Without our R/T flight and visas, we spent $42 per person per day.
Finally, we tried to minimize how much of our money went to the government. There are entrance fees that go straight to the government and are impossible to avoid if you want to visit Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay sights, and certain temples, for example. There are also government-affiliated hotels and airlines that we avoided. It is estimated that the government probably receives around 10% in taxes from all purchases as well. We spent just under $2000 between both of us during our 2+ weeks there, and we estimate that around $275 of that went directly to the government ($85 in direct entrance fees and visas, and 10% of everything else we spent). However, this is probably an overestimate, since a lot of our spending went directly to street vendors of food and goods, trishaw drivers, etc., who likely do not pay the same 10% in taxes that a hotel or bus company has to.