Before Alexis and I moved to Thailand, I remember having a conversation where we were both expressing disbelief and excitement about how easy it is to travel. We had just done preliminary searches into ticket costs and kept saying to each other, “All it takes to go to Thailand is $500. Why don’t more people travel?!”
This thinking of ours is still true in some ways, but over the past year, I’ve come to see the logical fallacies in it. Being semi-nomadic, we’ve had to deal with a lot of unexpected travel costs. These costs, if not planned for, can destroy your budget and force you to retreat home sooner than you would have liked. But you won’t retreat; no, not you. You’re smart; you’re reading this post. You’ll be prepared for the road and all the financial implications after reading about the 10 hidden costs of travel. So let’s get to it:
1. Visas. By far the biggest unexpected (or perhaps just overlooked) cost of living in other countries for long periods of time are visas. In four months, we have spent $510 on visas. That’s just as much as it costs to get here! Our initial triple entry tourist visas cost $120 a pop.
Our visas into Laos cost another $45 each. Extending my tourist visa cost $60. Wanna stay longer than a tourist visa allows? That’ll cost ya. Alexis’ work visa was yet another $60 and then the visa leads to a work permit which is another $60 on top of that. And that’s just for her. At some point, we’ll need to get me on a dependent visa so I can stay past the duration of my tourist visa as well. And that’s just on visas alone. We haven’t even gotten to…
2. Forced Travel to Obtain Those Visas. I know it seems a little counterintuitive for “nomadic newlyweds” to be talking about “forced” travel, but it is. I wish travel could solely be our decision, but visas make it an obligation at times. “Border runs,” as they’re referred to, and when visa holders are forced to exit the country just to placate the terms of their visa. I don’t understand why, but our Thai tourist visa (which we got under the pretense of wanting more time in Thailand to see as much of Thailand as possible) forces us to leave Thailand multiple times just to come right back in. When we went to Laos for this reason, the flights alone cost us $462 between the two of us. Add in ground transportation and activities, and that’s a forced $500 expense.
Don’t get me wrong, we probably would have gone to Laos anyways and we chose to make the trip longer (and thus more expensive) so that the sole purpose wasn’t just boring visa errands, but we definitely could have found cheaper transportation if we didn’t have to go on a specific day, and we definitely wouldn’t have chosen to go to the capital city Vientiane, instead finding someplace more rural.
3. Earning Less Money. Note: This one only applies to long term travelers who are looking for employment abroad. Before the move, you think, “$500 for a plane ticket to Thailand and then once we’re there, everything is so cheap!” Yes, Thailand is cheap when you’re thinking in terms of earning American dollars and spending Thai baht. If you have a remote job with a company based in the U.S., then kudos to you. I hope you’re living like a king on some unknown Thai island, or Bali, or Prague. But when you get here and find a job teaching English, for example, you earn Thai baht and all of a sudden things aren’t so cheap. Yes, a 50 baht ($1.50) meal is insanely cheap when you’re used to spending $10-$20 on a meal at a restaurant, but when you’re earning Thai wages, that’s generally all you can afford to spend on a meal, while only going to more expensive western restaurants sparingly.
4. Western Food Cravings. Don’t get me wrong, one of the best parts of traveling is trying food from different cultures. Thai food is especially delicious. But I can’t eat it for three meals a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. It’s just not going to happen. So whether you’re getting paid in Thai baht or American dollars, your expectation of every meal costing $1.50 is unrealistic. As some point, you’re going to want some pancakes or a burger and fries, and that could cost upwards of $10.
5. Not Wanting to Eat Street Food All the Time. You know what’s better than a $1.50 meal? A meal that costs less than a dollar. This can be found easily from one of the many street vendors in Chiang Mai and all throughout Thailand. This is what the budget websites will tell you about. They’ll tell you that you can eat out every meal of the day in Chiang Mai for $4. Sure, that’s true, but even if I shun Western food and only stick to Thai food, I don’t want street food all the time. The trouble comes when you read those budget travel websites and start crafting your own budget with the expectation that you’ll only be spending $4 a day on food. No way — aint gonna happen.
6. Buying Water. In many countries around the world, Thailand included, tap water is not safe to drink. We take for granted being able to just turn on our faucets and drink the water back home. The cost is minimal — maybe $4 a week — but it’s still an expense I certainly didn’t think about. $4 a week adds up to one more really nice Western meal you could have had per month.
7. Non Grounded Outlets Will Kill Your Electronics. My poor laptop and and cell phone. I feel them suffering. I run through my computer battery about three times a day. Sure, my computer is a couple years old and yes, I’m on it all day, but without a doubt it’s gotten much worse since moving to Thailand. Most of the outlets aren’t grounded here (no big third prong), which has done terrible things to my laptop. My phone gets blazing hot every time I charge it, and the relatively frequent power surges while things are plugged in doesn’t help at all. Because of travel, I will most certainly have to replace my electronics sooner than I would have otherwise.
8. Budget Airline Hidden Fees. Many backpackers head to tightly-packed regions like Europe and SE Asia where they can explore many countries in a short period of time. One of the best benefits of traveling through regions like this are the budget airlines that make air travel so much cheaper. Ryanair and easyJet in Europe and AirAsia and Jetstar in Asia are just a few examples.
While these airlines are fantastic in general, they can also be budget busters if you’re not prepared for their hidden fees. All too often, travelers will do a cursory search for flights on Skyscanner or some other search engine and see a listed price — “$20 from Bangkok to Singapore? Perfect!” That price settles in your mind and you start building your budget around that number. But when you actually go through the booking process, you encounter a slew of fees from selecting your seat, to having baggage weighing more than a peanut, and even paying for your flight with a credit card. We encountered this just a few weeks ago when booking our October trip to Borneo and Indo.
My advice: don’t pick a seat and let the airline randomly assign you one, pack as light as you can, don’t check in a bag, and pay with a debt card or direct bank withdrawal. The fees aren’t worth the miles you’ll get by paying with your credit card. I also found that booking our flights on Expedia saved a few dollars on every segment than booking directly with AirAsia.
9. Annual Fees on Mile-Accumulating Credit Cards. We like to travel for free using credit card miles and points as often as possible. While most cards are “churnable,” meaning you sign up to get the huge bonus, use those miles for a free trip, and then cancel that card all within the same year, some cards are worth holding on to. While credit card miles have allowed us to take more trips than our income alone would have allowed, the $100 annual fees hurt.
10. You’ll Ruin Your Clothes Quicker. Constantly slinging my backpack over my shoulders stretches out my shirts like crazy. When you’re traveling, you only bring a few shirts anyways so they undergo much more wear and tear then they would back home when you’d be cycling through a bigger selection. Using communal washing machines like many travelers do also increases the possibility of your clothes becoming tie died from someone’s left behind sock. All these factors add up to travelers needing to replace their clothes much more often than they normally would have.
Bonus: Doing Stuff! It’s my own fault for thinking like this, and maybe I’m the only dumb one, but a lot of times all I consider when traveling is the cost to get there and the cost of accommodation, while forgetting about the whole reason why you’re traveling in the first place — to do stuff and experience unique things. Big mistake.
You don’t travel halfway around the world to just sit in your guesthouse and walk around all day. You want to visit museums, go ziplining or scuba diving, and those cost money. Even if you don’t have every single activity planned out beforehand, make sure you set aside a good chunk of your budget for the activities and transportation to those activities you’ll want to do.