How to Spend Less Than $500/Month When Traveling South Asia

The following calculations and price estimations are based on our experience of traveling in two South Asian countries only, India and Nepal. We also excluded the cost of the inbound ticket to Delhi since the price will largely depend on where you’ll be flying from.


I remember discussing with my friend my future plan of the 9-month trip around Asia with my husband. We would start in India, pass through Nepal and would slowly move east all the way to Vietnam. My friend was astounded and jealous in a good way. But her first question was ‘Where will you get the money?’

Fair enough.

At that time, I already had a remote job. We were also planning to work on the way. But obviously, we would be less engaged in earning money in the first month of the trip while figuring things out. Moreover, the Internet connection is not likely to be very reliable in that corner of the world.

My idea here is to show that you don’t need shitloads of savings to travel the world (or at least, South Asia). Even if you’re not the US or Australian resident (for whom Asia is generally ridiculously cheap), but come from Eastern Europe, where prices are lower than in the West, you will still find it more than affordable. And yes, affordable as in staying in a pretty good hotel every day and eating out.

So anyway, it’s been 42 days since we hit the road. So far our travel itinerary looks like this: New Delhi – Rishikesh – Lucknow – Varanasi – Kathmandu – Pokhara.

And I bet you’ll be surprised when you find out how much the first month of the trip cost us.

People in the street of Thamel in Kathmandu decorated with prayer flags
Thamel – a tourist hub in Kathmandu, Nepal / UNHYPE

Slow Travel: A Bit of Pre-History

I have divided our expenses into eight different categories:

1) transportation – includes any mode of transport around and out of the city, i.e., bus/train tickets, rickshaws, uber and ola cabs, scooter rent, etc.;

2) accommodation – no need for explanation;

3) food – all meals throughout the day, snacks, drinks, water, and that comfort candy at the end of the day;

4) household – personal hygiene items such as soaps, toothpaste, etc. and other things we found necessary for comfortable everyday living (for example, a small cup water heater);

5) culture & fun – expenses for entry tickets to landmarks, parks, fun activities, etc.;

6) clothes – to blend in with locals ;);

7) health – all medical expenses such as medicine and doctor’s visits (thanks universe, there was no need for one so far);

8) other – stuff that didn’t fit under one of the previous categories (e.g., Indian sim cards);

Not to deceive you, I feel I should give a little bit of pre-history of our way of traveling before I break down the expenses.

Some years ago, I was one of those people who get a 3-week vacation during the year, pack their suitcase and go on an adventure. And during this tiny bit of time, I was trying to see as much as possible, visit all the local landmarks and museums, taste every possible food in the restaurants and drink in every cool neighborhood pub, pat every local cat and dog while strolling across the city all day. Coming to Barcelona briefly and not checking out Sagrada Familia? I’d move heaven and earth to visit must-see places! Even at the expense of my health and comfort. This, of course, eventually led to complete exhaustion. I flew home happy but dying for another week of vacation just lying in bed and binge-watching How I Met Your Mother.

To cut a long story short, my husband and I are not that kind of travelers (anymore) 🙂 Long-term traveling is exhausting in itself, so we dedicate as much time as possible to rest and work. That means, if we have to go four hours from Delhi to see the wonder of the world Taj Mahal, navigate several hours between the crowds, pay 10 times more for the entry ticket than a local Indian tourist (which sometimes feels not fair), then we would rather not.

We don’t care about landmarks and chasing must-visit places anymore but are rather looking for a cozy spot to work, drink tea, and chill. Jumping from one city to another every three days doesn’t look fun. If the place is nice, we can stay there for a week, two or even more.

I feel it’s also necessary to mention that we don’t always do some common activities that the country is usually visited for. For example, Nepal is heaven for mountain lovers. But it’s just too much for us to go hiking for a week. Instead, we rent a motorbike and go to the surrounding villages and fields to enjoy the rural beauty secluded by the mountains. We even rode a pretty big hill on a scooter once (which was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done in my life). This might be the reason why our expenses are not high.

Three goats in the street of Varanasi, India
Indian cities welcome tourists, holy cows, strayed dogs, and even goats / UNHYPE

The Cost of Traveling & How We Save Money

All the expenses below account for two people and are given in USD (currencies in Nepal and India differ so it will help avoid the confusion). That’s why the total amount is subject to currency fluctuations and is not 100% precise.

I’m also gonna share our experience and small tips on how to save money on some daily things.

Transportation

In one month, we have spent roughly $190 on transportation around and out of the cities.

As I’ve already mentioned, we enjoy slow traveling, which helped us big time to save money on getting around. Generally, transport is reasonably cheap in Asia. For example, a bus trip from Lucknow to Varanasi (India) took us nearly 16 hours and cost only $15 per person. And the best thing is that the bus had berths where you could sleep like a baby rocked by a bumpy Indian road.

Taking a night bus or train for a long distance kills two birds with one stone: you will save money on accommodation and reach your destination.

You can even go cheaper than what we spent, but it’s gonna get a bit rough. For example, you can take local buses between the cities. They cost less, but are usually packed, less comfortable, and have no fans, let alone air conditioning. Good haggling skills will be super useful when taking rickshaws and tuk-tuks around the city or when renting a motorbike. The drivers often charge an arm and a leg for driving you from bus stations and airports so be persistent or walk away. You will find a decent price sooner or later.

We were also trying to balance between walking and local transport. In huge cities, such as Delhi, you will most probably stick to taxis. During 2 weeks in Kathmandu though, we took a taxi only 3 times: from the bus station and to/from the Thai Embassy. In Pokhara, we stuck to walking only.

Accommodation

Accommodation per month cost us $245. We saved on taking night trains/buses. And once we stayed for free at the friend’s place.

First three nights we stayed in a dorm room in the hostel. From that time on, we only booked double rooms with a private bathroom.

Bed and sheets in the hotel in Rishikesh, India
Our $11 double room with private bathroom in Rishikesh, India / UNHYPE

On average, you can get a clean double room with a bathroom for $10/night. Prices differ from city to city and depend on landmarks or center proximity. In Delhi, we had a place for $7. During the first night, I was woken up by the rat stealing our garbage bag. By far, it was the worst experience during the trip. The whole room was also super dirty and not suitable for easily impressed people.

While in Rishikesh, for $11/night, we stayed in a brand new hostel with fantastic service, roof view, and constant hot water (this is not very common). We stayed a few days longer in the city just because the hostel was so good.

And here’s the view we woke up to every day in Pokhara. And the room cost only $11/night, including a free breakfast. Pretty neat!

A view on the Phewa Lake and mountains from the hotel in Pokhara, Lareside Dsitrict
Tasty breakfast, stunning view, what else do you need for the perfect start of the day? / UNHYPE

Accommodation with breakfast included is the best value. Food is usually simple: toast and egg with a coffee/tea, but it keeps you full until lunchtime. If you’re gluten intolerant, some better hotels (such as OYO hotel chain) or homestays can offer a fruit bowl instead of the toast or porridge with fruits.

Food

Eating out, by far, was our largest expense – $337.

We weren’t splurging on food in fancy restaurants. At the same time, we weren’t stuffing ourselves with fast food. I’d say we managed to maintain the right balance between the two.

Local food is the cheapest option. Indian and Nepali foods are generally not the healthiest, to say the least. Both cuisines are based mainly on bread, rice (in most of the cases fried), deep-fried meat and snacks, dough dumplings, and somehow call a piece of cucumber and onion a salad.

A caption of the Indian meal consisting of naan, rice, tomatoes and Indian sauces
A typical Indian meal in a local restaurant in Delhi / UNHYPE

Upon arriving in Delhi, we sometimes managed to eat street food for 80-100 Indian rupees – that’s about $1.30-$1.50. And most importantly one portion was enough for two people (Indian vendors are very generous with rice). Street food is hit and miss, somewhere better, somewhere worse, but it keeps hunger at bay. Cafes charge you more and give you smaller portions. Some touristy areas such as Rishikesh and Varanasi are more expensive because they are oriented at tourists, who usually don’t mind spending more. At the same time, cafes in touristy places will also offer you a wider variety of food, such as Chinese, Thai, or Korean.

If you crave for a salad, less spicy and healthier food, no sweat. There are organic vegetarian cafes everywhere, but they are always a kind of ‘luxury.’ These sites are filled with white people with MacBooks, and sometimes prices go up to $5 or more for a simple meal. Sushi and Japanese cuisine in general is more expensive. A meal in a Japanese restaurant will cost at least $5 per person.

A frontal caption of the plate with rice, veggies, and veggie soup
The cheapest vegetarian restaurant in Kathmandu, Nepal – just over $2 for this beauty / UNHYPE
A frontal caption of Korean kimchi fried rice, kimchi soup, and rice
A $6 meal for two – Korean kimchi fried rice, kimchi soup, and rice / UNHYPE

We pampered ourselves with sushi sometimes or with a mouth-watering Mexican enchilada with lots of cheese and a side salad, but that wasn’t our everyday routine.

We also always a handful of bananas at hand (pun not intended :)) for a quick snack.

Water, though cheap (0.20 cents per 1 liter), will be an essential part of your daily life. We drink a lot of water, especially when it’s hot outside and use it for brushing teeth. So three liters a day is a minimum. According to my calculations, we have spent roughly $20 for water/month. That’s like 20 meals of street food in Paharganj in Delhi.

What helped us to cut back is avoidance of alcohol. We almost don’t drink, and we don’t take drugs (except for one glass of bhang lassi in Varanasi). In India, drinking is not very widespread. In Nepal, we preferred to buy a plate of rice with veggies instead of paying $3 for a beer in a bar. If we had drunk at least once a week, the expenses would have skyrocketed.

I also don’t drink tea in cafes, because I don’t find it tasty. Coffee is decent only if the price starts from $1.3-1.5 per cup. A cheaper price will get you a coffee solution of instant Nescafe.

Household

Soaps, toothpaste, toilet paper, etc. amounted to $26.

Locals in India and Nepal don’t use toilet paper, and I suppose that’s why it’s insanely expensive (as for a simple toilet paper) – 0.80 cents for a single roll. Hotels that charge more per night will provide you with one paper roll initially, and generally, you have to pester the reception for more.

We also bought a tiny water heater and two cups, so as long as there’s electrical socket, we can enjoy a warm cup of tea or coffee anywhere and anytime. That’s exactly why I don’t buy tea in cafes.

a monkey holding onto the colorful prayer flags in Kathmandu, Nepal
Monkeys keep you company all the way up the stairs to Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal / UNHYPE

Culture & Fun

In total, we’ve spent $50 on cultural activities. These include a visit to Humayun’s temple in Delhi, rafting in Rishikesh, a sunrise boat ride in Varanasi, and so on. We mostly look for the ‘emotional activities’ such as rafting rather than investing in ‘seeing some landmark’ time-passing.

Clothes

Nepal and India sell the cheapest clothes ever. We brought most of the things with us but wanted to ‘blend in’ a bit with the local hippie style. So in total, $40 covered flip-flops, 3 pairs of pants, a skirt, a shirt, a jumper, and a hat. If you’re good at haggling, you’re gonna pay even less. The quality is not the best, but I don’t think that you want to smear your 100 dollars jeans on an Indian train. And moreover, nobody really cares here about how you look.

two people sailing on a boat greeting the sunset in Varanasi, India
Greeting the sunset from the Holy River Ganges in Varanasi, India / UNHYPE

Health

Luckily, we have spent only $3 on medicine. I’ve dragged the whole bag of painkillers and stomach aids with me. So far, we haven’t gotten sick and didn’t need any doctor’s appointment.

Other

This category includes only one item – two Indian sim cards that we bought at the airport upon flying into Delhi. They cost $20 in total and provided us with 4 gigabytes of 4G a day. Sim cards are valid for 90 days. We could have bought the sim cards cheaper in the city. But apparently, we would have had to hassle with paperwork and to prove the details of a person who vouches for us. There are also lots of scams so better safe (and more expensive) than sorry.

If you’re not planning to get a sim card, you can easily download Google Offline Maps, and moreover, there’s WiFi in almost every cafe. Though, we felt that in such a chaotic country like India, we would be better off with a constant Internet connection.

Total Expenses

  • Transportation – $190
  • Accommodation -$245
  • Food – $337
  • Household – $26
  • Culture – $50
  • Clothes – $40
  • Health- $3
  • Other – $20

TOTAL – $911

You can always go lower or higher depending on your lifestyle and budgeting (and haggling skills). But it makes me smirk every time I read blog posts that you need A MINIMUM OF $25 a day per person to travel in India or Nepal.

The total amount is not bad for two people considering the fact that we used to spend more every month in our countries. What we get in return is the change of scenery every now and then, +25°C (77°F) during the day in the middle of November (and absolutely no rain so far!), exotic food, new cultures, and surprises every day.

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