Thailand once had a reputation as a cheap travel haven for backpackers. But have those days disappeared? Prices have been creeping up for many years amid booming tourism and rapid economic growth. Tourist hotspots like Bangkok and the southern islands have become much more expensive to visit, and those cheaper off-the-beaten-path gems are becoming harder to find. Even so, with a bit of nous, it’s still possible to travel Thailand on a budget and have a great time.
We spent a month in the country, beginning in Phuket and slowly making our way north via Bangkok to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Below I have compiled some of the money-saving tricks we learned along the way.
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Thailand on a budget: food and drink
1. Eat street food
If you are willing to be adventurous with what you eat, you can save a lot of money on food in Thailand. Hostels don’t often have kitchens, so as a backpacker it’s likely you will eat out and about most of the time.
Street food is a great way to enjoy the country’s famed cuisine without spending too much. Everywhere we went during our trip, we found food stalls and pop-up cafés selling pad thai, green and red curry, pineapple rice, papaya salad, and many other local favourites.
The difference in price between these street food stalls and restaurants is significant. For example, on Koh Phi Phi island, main dishes for under 120 baht were hard to come by in the restaurants on the main drag. We found a little street packed with stalls and local cafés, all selling dishes for around 60-70 baht. In Bangkok and the north, we found even bigger savings to be made, sometimes eating for as little as 30 baht per dish.
To find street food, sometimes you need to explore away from the main streets, but usually it’s hard to miss. Sometimes food markets and stalls are run at weekends only, like Chiang Rai’s Saturday and Sunday walking streets. Try asking the staff at wherever you’re staying for recommendations.
2. Eat in shopping mall food courts
One way to eat cheaply in Thailand’s cities is to hit the food courts in big shopping malls. We did this a few times in Bangkok, at the MBK Center and Terminal 21. Both had a huge selection of stalls serving cuisine from all over Asia.
The standard was always very good, and the prices comparable to street food. Food courts are also great if you’re with a big group and can’t decide where to eat, because you can order from separate vendors and sit together.
3. Use water dispensers
Tap water is not safe to drink in Thailand, and the cost of buying bottled water quickly adds up. In the cities, however, we found a way around this. We discovered machines all over the place, and typically on the back streets, that dispensed 1.5 litres of water for just 1 baht a go.
The dispensers look a bit like drinks vending machines, and are coin operated. A 1.5-litre bottle of water cost about 15 baht in shops, so using the machines saved us a lot of cash and heavily reduced our plastic usage.
4. Buy drinks and breakfasts at 7 Eleven
If you’re going to Thailand to party – as many people do – you’ll probably spend plenty of time outdoors. Full moon parties, walking streets, beach gatherings – so much of the country’s nightlife scene takes place in the open air.
Booze is getting quite expensive in Thailand, especially in these kind of scenarios. A simple way to keep costs down is to buy beer from 7 Eleven or other minimarts, and take them along to the party. We did this on Koh Phi Phi, where bottles of Chang were about three times more expensive in the bars.
Another great budget hack that 7 Eleven provides is breakfast. Few hostels we stayed at in Thailand included free breakfast, those that sold it were expensive, and restaurants even more so.
7 Eleven has a variety of toasties for about 25 baht, which they will heat up for you in-store. My favourite was ham and cheese. Chicken and chilli didn’t feel quite right in the morning! With a coffee for 14 baht on the side, it was the perfect low-cost start to the day.
Thailand on a budget: managing money
5. Change money in advance…
By getting hold of Thai currency before you arrive, you can avoid the fees charged by ATMs for withdrawing money. These fees were introduced a few years ago for foreign cards, and have been rising steadily ever since.
If you’re travelling directly to Thailand, buy baht from a recognised currency exchange provider like Travelex. It’s not one of the most common currencies, so you might need to order a few days in advance.
If you’re on the backpacking trail in south-east Asia, try asking other travellers if they have any spare baht you can exchange with them.
6. … or withdraw the maximum at ATMs
If you do find you need to withdraw money, you can minimise the impact of the charges by withdrawing the maximum allowance each time. Depending on location, machines tend to have a limit of 20,000 to 30,000 baht.
On the islands we encountered some young Brits who were taking out 1,000 baht at a time as and when they needed it, which seemed like a crazy waste of money. Why incur a 22% withdrawal charge when you can shrink it to less than 1%? We saved a lot by doing this.
If you have money left over when you leave – which can be avoided if you plan well – you can always exchange it for your next currency. It’s often best to do this a couple of days before you plan to leave, as currency exchangers on the border crossings tend to offer worse rates.
Thailand on a budget: getting around
7. Use local transport
In Thailand you are never short of quick and convenient ways to get around. Tuk-tuk drivers lurk at every corner, and hostels often sell door-to-door transport to popular destinations. By taking the easy options, though, you pay a premium price.
Try seeking out local bus routes instead. We did this in Bangkok, and found we could travel 8 kilometres across the city for as little as 6.50 baht each, when a tuk-tuk ride would have cost about 150.
The same is true for inter-city transport. Our hostel in Chiang Mai offered bus tickets to Chiang Rai for 350 baht. We decided to go to the bus station ourselves and book it there – by doing so we paid 129 baht each.
8. Hire bicycles to get around
Another excellent way to get around Thailand on a budget is to hire bicycles, which can be a great alternative if you can’t ride scooters. The price for a day can be as little as 60 baht, and it gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace.
For a great example of how you can have fun with this, check out our article about our two-day cycling exploration of the sights of Chiang Rai.
9. Check tuk-tuk and taxi fares before you go
If anyone can be relied upon to rip off travellers in Thailand – or anywhere in the world for that matter – it’s taxi drivers. The most vulnerable moments for this are when you first arrive in a new town or city.
Whenever we emerged from a Thai bus terminal or airport, we were immediately swamped by taxi or tuk-tuk drivers offering a ride. How were we supposed to know the correct fare having only just arrived?
Our usual trick is to contact our hostel or guest house beforehand and ask them what the fares should be. Almost always, the prices first quoted on arrival were way above what we had been advised.
Armed with the correct fare information, it’s much easier to barter for a fair price.
Thailand on a budget: sightseeing
10. Visit free cultural sites
Entrance fees for tourist attractions in Thailand have been appearing and creeping up for years, but it’s still possible to find things to see for free. Examples during our visit included Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi Province, some of Bangkok’s smaller temples, and the recently built Blue Temple in Chiang Rai.
Ask staff at your accommodation or other travellers for tips on free local attractions to visit.
11. Shop around for tour deals
If you’re planning on taking a guided tour to the sights, you can save cash by exploring the options available. Don’t take the first price you’re offered – it probably won’t be a good one. Even by walking away and saying “I might come back later”, you might find agencies lowering their price on the spot to seal the deal.
When we stayed at Aonang Beach in Krabi, we spoke to tour operators all the way along the main road, all offering different prices.
You should also consider whether you need to take a tour at all. Sometimes you’re just paying an inflated price for a pick-up and transport to an attraction, which is easily accessible anyway through public transport or other means. At Aonang we ended up hiring private cars, which worked out a lot cheaper than the tours. Check out our guide for Dragon Crest Mountain for more on this.
12. Bring the right clothing for temples
One of the most popular attractions for visitors in Thailand are its many Buddhist temples. The sacred structures can be found all over the country, in cities, towns and the countryside. You can’t stay for long without acquiring just a little bit of ‘temple fatigue’.
The temples have a rather strict code of appropriate dress. While it is only enforced in the busiest locations, it’s always good etiquette to respect the local culture if you’re going to visit such places. If you arrive without the appropriate attire, you may find you need to hire or buy garments on site.
Essentially, you just need to cover up well – that goes for both women and men. Bare shoulders and knees are frowned upon. We bought some light cotton trousers in Phuket that lasted our whole trip. A pair of these and an airy t-shirt, and you’re good to go.
General tips for Thailand on a budget
13. Avoid the double laundry charge
A quirk that surprised us in south-east Asia, and Thailand in particular, was that laundry services rarely offered single-day turnaround. Not without extra payment, anyway.
In South America it had been the norm to get our clothes back clean and dry on the same day. But in Thailand, we found that such speedy service would come at double the price.
The obvious and easy way around this is to avoid leaving laundry to your last day in any particular location. Take it when you have a couple of days to spare, and you will avoid the double charge.
14. Avoid scams
When navigating Thailand on a budget, it’s just as important to avoid losing money as it is to save money. While Thailand is generally a safe place to travel, it isn’t without its problems, and like anywhere in the world tourists are targets for petty crime.
I would require another entire article to go into any detail on the various scams that have become notorious in the country. I don’t need to do that, because the good folks over at Your Thai Guide have already compiled a really helpful guide to scams in Thailand and how to avoid them.
Being aware of these common traps can save you a huge amount of money and hassle. They are easy to avoid if you know how to spot the signs, and easy to fall for if you don’t.
15. Consider the Philippines as an alternative
Many travellers flock to Thailand to relax on its idyllic islands and white sandy beaches, explore the stunning clear waters and experience the chaotic nightlife. It’s far from being the only country in the region to offer these things, however.
The Philippines is fast emerging on the south-east Asia backpacker trail, and ticks all the same boxes. We spent two weeks hopping around its islands before we visited Thailand. The quality of ocean scenery and scuba diving sites were on another level. The nightlife was every bit as good. The beaches were more picturesque. And happily for our bank balances, the prices were a lot cheaper, with the exception of domestic transport.
So if you’re worried about the cost of a trip to Thailand and looking for alternatives, the Philippines could be a great place to start.
If we had been prepared with all this knowledge before our visit, travelling Thailand on a budget would have been a lot easier! Hopefully it can help you make savings on your visit.
Are you spending any time in Bangkok on your visit to Thailand? Check out our one week Bangkok backpacker’s itinerary.
Is the north of the country in your itinerary? Check out our review of jungle trekking in Chiang Mai.
Do you have anything to add on travelling in Thailand on a budget? Share your thoughts in the comments below.