The Cost of a Year Around the World, Part 3: Country Comparison

Last time we covered how we spent the $25,286.50 per person for our travel around the world. In this post, I’ve put together a comparison by country of travel costs that is based on our spend in the country. Our weekly budget bought vastly different quality and quantity depending on which country we were in, so below I’ve assembled a map of the 28 countries we’ve visited by cost. Darker red = more expensive.

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A cost comparison of the countries we visited, where darker is more expensive. Gray means we didn’t visit that country. Attribution for original map vector in Wikimedia Commons: Lokal_Profil.

This cost map doesn’t track exactly with our expenses because there’s a second variable beyond dollars spent: what quality/quantity those dollars bought. For example, a $15 meal in Mexico was at a sit-down restaurant with tons of food, while a $15 meal in Austria was at the standing-only counter of a local fried-food shack and usually left us hungry. I dub this variable “quality of life” (QoL), with higher numbers meaning better QoL. I then adjusted our spend in each country by dividing the actual dollar spend by the QoL value.

So let’s dive into spend by continent and I’ll give you a tip for keeping costs down in each country.

The Americas

The general wisdom here is that the further south you go, the more expensive it gets. This applies to both Central and South America, with Mexico being pretty-darn-cheap (though Mexico is huge, and depends on where you are) down to Costa Rica and Panama, which are the most expensive of the Central American countries. In Colombia travel costs plummet again and slowly rise as you travel south to end up in Chile, where the cost of living easily rivals parts of the central U.S. A notable exception to this dynamic is the Galapagos, where costs skyrocket due to tourism; even with QoL adjustments (we splurged for an amazing cruise), the Galapagos remains the most expensive leg of our journey.

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Cost comparison of countries in Latin America. Attribution for original map vector in Wikimedia commons: Lokal_profil.

By country, here is the advice I can offer:

Mexico

If you want beaches, skip Cancun and instead camp at Tulum.

Costa Rica

The east side is way cheaper than the west side, where tourism has pushed prices up. We saved money on the west side by cooking our own meals, while on the east side we ate out at least once a day.

Panama

Food can be had for somewhat cheap, but we had trouble finding affordable accommodations online outside of Panama City, meaning you might have to do some searching when you arrive. If you want to watch the Panama Canal in action but the Miraflores Locks museum is closed or out of your price range, take the bus to the Pedro Miguel locks instead and watch the ships pass by for free, though behind a chain link fence.

Colombia

In Cartagena, stay just outside the walled city to get far better hotel rooms and food for less money. Head to Santa Marta or Medellin for a slightly less touristy experience, and in my opinion better food.

Ecuador

We found hotel rooms for less than $30 a night in Quito, though food was more expensive than Colombia. Pollo broaster was a staple, served with rice and heaps of beans.

Galapagos

If you want a cruise, you can get one for less than list price using the guide I wrote here. Be prepared for even the hostels to be expensive on the island, buy groceries from areas further from the city center, and double check prices before you buy — the price of staples can vary depending on the store (or perhaps whether the vendor thinks they can charge you a higher price than the locals).

Peru

Low season definitely cheaper in Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, but be prepared for people pushing hard to get money from you. Skip the $200 train to the ruin and instead hike the Salkantay or catch a bus to Hidroelectrica and hike from there.

Or if it’s food you’re after, head to Arequipa instead, where food and board will be more generous for the same price.

Chile

Hostels weren’t much of a thing in Arica, the city in Northern Chile we visited, so be prepared outside of Santiago to do some on-the-ground research for a cheap place to stay. While flights are the fastest way to travel the length of the country, buses are far cheaper and can be taken overnight.

Oceania, Asia, and Europe

These three are stuck together because I honestly couldn’t figure out how to split Russia in half using Inkscape, and the map looked idiotic with Russia just missing. Anyway, the breakdown of cost here is one most people already know: Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are expensive. Hong Kong, surprisingly, has a similar cost compared to Western Europe, while Southeast Asia is super cheap (excluding Singapore, which we didn’t visit). In Europe, things get cheaper as you go east through Central and East Europe; this trend continues through Russia as well.

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Oceasiaope? Cost comparison of this half of the world, with Africa TOTALLY grayed out because we didn’t get there (next time…). Attribution for the original map vector: Lokal_profil.

By country, here is the advice I can offer:

New Zealand

Hostels and motels are super expensive, so AirBnB it in Auckland, then rent a car and have travel double as your place to sleep. New Zealand has a strong camping culture, so 1) don’t trash it because you’ll ruin it for the rest of us and 2) they have tons of freely available campsites, bathrooms, and rest stops you can access. They’re handily plotted for you in the CamperMate app. While there are free campsites around the islands, many are also a hefty $10-20 a night, so be sure to either account for time to travel to a free campsite or money for that nearer one.

If a standard rental is too pricey, you could always also consider a relocation rental, where you pay a nominal fee (between $1 and $5, or nothing at all) to drive a rental car to where the company needs it – just be aware there’s usually a time limit for completing the trip.

Australia

Another expensive country, though the hostels are more affordable here than in New Zealand. If you’re going to be in the city for more than a week, consider renting a room or flat — Australian rents are often charged by the week instead of by the month, so you can find weekly rentals beyond Airbnb.

Indonesia

We visited the island of Java and found it to be one of the most affordable countries on our trip. Save money by choosing hostels in less affluent parts of town (like Glodok in Jakarta); you don’t have to worry too much about crime, save maybe petty theft.

Vietnam

Book onsite instead of beforehand online for tours, and check with others for the names and locations of tour and other services because in Vietnam you’ll get six places named the same thing, all of varying quality.

Hong Kong

If you’re looking for a cheap room in the city, chances are you’re staying in Chung King Mansion. There are dozens, if not a hundred hotels running out of that building, which at ~4,000 people is city unto itself. Be prepared for some closed-spaces jostling and vendor-shouting (“Want to buy a sim card, friend?”, “Copy watch for you? Maybe copy handbag?” – he means counterfeit), complete with weird smells and dirty dishes being carted in soapy buckets in the elevator (there are several illegally-run restaurants in rooms throughout the building). Take it all with a smile; despite the close quarters, violent altercations seem rare.

You could also get some of the cheapest food in Chung King, but with tons of amazing restaurants (and some of the most affordable Michelin-starred restaurants in the world), you might want to splurge on food here.

Taiwan

Hostels here were surprisingly expensive and poorly-built, but read reviews to find suitable locations and be prepared for a private room to literally be a mattress on the floor with a bare bulb as a lamp. Get cheap food at corner cafe-style, no frills restaurants during the day and in the nightly street markets at night. And yes, you can get cheap sushi here, but sometimes it will make you sick.

Oh, and want another way to save money? Don’t get bubble milk tea every day, but good luck with that.

Japan

You can find affordable hostels in large cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, but in smaller cities you’re better off going with business hotels, which offer discounts on the weekends (because businessmen have all gone home), or love hotels (which are exactly what you think they are). If you’re watchful, you might also be able to snag a weeknight deal at a ryokan, which will still be a pricey but worthwhile splurge.

Cheap food can also be hard to come by, but your best bet are the Gyu-don and Ten-don counter shops you’ll find scattered about the city, especially concentrated around major train and subway stations. If you can’t find one, though, you can always head to 7-11 or another convenience store, where the cheap food offered is freakishly good.

Russia

If you want to save money overall, skip Moscow and St. Petersburg and stay east of the Urals, where there is gorgeous hiking, cheap campsites, cheap hostels, and cheap food.

If you’re traveling short on money and a light sleeper (or the idea of plazkart terrifies you), go for kupe, where you’ll have other roommates who were also willing to pay more not to deal with plazkart.

Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy, France, Geramny

I haven’t really got good advice for you here, now that we’re in Europe, because save for Bulgaria it felt like we were literally sprinting across the region. Our biggest tip is to find a place to stay with a kitchen (hostel or Airbnb) and make your own food, because even the cheap eats are pretty pricey (yeah, even that shawarma).

If you’re ever in a town without affordable accommodation and you’re desperate, you can always see if the local convent will take boarders for a nominal fee (that’s where we stayed in Sant Agata del Feltria), though in some places morning mass is requisite.

DIY Vodka Tasting Tour

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The Peter and Paul Fortress, as seen from across the Neva River.

We’re now in St. Petersburg, a distinctly European city filled with colorful characters and locals. The change in both architecture and atmosphere is amazing, but makes sense—Peter the Great built this city from a nothingness of swamp to be closer to Europe and learn her ‘modernized’ ways. He was astonishingly successful. One story (shared with is by Guy of a previous post) tells of Peter’s dispute during the city’s construction with a noble, his close friend: “The noble told Peter the Great ‘Your majesty, sir, we cannot build a city here. There is only swamp. Nothing can survive here!’ Peter asked him ‘Do you see that tree over there?’ ‘Yes,’ the noble responded. ‘That is where you will build your house.’” Now St. Petersburg stands as a gateway between Russia and Europe, one that most tourists can access visa-free.

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Tourists walk in front of the Hermitage during a brief respite from rain.

That has not helped prices, which are sky-high in the city for everything from food to housing. Our hostel is friendly, but housed in a dilapidated apartment building with cracked floorboards and uneven walls. We found two bed bugs earlier today (picture here); after an obsessive search of our beds and our rooms, we determined there were no more in the immediate vicinity, zipped up the backpacks, and put them as high up as possible.

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Our hostel room was a bit nicer than the hallways. At least it’s cute.

BUT we also have amazing company in our roommate Javier, who comes from along the U.S./Mexico border but just came from working in China. To celebrate, we decided to go a vodka tasting at the local Museum of Russian Vodka, until we found out it’s 1,000 rubles per person to taste only 3 types of vodka! So we did a better, potentially worse thing for us: we went to local liquor stores and bought as many different small bottles (~100 mL) of vodka as we could find. Because our hostel forbade alcohol consumption on the premises, the three of us gathered in the dusty stairwell on the floor above for our vodka tasting.

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Our vodka line-up. Wish us (and our livers) luck, people.

Here are our ever so not-expert notes on their flavor profiles and drinkability:

Vodka #1: Belenkaya (Беленькая)

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76 rubles for 100 mL, this stuff looks solidly middle-shelf.

Stoytcho: This stuff is alcoholic with no real flavor, nor is it particularly smooth.

Natalie: Augh. Harsh alcohol taste followed by fruitiness of ketones. Tastes like I imagine the lab’s 80% ethanol cleaning solution tastes.

Vodka #2: Taiga

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79 rubles for 100 mL, with a name that’s weirdly not in Cyrillic.

Stoytcho: Much smoother, fern and forest notes. Much lower bite of alcohol.

Natalie: Much less harsh front alcohol flavor, back of the throat burn. Fruity, reminiscent of peach bruise flavor with a bitter aftertaste.

Vodka #3:  Chistye Rosy (Чистые Росы)

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149 rubles for 50 mL, this is the fancy BIO-labeled (Europe’s version of USDA Organic), high-end stuff that’s kept in a glass case. Its name means “clean dew”, though I’ve never known dew to have an alcohol content this high.

Stoytcho: Good burning sensation, not as smooth as Taiga but more flavorful.

Natalie: Also smoother than the first one, a little burn at the front of the mouth and back of the throat. Flavors are more pine-nutty instead of fruity.

Vodka #4: Russkij Sever (Русский Север)

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71 rubles for 100 mL, this bottle says ‘I’d rather be out on the Russian tundra’, which is fitting for something named “Russian North”. It sports a couple of tiny awards printed on the front, but goodness knows what they’re for.

Stoytcho: Sweet and corny, too sweet for my taste. Smooth though. Upon second taste, I get old rubber hose.

Natalie: Slightly sweet, but more of a barley or wheat flavor. Smooth-ish, but not as smooth as Taiga. On second taste, I get barley.

Vodka #5: Legenda Imeperi (Л егенда Империи)

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70 rubles for 100 mL, I get the feeling this bottle is lower or middle-shelf based on the bright bottle label and font. This is “Imperial Legend”, so let’s see what that legend is all about.

Stoytcho: Fairly smooth with a mild burn. A bit sweet, but not overwhelmingly so.

Natalie: This tastes just like lab ethanol smells, but it’s less bitter. Again, fruity like bruised peaches.

Vodka #6: Tri Starika (Три Старика)

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80 rubles for 100 mL, this alcohol has a similar lower- or middle-shelf shiny, ornate label with a peacock. Let’s see what “Three Old Men” tastes like.

Stoytcho: Highly alcoholic with a middle-to-high burn. It’s middling-sweet and slightly bitter.

Natalie: Nooooo… Harsh, alcoholic, a little sweet but mostly burny with a medicinal hint reminiscent of ginseng.

Vodka #7: SORDIS Liricheskaya (SORDIS лирическая)

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82 rubles for 100 mL, the clean label indicates this is ‘middle-shelf’ vodka. A sticker on the front says this vodka is ‘silver-filtered, special story’. So that’s a selling point, I guess?

Stoytcho: Lower alcohol than Tri Starika but the same rough burn. It’s more bitter, but somehow a bit smoother.

Natalie: It’s sweeter and less harsh than the last one, but has a hideous bitter flavor. Ughhh…so bitter, nasty. God, this is what I imagine isopropanol tastes like.

Vodka #8: Urozhai (Урожай)

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65 rubles for 100 mL, with a simple, colorful label that says ‘yeah, I’m pretty cheap.’ The name means ‘vintage,’ so maybe we can take the bottle to a secondhand store afterward.

Stoytcho: Plain flavor, mild burn, low alcohol flavor. Nothing of special note.

Natalie: Semi-smooth with a tongue-throat after-burn. Main flavors are wheaty and bready. Hey, this is like drinking a slice of bread! (Stoytcho: no, that’s kvas).

Vodka #9: Staraya Kazan (Старая Казань)

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65 rubles for 100 mL, this is “old Kazan Lux”. Kazan is a city at the edge of the Urals, famed for its architecturally gorgeous ancient fortifications and mosques. Let’s see what Kazan has in store for us.

Stoytcho: High alcohol, mid-level burn. Sweet sticky taste, overall terrible and gag-inducing.

Natalie: very sweet, with rubbing alcohol aftertaste and throat burn. Not super fruity, just sweet. Ok, now THIS is the lab ethanol I’ve been inhaling as it evaporates off surfaces for the last five years. I bet this burns perfectly if I need to sterilize some equipment.

(All of us voted this one the worst. Sorry, Kazan.)

Vodka #10: Zelyonaya Marka (Зелёная марка)

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77 rubles for 100 mL, this bottle of ‘Green Mark’ is in an odd position. For one thing, Stoytcho has already read online it’s some of the best Russia can offer. But they also didn’t have any “original” flavor Green Mark at the store in a convenient 100 mL format, so we went with ‘кедровая’ or ‘cedar’ flavored.

Stoytcho: Smooth, mild burn, with a grassy sweetness. This is indeed really good.

Natalie: Sweet, slightly pine-nutty, would pair well with juice. It’s not to burny and fairly smooth, kind of like Listerine. Ok, I’d drink this.

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Our tasting room: the stairwell above our hostel.

In Summary

Between each taste-test, we rinsed our glasses and our mouths out with water. After we calculated the first scores, we tried the top five vodkas iteratively until we had a definitive ranking. And our winner is…Zelyonaya Marka! Perhaps we were biased by online reviews, but it was pretty drinkable. Here’s how all of the vodkas ranked, just for you:

1st: Zelyonaya Marka
2nd: Taiga
3rd: Urozhai (surprising for the price, I know!)
4th: Legenda Imperi
5th: Belenkaya
6th: Chistye Rosy
Everything else: please don’t make us drink it again.

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We survived!