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.

Travel by Finances_New
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.

Travel by Finances_LATAM
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.

Travel by Finances_AsiaEurope
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.

The Cost of a Year Around the World, Part 2: The Spend

Last time, we talked about the budget process for a year around the world, where I estimated that it would take $28,000 per person (around $500 per week) to circumnavigate the globe (at an enjoyable pace) in roughly a year. After the 54 weeks of travel across 5 continents and 28 countries (31 with layovers), we had spent $25,286.50 per person ($468.27 per week)! Below, I’ll talk about what we actually spent our money on and how we kept our costs down, as well as how you might be able to spend a year traveling on even less.

Total Spend By Category v01
Our breakdown of spend for the year.

Sticking to a Budget

A budget only works if you stick to it, so I built a tool to help us track our spending through the entire trip. It’s an Excel spreadsheet with tabs that I tracked all of our spend on in five categories – lodging, food, travel, personal hygiene and health, and fun. It then calculates total spend by category for each week and by country. You can download it for free below to use on your trips, and if you have any questions feel free to contact me!

Download the World Budget Template

P.S., one thing I would change about my budget is to write the spend in on the day the event occurred, not when we purchased tickets. This is the same day for most things, but for travel will help you sort spend better by region. For example, spend in LATAM looked way higher originally because it included the tickets for our flight to New Zealand, but that should actually be part of the Oceania part of the trip. I’ve made adjustments to the data manually below, but it was a pain to do.

What our budget went to

Because I love data, I ran an analysis on our expenses from the trip and below describe our breakdown of what we expected compared to actual spend by category. As an overview, travel was definitely the biggest part of our budget, which is unsurprising when you’re circumnavigating the world. But even this, as well as food and lodging cost less than we thought. And as avid hikers and explorers, we found tons to do that was fun and free.

Our weekly total spend by region.

Travel

Expected: $200 per person per week
Actual: $162.24 per person per week

As mentioned above, travel was our biggest budget category and is nearly twice the size of our nearest other spend categories (food and lodging). This is primarily because I set out with a goal for us to circumnavigate the world AND chase summer, so we had to travel round the globe in a giant sinusoidal shape (that’s a sideways “S” shape for, for those of you who don’t know). We had to cross both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and shift between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and that much distance to cover in a year while leaving time to enjoy things means we paid money for flights. It was normally a couple hundred dollars here or there, but there were also a few big-ticket items like the flight from Phoenix to Mexico City, to and from the Galapagos, from Santiago to Auckland, and the flight home from Berlin. Trains, which were really only available Western Europe as a mode of transit (save for Russia and Indonesia), were surprisingly often as expensive as flights. Bus was often the slowest, but cheapest and most interesting option between locations (even the bus ride from hell counts).

Our best rule for saving money became the two-week rule: unless there was no other way, we booked flights only if we were travelling more than two weeks out. If we were within the two-week period, we caught a bus or some other mode of transit instead. Rome2Rio helped us out a lot in figuring that out.

Weekly spend on travel by each region; definitely pricier in Oceania and Europe, while Asia’s is higher because we bought 2-week JR passes in Japan.

Lodging

Expected: $105 per person per week
Actual: $78.39 per person per week

Another expected, constant cost of our trip was a place to sleep each night. We had a budget of $15 per person per night, and what we could get for that varied a lot both between and within countries — heck, it varied a lot even within the same city. Prime example was Cartagena, where a private hostel bedroom within the walled city with the bed taking up nearly the entire space, no AC, and gaping holes in the ceiling that let mosquitos in cost us as much as an air-conditioned, modern room with a TV just outside the city’s walls.

My primary strategy to keep cost down was research, research, research. If I had the time or knew we were going to be somewhere for a while in advance, I checked Hotels.com, Booking.com, and HostelWorld.com for the cheapest deal, looking in particular for multiple-day stay discounts. If it was last minute, I skipped HostelWorld and just stuck with Hotels.com and Booking.com, looking for last-minute discounts.

We also cut costs by having transit sometimes double as lodging, taking overnight buses, flights and trains. This was particularly helpful in South America, where long-haul buses are commonplace and first-class seats were affordable for travelers, even on our budget. For flights, the airport often doubled as our accommodation, as we would find a quiet part of the airport and rolled out our camping mattresses before or after our flight. Since people frequently sleep overnight in airports (there’s a whole website dedicated to it), most airport staff don’t bat an eye.

Lastly, we cut about a month’s worth of lodging (and food) costs and had the most amazing time possible by doing the obvious: visiting where we had friends and family currently living. It meant we had a happy host, a welcoming bed, amazing food, and often a far better guide than the internet to the area.

Weekly spend on lodging by region; the spend in Asia is so high primarily because of Japan, but also due to a few nights of splurging on a hotel room here and there, and lower in Europe because of stretches of stays with friends and family.

Food

Expected: $105 per person per week
Actual: $89.66 per person per week

Like having a place to sleep, you always gotta have something to eat, but we found while food could vary wildly by country, we had more control over it than the cost of lodging. If you’re staying in a hostel in almost any country, you can pick up ingredients from a local market and cook a meal for a fraction of the cost of a meal out. This played a big role in making Western Europe affordable, where we saved for one nicer ~$25 meal a day and otherwise snacked on homemade sandwiches and salads. The only caveat I would give here is that there is an opportunity, no, an enjoyability cost. Because a place’s cuisine is often unique and singular to a place (like the culture), it’s worth springing the money to enjoy at least a couple of meals and understand how the locals eat. We would rather spend a little extra on food over lodging any day (which usually gives you less of a window into culture), and our actual spend reflects that.

Beyond cooking your own meals, the other way to save costs is the above-mentioned stay-with-friends-and-family method. Not much can beat a home-cooked meal, and in many countries your more rural relatives have better tips on the best cheap places to eat.

Weekly spend on food by geography; Asia is high primarily due to volume of food and not necessarily cost, and costs in Europe are lower due to a lot of staying with friends and family, netting us delicious meals.

Personal hygiene/health

Expected: $20 per person per week
Actual: $41.88 per person per week; $11.46 per person per week without our year of travel health insurance

So depending on whether you want to count the pre-trip costs in the budget, I was either wildly under-estimating this one or just a little over-estimating it. When I put together the trip budget, I originally dropped the pre-trip expenses into a different spreadsheet and built the travel budget without it, so I wasn’t counting the travel insurance. As I mentioned in the last post, that travel insurance wasn’t useful beyond peace of mind, because even when I took a fall in Peru and needed an X-ray, the full cost of the visit was the equivalent of ~$200 USD and it was difficult to keep track of receipts and submit them for reimbursement while moving around so much.

Otherwise, this category sat pretty unused with the exception of repairing our equipment and restocking medicine, which I’d recommend purchasing when you are getting modestly low, not when you’re low or out, because there are some countries that just don’t have certain medicines. Pharmacists in Indonesia and Vietnam, for example, had no idea what bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) was, so we were out until we got to Hong Kong.

The equipment repair and replacement was also pretty variable, and mostly consisted of us repairing the same pairs of shoes we wore throughout the trip. In general, a good rule to determine whether you should repair or replace is look at the current socioeconomic status of the country around you; depressingly, it’s affordable to get things repaired when you’re in a poorer country, but to buy something new when you’re in a richer country, just because of the variation in cost of labor. In some countries, we couldn’t even find people who still repaired camping equipment or shoes.

Weekly spend on personal hygiene, medical, and emergency by geography. The cost in Oceania is so high because we bought a UV sterilizer when our water pump broke, and in Europe we had to renew travel insurance.

Fun

Expected: $100 per person per week
Actual: $96.10 per person per week

I’m thrilled to see the budget for fun experiences and souvenirs is almost spot-on with what I predicted, because I wasn’t sure if I had dramatically under-or over-estimated. We started out in South America being cheap as hell and got a little spend happy in a couple of other places (Japan, Western Europe, looking at you). We did have a couple of big splurges on the trip, like the five-star Galapagos cruise with a Cordon Bleu-trained chef on board (why our LATAM bar is so tall) and fine pens/hobby equipment in Japan. I also placed meals in really nice restaurants in this category because they felt more like experiences than food. But overall, we managed to keep costs down by being outdoorsy people and going for hikes or walking around town. We would also ask locals for recommendations on what to do for fun, as these tended to be way cheaper and more interesting than whatever was set up for tourists.

Weekly spend on fun experiences and mementos by geography; the cost in LATAM is our $3,000 Galapagos cruise, and everything in Oceania cost so much money to do that we basically on did free hikes.

How to do it on less

There are two ways you could travel for a year on less: make fewer hops between countries, and stick with cheaper countries. We stayed in a location 1-2 weeks before moving on, which meant we were paying a lot in travel expenses. We also intentionally visited some more expensive countries (New Zealand, Japan, France, Germany), because we wanted to see them. If you weren’t set on the idea of circumnavigating the planet, stick with just Asia or LATAM and save yourself the cost of cross-continental hops.

Next, I’ll be doing a breakdown by country of our costs and provide some tips on how to save money in each country.

Read Part 1: The Budget.

Read Part 3: Country Comparison.