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.

3 Things I Learned from a Year Around the World

I’m a scientist by training, and traveling 24/7 provided ample time to observe the world and its people. Free from the mental burden of a daytime job and (most) academic obligations, I did and watched and spoke and thought. After a year , here are three things I have learned from my travels:

One: People are generally good.

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A kid poses while working a market stall in Jakarta.

It’s easy to be cynical about people in the world, now moreso than ever, so it’s easy to dismiss this first one as some bland attempt at higher moral values. But the goodness of people and their willingness to help when you need it is one of the most humbling and powerful parts about real travel. From the guys who picked us up as hitch-hikers stranded in central Java and refused to accept what little money we had to our cabin-mates who generously shared their food with us on the trans-Siberian rail between Ulan-Ude and Krasnoyarsk, people were incredibly kind to us when we needed help.

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These fine folks watched our stuff while we went swimming on a beach in Chile.

And it wasn’t that they felt we were in a position worse than theirs — as foreigners travelling, we are clearly well off and could repay them. We could have easily repaid the women in Goryachinsk who took us into their dacha for the night, or the man in Panama who paid for my bus fare when I miscalculated how much it would cost to fly to the airport and this was the last bus we could catch to be on time for our flight. They could tell we could repay, but that wasn’t the goal. Kindness was.

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A Russian couple we met while camping in Stolby insisted on sharing their food with us, including making fresh salad each night.

That being said, those who are most eager to help you often don’t have your best interests in mind. These are often people looking to ingratiate themselves to you and then harness reciprocity to get something from you in return. A great example were the luggage carriers in Probolinggo, Indonesia: guys who would hang out where the jeeps dropped off tourists and eagerly offered to help carry luggage. They not only expect a tip, but are often in cahoots with men who sell fake tickets at the bus station and will direct you to purchase tickets from them, expecting that their first favor to you will blind you to what’s going on. In these situations, I often got a “weird” feeling that was difficult to ignore, and it was worthwhile to listen to it.

 

Two: Water is a problem everywhere.

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A reservoir in France; you can see where the water line once was.

“Water, water everywhere, and not enough to drink”. We may live on a blue planet, but nearly everywhere we went there seemed to be less water than ever before. Locals in Cartagena and Medellin noted it was a dry year, while friends in Australia spoke of drought and described this year’s wildfires in New South Wales. The trees in many cities and towns in Bulgaria showed signs of water stress, with curled brown leaves and wilted young branches. And driving through France, it was hard to miss the chalky white marks along reservoir edges marking old water lines, now feet above the current water level. Much of the world is getting hotter, and drier.

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Markings of waterlines suggest there’s been a steady decline in water here.

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There remnants of a hillside brush fire in Macedonia.

And where there is water, it is often polluted or perceived as polluted. Of the 28 countries we visited, we had to drink bottled or filtered water in more than half of them. We purified our water in Mexico, Central and South America, all of Asia, and parts of Eastern Europe because we were advised not to drink the tap water. Even in places where we were told the tap water was fine to drink in Chile and parts of Russia and Central Europe, we would often find locals drinking bottled water. Even if the water is drinkable now, in many places people don’t trust it because it wasn’t drinkable before. That’s a hard mindset to change, especially when people don’t see it as a problem to solve but an inevitability.

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Bottled water is an inevitable requirement in many countries…

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…but guess where those water bottles end up?

Three: It isn’t just the poor vs the rich, it’s rural vs urban.

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An abandoned machine in the town of Nikolaevo, Bulgaria.

The wealth disparity in the world is another thing that’s hard to miss when you’re traveling, regardless of what country you’re in. The paradigm of the poor versus the rich is an ancient one and continues to this day. But now there’s a twist: it’s not just poor versus the rich, but it’s the rural versus the urban population. Nearly everywhere we went, the poorest people in the cities still had far more opportunities and resources than the poorest people in rural areas. Those who can travel to cities to work and sell goods, packing buses, trains, and roads.

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People board a bus bound for the city in Ecuador.

This divide in wealth makes sense, because historically anywhere a concentration of goods and information arose a city would follow, and in turn a city would seek to increase the amount of goods and information at its disposal. But now there’s a new twist: information flows more freely than ever before out of cities into rural areas. 4G phone speeds may not be accessible everywhere, but you can surf the web in towns along the Baikal shore in Siberia and get cell signal in the Andes. Rural people (and everyone, really) have faster access to more information than ever before — including clear representations of life in the city, with all of those resources, with all of that wealth.

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Men laying fiber optic cable in a more rural area in Colombia.

They know what they’re missing out on, and that can’t feel good. The next challenge for us in tackling wealth disparity will be to build technology that facilitates the flow of goods more easily to rural areas. Otherwise we could have a lot of angry people on our hands.

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Temporary Goodbyes

20171106_100212 Today Stoytcho and I are saying goodbye temporarily, as he heads home to the U.S. to take care of some personal matters. It’s weird that it’s just another plane ride, but it will be one that he takes alone. I’m staying in Germany for another week.

I take the metro with Stoytcho to the Berlin airport to see him off and we talk mostly about logistics. He’s flying to New York, then on to San Diego. I’m flying from Berlin to Boston a week later to start looking for apartments while staying with his cousin. He’ll join me when he’s done in San Diego, but we don’t know when that will be.

For most people and in most scenarios, this would be totally normal. But it feels so weird when you’ve spent nearly every waking (and sleeping) moment with the same person for the last 13 months. When you’ve curled up in a tiny 2-person tent in the New Zealand wilderness or shared a mattress on a floor in Russia, when you’ve been crammed together in a narrow row of seats in a bus puttering through the Chilean desert or in the back of a incredibly-jittery minivan careening down a volcano in Indonesia. Or when you’ve both squeezed into the same tiny half-person bathroom because one of you needs to use the sink and the other needs to use the toilet, and like hell are either of you are going to wait.

Our journey together has been 371 days long. That’s 8,904 hours, of which Stoytcho and I have spent roughly 8,890 together. That seems like an insanely long time, but this is how things used to be. We spent our lives with the same people, in the same tribe, unchanging save for the flow of birth and death.

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Now Stoytcho will disappear behind a wall and in a few hours will be thousands of miles of way. The modern age is weird.