4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Costs Of Travel”

Costs of Travel #5 – Real Travel for $50 Per Day, a Summary of Asia & the Entire Trip (by Nathan)

Polaroid taken of us at a party in HK

Polaroid taken of us at a party in HK

I present to you the final installment of our “Costs of Travel” series! Quick recap: the last four months of our trip were evenly split between Southeast Asia (including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos) and China.  Our final city was Hong Kong, a grand finale to our enormous adventure. We travelled for 410 days and were able to do it for $50 per day. This post will look at the last four months as well as the trip as a whole to provide some advice on how you can get started on your own world tour.

4FEET2MOUTHS Costs of Travel - Regions

(You may notice that the entire trip shows up as $61.60 a day, but this will be explained later on.  We found a way to save at least $11 per day)

Our trip as analyzed through the Costs of Travel thus far:

All this travel definitely made a dent on our pocket book.  We toured 18 countries and explored everything from jungles and mountaintops to pristine beaches and without doubt, it was worth it.  We learned some financial budgeting lessons in South America, we got back on track in the United States and we continued our love of travel into Europe and India.

4feet2mouths Travel Costs - Southeast Asia

It is funny, but Southeast Asia would only feel expensive after arriving from a place like India which is what we did. India is incredibly inexpensive; a few dollars and we were eating like kings.  I am still amazed that we were eating dosas and idli every morning for 50 cents! Where else can you travel to a country for less than $35 per day with flights and visas?  We landed in Bangkok feeling a little awkward in the modernity of a city that is so starkly different from New Delhi.   The contrasts between India and Thailand were so vivid that we constantly grappled in our first few days to readjust to Thailand.  What we quickly learned was that everything in Southeast Asia was twice the price of India, but even still everything was very affordable.

Overall, the costs in the various Southeast Asian countries were very similar and our daily budget was pretty stable at $47 per person per day.  Hostels and hotels were pretty standard at $6-$11 per day and food $7-$9.  That means we were getting all of our basic needs met for $16 per person per day on average.  We did find that every Southeast Asian country had some relatively expensive excursion or activity that we couldn’t pass up: scuba diving, Ankor Wat, Halong Bay and jungle trekking were all wonderful and essential experiences, but they bloated the “Fun” category of our budget.  We also noticed that transportation in the region, both between cities (the Get In category) and within cities (Transit) can easily be done for under $5 per day.  We bused everywhere, with many overnight buses, and I recommend that as the most accessible and comfortable method of transportation.

2012.07.24FEET2MOUTHS Costs of Travel - China & Hong Kong

When we arrived in China it somehow felt more expensive to us than SE Asia.  But when finally sitting down and looking at the numbers it was in fact that same cost – $48 per person per day.  It felt like we were constantly being charged park entrance fees, but those costs rarely compared to the “Fun” costs we had in SE Asia.  A big savings was that we were touring China during winter, which meant that many of the boat cruises and beach adventure activities we were doing in SE Asia were not possible.  It was the buses and trains between cities that were roughly twice the price in China and we typically spent $8 each per day on that transportation, whereas transit within cities was excellent at only $1.34 per day.  All in all, China was extremely affordable. The food, sights and adventure were some of our best memories.

Rainbow currencies of Hong Kong

Rainbow currencies of Hong Kong

Excellent meals at Spring Deer and Da Ping Huo

Excellent meals at Spring Deer and Da Ping Huo

Hong Kong is one of our favorite cities.  We wanted to spend some time there, but at the same time not bust our budget that we had worked so hard to tame.  Hong Kong is one of those cities that must be balanced with one of the more affordable ones.   Planning a trip like ours requires a balance of the “India’s” and the “UK’s;” longer periods of time in the cheap countries provides for a few days in the expensive ones.  After three and a half months SE Asia and China we were ready for a world-class city.   Everything in Hong Kong is about twice the price of China and lodging is quadruple.  We did some pre-planning and found a few friends to host us on Couchsurfing.  It is possible to eat in Hong Kong for under $10 per day, but Hong Kong has one of the most eclectic restaurant scenes in the world so it is worth it to splurge a little.  And as many of you know, food was a quintessential reason for our travel adventures.  Even with succulent visits to Spring Deer and Da Ping Huo we were still able to reach our budget goals.

4FEET2MOUTHS Travel Costs - Every Country

South America was an eye-opener for us; $96 per person per day was not sustainable for a year of travel.  We re-assessed, adjusted and planned a seven month around-the-world trip (Europe to Asia) that successfully only cost $50.5 per day.  We learned that South America is inherently expensive because flights are costly, reciprocity visa fees are prevalent and food and lodging is just not that cheap.  Our revised plan did in fact find a balance of activities, sights and awesome food for an affordable cost.  One reality that we have not addressed was that investing our travel money actually funded major portions of our trip.

4FEET2MOUTHS Costs of Travel - Hypothetical Investments

One of the main advice points of Trip Tip #4 was to in invest your savings before embarking on your around-the-world trip.  I have created a little scenario to prove my point. Suppose I set aside $25,000 each for Carmen and me about one year before we embarked on our trip.  This money would be spent in increments during the trip so would have to be accessible. In this scheme we invested in one of the big Dow companies or in the S&P 500 (an index of the top 500 US companies) that is likely to slowly grow, but not sink.  I ran a scenario where $5,000 was withdrawn at the start of the trip and every three months during the trip.  I chose a selection of companies that everyone has heard of: Disney, Verizon, Exxon Mobile and CocaCola.  If you have a resistance to buying stock, then you are missing out on all the companies that are profiting off of you.  Truth: you are not off the grid. I like to think that I am taking advantage of globalization and the world reach of corporate America by allowing these companies to fund my travel of the globe.  I take my portion of their profits and reinvest it in the local communities I visit by buying food at a street cart or staying in a family-owned hotel.  

My investment scenario shows some amazing findings: two years after deciding to travel and investing the money resulted in thousands of dollars in free money.  Suppose in our investing scenario we did not invest in Disney, but we did earn $4,500 over the course of two years; over 410 days of travel we would have saved $11 per day! Carmen and I did not invest in any of these companies, and I must remind you that there is risks involved in investing, so please research every company thoroughly before you float your life savings on stocks.

Costs of Travel - Everything

So we did it!  Even though we were spending $96 a day in South America, we balanced our trip with some more inexpensive places like the Camino de Santiago, India and SE Asia.  We invested our travel money along the way and pulled it out as we needed it.  Therefore, the $61.60 a day we spent minus the $11 in investment earnings brought us to our goal.  The end result, 410 days, 4 continents, 18 countries at $50.6 per day. 

Check out all of our nerdy fun pie charts here:

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Costs of Travel #3: Highs and Lows in Europe & India (by Carmen)

In August of 2012 Nathan and I were excitedly preparing for the Big Trip – our around the world adventure that would take us eastward towards Europe, Asia and all the way back to California. Based on our travels earlier in 2012 we felt ready – we knew what to pack and how to plan and, importantly, how to budget. South America had taught us valuable lessons on blowing a budget and we managed to find a better balance in our US travels.

London Expenses 2012

The lovely Borough Market offers delicious (but pricey) eats in London

The lovely Borough Market offers delicious (but pricey) eats in London

But we were about to be tested. Everyone loves Europe’s history, culture, and food but invariably people always need to mention the expense. This is especially true of our very first destination – London. And they’re right. London is expensive for the visitor. I will note that living there is a different story since cooking your meals offers huge costs savings (more than in the States) and my former employer covered all transit costs for me and Nathan (a dream deal). But this time we were tourists and we needed to cut costs somewhere. Enter couchsurfing, round 2. Our first experience couchsurfing, which took place in Nebraska, was unique and resulted in us borrowing a tent and setting up in a local campground. This time around, it was much more of a cultural exchange. Our host, a Malaysian native studying law, cooked us some fried rice. We later cooked him a feast with supplies from the nearest polski sklep (Polish grocery shop). Couchsurfing saved us at least $50 a night – and that’s the price for 2 beds in a 12 bed dorm room! For a private room, forget it. Instead, we spent our money on the city’s excellent restaurants and riding my favorite transit option, the tube. And, as always, London has some of the best museums in the world and they’re free! Hence, the low entertainment costs.

Camino de Santiago Expenses 2012

One of the best meals on the Camino, broiled octopus with chunks of bread and bowls of white wine

One of the best meals on the Camino, broiled octopus with chunks of bread and bowls of white wine

After London, we began one of our greatest adventures yet – the Camino de Santiago. Plenty of literature can be found online and in books on the average costs of the Camino and we were right on target at $32.42 per day (not including costs to get to Spain and back). Obviously, the biggest budget item is food – necessary to fuel your body to walk 8 hours in a day. In this chart, I love how our transit costs are so low. This is because for an entire month I only moved by the power of my own feet. No buses, trains, bikes or cars. This $0.46 represents a day trip we took to La Coruna at the end of our trip, as we spent a few days in Santiago. Overall, the Camino is a great option for learning about Spanish culture on a serious budget.

Madrid Expenses 2012

At the hip Madrid tapas bar, La Musa

At the hip Madrid tapas bar, La Musa

During the Camino we became used to spending very little. So by the time we got to Madrid, we were ready to splurge! We joined the crowds at hip bars and new-age tapas joints. We ordered an enormous pan of paella topped off with a jug of sangria. We stayed in a private room in a well-located hostel. We still saved by timing our museum visits for free entry and walking around instead of taking transit or taxis. But in the end the Spanish capitol became our most expensive stop on the Big Trip.

Greece Expenses 2012

Gyro are filling, cheap and everywhere

Gyro are filling, cheap and everywhere

Everyone knows Greece has been one of the hardest hit by the recession. So this must mean low prices, right? Well, kind of. Museums have their entry fees and hotels were not cheap. So we did our best to couchsurf, which led to more awesome experiences and new friendships. Where we did stay in hotels, we used the fact that it was the shoulder season (October) to our advantage and bargained with hotel owners on the islands. This worked out to have some significant savings for us. You can’t really bargain at restaurants, though, so our food costs ended up being the biggest chunk of the pie. But at least our cheap gyro meals kept this cost lower than it could have been.

Turkey Expenses 2012

Delicious cacık is a tradition in Turkey

Delicious cacık is a tradition in Turkey

Turkey proved to be a similar cost to Greece, though the breakdown is quite different. Our eating costs reduced significantly even though we were still eating in casual restaurants. But our couchsurfing efforts didn’t pan out therefore we ended up in hostels. I really loved our Selcuk hostel, though, so in the end it all worked out. Compared to the rest of Europe, Turkey really offers great sights and food for relatively low cost.

Europe Expenses 2012

Overall, Europe was not a budget breaker at all. It can be, as our splurge in Madrid showed. And without the couchsurfing our costs would have gone up. But I feel that we had really found our balance in spending where it meant the most for us (more simply, food).

India Expenses 2012

Delicious idli and gunta ponganalu breakfast from Hampi, India.  I'm pretty sure this cost about $0.75 or less with our morning chai.

Delicious idli and gunta ponganalu breakfast from Hampi, India. I’m pretty sure this cost about $0.60 or less with our morning chai.

And now for something completely different. India was not only a culture shock to the system, it was shockingly cheap. Especially all the gloriously delicious food. We mostly ate at street food stalls and casual restaurants, but everywhere we went we just shook our heads at the low prices. Food has no cost premium, but land does. Fit a billion people in a country a third the size of the continental US and you better believe it’s crowded. Therefore, hostels were relatively expensive at $25 a night for a private room in the bigger cities. Of course, in the bigger picture this is cheap so go ahead and live like a king in India. For me, the budget in India was so low that it inspired my personal back-up plan. If at some point in my life I need to take a break, some time to step back and breathe, I’m headed to India where I could probably spend a year living comfortably and eating well for $10K.

Expenses YTD through India 2012

So I’ve taken you through the highs and lows of our Big Trip budget. Europe was our high, but by making key cuts in our sleeping and eating costs we were able to keep our budget in check. In India it’s not expensive to splash out but we still decided to keep budget in mind and stayed at low-cost hotels and ate plenty of street food. We were striving to keep our overall travel budget for the year at $50 per day, which means we were going to have to make-up for our blown South America budget. So far we were still around $67 per day.  Did we succeed in bringing it down? Our next post on costs through the rest of Asia will reveal all!

Costs of Travel #2 – Finding Our Bearings in the US of A (by Nathan)

Carmen and a Grand Canyon Sunrise

Carmen and a Grand Canyon Sunrise

We crash landed into North America after four months trekking in South America.  It was exhilarating to travel in a new continent and deeply satisfying to break the mold of a mere two week vacation.  Surprisingly, the trip felt very short and we were definitely itching to travel more when we finally returned to Los Angeles.  Originally our plan was to arrive back at the United States and then re-evaluate if it was actually possible to travel the world for the rest of the year.  Upon arriving back to LA, there was no doubt, we were going to continue traveling and we were going to make it the best year of our lives.  One challenge was that to travel for another year, we would really need to reign in the costs.  We began our research and started to plan “The Big Trip.”

4feet2mouths - Costs of Travel - United States

The plan was simple, we would take a couple months to explore and travel in the United States.  It is funny sometimes that it is so easy to travel to somewhere exotic and foreign, but the best of our own country was often overstepped.  In order to gain our bearings, re-assess the financial situation and best plan our around-the-world trip we decided tour parts of the United States for three months.  We embarked on a tour of Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, New York City, Chicago and even a little Nebraska.

Like before, I have created a few colorful charts to describe the costs of travel.  Carmen and I use charts like these to compare travel destinations and better plan our vacations in the future.  These figures include everything: flights, transit, food and lodging and we hope they can be a helpful tool to those needing a rough idea of the possible expense of travel.  There are eight categories of expenses.  There were no visas and we decided to travel without any health or travel insurance.  Flight costs were smeared among the destinations of NYC and the Midwest.  “Get in” refers to expenses related to travel to a destination- buses, gasoline, subways.  “Transit” refers to the transport costs once at the destination.  Lodging is usually a big expense of travel, but we utilized family, friends and camping to significantly reduce this cost.

The Pacific Ocean seen from Palos Verdes

The Pacific Ocean seen from Palos Verdes

Costs of Travel – Los Angeles

This time we took some of our own advice and began the careful monitoring of a budget that would be sustainable for the next year of travel.  The United States is pricier than many parts of the world, but we were able to keep our costs down by cooking a bunch and staying with family and friends. Countless people went out of their way to host us in spare bedrooms and couches and we are grateful for their hospitality.  Los Angeles was our home base; Carmen’s parents were a valuable resource and we can’t thank them enough for letting us stay with them.  My family is spread all over Southern California, and we traveled some weekends to the mountains and San Diego.  It was really wonderful to spend some quality time with our parents and my brother.  We made our best efforts to use transit, which is a major feat in car-loving Southern California. Our favorite ride is a train that connects Downtown LA to San Diego that is relatively easy to use and only about $17 for a one-way ticket. Our biggest costs were food, gas a new camera and an iPad for the blog.

Costs of Travel – Grand Canyon

Of course we got a little stir-crazy and after two weeks for being stationary we set out on a road trip to Grand Canyon.  Some of the most beautiful land formations on earth are relatively close to Las Vegas.  We decided to take a road trip from Los Angeles.  We camped for 11 nights and drove back.  I could spend months exploring the beauty of Utah and Arizona.  Every national park has an entrance fee and lasts a week, so on this trip we decided to focus just only on the Grand Canyon.  Car-camping in the U.S. runs about $35 a night.  But, both the South and north Rim are flanked by national forests that promote “freedom camping.”  If you can deal with the lack of facilities (i.e. paved roads, bathrooms and showers), then you can go find a beautiful spot all to yourselves in the middle of the forest.  We also took several visits to the wilderness permit offices to establish hiking trips into the canyon and forests.  After many nights of sleeping in the dirt it was nice to settle into a hotel bed in Las Vegas.  If you visit Vegas on a Wednesday, and stay in downtown instead of on the strip there are big, comfortable rooms for $37.   We splurged on a Cirque du Soleil show, and for two weeks of Grand Canyon it only cost us $42 per person per day.

Costs of Travel – New York

Costs of Travel – Chicago

We also wanted to spend time in two of our favorite US cities: New York and ChicagoWe enjoyed the great company of our friends Taylor and Andrew in Brooklyn and many laughs alongside our cousin Tracy and her pugs in Chicago.  Something we love about both these places is the accessibility to amazing food.  As you can see by that we spent $27 each per day on food alone!  We have a hard time turning down a Momofuku pork bun, torta at Xoco or popsicle on Highline Park, but the food of a place is part of the essential experiences that we love about travel.

Costs of Travel – Nebraska

Nebraska was one of those states that was never on our travel list for its excitement or adventure, but more of a place for its hospitality and family charm.  I have an aunt who is 93 and I had really wanted to visit her for many years.  And, because Nebraska is in the middle of the country we never prioritized it into our travel plans.  In a trip across the US it was essential to make this trip to Grand Island and Dannebrog Nebraska. We felt inspired by long bus rides in South America and we took a greyhound from Chicago to Omaha.  But from there we had to rent a car, our biggest cost, and we drove across hundreds of miles of corn fields.  We couchsurfed a night and then camped in a nearby park.  We were pleasantly surprised with the down-to-earth people and the mellow life in Nebraska.  Though vastly different from our other travel differences, it stands out as a rewarding and peaceful experience in our travels this year.

4Feet2mouths Bay Area culinary tour 2012

4Feet2mouths Bay Area culinary tour 2012

Costs of Travel – San Francisco

Our final hoorah before our around-the-world trip was a road trip to San Francisco.  We visited one of our favorite restaurants in Santa Barbara and enjoyed two exciting weeks with our friends in the Bay Area.  This was a food tour more than anything else- we gorged on all our favorite restaurants and bars.  These places used to be our stomping grounds, but we were now visiting them as visitors.  One of the biggest outcomes of this trip was that we sold my truck and we bussed back to LA.

 Costs of Travel – The United States – Bar Chart

Looking back in hindsight, three months was a long time in the United States when we really wanted to be seeing more of the world.  I valued the time that we had to plan and prepare for the Big Trip and I feel that it was essential to the success of the next seven months abroad.  The biggest success was that we were able to work out an around-the-world series of flights for a relatively cheap price.  We listened to our own advice from South America and we slowed down, cooked more and enjoyed the company of our friends and family.  The end cost was not a budget breaker, but something more impressive- travel in the United States for $46 per day per person.

Costs of Travel #1 – Blowing Up a Budget in South America (by Nathan)

4feet2mouths Costs of Travel Bar Chart – Country Comparison

Travel is expensive! Yes, but it does not have to be.  Exploring the world is a dream that many of us have, but in Carmen and my case we went after it.  There are just too many beautiful places to see and too much awesome street food to eat.  There was a clear point in our lives where travel had to happen, no matter what the cost.  That intense excitement led to a thrilling exploration of South America and eventually the world.  Through trial and error we did learn how to travel cheaply. In our explanation of how to finance a trip around the world we must first discuss our failed budget when we went to South America. I’ll detail some of our mistakes and hopefully we all can become better travelers from it.

We set our original goals at $10,000USD for 3-1/2 months in South America.  We had some experience traveling in Asia and Europe; we reviewed some guidebooks checked out some prices and $50 per person per day seemed like a plausible goal.   We had an excellent trip to Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Peru and we saw some fabulous things.  We kept track of our finances, we had thought (cough) we were on track, but when we returned home that summer we found that we had spent twice what we had planned. Ouch! And our end expense exceeded $98 per person per day.

4feet2mouths Costs of Travel Pie Chart – Category Comparison

We mapped out all of our costs to shine clarity on the culprit of this over expenditure.  We divided costs into 10 categories. Eating, sleeping, shopping and flights are obvious ones.  “Transit” describes buses and taxis within a city while “Get In” refers to the regional transportation costs of traveling between cities by long-distance bus.  A night at a club, entrance to a museum or winery, or drinks at a bar are part of our “Fun” category, but multi-night treks would be considered a “Tour.”  The category of “Visas/Ins/Fees” refers to the inescapable costs of travel- entry visas, travel insurance and the bank fees are impossible to avoid in the midst of a 4 month trip across South America.  Miscellaneous costs include toiletries, internet cafes, travel memberships or batteries.  What stood out as the burden to our budget?  All of it!  South America is expensive and to make it cheaper we would have to change our whole travel style.  Our budget goal would have been impossible provided all the fun that we had and the speed and diversity of our travel.  But we still took away some key lessons that we worked into our later travels.

One example: entry visas.  In South America we spent over $1,100 just to enter into these countries. That is over $5 per person per day.  In many ways these are unavoidable, but we learned the valuable lesson that next time we will make the visas worth it by spending more time in the countries.  When you are trying to determine how many days to travel in a country a good goal is for a visa cost to be in the range of $2 per day. The visa for Bolivia was a pain in the ass, but we got through it, Brazil was paid for ahead of time, but two countries could have been avoided entirely with the proper planning.  Here’s how: the Buenos Aires and Santiago airports charge a reciprocity fee of $140 per person.  They can be avoided by arriving by land or boat.  In hindsight we would have bused to Santiago from Mendoza and boated from Uruguay to Buenos Aires and we could have saved $560.
4feet2mouths Costs of Travel Pie Chart – Argentina

The food was not all bad in Argentina: Pierinos was some of the best grub we had!

The food was not all bad in Argentina: Pierinos was some of the best grub we had!

Argentina was where we thought we would save, but it turned out to be much more expensive than we thought.  We lived in Buenos Aires for three weeks.  We took Spanish classes, explored the city’s best restaurants and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in that wonderful city.  Later in our trip, we explored central and northern Argentina in depth with wine tastings, canyon tours and days at the spa.  Looking back on it, we were not traveling with a budget in mind.  We were using a guidebook that was three years old and already the prices of everything had doubled thanks the country’s infamous economy.  The challenge with Argentina is that the food really is not that good.  We were spending European prices for ok steak and crappy salads.  We had a handful of excellent meals, but after six weeks of traveling in Argentina, we should have learned our lesson: cook more when food is expensive.

Costs that we thought were unavoidable were bank fees.  Argentina is the worst because the max withdrawal limit is $200, then there is a fee by MasterCard, the local ATM fee and my bank’s fee.  That’s $12 for every $200, ouch again!  Four months in South America seems even more expensive when $300 is lost in ATM transactions.  Here is the solution: get an internet bank account to significantly lower fees.  We use Scottrade, and they cover the local ATM fee of any ATM anywhere.  We only pay the 1% fee to MasterCard. That means on our next 7 month trip we spent $75 in fees, twice the trip and a quarter the cost.

4feet2mouths Costs of Travel Pie Chart – Chile

4feet2mouths Costs of Travel Pie Chart – Uruguay

Similar to Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are not cheap destinations for travel.  The countries are very progressive, modern and exciting to visit; the food, lodging and entertainment are all similarly priced to what we pay for things in San Francisco. Don’t expect any deals. (Note: Uruguay sleeping costs were covered by Carmen’s parents, whom we were traveling with at the time.)

4feet2mouths Costs of Travel Pie Chart – Brazil

Brazil stands out as one of the most expensive countries we have visited in all our travels this past year.  Yet the country is beautiful and worth every penny!  From Iguaçu, to beaches, to samba and tropical fruit, Brazil is exotically wonderful.  It is a challenge to get affordable housing, hence the favelas; food is similarly priced to the US, and regional transit between cities is quite expensive.  My next visit to Brazil will include more economic adventures, like chilling on the beach.

4feet2mouths Costs of Travel Pie Chart – Bolivia

Bolivia is the most poor (affordable) and underdeveloped (adventurous) country in South America.  We can say it a million times, but Bolivia is the one place everyone should go and see.  The scenery is majestic – abnormal even – the people nice and the Spanish easy to understand.  Our most expensive activity was a four day jeep trek across mountains and canyons to the Salar de Uyuni.  It cost a whole $220 per person for food, lodging and the tour.  If you fly into La Paz, you can avoid all the challenges of a land crossing along the border.

Trekking with friends below Salkantay

Trekking with friends below Salkantay

4feet2mouths Costs of Travel Pie Chart – Peru

Everyone that goes to Peru is going to see Machu Picchu.  The tickets are expensive and the permits to walk the Inca Trail come with the price of a tour group.  We took an organized trek for six days with our friends.  It was well worth the cost of $800 per person and we saw the rustic mountainous ravines of Peru alongside the expected hordes of tourists.  Peru does not have a visa cost, so I encourage travelers to see more of the country to lower your overall travel expenses in South America: we particularly enjoyed Arequipa and Colca Canyon.

Flights are a huge cost to any trip.  Our flights alone to South America break down to about $12 per person per day which in retrospect was a lot. We believe that getting that cost under $10/day is a better goal for travelers on a budget.

Splurge day at a thermal spa, well worth it at the time.

Splurge day at a thermal spa, well worth it at the time.

Splurge hotel overlooking Lake Titicaca - so worth it!

Splurge hotel overlooking Lake Titicaca – so worth it!

There is a difference between vacation and long-term travel. Without a job and only a savings account a budget must always be considered.  This took months for us to adjust and during our time in South America we leaned more towards the vacation end of things.  I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed our spa day, shopping splurges, high-end dining experiences, bottles of wine and private hostel rooms instead of dorms but we realized that in South America we needed to moderate it more.  In many ways, South America was as expensive as Europe! But because we had a preconceived notion that it wasn’t we didn’t try as hard to save.

Even with the outlined changes, we would not have achieved our original budget. But we could have made it hurt a little less:

  1. $560 saved by rearranging our entrances into Chile and Argentina
  2. $260 saved by having a better bank account for traveling
  3. $580 saved by cooking just three more meals per week in Argentina & Brazil
  4. $800 saved with moderation of “splurge” purchases, dining and lodging.
  5. $300 saved by Couchsurfing in cities where hostels were expensive

All that cutting and what does it save?  A whopping $11.5 per person per day.    Not a whole lot, but it is a start.  Even at our best South America would still cost $86 per person per day. And $2,500 goes a long way when traveling.  The lessons are valuable: travel slower- enjoy the places, eat the food (cook from markets) and take the time to meet the people (Couchsurf).  Banking and entry visas require advanced planning, but it is an easy way to save money. And the biggest lesson: moderate the time in the expensive countries with the ones that are cheap.  Traveling for $50 per day cannot be done in South America alone, but mix in a little South-East Asia or Central America and your trip may be a budget success!

Chinese-isms and Attempting to Understand China (by Nathan)

1763 Chinese Map of the World (Credit: wikicommons)

1763 Chinese Map of the World (Credit: wikicommons)

I think it was Churchill that described Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  The idea was that in no way was it possible for Churchill to understand or justify the actions that he was witnessing.  But, what about China? Things have changed a lot in the last 75 years, but I think it is appropriate to say that China is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma with a gold and red bow.  We were definitely challenged in our travels in China. We spent TEN weeks exploring the country; we traveled in six provinces, we visited twenty cities and I feel that I have only grazed the surface of Chinese culture, the food and the landscapes.  China is a country that is magnificent and confusing and it needed a summary of its own.  We saw so many beautiful places and we ate very delicious food, but we also had cultural experiences that left us perplexed.  Occasionally we came across a few good “Chinese-isms” or chinglish that provided some smiles along the way.  I’m posting pictures of some of the best ones as well as my random observations on food, transport, hygiene, speaking Mandarin, translations, censorship, materialism, staring and being a lao wei in China.  Scroll down towards the end for a breakdown of our daily costs in the mainland and in Hong Kong.

I think of Hansel and Gretel with this one, only bewitched stuffed animals were sold inside.

I think of Hansel and Gretel, only bewitched stuffed animals were sold inside.

I love that the words “angle” and “Salisbury” were just added for fun.

I love that the words “angle” and “Salisbury” were just added for fun.

This is not just any trash bin, it is the one where “unrecycling” is necessary

This is not just any trash bin, it is the one where “unrecycling” is necessary

I think that China and I have one of those love/hate relationships.  I think it is a beautiful country that is continuously complicated with all types of irony.  I am completely fascinated and head over heels for Chinese food also all its varieties.  From Yunnan, to Hunan or Sichuan, the most humble peasant shop owner can turn out dumplings and noodles that I still dream about.  Few places on earth have food like China.  The Chinese definitely love their food too.

The is where Jim Carrey created his signature line in “The Mask”

The is where Jim Carrey created his signature line in “The Mask”

We took buses every day in China and for some reason it is a thing for older men to snort and pull up phlegm from their entire bodies then spit it on the floor of the moving bus.  People didn’t just spit on the bus, of course, they spit everywhere.  But it was when it occurred in enclosed spaces, like buses and restaurants, that it was particularly gag inducing.  Seriously, wtf.  Even the excellent and modern long distance trains were not safe.  China has such an excellent rail network.  I love the subtle sway and knocking of trains, even the tiny compartments provide a cozy comfort. We were sitting on a train and I watched a guy sneeze (it was close quarters); he of course did not cover his mouth or nose.  With snot all over his face and shirt he turns to the train curtain to wipe himself off.  It is a bewildering attitude towards hygiene when one sees people cleaning their chopsticks in hot tea before eating but not washing their hands, covering their sneezes and spitting everywhere.  We rarely got sick in the rest of our travels but in China we consistently developed new colds.

It’s a barbecue place with fries?

It’s a barbecue place with fries?

I searched and searched for such a couch, but I only found paintings of “conches.”

I searched and searched for such a couch, but I only found paintings of “conches.”

There is no doubt that I struggled to speak mandarin in China.  In fact, Carmen and I worked pretty hard to learn some key phrases of Putonghua, the dialect of Beijing, but we repeatedly found that the dialects throughout the country vary so diversely that we were lucky if we could get our duoshao chen (translation: how much is it?) understood by the people.  We resorted to copious amounts of pointing and we found amusement in the translations that restaurants and shop owners found for their signs.

Mystical flower shop in Changsha

Mystical flower shop in Changsha

Yay, Chinese shipments of pharmaceuticals directly to my “Little House on the Prairie”

Yay, Chinese shipments of pharmaceuticals directly to my “Little House on the Prairie”

The food better be good here!

The food better be good here!

As it turns out there are thousands of business owners that have included English on their signs.  Unfortunately this does not mean that they actually speak English, but more that they are hip to the fact that English looks pretty cool on a sign.  So it is very doubtful that the pharmacy had anything actually to do with a “little house on the prairie,” or that there was a “yellow brick road” leading to a flower shop.

Honor and disgrace in China, do people really regard their actions as following this?

Honor and disgrace in China, do people really regard their actions as following this?

Three Gorges Dam and “willingness” for eminent domain

Three Gorges Dam and “willingness” for eminent domain

One idea that China challenged me to think about was: what is truth?  Is something true because we are told by a higher authority it is true, or that major news sources report it, or is it because people around us believe it to be correct?  In China, everything was censored, we could not access our blog, Facebook, YouTube, NY Times or BBC as they were all blocked and the only news released in the country is approved by the government.   I was surprised to learn that mainland Chinese people still think that Taiwan is part of China.  There is no concept that Taiwan votes for a president or survives as an independent country. Within China they are told Taiwan is another province of China.  And thus we found subtleties in newsprint and billboards that, to us, feel like major distortions from the news we know, but to others are this is the truth.  I encourage you to read it for yourself, Google China Daily and read a bit; it’s English with a clear pro-China bias. I think it is the hush-hush cover-ups that bother me- the tens of thousands killed in the Sichuan earthquake but the paper says that there was no damage in Chengdu, which is highly doubtful.  Another example was about the three gorges project.  We found a nice little description in a museum describing the excitement of villagers to leave their homeland.  Since when is eminent domain a happy experience?

Friend this oxygen bar!  Why is there a mound of trash then?

Friend this oxygen bar! Why is there a mound of trash then?

I was lost in the national park and this is the map I found.

I was lost in the national park and this is the map I found.

Another thought: what is high quality?  China has mastered reproduction and manufacturing, but at the cost of creation.  As long as it “looks” like a person has an iPhone or a Louis Vuitton bag, a person must be high-class.  There is so much effort in copying everything else in the world that there appears to be a serious loss in modern creativity.  Appearances are everything, which means that clothing and in particular shoes are very important; it does not matter if they are fake or fake leather or that they even last more than a few weeks.  What matters is the tag and how they look now.  During our travels we would encounter other Chinese tourists or locals that would stare at our faces, then our shoes and then analyze our entire clothing.  I think their thoughts were “you are white, why aren’t you rich.”  Our clothes after seven months of travel were not at their best, but this obsession with material glamour is something that I have never understood.

Just one letter off but Antique Cliffy Painting got Carmen's funny bone

Just one letter off but Antique Cliffy Painting got Carmen’s funny bone

Carmen and I were the object of constant staring in China.  Yes, I have blond hair and yes, we were sometimes visiting places that few westerners visit.  But the challenge in China was not that there were a few glances here and there; it was that whole families would stare at us forever.  Imagine being on a bus and every time you turn your head to look along the aisle of the bus there were ten people hard-nose scrutinizing everything about us.  Yes, they were curious; fine I get that, but it never came across as amiable (like it did in India) and it still made me a tad uncomfortable, even after fifty days of it.

Who carries religious list?

Who carries religious list?

When  jumping, one flies in a “parabolic” shape

When jumping, one flies in a “parabolic” shape

It is a subtle euphemism, and again no jumping off the cliff.

It is a subtle euphemism, and again no jumping off the cliff.

It came a sharp reality to me, that in China I can only ever be a lao wei.  I want to be judged by my merits rather than my outward appearance.  This is an ideal Americans hold dear in theory, if not always in practice.  But no matter what I do in China, even if I lived there for the rest of my life, I will always have the label of foreigner plastered across my forehead and would be judged first and foremost by this fact.

So true… suburban lawn owners and golfers unite!

So true… suburban lawn owners and golfers unite!

One of those interpretive signs that means well and says nothing.  Erosion caused the club shape, duh.

One of those interpretive signs that means well and says nothing. Erosion caused the club shape, duh.

All that, and I will still travel in China again, I would even live there! (Carmen is not so sure about that last part.) It is the challenge and the beauty of it that will always draw me back.  There are countless wonderful things about China that far outweigh the spitting and awkward stares.  The infrastructure in China is fantastic.  We took a six hour bus ride that went through over fifty tunnels and bridges!  The metro systems are all new, easy to use and cheap.  I look at San Francisco trying to make a designated bus lane on Geary Blvd and it is painful, but China would have 5 underground metro lines by now!  The natural landscapes are phenomenal, China is growing at a rapid pace, but suburbs in the Western sense are rare; this means that all one billion people are pretty centralized.  This leaves beautiful canyons, forest and landscapes ready for us to explore.  The food, I can’t write about it enough, but it is really that good.  China has five thousand years of history and the last fifty years is a minor blip in a long history of culture and tradition.  There is so much to explore and enjoy; we have only seen a fraction of it.

China in numbers:
51 days in China
6 provinces
20 cities
10 accidental viewings of babies pooping on sidewalk
15 hacks and spits seen per day
42 local bus trips
28 regional bus trips
6 train rides (3 overnight)
20 metro trips
80 photos taken
12 market meals
400 Sichuan peppercorns consumed
90 cheap beers consumed (they only have 2.5% alcohol)
75 bowls of noodles consumed
65 dumplings eaten
35 temples explored

Travel Costs in China

Carmen and I are scrupulous in understanding travel and what it takes to survive a life as a tourist.  Thus I performed a little financial analysis for everyone to learn about what the costs are associated with traveling in true 4FEET2MOUTHS style.  The costs of flights, country visas, travel insurance, bank fees and initial planning costs have been smeared into the whole trip and cost about $15.50 per person per day.  That means it costs only $31.73 to bounce between cities, eat enormous quantities of food and sleep in clean, but small double rooms.  We have an expense that we call “get in” which is the transportation costs moving from one city to another by train or regional bus.  Thus, 50% of our total budget in China is getting to the city we want to see.  Furthermore sleeping, eating, shopping and fun make up the rest.  Entertainment or “fun” to us is any park entrance fee, bars or desserts on their ownPark entrances are exorbitant; we spent over $400 in entrance fees.  Be ready to shell it out in Zhongdian, Yuanyang, Zhangjiajie, Leshan, Emeishan and every other beautiful place China has.  It is a nice pie chart, as a couple it costs us only $94 to travel each day in China.  Who can say they travel for under $100 per day ($50 per person)? We have created one of these charts for every country and we will be sharing them with you over the next few weeks.

Is this HK bus a submarine too!

Is this HK bus a submarine too!

From our 2009 trip to Shanghai:  no shitting in the park (point 2) and no feudalism (point 5)

From our 2009 trip to Shanghai: no shitting in the park (point 2) and no feudalism (point 5)

In some amazing way, Hong Kong is different, the same and unique all at once.  Hong Kong has all the great modernity of infrastructure: buses, metros and bridges with people that are kind and patient to wait in lines.  The food is fabulous and the language is equally difficult to understand.  I particularly like that the double decker buses have a real periscope.  No one spits in Hong Kong, no hacks interrupt ones dining and restrooms have actually been cleaned!  We visited Hong Kong for two weeks this trip and it came as a welcome relief after several weeks of struggling though China.

Travel Costs in Hong Kong

All the glamour and glitz that is Hong Kong comes at a price.  Most specifically, hotels are expensive and there are nicer restaurants fulfill every foodie’s appetite.  Hong Kong is well worth visiting, but the total costs are $70 per person per day or $140 per couple per day. Thus, as you can see eating in Hong Kong is twice as expensive as in China.  Lodging is a whole other system in Hong Kong; the rooms are smaller, cleaner and definitely nicer quality.   We resorted to couchsurfing six out of the 14 nights which saved us $250 ($17/day).  Hong Kong is worth it and much more.

China and Hong Kong are inherently linked.  In 1997 China regained control of Hong Kong as the colonial ties ended.  There is a fifty year grace period as China figures out what to do with Hong Kong’s free speech, capitalism and voting.  This essentially means that all the advancement and human sensitivity that Hong Kong embraces is at risk of being swallowed by the behemoth of Chinese mainland culture.  I love both China and Hong Kong, but I like them different, two flavors that shouldn’t be mixed too much.  I encourage everyone to visit, explore and integrate themselves into China and Hong Kong, it is a complicated but phenomenal experience.

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