Thailand is far away, literally on the other side of the world.
Its cities are chaotic, with apocalyptic traffic and outrageously aggressive drivers. Its culture is unfamiliar, sometimes downright mystifying. Its cuisine is challenging, with the default seasoning level somewhere between spicy and eye-watering. Its language is opaque, its script beautiful but thoroughly unintelligible. It’s politically and socially tense, thanks to ongoing military rule and relatively high rates of property crime in touristy areas.
And it needs to be on your international travel radar – not least because it’s super-duper cheap. Even world-class honeymoon destination resorts and five-star urban hotels are affordable here.
Thailand: A Brief Overview
I could write an entire book about why you should visit Thailand, but I’ll leave that to others. Both Lonely Planet and Frommer’s offer comprehensive deep dives into Thailand at a reasonable cost. (Some content is free.) I recommend spending time with both before you make your final decision about whether to travel to Thailand, and I insist that you revisit them as you begin planning your adventure.
This post is about saving money in and on the way to and from Thailand. I learned a whole lot about this during the summer of 2017, on a 10-day trip to Thailand with my wife. (Twelve days if you count travel time.)
Our purposes require only the barest brush with this Southeast Asian nation’s fact book.
Thailand has about 68 million inhabitants. The vast majority, over 93%, are Buddhist. Most others practice Islam. Thailand’s land area is just under 200,000 square miles, or approximately three-quarters the size of Texas. The entire country is in the UTC+7 time zone – 11 to 12 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast.
Oh, and a fun fact that we somehow missed before we arrived: Thailand is a left-side driving country, like the U.K. and Japan.
How Affordable Is Thailand?
Most importantly for the topic at hand, Thailand has long been eminently affordable for visitors from the developed world. It’s affectionately (if problematically) known as “Australia’s Mexico” for a reason: Per the World Bank, its GDP per capita by purchasing power parity is about the same as our southern neighbor’s – roughly $17,000 – and has risen at basically the same rate since 1990.
By contrast, Thailand’s nominal GDP – in real dollar terms – is just north of $6,000, barely one-third its PPP value. In other words, one U.S. dollar goes three times farther in Thailand than in the United States. (Other leading world currencies do well in Thailand too. We bumped elbows with tourists from China, Japan, South Korea, continental Europe, the U.K., the U.S., and Canada, among many others.)
What’s the U.S. Dollar to Thai Baht Exchange Rate?
According to XE, a global money transfer provider, the Thai baht has ranged from approximately 28.5 to 36.5 on the U.S. dollar. That’s another way of saying that you can expect 1 baht to buy anywhere from $0.027 to $0.035, depending on current exchange rates.
Pro Tip: Your trip to Thailand will be a whole lot easier if you check your U.S.-centric pretenses at the border. A relevant example: The word “dollar” is ambiguous here. Are you referring to the Canadian dollar? Hong Kong dollar? Australian? Kiwi? Be precise and say “U.S. dollar” or “USD.”
What’s the Standard of Living in Thailand?
On paper, Thailand is moderately developed. Its human development index is approximately 0.75, good for 87th place in the world. (The U.S. and Canada have HDI readings of 0.92, tied for 10th place globally.)
Thailand’s relatively high HDI masks vast inequities, however.
The standard of living is higher in major cities, especially Bangkok, and on tourist islands. Conditions in rural areas, particularly isolated parts of the northeast and the politically unstable south, are much worse. Even in Bangkok, the dichotomy is palpable: It’s common to see desperate shantytowns festering in the shadows of gleaming luxury high-rises there.
Where applicable below, I’ve discussed the ethical implications of frugal Thai travel, and when spending a few more baht on goods and services may be the right thing to do.
Tips to Spend Less Traveling to Thailand
Follow these tips, drawn from my own personal experience and research, to reduce your travel expenses and incidental costs en route to and from Thailand. Some are best done well before you leave.
1. Set Up a Vacation Fund
This is something you should do before every major vacation. The earlier, the better.
Once you’ve pinned down your travel dates and have a rough idea of how much you’ll spend on travel, accommodations, and other significant expenses in country, open a savings account earmarked specifically for your travel fund. Outline a strategy to grow it large enough to cover your vacation budget. (I go into detail on how to do this in my post about saving up for your next vacation.
If you’re planning any spendy events or activities while you’re in Thailand, such as a stadium concert or spa day, consider opening separate accounts for those. My wife and I did just that to fund a long-planned meal at one of Bangkok’s best restaurants. When we finally got that bill, our foresight kept our eyes from popping out of our heads.
2. Visit a Travel Clinic 6 to 8 Weeks Before You Go
Two words: Get vaccinated!
If you have a good insurance plan with coverage for preventive care, travel vaccinations are super affordable. I paid $6 or $7 out of pocket for mine.
You can also get a prescription for prophylactic antibiotics, to reduce the duration and severity of foodborne illness, at your travel clinic. My three-pill course cost another $6 or $7 out of pocket.
I’d definitely take a $14 preventive spend over a vastly higher hospital bill.
The CDC is the most reputable source of information for foreign travel vaccines. For most travelers, including those sticking to Bangkok, it recommends typhoid and hepatitis A vaccines. Both spread through contaminated food and water. For travelers staying in-country for many weeks, exploring rural areas, or engaging in risky behaviors, it recommends protecting against other illnesses as well: cholera, Japanese encephalitis, hepatitis B, rabies, and malaria. When in doubt, ask your travel clinic provider.
3. Tell Your Bank and Credit Card Issuers You’re Traveling to Thailand
Take 10 minutes before you leave to tell your bank and credit card issuers that you’re headed to Thailand, and when. Do this for any issuer you’re even considering using. The last thing you want to deal with when you’re already bleary-eyed and disoriented from an interminable transoceanic trip is a locked bank or credit card account.
4. Confirm That Your ATM Card Will Work in Thailand
While you have them on the phone, confirm with your financial institution that your debit card will actually work at ATMs in Thailand. Most independent Thai businesses don’t take U.S. credit cards, so you will need cash, and it’s cheaper (see below) to withdraw at ATMs rather than currency exchange windows.
This is especially important for travelers who use smaller banks or credit unions. When I called my credit union to let them know I’d be in Thailand, I asked them about foreign ATM transaction fees and whether I needed to do anything differently to withdraw cash. But I neglected to actually ask the question, “Will my card work in Thailand?”
Turns out, my Visa debit card didn’t work in Thailand, at least not at the ATMs I tried. To get cash, we had to tap my wife’s credit card’s cash advance line on two separate occasions, costing us roughly $40 extra. (She paid off the balances immediately, but we couldn’t avoid the cash advance fees.)
5. Travel During the Low Season
If your work and personal schedules allow, travel during the low season.
This sounds easy enough, but it’s complicated by the fact that Thailand doesn’t have a single low season. In Koh Samui, a popular resort island in the Gulf of Thailand, the low season is October through December, the rainiest time of year, with another lull in the spring. In Phuket, an even more popular resort island in the Andaman Sea, late summer is the low season.
Research precipitation and pricing patterns in your chosen destination(s). If saving money is more important to you than ideal weather, you know what to do.
Pro Tip: Some Thai island communities empty out during the low season. As in seasonal U.S. resort towns, it’s common to see local businesses shuttered during down periods. Consider staying at larger resorts during these periods – nightly rates are a steal, restaurants and spas will be open, and you’ll have other bargain-hunting travelers to rub shoulders with.
6. Set Price Alerts
Set airfare price alerts at your favorite travel booking sites for travel to and from your hometown and your Thai destination (probably Bangkok). You’ll get a ton of emails alerting you to falling fares, but the savings – to the tune of a few hundred bucks, if you’re lucky – will be worth the hassle. Remember to turn your alerts off once you book.
7. Subscribe to Travel Deal Newsletters & Follow Budget Travel Specialists on Social Media
Travel booking websites don’t have a monopoly on great travel deals. Some independent outfits specialize in uncovering amazing travel deals, usually for an exclusive group of subscribers or members only.
Scott’s Cheap Flights
Scott’s Cheap Flights is a travel newsletter whose founder (and, as far as I can tell, the guy who still does most of the work) scours the Internet for below-market airfare and reveals worthy deals to subscribers in impressively detailed newsletters. Scott’s follows the freemium model: Free plan subscribers get a few emails per week, while paying subscribers ($39/year) see double or triple the volume. Scott claims to reserve the best deals for those who pay, but I can’t personally verify this. In any case, Scott’s deals rarely last more than a day or two, so you need to jump on them fast.
TravelZoo takes a more hands-on approach, negotiating favorable pricing on behalf of its members. It specializes in travel packages that can include airfare, lodging, tours, and other on-the-ground activities, so it’s not ideal for DIY travelers who simply want below-market airfare or lodging. But it’s free to join, which is always a good thing.
8. Use a Different Airline for Domestic Legs
This handy trick served us well on our way to Thailand. Rather than fly the same airline the whole way from Minneapolis to Bangkok, we used two different airlines: one for the U.S. domestic portion of the journey and one for the international portion.
If you’re flying from a second- or third-tier airport without many (or any) direct flights to Asia, I’d recommend trying this out. If you’re flying out of a major West Coast airport like LAX, San Francisco (SFO), or Seattle (SEA), this trick doesn’t make as much sense and might actually be counterproductive.
Our domestic airline was Sun Country, a small discount airline hubbed in Minneapolis with which we have extensive experience. Our international airline was China Airlines; I didn’t know much about them previously, but they worked out fine. We flew Sun Country to LAX, then China Airlines to Bangkok via Taipei. Compared with one-stop Delta-codeshare flights through Tokyo, the combo saved more than $1,000 on airfare.
Pro Tip: Most major airports have separate international terminals. If you decide to follow my advice here, make sure your U.S. layover is long enough for you to change terminals, check in for your international flight, and get through security. It took us about 90 minutes to do that in L.A., but it was around midnight and the airport wasn’t particularly busy. To be safe, I’d allow at least three hours.
9. Plan a Long Layover
Speaking of layovers: Why not plan an extended stop on your way to Thailand?
As of mid-2017, there are no direct flights from Bangkok to any U.S. airports, so you’re going to have to stop somewhere: Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong are all likely contenders.
Look for the most affordable stopover that works with your itinerary, then plan a layover long enough to get you out of the airport and into the city center. You’ll want at least eight hours on the ground. For a lower-stress approach, plan a 24-hour layover that includes a stay at an affordable hotel or hostel. If you play this right, you’ll cross another major Asian city off your bucket list without planning a long, costly trip there.
10. Stay at Hostels & Cheaper Hotels
Speaking of hostels and affordable hotels: Thailand is a haven for budget-friendly accommodations. With minimal effort, you can almost certainly find a room in a conveniently located Bangkok hostel for the equivalent of $10 or less per night.
Yes, $10 or less per night.
Hostels and Budget Hotels
Your hostel won’t be fancy and your room might not even be private, but you can stay the night for less than the cost of lunch out in a coastal U.S. city. In smaller cities and rural areas, you’ll find even cheaper accommodations, though prices can only go so low.
On the islands, you’ll pay more, but only in a relative sense: We found bare-bones places for less than $20 per night on Koh Samui. A comparable outlay guarantees you a private hostel room in Bangkok.
If you’re looking for something a bit more upscale, look into the budget “resorts” that dot Bangkok. On our last night in Thailand, we spent just over $40 (including taxes) to stay at a three-star resort near Suvarnabhumi International Airport. We had a spacious private room with room service and an awesome Jacuzzi tub, a 20-meter pool just outside, and a pretty good restaurant on-site. Places like this are everywhere in Bangkok and smaller Thai cities, including in centrally located neighborhoods near major tourist attractions.
Pro Tip: Thai lodging is affordable all the way up the quality scale. I hesitate to recommend staying at a five-star resort in Thailand, this not being in the spirit of frugal travel and all, but it’s way cheaper to do so here than in the U.S. or Caribbean. In Bangkok, we stayed at a very nice boutique resort with a near 1-to-1 staff-to-guest ratio for the equivalent of roughly $150 per day. A comparable U.S. property would have easily cost double that, probably more.
11. Redeem Credit Card Rewards for Part or All of Your Travel
We didn’t feel so bad about staying at a really nice resort in Bangkok in part because we dramatically reduced our trip’s out-of-pocket costs with a massive credit card rewards redemption.
I’d been saving the sign-up bonus and months of accumulated spending points on my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for precisely this occasion. The redemption reduced our airfare – the trip’s single biggest expense – by about 60%. This single move impacted nearly every other important decision we made on our trip to Thailand, so it’s no exaggeration to say that our experience wouldn’t have been the same without it.
Pro Tip: Start planning your redemption today. Check out our list of the best travel rewards credit cards to determine the best fit for your lifestyle and credit profile.
12. Get Travel Insurance
Purchasing a travel insurance policy will raise the total cost of your trip to Thailand – if nothing goes wrong. Travel insurance policy premiums typically run 5% to 10% of covered expenses, meaning a policy covering $2,000 worth of travel purchases should set you back $100 to $200.
In the unlikely event that something big does go wrong on your trip, your travel insurance policy could insulate you from much greater losses. For instance, if you need to cancel your trip before your departure date for an eligible event, you’ll be reimbursed for all covered nonrefundable expenses. If you fall ill or sustain serious injury while in Thailand and need medical evacuation, you’ll potentially save even more – long-distance medevac expenses are measured in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Take my advice: Get travel insurance. Hopefully you won’t have to use it. If you do, you’ll be glad you played it safe.
13. Get a Messaging App
Unless you’re doing business in Thailand and need to be available by phone at all times, leave your phone in airplane mode for the duration of your trip. Most carriers charge at least $10 per day, per phone for international call and text plans in Asia, with exorbitant surcharges for heavy use. That’s at least $140 extra, per week, for you and your traveling companion.
You can stay in touch with folks back home well enough with email and social media. For real-time communications with friends, acquaintances, and associates, use a free or cheap messaging app like WhatsApp, Skype, or Facebook Messenger. As long as you’re connected to Wi-Fi, which most Thai hotels, hostels, and cafes offer at no charge, you’ll find it easy to stay in touch.
14. Skip the Airport Restaurant
You’re going to get hungry on the long journey to Thailand. The real question is: What will you do about it?
Every transpacific flight that I’m aware of serves at least two meals: once a couple hours into the flight, and again a couple hours before landing. With a long nap in between, that’s sufficient for most people.
Virtually every internal Asian flight that I’m aware of also has meal service. This is true even on short flights: Our hop from Bangkok to Koh Samui took less than an hour in the air, and yet somehow, we still got a full meal.
In other words, there’s no need to eat a full meal in an airport at any point on your journey, unless you have an unusually long layover. Tide yourself over between meals in the air with snacks purchased outside the airport, where they’re bound to cost significantly less.
Tips to Spend Less After Arriving in Thailand
If you haven’t already, you’ll hear from fellow Thailand adventurers that Thailand is “really cheap once you get there,” meaning getting there is the most expensive part of your trip.
But that’s not necessarily true. Overspending in Thailand is frightfully easy, whether due to inadequate planning, honest misunderstanding, victimization by unscrupulous locals, unnecessary splurges, or all of the above.
Follow these tips to control your costs once you’ve landed in Thailand.
1. Don’t Use Airport Currency Exchange Kiosks
Skip the airport currency exchange kiosk. It’s a rip. At best, you’ll leave 5% of your tranche at the counter.
Actually, don’t get baht at the airport if you don’t have to, period. ATMs at major banks or public plazas are cheaper – in our experience, 220 baht (roughly $6) is the standard surcharge. That’s a lot by U.S. standards, but it’s a flat rate – just 2% on a $300 withdrawal. (As I noted above, it’s the exception rather than the norm for Thai merchants to accept U.S. credit cards, so you’ll need a lot of cash, especially if you plan to spend at markets, eat well, get multiple massages, or sample Thai nightlife.)
2. Take the Train from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Central Bangkok
If your first Thai destination is Bangkok itself, you can probably skip the taxi queue and head straight to the Airport Rail Link station at Suvarnabhumi Airport. (There’s a small chance you’ll fly in through another Bangkok airport, in which case you can ignore this advice, but most U.S. origin flights come through Suvarnabhumi.)
The Airport Rail Link is a pretty fast ride with just six stops. A regular ride costs no more than 45 baht (roughly $1.50), but you can pay 150 baht (roughly $5) to go straight to Phaya Thai Station in central Bangkok. Even if your hotel or hostel isn’t anywhere near the line, it’ll still be cheaper to take a taxi from a centrally located stop – a taxi from the airport to downtown Bangkok costs at least 250 baht.
3. Use Public Transit Wherever Possible
Bangkok’s rapid rail transit network is clean, modern, and convenient – if you’re staying near it. The city didn’t have any internal rail transit until the 1990s, and there are still just four completed lines, so it’s way behind the times. For reference, comparably sized London has 20 lines and nearly 400 stations between the overlapping Underground and Overground networks.
MRT and BTS
Bangkok’s MRT (subway), the equivalent of the Underground, is fast and cheap – I don’t think I paid more than $2 for a ride anywhere on the system. The BTS (Sky Train), the equivalent of the Overground, is even faster, if slightly more expensive. Both serve Bangkok’s business district, then run out along upscale residential spines.
Chao Phraya Express Boat
Another cheap, quintessentially Bangkok public transit option is the Chao Phraya Express Boat, a public boat line running through central Bangkok along the turbid Phraya River. It serves 34 piers, many within easy walking distance of major tourist landmarks, and costs no more than 32 baht ($1) one way.
Taxis are cost-competitive with public transit only over short distances. If you’re trying to get from one side of the city to the other, you’ll pay three or four times more (and take at least twice as long) for a taxi.
4. Ask Taxi Drivers to Turn on the Meter & Get Out If They Don’t
The golden rule of taxi rides in Thailand is: Ask the driver to turn the meter on before you start moving.
After hailing a cab, get into the back seat, greet the driver warmly, and ask, “Can you please turn the meter on?” If they look confused, point to the meter and smile. They’ll get it.
At this point, they’ll likely do one of three things: Turn the meter on without further comment, ask you where you’re going, or say they can’t turn the meter on (and perhaps make an excuse as to why).
If the last, save your breath and get out of the cab. The driver may call you back, but otherwise, just wait for another cab to come. In a busy area, you shouldn’t have to wait long.
If the driver asks where you’re going, they’re trying to determine whether it’s a better deal for them to run the meter or ask for a flat payment. This is common when the best route involves a toll expressway (common in Bangkok) and during rush hour, when traffic slows the meter and eats into drivers’ valuable time.
In either scenario, the driver may simply refuse to turn on the meter. You can react either by getting out of the cab and flagging down a new one or haggling over the flat fare. The simple act of opening the cab door usually convinces the driver to make a lower second offer.
Our first taxi ride in Bangkok was a rude awakening: We didn’t ask to turn on the meter, didn’t haggle over the quote, and found out later we overpaid by about 100%. If you’re leaving from your hotel, ask the staff how much a taxi ride to your destination should cost. Most taxis have fare cards in their seat back pockets as well – use those to calculate the expected fare based on distance traveled and time elapsed.
In my experience, you can usually find a driver willing to turn on the meter under any circumstances, but you may have to cycle through a few first. When we attempted to get from our riverside hotel to a restaurant in downtown Bangkok during rush hour, we had to flag down four drivers before we found our meter man. Traffic was awful, but when all was said and done, we paid just 110 baht for the ride – well under the 200 baht flat quotes we’d gotten from previous drivers. We gave the driver a 30% tip for his trouble. (Drivers usually round up the fare to the nearest 10 baht and don’t expect further tips, so this was pretty generous.)
5. Know Your Route & Follow Along With Drivers
Whenever you ride in a taxi with the meter running, pull up your preferred mobile maps app (I use Google Maps) and use the GPS dot to track your progress.
The word here is accountability: making sure your driver takes a reasonably direct route to your destination. In all fairness, Thailand’s urban street grids look like chain-link fences after EF-5 tornadoes, and lots of major thoroughfares (in my experience) are either one-ways or divided for long stretches, so “direct” is a relative term. But it should still be clear when your driver is intentionally going out of the way to run up the fare. Don’t be afraid to say something.
6. Rent a Scooter or Motorbike in Smaller Towns and Rural Areas
You might not want to tell your parents about this one.
In Thailand’s small towns and rural countryside, the most cost-effective and convenient mode of transportation isn’t rail, bus, or taxi. It’s personal motorbike. If you plan to spend time exploring rural Thailand, and you don’t want to hire a personal driver for the equivalent of $30 or $40 per day (at least), rent one. Cheap, reliable motorbikes start at the equivalent of $4 or $5 per day, plus $2 or $3 per day for optional insurance.
The obvious caveat here is that Thailand’s rural byways and narrow village lanes are uniformly terrifying to drive on. If you’re not sure whether you’re up for the challenge, wait a day or two to get the lay of the land. Then make your decision. Saving a few bucks isn’t worth breaking your arm over, or worse.
7. Give Yourself Plenty of Time
This tip is especially important in Bangkok, where traffic is consistently awful. Traffic is a problem in regional hubs like Chiang Mai and Surat Thani as well. On mountainous tourist islands, where main roads often hug the coast, it takes longer than you think to get around simply because the required routes are so circuitous.
After a day of consistently getting stuck in gridlock during relatively short taxi rides, we settled on a rule of thumb: Figure out how long it should take to get from Point A to Point B, then double it. We still almost missed the most important plan of our trip, a hard reservation at a restaurant for which we already prepaid.
Alternate modes of transportation seem like they’d be a better fit. But Bangkok’s buses run in the same traffic lanes as everyone else, biking is so dangerous as to be impractical, walking is hazardous on major thoroughfares and confusing on side streets, and rail transit only serves certain neighborhoods.
Pro Tip: Tuk tuks, mopeds, and rickshaws can sometimes scoot between or around cars and shave a few minutes off longer trips. They’re cheaper than regular taxis too, by anywhere from 25% to 50%.
8. Fill Up on Street Food
Two words: street food. Learn to love it.
Much like food trucks in the U.S., Thailand’s ubiquitous street food carts have much lower overhead costs than sit-down restaurants. Even hole-in-the-wall joints have to pay for rent, electricity, and water service.
Street food vendors pass the savings along to diners. Anecdotally, you can expect to pay anywhere from 30% to 50% less for street meals of comparable quality. I found hearty plates of standbys like pad thai and pad see ew for 45 to 50 baht in random corners of Bangkok – less than $2 per plate.
There are some catches. Individual street vendors have less selection – most specialize in a single category, such as satay or noodle dishes. In markets and shopping streets, where dozens of food vendors cluster in rows or pods, this isn’t really an issue.
More worrying is the potential for food-borne illness, though it’s not at all clear that street food is less safe than restaurant food. We spoke with a Thai chef in Bangkok who swore by the street: “I almost never go to restaurants,” he said. And this is a guy who cooks for a living; he knows a thing or two about food safety.
9. Always Barter at Markets
Bartering is always expected at Thai markets, even when prices are clearly marked. I’m not much for negotiating in person, but once I realized I could walk away from a bad deal at any time, I found it easy to jump in and ask vendors for a lower price.
If bartering feels unnatural to you, open with these lines:
- I saw something like this at another stall for x – can you come down?
- If I buy two [or more], can you sell them for x each?
- I can buy them for x…
- x would be a fairer price for these…
In my experience, vendors will come back with a second offer roughly halfway between the marked price and your counteroffer, unless your counteroffer is way too low. If you push, you can work them down from there, but not always – a couple vendors I interacted with were firm on their second offers. Consistent bartering should cut your market expenditures by 10% to 20%, even on items already marked down.
10. Limit Wine Consumption
This isn’t a pro-health PSA here. In fact, I encourage you to indulge on Thai beer in Thailand. In the tropics, a cold beer is way more refreshing than a lukewarm glass of wine – and it’s usually the most affordable alcoholic beverage on the menu besides.
Loss-leader happy hour specials aside, you can expect to pay at least 120 baht for a glass of bottom-shelf wine at even the dingiest bar or restaurant in Bangkok – roughly $4. On the islands, it’s even more expensive. At nicer bars and restaurants, per-glass pricing approaches 200 baht.
Beer is much cheaper by comparison. At a low-key restaurant, you’re looking at 60 to 80 baht per bottle. I’ve heard the yawning beer-wine divide is down to high import tariffs on foreign wine, but it’s really an academic question when your main concern is saving money on booze.
11. Look for Bargains on Luxury Items
Most frugal people follow some variation of this maxim: Don’t buy anything you don’t need.
By definition, luxury items are not necessities. But, if you’re willing to bend the rules a bit, visiting a cheap country like Thailand provides the perfect opportunity to pick up fashionable clothing and accessories at reasonable prices. Your trip to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Phuket might be your best shot to grab a flashy handbag or suit at a fraction of the usual cost.
The obvious caveat here: Super-cheap, name-brand luxury goods sold in Thai markets and shops are often fakes. If you’re okay with that, then by all means, go for that “Coach” handbag.
12. Get a Tailored Suit
Tailored suits are a special case. Whole Bangkok districts, such as Khaosan Road and Sukhumvit, seem given over to tailor shops that churn out custom suits at shockingly low prices. Smaller towns have tourist-friendly tailor shops as well – do some Googling before you arrive or ask the staff at your hotel or hostel.
In both Bangkok and Koh Samui, I regularly saw signs advertising suits at $50 to $60 – cheaper than off-the-rack suits in the United States. Since these guys cater to tourists, their turnaround times are really fast – hours, not days. If you’re in the market for a new suit, it’s worth spending an hour in a tailor’s shop (and reserving enough space in your checked bag to get it home).
13. Consider Alternative Internal Travel Arrangements
14. Avoid Excessive Spending in Touristy Areas
You’ll pay a noticeable premium to shop and dine in Thailand’s touristy precincts. The good news: Outside the business districts of larger cities, where everything is more expensive, touristy neighborhoods are pretty well circumscribed.
In Bangkok, the immediate area around our hotel was pricey, probably because it was right on the river and featured several other resort properties. Not even 100 meters inland from the main river road, down a warren of side streets, prices for food, drink, and basic goods were much lower.
The same dichotomy played out on Koh Samui. We stayed on the “local” end of our village and had our pick of super-cheap restaurants, stores, and street vendors. Less than a mile down the road, near a cluster of beachfront resorts, prices were easily 50% to 100% higher.
General Health & Safety Precautions in Thailand
Carry Modest Amounts of Cash in Secure Pockets or Bags
Pickpocketing is one of the most common types of theft abroad. So, when you leave your hotel or hostel room, avoid carrying more cash than you need for the day. Leave the rest in your room safe, along with your passport and other valuables.
Carry your cash in a lightweight, secure bag, preferably one that you can comfortably hold on your side or front. Backpacks are easy pickings for deft thieves. Put most of your cash in a well-concealed interior pocket, leaving only small amounts (loose change and small bills) in your pocket for easy access.
To prevent high-tech credit card theft that exploits weaknesses in EMV chip cards, use an RFID blocker wallet. They don’t cost much more than regular wallets, and the peace of mind they provide is invaluable.
Be Wary of Public Wi-Fi
You’ll probably need to use public Wi-Fi, especially if you need to communicate with local friends or colleagues and aren’t willing to pay for an international data plan.
Whenever possible, avoid connecting to unsecured public networks, which are gold mines for hackers and cyber criminals. Password-protected secure networks are safer, though not even close to foolproof. Avoid typing passwords or sending sensitive information over any non-private network. And invest in a multi-device Virtual Private Network, which should set you back no more than $100 per year.
Be Suspicious of Local Water Supplies
View official claims that Thai tap water is safe to drink with skepticism. Most locals and non-locals with whom we spoke were highly skeptical of public water supplies, even in Bangkok, which has a modern water delivery system. To be safe, we almost exclusively drank bottled water during our trip.
While bottled water is unquestionably more expensive than (free) tap water, proactively avoiding local supplies is the best way to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort. If you buy in bulk, you probably won’t spend more than $3 per day on bottled water, and you’ll save yourself a far costlier trip to the doctor’s office or hospital.
Pro Tip: Ask your hostel or hotel whether they have a water filter on-site. If they do, it’s probably safe to drink water from their taps.
Beware of Overly Friendly Locals
Thai culture is notoriously friendly. It’s actually considered impolite not to smile in polite conversation. Raising your voice during a disagreement is tantamount to throwing a punch on this side of the Pacific.
There’s a big difference between friendliness and credulousness though. In a tourism-driven economy, advantage-taking is par for the course. You’re absolutely going to encounter people looking to play you, such as the taxi driver I mentioned above. The trick is recognizing their game before the die is cast.
Here’s a good example of a more complicated scheme.
My wife and I were walking near Wat Pho, one of Bangkok’s best-known temple sites – a major tourist attraction. We stopped to take a photo and caught the eye of a uniformed guard or attendant (not sure) near a side entrance.
The guard smiled and asked if we spoke English, then where we were from, and showered us with flattery (going so far as to bow slightly) when we answered. He then launched into a series of friendly but clearly leading questions: where had we been, where were we going, what did we want to see, what were we planning the rest of the day. We said we were going to Wat Pho, and his face fell. He shook his head sadly.
“Wat Pho,” he sighed, “is closed until 1pm today for religious observance.” Pointing to his black lapel pin, he explained, “We are mourning our king.”
We knew the king had passed on recently, so we accepted this explanation without further questioning.
In retrospect, this was the point of capture. Knowing he had us, the guard smiled and asked me if I had a map. I produced one. He whipped out a pen and began circling landmarks, narrating as he went. Without missing a beat, he explained that we could hire a rickshaw driver who’d take us to all these landmarks, a roughly three-hour circuit, for no more than 100 baht.
“Tell him I said, ‘100 baht, no more,'” the guard admonished.
As he spoke, a rickshaw peeled around a bend in the road and stopped at the curb. The driver immediately got out and hustled over to us. The guard spoke rapidly to him in Thai; he nodded, smiled, and said something to the effect of, “Okay, let’s get going.”
At that point, we realized we were in the midst of a con. Even in Thailand, a three-hour rickshaw tour is worth way more than $3. We didn’t know how, but we were sure the driver – possibly with the guard’s help – would find a way to hit us up for more money at the end of the line.
We answered, “No thanks, we’re fine,” and started walking away. The guard quickly soured: “Hey, I called this guy for you!” he shouted after us, twice. We walked until we rounded another bend. At no point did we feel unsafe, but again, we’ll never know for sure what would have happened had we accepted the ride. Plus, we wasted 15 minutes of our time in a scammy conversation.
Worst of all, once we got to Wat Pho’s main entrance, we discovered that it was open all day. We’d nearly skipped the day’s top sightseeing priority because an unscrupulous guard straight up lied to us.
I found out later that this type of scam is super common around Bangkok’s holy sites, especially Wat Pho. If anyone semi-official-looking tells you the wat is closed for any reason, don’t take their word for it. Check for yourself.
Keep Your Wits About You
This one is too important to leave unsaid: Always keep your wits about you.
Thailand isn’t wracked by violent crime or political turmoil, though it does have its share of both. But, as in any tourist economy, property crime is a significant problem here.
Most Thai property crimes are crimes of opportunity: an unguarded back pocket, an unattended bag, a tipsy walk down a dark alley. It’s especially important to pay attention to your surroundings in crowded areas, such as markets and subway platforms, and poorly lit side streets near touristy nightlife zones. Learn to recognize potentially perilous situations and extricate yourself while there’s still time.
I’m very fortunate to have a flexible career that lets me work virtually wherever I want, whenever I want. I’m able to travel on relatively short notice, at pretty much any time of year, and on longer trips than workers with constrained vacation allowances.
That said, I work for a living, so I can’t simply take off whenever I feel like it. And even when I’m physically away from my home office, I’m rarely completely disconnected from my responsibilities. I bring my office with me.
My occupation allows me to earn money while traveling. Your day job may or may not offer the same flexibility. If not, consider picking up freelancing gigs or developing passive income streams that bolster your cash flow during longer vacations in exotic places like Thailand. Earning while you travel is a great way to stretch your vacation budget further – as long as you remember to relax too.
Have you ever been to Thailand? What did you do to reduce your spending there without undue sacrifice?