2018 update: I originally wrote this post in 2013, traveling in Thailand on a shoestring. I returned this year with a bigger budget, spending more on accommodation and transport, though some categories, like food, have remained the same. You’ll see both options in this post.
I’ve now spent five months traveling in Thailand, making it my longest-traveled country on my Southeast Asian itinerary. During my three weeks in Laos and month in Cambodia, I found it possible to travel on an average of just USD$30 per day. Once I got to Thailand, however, keeping costs low became difficult. For some reason, I started spending Baht like it was monopoly money, especially in the islands.
I had heard previously, and can now confirm, that the north of Thailand is easy on a tight budget. As one moves south, costs for accommodation start to double, triple, and even quadruple. Pricey accommodation accounted for my biggest expenditure, and drinks came in at a close second.
However, when I considered my overall expenditure, I realized that the costs were still very reasonable, especially considering that I was in Thailand during high season, including Christmas and New Years.
My average daily budget for Thailand ended up at $45/day. Here is the breakdown:
Budget accommodation: When it comes to cheap places to stay, Thailand can sometimes cost more simply due to where in the country you are. Back in Laos, I distinctly remember stressing about spending $6.25 per day on a private bungalow in 4000 Islands. For the same accommodation in Bottle Beach on Koh Phangan, I was paying double. The most I paid for a room in Thailand when I was traveling on a shoestring was $20, completely blowing my budget, considering I often found $2 accommodation in Cambodia.
That said, I was able to find decent and cheap dorms in Chiang Mai and Pai in northern Thailand for a mere $3-$4 nightly.
Midrange: Once I returned this year, I only wanted to opt for single rooms. I still found that I could get cheap ones in the north, like the $12 I spent for a private room in Chiang Mai. It was very basic, with nothing more than a twin bed and a shower, but it at least afforded me privacy.
The most expensive place I stayed in was Paradise Koh Yao at over $300 per night on Koh Yao Noi, while most of the time, I spent more like $30-$40 per night.
Regardless of budget, buses and trains are completely reasonable in price, ranging from $3 to $9 for a bus journey. I highly recommend skipping the tourist buses and opting for public ones. They often cost less, are more comfortable, and are less likely to make stops at expensive roadside restaurants.
My main transport issue used to be tuk tuks and cabs, but now with Uber and Grab Taxi, it’s easier to get around without getting scammed on prices. As a solo traveler, I do often have to foot the entire bill, though. I found that in Laos and Cambodia, tuk-tuks would haggle. In Thailand, they preferred to wait until another tourist came along who would pay the asking price. Given that they’re trying to run a business themselves, I can’t fault them for this. However, it made it hard as a solo traveler to save my money.
When possible, take songthaews, like from the airport in Chiang Mai or around old town. They’re only 20 baht per trip. Also, if you can’t take an Uber or songthaew, which are generally available only in larger towns, take motorbike taxis as they are the cheapest option. Always at least try to haggle, and don’t take a taxi that isn’t in a queue. If someone walks up to you, s/he is probably going to quote an outlandish rate.
The food in Thailand is fantastic and very cheap. Regardless of my budget, I usually eat street food because it’s delicious, fresh, authentic, and is honestly the same thing you’ll get in a restaurant. One can easily eat at a night market, sampling several different eats, for just a few dollars. Generally, prices are not negotiable and the asking price should be paid. Prices run from around USD$1 for a dish like vegetarian pad thai, to $3 for a soup with beverage and rice, or $6 for fresh fish.
Where Thailand gets expensive is alcoholic beverages. In Laos and Cambodia, beer runs about USD$1. In Thailand, however, $3 and higher per drink is quite typical. Cutting alcohol from your budget in Thailand could literally save hundreds.
Cheap vs. Expensive Places in Thailand:
Chiang Mai, Pai, Chiang Rai, and other northern cities will tend to be very cheap, with costs increasing as one heads south, especially to the islands. Be sure to check out Koh Chang, lovingly referred to as Thailand’s last cheap island, if you still want an island experience for a fraction of the price.
Also consider time of year. High season (December through March) means double the prices for accommodation in most places in Southeast Asia. Thailand is no different.
SIM cards are very cheap in Thailand. I paid only $20 (with DTAC – a Thai carrier) for 3 gigs of 3G over the span of one month. What’s more, service was great.
Massages are also cheap, generally costing around $6 for a full hour.
In general, Thailand can be very cheap to visit, especially during low season and in the north of the country. Even in the south, considering the beautiful beaches and truly delicious eats, Thailand is still a great budget destination.