Failing at budget travel: my day of mishaps and what not to do

We are savvy budget travelers. From researching street food and learning how to barter in the local language, to snagging discount codes on transportation and long-term accommodation, we have successfully kept our budget under $50 a day for two people for almost five months. We were kicking butt and taking names... until yesterday. Finally, we totally failed and broke our budget due to my own stupidity.

I've learned from my mistakes. I am here to share with you what not to do when traveling on a budget, as shown by my day of mishaps and failures. I'm also hoping that writing this down will make me feel less angry and stupid... so thanks in advance for the free therapy session!

Fail #1: Traveling while tired

This should seem pretty obvious, but traveling while tired will lead you down a path of dumb decisions. You're delirious, short-tempered, slow-witted, and generally terrible to be around. I barely slept the night before our recent day of travel, and it contributed to the stupid mistakes and hastily made decisions.

Solution: get lots of rest, and drink lots of water.

Fail #2: Not realizing that the "Sharing Economy" goes to bed

The sharing economy is great because it allow people to share their personal resources. We are avid Uber, Grab, and AirBnB fans. We failed by relying on it too heavily. We pre-booked an Uber for 5:30am in Ipoh, Malaysia to take us to the bus station. Unfortunately, "pre-booking" simply means that the app will request a car for you at that time. This is different to "pre-booking" a taxi which will arrive at a certain time.

The problem? No one was awake and driving for Uber or Grab at 5:30am. I called multiple taxi services, but no one was picking up. Panic attack in 5... 4... 3... We finally found an UberXL after searching for 20 minutes, and paid 50% more for the unnecessary space. Disaster narrowly averted!

Solution: pre-book a taxi if it's required at an odd hour.

Fail #3: Expecting buses to run on schedule

OK, I feel really stupid with this one. I don't think a bus has ever been on schedule.

I decided to save money (like $5 total) by booking two buses, instead of one direct bus. Our bus from Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur was estimated to take 2.5 hours, which means we would arrive around 9:00. Our next bus to the airport left at 10:00. Unfortunately, our 2.5 hour bus hit KL rush hour traffic, and ended up taking around 4 hours. We missed our next bus, and since we were flying internationally and the next buses wouldn't have left for a while, we hopped off the bus a stop early and took a Grab car. We wasted the $6 on the bus tickets we didn't take, plus spent an extra $18 on a car. GOOD JOB, MONICA.

Solution: minimize transfers, even if it costs more, or give yourself a day in between.

This is how you feel on a bus when you don't have a tight schedule. This is not how we felt.

Fail #4: Forgetting snacks

Traveling while hungry is not as bad as traveling while tired, but it's a close second. If your journey is more than four hours, don't expect to have time to grab a meal. We assumed we would grab food at the bus station (we didn't have time). We had time at the airport, but it was about twice the price of food anywhere else (duh, it's the airport). If we had brought snacks, we would have eaten more regularly, had tastier and healthier food, and saved a lot of money.

Solution: pack some snacks!

Fail #5: Keeping cash in your passport

We didn't do this, but we saw a chilled-out bro who lost alllll of his chill when he turned his passport over to the Vietnamese visa agents... then later remembered that he had all of his money in his passport. How do we know about this? He very loudly returned to the counter and frantically requested literally all of his money back from the agents. Very funny for us, but extremely stressful for him.

Turns out, his money was in his backpack the whole time. Silly bro!

Solution: keep your cash in a money bag on your body while in transit.

Fail #6: Half-assing your visa prep

Fine, you can fill out the paperwork when you get there. OK, you can figure out which counter to go to. Sure, you can bring lots of USD to pay whatever they ask. But paying someone $20 for a passport photo at the airport? Come on friends, get it together!

We are always ready for the visa process because I compiled all the information into a convenient table (check it out if you're coming to Asia). We did, however, see many confused foreigners forking over way too much cash so that the Vietnamese visa authorities could take a 4x6cm photo. We got this done in Malaysia for 12 myr a person (less than US $3).

Solution: read my visa guide and be prepared.

Fail #7: Skipping the official taxi queue

Ah yes, the inspiration for this self-deprecating post! The most expensive and most embarrassing!

Here's a two-part fail: assuming I could communicate via Uber or Grab, plus being so tired that I took an "unofficial" taxi from the airport. I ordered a ridesharing car, but then the car couldn't find me at the airport. Even with Google translate, I couldn't communicate this via text message to my Vietnamese driver.

Fail 1: frustrated and exhausted, I abandoned this one driver and chose to take a taxi. I should have cancelled and tried another driver.

In my grumpy state we headed towards the taxi line. We were nearly there when a man asked if we needed a taxi. After showing him our destination I cleverly asked, "How much?" to which he responded, "It's far so I don't know, but we will just run the meter." Sounds fair!

I should have known I had failed when he brought us away from the taxi stand and put us in someone else's car. Sure, the nice driver ran the meter, but he ran it in a private car instead of a taxi. Suddenly, our ~$5 Uber ride turned into a nearly $40 trip! Forking over our piles of money at our destination (860,000vnd looks like a billion dollars), I felt like a real fool for skipping the official taxi line. Rookie mistake. I was so tired.

Fail 2: choosing convenience over consistency (and a more reliable price).

Solution: take an official taxi from the airport, and agree on a price beforehand.

Literally me after a 12 hour day of travel fails.

There you have it! Seven fails and how to avoid them. I'm quite embarrassed to have fallen into some of these traps, especially after months on the road. We wasted time and money. Remember these tips so that you can learn from or mistakes instead of repeating them -- and comment below with your own budget travel fails!


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