My partner and I spent two months traveling the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand in late 2022 through to early 2023. Here is a breakdown of our expenses, how we saved money, what we splurged on and things that really stood out from our trip!
I was not expecting this trip to be so expensive. I found the Philippines much more expensive than other SE Asian nations I have visited and worked in – I think their economy is really feeling the pressure of the pandemic and inflation is high here.
Mostly I found it was the ‘product-related’ things that were expensive here (like shopping), and the ‘ service-related’ things were cheaper – I suspect the huge population, poor economy and wealth inequality has led to low wages in the Philippines which is why the service based industry (ie massages, taxis, guides) is generally cheaper. Also, you can definitely live and travel cheaper than we did here if you want.
However, regarding prices and spending, we often ended up just saying ‘we are already here, we’ve spent so much to get here, so let’s just enjoy it’ (within reason). Which was definitely a bit of ‘holiday creep’ and we hadn’t even actually set a budget at all in the first place which was probably setting ourselves up for a big spend.
Some of these activities also formed part of our gifts to each other (Christmas, Birthday etc), as we don’t really buy physical gifts and prefer to spend on experiences.
My partner also hadn’t been able to see the family for a few years due to the pandemic so we ended up doing a lot of fun (and expensive) family activities together. As we joked, we were ‘creating core memories’ and bonding with them so it was worth it.
My partner somehow spent approximately the same as me. She didn’t have the pet-related, dental or covid expenses however instead, she chose business class flights, enjoyed getting her hair and nails done a few times, bought some designer clothes in Singapore, some jewellery, and enjoyed a few more cocktails than I did!
My share (not including my partner’s expenses)
- Airfares: $3550
- Pet sitting and vet bills: $2900 (should I even include this?!)
- $1520 food, restaurants and groceries
- $1200 hotels / resort accommodation
- $900 entertainment, activities and tours
- $840 tips and giving
- $700 Royal Caribbean cruise (all included)
- $520 dental work (cracked tooth repair, clean and scale, several fillings)
- $500 on SCUBA OWD course
- $380 drinks (alcohol, smoothies etc)
- $310 on taxi fares, grab (ubers) and shuttles
- $230 medical costs when I got covid
- $200 clothes
- $195 petrol, tolls and parking
- $150 on gifts
- $120 on mobile phone roaming plan
- $5 for some 4:20 in Thailand
Total: $14,220 – Approx $230 per day.
All in all, nearly triple my usual living costs of around $2500 a month!
Suffice to say, this kind of travel lifestyle is not really possible on a ‘lean FIRE’ level of passive income. It requires either a lot more conscious effort to travel frugally, a lot more investments, or some level of time commitment to part-time work (either self-employed in an online business or doing remote work).
Saved money by:
- Staying with partners family in the Philippines
- Carpooling and cost-sharing transport with family, friends and other groups
- Going on a lot of self directed or group tours
- Buying groceries instead of eating at restaurants for every meal, taking ‘Baon’ (packed lunches) when traveling
- Eating primarily at smaller local restaurants rather than ‘western style’ restaurants, hotels or large chains
- Borrowing the family car (so we didn’t have to hire a car or pay for taxis)
- When I got covid I got free medical treatment from family through their hospital and then I isolated in their condo Airbnb to recover. I just paid for the medication out of pocket and it didn’t seem worth claiming on my travel insurance due to the excess.
- Limiting alcohol consumption to only a few times per week
- (Trying) to Limit the amount of high-cost activities to only a few per week.
- Being selective about purchases – for example in Manilla a 1hr massage costs about AUD $30, but in Thailand it was half of that.
- Not buying ‘souvenirs’ (which just become junk that takes up space)
- Travelling light with just a small backpack and not paying for check in luggage (although this did result in the need to buy a few items of clothing)
Did not save money by:
- Doing many high cost activities including a cruise, trekking the jungle visiting remote sacred sites, getting a SCUBA licence, theme parks
- Hiring a private boat for a weekend – island hopping and sightseeing
- Going on some private tours
- Doing one or two activities every day, including catching up with family or friends for a restaurant meal nearly every day
- Travelling frequently – flights, buses, ferries, cruises, taxis and Tuk tuks.
- Eating lavishly, including some USD $100 per person buffets for Christmas and Chinese New Year
- Staying in some 5 star hotels and resorts
- I did not haggle or ask for the best rate everywhere like I usually would – for example with tour guides, stall owners and drivers it just felt wrong to haggle in a developing country with people who clearly needed the income. At big hotels I still asked for a discount
- Tipping and giving generously
- Not booking flights well in advance (tough situation as the trip was a last-minute thing due to my mum passing).
- Getting covid and having to forfeit deposits and additional fees for rebooking activities, as well as medical costs (which I didn’t claim on travel insurance as it was too much hassle, the excess was high and I received free medical care from family)
- Having a pup who needed pet sitting and got a nasty grass seed infection and needed surgery while I was away (again!)
- Needing a lot of dental work (thankfully done by a family friend and much cheaper than dentistry in Australia).
Things that really impacted me on the trip
- How amazingly friendly and hospitable all Philippines people are
- How lovely and generous my partner’s family are – running a hospital, school and medical missions to support the less fortunate
- How beautiful my partner’s family are – yes every family has their issues but they are very close, supportive and loving family unit which is something I’ve yearned for my whole life. This was bittersweet reflecting on my own family issues back in Australia
- How adorable and sweet our little nieces were, and how spending time with them made me keen to start talking about having kids
- The extreme wealth disparity / wealth gap in Philippines (particularly Manilla city)
- The significant level of poverty and lack of social support, welfare or health programs in the Philippines
- Just how pervasive ‘Western style’ capitalist marketing has infected Phillipino culture and as a result the prevalence of ‘keeping up with the Joneses mentality, and ridiculously expensive luxury goods stores everywhere adjacent to people living in poverty
- The class structure and how important ‘social standing’ is in the Phillipines – ie have to study (even if you hate it), must display wealth, have a maid etc to have ‘made it’.
- Poor standard of infrastructure in the Philippines – often at times needing a four-wheel drive just to safely deal with partially destroyed and repaired roads, and random shit like suddenly ending lanes, sharp steel rebar sticking out of the footpath, and unlit or unsigned concrete blockades. Public transport basically non-existent (bar PUJs jeepneys and some buses however these looked pretty dirty and unsafe)
- How dangerous it is just walking around with usually no footpaths, or broken footpaths, frequently long bits exposed rebar sticking out of concrete (falling off a bike or moped would be fatal!) or large holes or open sewers, no or limited street lighting
- The lack of safety culture and how life/health/safety is not prioritised. For example, no one wears seatbelts, child car seats are not used, and workplace occupational health and safety is basically nonexistent (common to see blokes welding or angle grinding on the side of the road barefoot and with no eye protection etc). The majority of people smoke, and consumption of sugar and junk foods is so common resulting in high incidence of cancer and diabetes and a struggling healthcare system with very poor public hospitals and expensive private hospitals – causing a requirement for expensive health insurance
- Horrendous traffic in the Philippines – average below 20kph in Manilla (and most provinces!) and peak hour seems to be ‘always’
- High cost of living in Manilla1 – many prices are comparable to Sydney (depending on where you go of course)
- Feeling anxiety on the roads due to extreme traffic congestion, lack of road rules, random and erratic traffic flow
- Feeling significant anxiety due to the presence of heavily armed guards literally everywhere – I am talking military-grade weapons on security guards
- Feeling depressed because of the poverty and desperation of some of the people here. Seeing children beg on the congested streets was really upsetting
- Being in provinces / remote areas of the Philippines without security escorts and feeling in danger (previously had these when I worked there)
- Just how much I missed Malaysia and Indonesia – the people, the culture and the food.
- That cruising is a cost effective and relaxed way to holiday – taking it slow, great for couples and especially for families. They are comfortable and spacious and have awesome activities like pools, spas, shows, live music and other events, and all inclusive food and drinks options and alcoholic drinks packages. I previously wrote cruising off as for elderly people or gross swingers and a place you’d just get Gastro or Covid – but I couldn’t have been more wrong and we will be booking again.
- Just how different the Philippines is to other parts of SE Asia (western influence, Catholic instead of Muslim, how upfront they are about sex etc)
- How beautiful the provinces (country) areas of the Philippines are, in stark contrast to the trashed concrete nightmare that is Manilla
- Just how privileged I am to be an Australian, but also to have my physical health, intellect, and opportunity to pursue FIRE
- That I need to be doing more to help others – not just donating my time and experience into education, volunteering and improving the environment but also I need to be giving more money to charitable causes such as food security programs, educational programs and medical missions
- Reinforced the ridiculousness of Western consumerist spending and how destructive it can be not only to people individually, but also to developing nations as it warps the culture and everyone seems to want to copy the American model resulting in lots of waste and attempts at ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ for status
- That we ALL need to do our bit to protect the environment and reduce, reuse and recycle. We need to stand together to ban shit like single use plastics, and reduce our carbon footprint. The amount of plastic and trash ending up in the ocean in the Philippines2 was heartbreaking to see, in supposed tourist meccas and world famed SCUBA spots there was still lots of it everywhere
- The poor treatment and suffering animals receive in developing nations. It was very common for example to see starving dogs tied up on very short leads or kept in tiny cages used as an ‘alarm system’, and streets with starving stray dogs and cats roaming around and often being run over by traffic or dying of sickness
- How travelling was nice, especially slow travel and being able to explore areas at our own pace, however I missed having a home base and my own privacy and space – we were always transient and frequently sleeping in different places each night. This reminded me of working as a pilot and never being home (which was one of the things I wasn’t a huge fan of)
- That whilst geographic arbitrage is a great option and might be the goal for many, especially if you’re looking to retire much sooner than a conventional FIRE journey, doing it in the Philippines (especially Manilla) is not for me because of the high costs here, the climate, over population and poor infrastructure, despite having family here. It would seem there was a very good reason my partner moved to Australia!
- COVID was not as scary as the media made it out to be, at least not for me as a healthy young male who had 4 vaccines. However it did knock me out for a week and then it took me a few months to fully recover as I was more tired and weaker than usual, cardiovascular fitness and strength took a bit hit
- That I really, really, really fucking hate shopping malls, and my idea of purgatory or hell would be being stuck inside a mall and never being able to get out. The Philippines has some of the biggest malls in the world.
- That whilst Singapore is clean and a beautiful place, it is incredibly expensive, like a ‘Sydney on steroids’ and probably not somewhere I would choose to holiday again
- That some of the expensive shuttles we had in Singapore has COOLED SEATS. As in, the aircon pumped cold air under your arse which came up and out through the fabric. Like the opposite to heated seats. I didn’t know this was a thing and it was a game changer for dealing with sweaty nether regions Actually since I got home I learned that even a friend of mine has a car with COOLED SEATS. The Future is now!
- I fell in LOVE with fried tempura battered Enoki ! Enoki mushrooms it turns out are really nice. Previously I have had a bit of a food aversion to shrooms, but working on it!
- The incredible work ethic of Phillipinos – just how hard they work and how they work such long hours – it’s common for many Phillipinos to only sleep a few hours per night, supplemented by short naps in the day
- The Philippines obsession with always having all of the lights on all the time (security aspect I guess?). Constant light and noise pollution from a city that never sleeps.
- How glad and privileged I am to pay so much tax in Australia because 1. It means I’m earning so much and 2. The high standard of living and safety standards in Australia.
- It seems in Phillipino culture that everyone is always late. I thought it was just maybe my partner’s family, but the same thing happened every time we turned up for a tour, flight, bus, transit or activity (bar one bus which we got bumped onto an earlier departure since we had arrived an hour earlier just in case of had traffic). Unofficially this is called ‘island time’ or ‘tropical time’ and I experienced the same thing working in other parts of the Asia Pacific region, especially so in remote islands. There is not really any concern for being late and someone always holds you up, sometimes up to an hour or more.
- The Philippines is still a developing nation so the city and streets tend to be a bit ‘built up’ in that there seems to be a tendency to just concrete or pave over stuff (which probably shouldn’t be) rather than digging it out to replace it and setting a solid foundation. Which causes problems and ends up with stuff like sharp metal poles or rebar sticking out of concrete on footpaths or roads which is incredibly risky, or telegraph pole guy wires rusting out early and breaking. Drove the engineering side of me a bit nutty.
- Generally the country is pretty dirty, as in litter and garbage bags everywhere. They don’t have the same standard of sanitation or even garbage trucks so everyone just piles their rubbish in the street, homeless people pick through it for anything of value and then eventually someone loads it into the back of a large ute or container truck by hand and takes it away to dump (presumably to a tip). Which means the streets and footpaths are pretty Pongy and heavily littered with plastic and garbage juice. As a result you really have to take your shoes off before going inside or you create a mess. We went in the dry season, wheras usually the monsoon rains would give everything a good flush out, which means everything was probably a bit more dusty/sooty/dirty than usual.
- There isn’t really any public transport so it’s a very car heavy society – I was initially shocked to see my partners dad has 5 SUVs and two people mover trucks. Jeepneys3 are a form of public transport which are Jeep’s that have been cut in half and extended – often powered by second hand engines and spares from used imports from places like Japan, Singapore and Korea. They are owned individually and always painted beautifully and drivers take a lot of pride in their jeepneys and their routes. The government is trying to phase them out and replace them with cleaner, modern style state owned or private small buses because the jeepneys belch large dark soot clouds as they aren’t really properly engineered or designed with correct engine capacities. The jeepneys also have no safety features and is basically like riding in the back of a troop carrier (Toyota troopy) or a ute, sometimes people sit on the roof or hang off the back. They belch soot (google ‘rolling coal’ and you’ll see what I mean) and combined with all of the other old trucks and cars spewing sooty exhaust, the roads and footpaths and streets get covered in black sooty/dusty carbon residue which will stain your shoes, clothes or skin if you touch. It’s horrendous to breathe if walking alongside a road
- You don’t really see a lot of police, but you do see a fair few traffic wardens everywhere. Traffic wardens are usually always armed with a 9mm pistol and have the job to somehow ‘enforce’ Phillipine’s non-existent traffic laws to the usual standard of bumper to bumper traffic. My girlfriend says really they just are there to fine people and crate government revenue. Often they will stand in the middle of an intersection and take over functioning traffic lights and overrule them.
- Private security guards are everywhere and very heavily armed. One morning we had pancakes and 10m away two guards with crisply pressed white shirts stood outside the cafe with a 12 ga shotgun and an assault rifle. The casinos and larger hotels or resorts, and even car parks at shopping centres often have vehicle checkpoints with armed guards (large caliber assault rifles and combat shotguns). You have to pass metal detectors and have your bags inspected to gain access, multiple times I got a pay down or additional metal detector wand (although sometimes they see a Westerner and just waved me through). This is because there has been a history of criminal violence, political activism and terrorism. The security guards are always very nice and polite, and also provide directions with a smile, and will help you park and reverse out, stop traffic flow for you to get out onto the road and it’s customary to tip them for this.
- Tipping is customary in Phillipines and is something I would say is essential for service providers as wages are very low and cost of living pressures are very high in the Phillipines
- There is a lot of stray dogs and cats everywhere. It is not common to get animals desexed so as a result there is a lot of unwanted animals. You can’t pat them because they often have mange or rabies and if they bite you it means an expensive and painful set of injections from a doctor at a hospital. They aren’t aggressive though and most of the dogs just ignore you and scavenge for food. Because the religion is predominantly Catholic / Christian, it is frowned upon to eat dogs and cats, however in the provinces (rural areas) this still happens and so there are education campaigns and billboards / signs telling you not to eat them
- Provincial areas are stunning, hiking through mountain ranges, rivers and jungles was a favourite (even if our tour guide / driver was an insane driver and we thought we were gonna roll off the edge of the roadside cliff)
- Staying in the mountains in the province of Baguio and heading up mount Pulag4 was great. Took a few days traveling via bus and then via four wheel drive to the mountain village. Had a traditional dinner of cockerel adobo, papaya and rice, final briefing and equipment checks and then early bed 7pm. Awoken 1am for breakfast (pork sinigag, boiled banana, hard boiled eggs and Spanish bread). Lots of faffing around waiting for others but finally headed out in the darkness around 2am. I took 6L of water and a 1L thermos of boiled water to make tea and milo at the top. Arrived at the summit 6:30am after a 4.5 hour hike, pretty amazing view of the ‘sea of clouds’, with the sunrise below a layer of gradually lifting fog which became a lovely ‘sea’ of stratocumulus, as it heated up this lifted and we could see the sun
- How much I fricken loved SCUBA diving5 and seeing the underwater scape and wrecks and reefs. Drinking a beer through a snorkel as part of a ‘graduation ritual’ not so much….
- Seat belts were a big issue in the Philippines. Many of the cars and buses just either didn’t have them, or if they did have them, they weren’t fitted properly or didn’t work. They also don’t use baby seats, and honestly, most of the cars drive around on bald tyres. If it weren’t for the fact that traffic is either at a standstill or moving at 10kph, I would be surprised there weren’t more road fatalities
Tips for next time
- Search for cruises on Deck chair cruising website6 – sort by per person per night
- Research and plan your money exchange – when I got home to Adelaide, in Australia I was swapping $200 USD to AUD, was told $290 (thought hmm yeah losing $20-30 or so) ended up getting handed $219 (1.2 conversion PLUS fees got me less than 1.1 instead of 1.5) which was ridiculous. Don’t swap your money at an airport, and only carry the minimum cash you actually will need.
- Filipinos crunched by rates, spike in cost of living, Keisha B. Ta-asan, Business World Online. Published: Feb 7, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.bworldonline.com/top-stories/2023/02/07/503295/filipinos-crunched-by-rates-spike-in-cost-of-living/ on May 12, 2023.
- Addressing the plastic pollution crisis in the Philippines: New momentum, Mona Sur, Junu Shrestha and Agnes Balota, World bank Blogs. Published: March 16, 2023. Accessed online at https://blogs.worldbank.org/eastasiapacific/addressing-plastic-pollution-crisis-philippines-new-momentum on May 12, 2023.
- Colorful, Iconic Jeepneys May Soon Be Off the Road in the Philippines, New York Times. Accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/09/world/asia/philippines-jeepney.html on May 12, 2023.
- Mount Pulag, Wikipedia. Accessed online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Pulag on May 12, 2023.
- 5 Best Dive Sites in the Philippines, Padi.com. Accessed online at https://blog.padi.com/best-dive-sites-in-the-philippines/ on May 12, 2023.