Traveling in the 'budget' range doesn't necessarily mean skimping, but creature comforts like a private bathroom, hot water, and AC add to the cost of accommodation and this is just one place where money can be saved or lost. But there's more to a budget than daily expenses on accommodation (and food). Transportation, tours and treks, attractions, visas (for the next place), books, souvenirs, toiletries, treats and splurges... it all adds up. In planning a trip, I think determining a monthly budget is far more effective than a daily one.
Like the spectrum of budget, mid-range, and high-end travel categories, 'budget' has its own range: low, medium, and high, in terms of accommodation, food, and transportation. You can sleep in a windowless concrete room on a thin mattress with a hard, lumpy pillow or you can spend a little more on something a little less prison-cell chic. You can ride the bus with locals and their chickens and when you tire of that experience, you can book a VIP ticket or take the train instead. You can eat street food, dine in local venues, or splurge on Western fare when your taste buds are home sick. You can do all this and still be in the budget category. So to determine the cost of a trip, it's best to start by thinking (realistically) about how you'll live on the road. It was easy to imagine myself 'roughing it' before I left on my trip, in the comfort of my home and during fits of pre-trip excitement, but once I was traveling, grimy rooms with questionable security and paper thin walls was not how I wanted to live after all.
Traveling through Asia, I found myself hovering between the medium and high end of the budget travel options. In terms of accommodation, I was willing to shell out of few extra bucks for a good location or a private bathroom or a clean room with windows or a cozy place with charm. At times I opted for air conditioning when the heat was stifling or a room with cable TV when I needed a break from sightseeing and reading books and drinking beer. Regarding food, I was willing to spend a few extra bucks on Western fare now and then and willing to dine in an 'upper scale' restaurant once in a while. Transportation: among the numerous ordinary class or Second Class busses and trains, I chose to travel 'VIP' once in a while or even First Class (well... only once, it was a 24 hour train trip in India).
In order to determine the cost of a trip, my advice is to look at the 'sleeping' and 'eating' reviews in travel guidebooks to assess your level of comfort and determine an approximate daily budget based on the options in your range. Lonely Planet has a relatively accurate estimate of daily budgets for all travel styles (budget, mid-range, high end). Keep in mind that guidebooks are always a bit out of date and prices are usually slightly higher in real life - in addition, consider whether you'll be traveling in a country during the low season or high season (high season prices at their peak).
Also, check out the cost of attractions you'd like to visit. Tourist attractions and historical sites have set prices so the decision to visit a place or not might be based on the entrance fee. Traveling as a cheapskate though, in my opinion, is not very rewarding. Penny pinching can easily become the biggest goal of travel (like a compulsive cleaning habit) and consume so much time and planning that people miss the experience of the place they are visiting in the first place. I've heard story after story of obsessive budget travelers who have cheated themselves of some great cultural experiences to save a few bucks. It's not worth it, in my mind, to go somewhere so far away and experience it on the fringe.
Determining an estimated cost for accommodation and food (daily budget), plus tours and attractions, and transportation from one city to another (via bus, train, boat, air) should give you a decent idea of your monthly budget. Keep in mind there will always be taxis or tuk tuks or motorbike rentals, books and souvenirs purchased, toiletries and personal items to be replaced... these will drive the cost up.
Another great way to determine cost is to ask around. Discussion boards and travel forums are a good way to inquire about other travelers' daily or monthly budgets. To get an accurate picture when making a query, ask that responses include information about travel style (i.e. low-end budget or high-end budget, etc...), season (low or high), method of transportation (i.e. local bus versus private car hire), other expenses (tours, museums, activities), etc... Basically, the most accurate advice or information will come from someone who travels like you.
For online travel forums, check out:
Following is a rough outline of my expenses:
Pre Trip Costs
• One Way Plane Ticket (San Francisco to Kolkata, India) = $750.00
• Travel Insurance (medical only, 12 months) = $850.00
• Gear (backpack, shoes, clothes) = $500.00
• Guidebooks = $20.00/each
• Vaccinations (without insurance coverage) = $1000.00
• Prescriptions = $200.00 (save money and buy them in Asia)
Following are expenses for each country I visited, traveling at the mid to high end of the budget range. I've included a description for notable activities or expenses that drive cost up. For prices and information on accommodation, see our itinerary.
India = approx. $600 - $700 / per month
Includes visa purchased for China, many '2A' class train tickets and 1 first-class train ticket, camel safari, backwaters cruise and other attractions, one-day private car hire
China = approx. $750 - $850 / per month
Includes visa purchased for Vietnam, many 'soft sleeper' class train tickets, sites and attractions (most priced at $10.00 for entry)
Vietnam = approx. $700.00 / per month
Includes visa purchased for Cambodia, Halong Bay cruise, Sapa trek, 4-day motorcycle rental/tour through Central Highlands, Mekong Delta tour to Cambodian border
Cambodia = approx. $700.00 / per month
Includes extended dirt bike rental, Angkor Wat (3 days) with tuk-tuk transport to/from, one-day private car hire for Bokor Mountain
Indonesia = approx. $600.00 / per month
Includes visa on arrival, private car and boat transport (as well as ordinary bus and ferry)
Laos = approx. $550.00 / per month
Includes visa on arrival, the Gibbon Experience ($125.00), one-way flight to Chiang Mai, mini-bus transport in N Laos, motorbike repair (I had a wreck)
Myanmar = approx. $350.00 / 2.5 weeks
Includes entrance fees for attractions like Bagan and Inle Lake, share taxi to several attractions, 2-day trek in Kalaw, budget hotels with mid-range prices ($12.00/night), a splurge on 'high-end' hotel in Yangon ($30.00)
Thailand = approx. $700 - 900.00 / per month
Includes high season prices in Southern Thailand (budget-range prices are more like mid-range), many 2 nd class train travel and VIP bus tickets, ferries to islands, splurging on Western cuisine and long-term motorbike rental in Chiang Mai, visas for Myanmar and Laos