Here are a few from our free guide called Digital Nomad Escape Plan: From Cubicle to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
These cost-saving tips are only the tip of the iceberg; the book still has another few hundred dollars worth of travel cost savings.
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This information is targeted towards digital nomads and not every suggestion on the list will be suitable for a typical Thailand backpacking enthusiast.
A Digital Nomad is a person who leverages telecommunications technologies and online marketplaces to perform their work duties and make money online while generally during a state of “slow travel”.
Here are some of the best ways to save money in Thailand, with some suggestions specifically targeted at the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Don’t Over Pay for Electricity
If you’re paying over 8 baht per kWh unit for your electricity, you’re paying too much. In fact, 8 baht per unit may be too expensive by some people’s standards as it is.
1 kilowatt is 1,000 watts, and the price per kilowatt unit is billed by the hour (thus “kWh”).
The average 12,000 BTU air conditioner uses around 1,200 watts per hour which is 1.2 kWh.
If you ran your 12,000 BTU air conditioner for 24 hours per day for 30 days at 8 baht per unit, you would have to pay 864 baht for your air conditioning alone, on top of the costs to run your other appliances. At the time of writing, that’s almost $27 USD. That isn’t cheap.
In addition to that, Thailand runs primarily on coal and in my opinion it doesn’t matter how much you pay —that’s a carbon foot print that you’re leaving behind for my nephews and nieces. Not cool.
Use Water Bottle Refilling Stations
Buying water in single bottles from the shop every day can get expensive and environmentally destructive. It’s easy to look around and blame Thais for the trash or how they burn plastic –but it was our Western thinking that created the globalized supply chain, designed the packaging and rammed it down their throats. Least we can do is stop adding to the litter.
While a relatively new concept in some Western cities, Thailand has had time to build its massive network of water bottle refilling stations. These public appliances purify water through reverse osmosis and dispense clean drinking water for 1 baht per liter.
It’s more ethical than buying water from a foreign company like Nestle, it’s better for the environment (less plastic waste), they’re usually more convenient, and putting your coins in these machines helps the local economy. You can buy a great water canteen here.
Former activist cause of mine: School the Bottle
You can also upgrade to water delivery service, where larger keg-sized containers are available, just ask around at your apartment.
You can also skip the gym membership and save around 60 baht per workout with 2 5L water jugs filled with tap water! Refilling the same plastic bottle longer than a week for drinking water isn’t advised, so you can add to their lifespan and stay in shape at the same time.
Do Your Own Laundry
Laundry service in Thailand is generally quite cheap and it’s easy to take for granted. And even still, you could save upwards of 30 baht to 40 baht per kilogram of laundry if you were to do it yourself. In my experience, everything dries pretty quickly.
I also tend to leave laundry detergent next to the bathroom sink to clean underwear and t-shirts as I go. Most of my clothes are Merino wool and dry relatively faster than cotton.
Pro tip: Put Your Clothes in a Freezer to Kill Bacteria
Lastly, you can make your clothes last longer by sticking them in the freezer over night to kill the germs and bacteria that make them funk, and avoid cleaning them too often altogether. This is ideal for denim.
Traveling overnight on a bus or a train will allow you to sleep through the journey and save money on a room for the night. Throw in a “second class” seat and you’re reducing travel costs even more.
House Sitting (or Pet Sitting)
I could suggest couchsurfing.com as a great way to save money on lodging, but there’s an even better way; house sitting. Instead of getting a couch, get a whole home. You can find out more about how it works at Trusted House Sitters.
Rent a Motorbike
Tuk Tuks and Songthaews can add up after a while, so if you find that you’re spending more the 150 baht per day on rides you may want to consider renting a motorbike instead.
Buy a Motorbike
If you are staying longer than 6 months, purchasing a motorbike is a good investment. You can pick up a 2 year-old 125 cc Honda Click for under 30,000 baht and they really hold their resale value. When it’s time to head home, you can resell your motorbike and pay little more than fuel costs for your entire time in Thailand.
Avoid Western Food
Western food is often overpriced and the quality isn’t what you remembered, so unless you’re feeling homesick and it’s a special occasion –skip eating imported Western food.
Discover How to Live “Thai Style”
Smaller apartments in Thai neighborhoods often lack some of the Western home comforts like hot showers or proper kitchens but they’re pretty alright in terms of living a more minimalist existence. Some come as cheap as 2,000 baht per month, all in.
Most expenses we incur as foreigners are because of Western comforts and idealized thinking –living as an authentic local can free up a lot of money if we’re willing to cut back and readjust our comfort zone.
It took a couple years of resisting it, but today I bucket shower daily and I prefer it –even though I have a shower head and hot water.
Eat Thai Street Food
Restaurants can get costly after a while, and there’s so much amazing street food all around you. No need to pay the overhead that comes with an uncomfortable seat and freezing cold air conditioning when you’re on a budget. I’ve gone weeks without walking into a “real” restaurant and I don’t miss it.
Why is it that so many people go to another country to experience the culture and then hide out in expensive Western glass palaces and eat recipes from Western food franchises? Because if it isn’t for nostalgia’s sake, I’m lost.
There is no better way to watch a city awaken than by waking up to an espresso at 6am and a bowl of bone soup in an alley somewhere in South East Asia.
Avoid Bank Fees
While traveling I generally carry two wallets; a larger one I leave back in my room with the bulk of my cash in it, and then a second smaller, lighter one I take with me everywhere I go.
A two-wallet system allows me to take out larger amounts at the bank machine so I can make less frequent withdrawals and pay less fees but without losing everything if I get robbed or my wallet goes missing.
Payoneer is your lowest-cost international banking option, and Transferwise is your lowest-cost money transfer option. I suggest you create an account with both of these services before you board a plan for Thailand.
And then beyond that, you can get a local Thai bank account —withdrawals are free.
Choose the Right Bank Back Home
It’s a big world, so look for banks with little or no international withdrawal fees. For everything else, there’s Payoneer with its prepaid MasterCard.
I definitely can’t keep up with bank options for every nationality, but Germans might want to check out DkB, Americans will want to pick up a Charles Schwab bank account, and for most other folks there’s a special HSBC Bank account for expats as long as you keep a specific minimum balance.
Know When to Haggle
Typically, people do not haggle over the cost of prepared food but it is common place to haggle over prices at the many markets throughout Chiang Mai.
You’re viewed as a giant ATM by many, so don’t give in too easily; just keep it playful and if you’re not satisfied with the price they offer politely decline and start to walk away –if they were going to drop the price, this is when they’ll do it.
No, really. It’s not customary in Thailand and unless you’re at a top-drawer Western establishment or a tourist trap, tipping is very rarely expected. Some folks will even hand it right back to you because they don’t take handouts.
Just be nice to people instead, and exercise this suggestion at your own discretion.
When was the last time you reviewed the going rate for your services? The last programmer I challenged to double his rate got more work.
He was able to work less, choose projects thoughtfully (not desperately), and double down when he wanted to move around.
Don’t ask people in your field for advice on your rate, call an agency and ask what their hourly rate is for what you do —or some sort of organization that does what you do. In my experience, programmers are afraid of money. No one knows everything, learn as you go.
Hell, forget the phone call and just start by raising your rate by $10/hr. and see what happens.
Don’t Get Fines
Thai police are really good at extor.. er.. —serving you fines randomly, or en masse in sweeping campaigns in tourist areas.
They generally target foreigners who are riding motorbikes without a license (from your home country, local, or international), without a helmet, or for dropping cigarette butts on the ground.
Fines start around 500 baht and depend on the day, season, IQ, and astrological sign of your fine issuing police officer.
Think in Baht
Do not think about how much money you’re saving with every purchase over its associated cost in your home country –this is a sure-fire way to go broke faster than anticipated.
Instead, keep track of your money and the average cost of items you purchase often. This will help bring you closer to the day you are able to finally “think in baht”.
I strongly suggest downloading either Trip Wallet or Trail Wallet for your smartphone –these apps are indispensable for budgeting across different currencies.
Hire your house cleaner to pick up your groceries for you, and you’ll always get the best price.
You might need a local friend to help you write your shopping list in Thai, but it’s worth the trouble.
Remember the “two-tier” Thai pricing I mentioned earlier? Well now it’s not you asking the price of those mangosteens. Asking your cleaning lady to pick up groceries is convenient and pays for itself and then some. (It’s also great for finding those rarer items).
Usually you’re paying for time so it doesn’t matter whether it’s for cleaning or for picking up groceries. Most cleaners are down for getting groceries, and it sure beats cleaning. It’s sort of like calling a cab company back home to pick up something from the store; it isn’t always an advertised service but there’s no harm in asking.
Skip the Bar
You’re surrounded by awesomeness everywhere, all over the place and back again. If you’re broke, surely you can find a place to sit down with some good friends for a drink without paying bar drink costs.
Sleep in a Temple
If you’re real hard up, you can always check yourself in to the Doi Suthep Vipassana Meditation Center, high atop Doi Suthep with a great view of the city. The cost is an undefined donation.
And I’m mostly kidding about taking a meditation course to get a free place to stay (and some small basic meals) –I’d suggest this to anyone looking to unplug for a while and become more acclimated to the local culture as well.
Wear Colored Clothing
While cotton tee shirts don’t fare so well in the tropics and I have previously suggested Merino Wool, I also suggest wearing darker colors like navy blue, black, brown, and so on (especially if you’re sloppy with chopsticks or wear a lot of antiperspirant).
A friend visiting America once came back to Chiang Mai and surprised me with my favorite white V-neck tees I used to wear every day back home —they lasted 4 washes before I tossed them.
Air Asia ASEAN Pass
Air Asia currently has a ridiculously low-priced prepaid flight ticket to anywhere in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. If you’ve been meaning to travel around Asia but have been restricted by your budget: Not anymore.
In order to learn more about their ASEAN-wide promotion, visit their website.
This an excerpt from Digital Nomad Escape Plan: From Cubicle to Chiang Mai, Thailand (it’s 100% free for download).
Did I miss anything? Let everyone know in the comments!
Related: Save money on vaccinations for Thailand, and just about anywhere else.
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Exclusive Chiang Mai Guide for Digital NomadsChiang Mai, Thailand is the "digital nomad capital of the world", and Hobo with a Laptop readers can get an inside look at this popular destination with Digital Nomad Escape Plan; a 200-page ebook written by nomads, for nomads.
Updated annually, and now completely free.