In 2010, RoughGuides.com published a chart that rated the most inexpensive countries by looking at how many days a budget traveler could last on US$1,000. (Matador subsequently referenced this post in How long can you travel on $1,000?)
India came in highest/least expensive, with a possible 71 days of travel on $1,000.
Soon after reading this, I happened to be traveling to India, and my competitive spirit drove me to test my thrift. So for the first 71 days of my trip, I recorded my expenses and compiled the results below.
A few things about my approach:
- Airfare is not included in the $1,000.
- My report of expenses takes into account everything I spent over 71 days. However, I did delay the purchase of small gifts and other things for friends and family until after the 71 days were complete. Also, not included in the budget are a few unplanned but necessary medical procedures that, although they can happen to anyone, are not typical occurrences and therefore not included in my report.
- I am a novice traveler at best, with minimal foreign travel experience prior to this trip. I tend to have medium-low standards of cleanliness and comfort.
- I spent the majority of my trip traveling solo — more costly than had I been able to share expenses.
- Assume Rs45 = $1.
Total spent: Rs55,896 = $1,242.13
Spent/day: Rs787 = $17.49
Daily budget to keep pace with $1,000/71days: Rs633 = $14.08
Cities visited: Mumbai, Bhopal, Sanchi, Jhansi, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Bodhgaya, Darjeeling, Siliguri, Agra, Dharamshala, Srinagar
The most expensive cities visited (Mumbai and Agra at $45 and $33 per day, respectively) made sustaining an average of $14/day tough. The least I spent per day was $10.76 over four days in Darjeeling.
However, my expenses in Darjeeling can be a bit misleading. I was there during the off season, and I shared lodging with two other people. This significantly lowered the cost of what would have been a more expensive excursion.
Strategies that helped
Putting down the guidebook
Inevitably, I’d meet people who had been where I was going. If someone was describing their experiences, I was listening and taking notes. Based on others’ advice, I often found less expensive, less crowded places to stay, eat, and visit and was introduced to someone to hang out with.
I still carried a guidebook and found it useful, but it was typically not my primary source of information.
Defining a daily budget
This helped me stay disciplined and forced me to think about how best to allocate money. For example, if I knew I was getting on a bus that would cost me Rs200, I tried to cut Rs100 out my budget for two days prior to departure. My ideal daily budget broke down like this:
Rs250 or less – lodging
+ Rs100 or less – local transportation
+ Rs200 or less – food
Leftover = +/-Rs83 saved for transportation to next destination
I allowed myself to overrun my daily budget frequently, but not by much. Sometimes, the occasional toiletry or miscellaneous expense arose and threw me off. In most instances of overrun, I just was not that restricting of myself.
Nonetheless, even if I did bend my budget a bit, having a standard to measure actual spending against for each day kept my spending in check.
Eating street food
I found it to be the cheapest and also the tastiest. There’s a wide range of options, from chaat to plain old dal and rice — I could fill up for 50 cents or less.
Two samosas might cost Rs10-15, a vegetarian thali Rs30-40, and kachori, my personal favorite, around Rs20.
Strategies to save more
I let several early rejections and obvious scams kill my motivation for couchsurfing. But I met other travelers who were using it frequently and successfully. So, a little more effort and due diligence might have yielded a few places to stay.
Of course, couchsurfing works best when the emphasis is on meeting, connecting, and sharing with people of different backgrounds. If you couchsurf, saving money should be a secondary consideration.
Maintain focus on budget
I lost focus over the last 10-15 days. I consumed more expensive food, I paid for transportation when I could have walked, I stayed in my own room when I could have shared with someone.
Funny thing is, I enjoyed my time just as much when I was more vigilant of my finances, maybe even more so, as I did not have feelings of financial transgressions when I was on or near budget.
Book ahead for larger cities
Unfortunately, the cheapest flights fly into and out of some India’s largest and most expensive cities (Mumbai, Delhi). If you’re a first-time visitor, I recommend booking a hotel room in advance, at least for one night.
You won’t get the best or worst deal, but at least you’ll have a place to throw your stuff while you pound the pavement haggling for a cheaper bed.
I landed in Mumbai and did not book ahead, thinking I could find something cheap. After landing at 2AM and spending the early morning on the streets of Mumbai, the next day I paid double my entire daily budget for a one-night hotel stay because all the cheapies I tried were booked.
In general, I stayed vigilant to my budget, but it was not necessary for me to really tighten my spending. When I was tired or feeling lazy I often opted for the fastest or easiest option. Sometimes this was the cheapest choice, sometimes not.
Given that I was budget-conscience, not budget-strict, the results support the assertion that someone could stay within the confines of $1,000 over 71 days while traveling in India.