One great thing about coming to Thailand, especially from the Western world: everything (or almost everything) is cheaper. That said, you’d be amazed to hear the stories of how tourists manage to pay far more than they expected.
Pick a few Western luxuries you can live without
The difference between a three-star and four-star hotel can be 50 USD or more a night. You’ll probably spend more on hotels than anything else in Thailand, so choose wisely — two otherwise identical hotels can have two very different prices on different websites. While booking ahead is a good idea, you’d be surprised what you can find by searching for hotels on Google Maps once you arrive. You may not get a pool (gasp!), but there’s typically plenty of options.
Specifically, a SIM card for your smartphone. DTAC, AIS, and True are three of the biggest names, and SIM cards can be found at any convenience store. Get started for 200–300 baht — seen above is DTAC’s ‘Happy Tourist’ SIM and True’s ‘3G Tourist Inter’ SIM, each good for 7 days of unlimited internet and 100 baht of calling credit.
If you’re really pinching pennies, True also has a 49 baht SIM (about $1.60 USD) which includes 90MB of internet and 20 baht worth of calling credit. If that runs out you can always add credit (‘top up’) to your balance and use keypress codes to get more services.
But I’m only in Thailand for a few days…
And you like relying on free wi-fi provided by restaurants or hotels? The times you most need an internet connection are usually the times you’re furthest away from one. Trust me on this one.
Take buses and songthaews, avoid taxis and tuk-tuks
Bangkok’s buses may not look the prettiest, it’s hard to argue with a fare that’s less than 1 USD. Some red buses are free, while others start at a mere 7.5 baht. Want air-conditioning? You might pay 15–25 baht for a bus ride — no biggie. Pick up a 100 baht paper map or head to transitbangkok.com to get around via bus. Bangkok’s subway system (MRT) and Skytrain (BTS) are also great ways to get across town at a fair price.
Outside of Bangkok, songthaews (‘song’ + the first three letters of ‘towel’) are far more common. These converted pick-up trucks offer a couple of benches in the back for carrying people around town. While each city runs their songthaews a little differently, most stick to main roads and highways and stop whenever someone pushes the button to get off. Note that songthaews rarely operate after dark, and may charge more if they are.
Pro-tip: look up the standard fare for songthaews before jumping on one. This is usually 10–20 baht per person for most short or medium-length rides.
The biggest exception is in Chiang Mai, which has songthaews that act more like group / shared taxis. If you’re going to Chiang Mai, tell the driver where you’re going before jumping on, and he’ll get you where you’re going.
Why avoid taxis and tuk-tuks?
Regulations and laws seem to fly out the window when it comes to these things. Bangkok’s taxi drivers are notorious for not using the meter, while tuk-tuks have no meters whatsoever. It’s not too difficult to pay 10–20 times more than you would for the same trip taken via public transportation — and there’s no guarantee of getting there faster.
Pro-tip: the metered stands at some bus terminals are fair — Bangkok’s Chatuchak bus terminal comes to mind — but you’ll need to get past the touts to get there.
Drink less at bars, avoid ones with gaggles of ‘ladies’
A large Chang at a convenience store is around 50 baht. A small Chang at a bar is 60–80 baht. OK, so you can’t get cocktails at a 7/11 — there is that. If you’re out to take in Thailand’s nightlife, there are plenty of ways to do that without spending a phan (1,000 baht). Walk along the streets and observe the human condition without all the flashing / strobe lights, or simply sip instead of chug.
What’s with the ladies sitting / standing by the entrance?
They’re not just there to pour your beer. They’re there to sit at your table, for you to buy them drinks, and possibly to take home with you. A few tourists have been on the receiving end of a bill where they were expected to pay for their ‘attention’. If you’re just there to eat or drink without extra companionship, feign disinterest by chatting up your party instead of them.
Thai food > Western food
You didn’t come to Thailand to eat a hamburger, did you? Street food throughout the country is generally safe, easy to find, and cheap — 40–60 baht for a full meal is about average. Whether it’s a street stand or plastic chairs and tables on a sidewalk, it’s about as authentic as it gets. Look for a crowd of locals for some affirmation it’s worth trying.
Outside of the touristy areas, try not to panic when you’re presented with an all-Thai menu. Most Thais can offer some pidgin English (“noodles?” “pork?”) or may point to pictures on the walls.
Five non-spicy dishes most any Thai place can make:
- Pad Thai (Noodles with tofu, bean sprouts, onion, and ground peanuts)
- Pad See-you (Stir-fried Noodles in Sweet Soy Sauce)
- Khao Mahn Gai (Chicken on Rice)
- Tom Kha Gai (Chicken in Coconut Milk Soup)
- Gai Med Ma Moung (Chicken Cashew Nuts)
In other words, avoid picking up sunscreen or aloe vera at the pharmacy by the beach. Anything imported or of Western origin is bound to be more expensive here — especially if it’s something few locals use.
Anything worth picking up while in Thailand?
In Southern Thailand, you’ll discover the Ocean Pack (Karana Travelgear) waterproof bags to be well made at a reasonable price. The boldly-colored bags range in sizes from 3 liters (tiny) to 25 liters (resembles a heavy punching bag). Some bamboo and wicker crafts may go beyond souvenir status and make a nice conversation piece once home.
Avoid places with dual-pricing schemes
I don’t want to go off on a rant here, but Thailand’s dual-pricing system is an intransigent part of the country. What might be 20–30 baht for a local is 100–200 baht for a foreigner. Bangkok’s Grand Palace, possibly the biggest ripoff of them all, is free for locals and 500 baht for any foreigner still wanting to go. National parks, government-run museums, and even some privately-run places are all in on the scheme, which relieves tourists of their baht to the tune of (possibly) billions of baht per year. Even foot massages at a hot springs (as seen above) aren’t immune.
How to spot dual-pricing?
It’s probably been mentioned in the Tripadvisor reviews or on a blog review of the place. At the place itself, signs will mention the price for foreigners in English, while cleverly couching the price for Thais in Thai numerals. This is intentionally done to hide the difference in price, which can be 2–10 times more for you. I’ve seen a couple of places that go so far as to quote a Thai law as ‘justification’ for charging foreigners more. Try to spot it before you go, of course, so you don’t waste time.
Enjoy the freebies of the country
Buddhist temples, beaches, parks, and night markets — plenty of places have no admission fee and no expectation to purchase anything. (It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to offer a donation to the temple for upkeep, and I’m continually amazed at the quantity of edibles found at night markets.) While I hope you didn’t come to Thailand just to walk around a mall, the larger cities typically have a place or two to meander and cool off.
Need some more tips on saving money in Thailand? Two Tall Travelers has plenty.