Marge and I recently got back our latest luxurious international vacation, and I’m gobsmacked at how little it cost. We flew to the opposite side of the world, ate delicious food, saw incredible sights, and stayed at a beachfront resort on crystal clear waters. And with just some frequent flyer miles to help us out, we paid less than $1,000 for the whole thing.
We wanted to visit Thailand because it seemed like everyone who goes comes back raving about it. We were not disappointed. We spent three nights in Chiang Mai, four nights on Koh Kood, and two nights in Bangkok.
Chiang Mai is a city of Buddhist temples up north. You can live well here very cheaply. And I suppose that “secret” is out, because it was crawling with ex-pats. We saw older white guys who obviously had decided to leave everything behind and live here permanently long ago. On the other hand, Koh Kood is an island near Cambodia that is just starting to see its first tourists.
For currency conversion, I used the exchange rate from of 35 baht to 1 USD from late January 2017.
Total Cost: $887.91
|2 Tickets||Retail Cost||Miles Used||Our Cost|
|Cathay Pacific, Business, JFK to Thailand, Round Trip||$10,192||220,000 American Miles||$223|
We’ve flown Cathay Pacific’s business class once, from Vancouver to JFK as a free one-way attached to our Switzerland trip, and it was fantastic, so we were immensely looking forward to this. Yes, we were really looking forward to a 15 hour flight from JFK to Hong Kong. The business class cabin was nearly empty on the flight out. The food was ridiculously good. Between the flight there and the flight back, I watched Shin Godzilla, Weiner, Spotlight, and a bunch of episodes of Flight of the Conchords.
We booked this trip as two separate one-ways, from JFK to Chiang Mai, and then Bangkok back to JFK. I love using American Airlines miles like this because it doesn’t cost any more than it would to book a simple round trip flight, and you don’t have to plan your trip around coming back from the airport you arrived at.
We had one other flight, between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, but I’m including that as Transportation because it replaced taking a bus or a train across the country.
|Hotel||Nights||Cost Per Night||Total Retail||Our Cost|
|Kate & Hasu’s Boutique Hotel, Chiang Mai||3||$56||$168||$42|
|Baan Noppawong, Bangkok||1||$69||$69||$69|
|Sea Far Resort, Koh Kood||4||$105||$421||$71|
|At Residence, Bangkok||1||$40||$40||$40|
We booked all of our hotels through Agoda.com. They seem to have a huge presence in Thailand and we were usually able to find the best prices on there.
We saved money on hotels by using our Barclay Arrival card, which had a 50,000 point bonus on it. These points can be used as a credit against any travel expense, so we credited against a few hotels. All in, we spent $222 for nine nights in Thailand, or less than $25 per night!
Accommodations in Thailand are very cheap to begin with. Without discounts, the accommodations here cost slightly more than on our trip to Peru, but that’s mostly due to staying at a beach resort for four nights here. The beaches of Thailand are legendary, so even though we aren’t huge beach people, we decided we had to see them.
I did a ton of research on the different islands in Thailand. There are many, each with their own personality, and I decided the best for us was the mostly undeveloped Koh Kood, near the Cambodian border. There are very few restaurants on Koh Kood, twenty or so mostly new hotels, no nightlife. and otherwise just the bare minimum of infrastructure (it seems like there’s only one road). What it lacks in infrastructure it makes up for in coconut trees and fine sand beaches. In other words, it’s what you think of when you picture an island paradise.
Accommodations on Koh Kood run the gamut from $20/night bungalows on the river, to $400/night resorts with all the bells and whistles. We settled on the mid-range Sea Far Resort. For $105/night (less than the cost of a chain hotel in Albany) we got our own bungalow on the most pristine beach we’ve ever visited. The food wasn’t as spectacular as in Chiang Mai, but we weren’t here for the food. We still only averaged spending $23/night on dinner on Koh Kood. Given infinite vacation time, I could definitely spend a few weeks here. The island is huge, and we only saw a tiny corner of it since we didn’t rent a motorbike, which the only way to get around the island.
In Chiang Mai, we stayed at Kate & Hasu’s Boutique Hotel. The location was great. Very close to the city walls (and just off the bar girl-laden Loi Kroh Road) but set back in a quiet neighborhood. They also served a decent free breakfast. The room was a little cramped, but wasn’t a problem, especially at $56/night.
In between Chiang Mai and the island, and then again before our flight back, we spent single nights in Bangkok at places that were conveniently located for our purposes. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to spend in Bangkok, because both Baan Noppawong and At Residence were great. We arrived at Baan Noppawong in the evening and were greeted by the owner and her little daughter. I don’t think anyone spoke much English. Their house was decorated beautifully, but we had to leave early the next morning.
Same with At Residence. We arrived around 8:00PM and had to leave early the next morning for our flight out. Even for Thailand, At Residence was a great deal, with a separate kitchen and living room for only $40. This is probably because it’s far from downtown, but it is near big outdoor mall which holds its own cultural fascination. We watched a ridiculous Hong Kong movie called Queen of Gambling and ate McDonalds in the room, as you do.
|Transport for 2||Cost in $USD||Miles Covered|
|Taxi, Chiang Mai Airport to Hotel||$5.71||4|
|Songthaews, Chiang Mai to Doi Suthep (RT)||$6.29||20|
|Uber, Hotel to Chiang Mai Airport||$4.29||4|
|Flight, Chiang Mai to Bangkok||$72.18||361|
|Train, Bangkok Airport to Playa Thai||$2.57||16|
|Taxi, Playa Thai to Hotel||$7.14||3|
|Bus & Ferry & Taxi, Bangkok to Koh Kood Hotel||$95.58||484|
|Taxi, Lat Krabang to Hotel||$4.29||2|
|Taxi, Hotel to Bangkok Airport||$4.29||2|
|Avg Cost Per Mile||22.6 cents|
|Per Person||11.3 cents/mile|
RT = Round Trip
At just over 11 cents per mile, this is our cheapest trip by far out of the ones I’ve calculated, compared to Japan ($0.33/mile), Peru ($0.79/mile), and Switzerland ($1.16/mile). I wonder if you could travel anywhere in the US for 11 cents per mile on anything except a bicycle?
When I first considered going from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, I thought it would be by train or bus. Then we saw how incredibly cheap domestic flights are in Thailand and went with that. It cost less than $40 per person to fly one-way, and was obviously much easier than going by bus or train. Given unlimited time, it would’ve been fun to go by train or bus and stop in various places along the way, but we didn’t have that kind of time.
Our other big transportation expense was getting to Koh Kood. This took a lot of research. Since not many people go to Koh Kood, the options are limited. There are slightly cheaper options, but I’m glad we went with a package from Boonsiri High Speed Ferries. You reserve it ahead of time. They pick you up on a nice coach bus in Bangkok at 5:00 AM, drive you to their office in Trat, you board a trailer to drive to the pier, then you get on their ferry to Koh Kood, then there’s a songthaew to take your to your hotel, and you’re ready to check-in to your hotel by 1:00 PM. With all the links on one ticket, I wasn’t afraid of screwing something up and missing a boat/not finding a taxi/etc. It was all taken care of. The whole trip covered a crazy amount of ground and still cost less than $100 round trip for the two of us.
Songthaews are like collectivos, our favored way to get around Peru. These are covered pick-up trucks with two benches on the bed. They can either run set routes or collect passengers to drop off at different locations. They’re very common in Chiang Mai, and we used one to go to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is up a mountain. They’re cost effective, but they wait until all the seats are full, and only then do they leave, just like a collectivo.
We took taxis basically just to get to/from the airport. I even tried an Uber for one trip, and that was a tiny bit cheaper. They apparently just started up in Chiang Mai. We didn’t ride in any tuk-tuks because they’re actually not much cheaper than a normal taxi. You seen them on the streets in Chiang Mai more than in Bangkok.
Oh, one more note about traversing Chiang Mai. We were shocked at how hard it was to cross the main road circling the city. Traffic is dense and does not stop. You’d think it would naturally stop every once in a while, but there are no lights, so traffic just goes and goes and goes. We slowly learned where the crosswalks with the lights were (I swear there weren’t more than three), and although the lights seemed to be more of a suggestion to drivers than the law, these were the only places we felt safe crossing the street.
|Meal||Price in Baht||Price in $USD|
|Cafe Thaan Aoan, Lunch||360||$10.29|
|7-11, Tops, Jiffy, Various Snacks||399||$11.40|
|Cooking Love, Dinner||300||$8.57|
|Khun Kae Juice Bar, Snack||80||$2.29|
|Plum Coffee Bar, Snack||120||$3.43|
|Mr. Kai, Dinner||220||$6.29|
|Cozy Coffee, Breakfast||320||$9.14|
|Sea Far Resort – Snacks||440||$ 12.57|
|Sea Far Resort – 3 Dinners||2,390||$68.29|
|Fisherman Hut, Dinner||760||$21.71|
|Family Mart, Snacks (Bangkok)||74||$2.11|
|Total Food Cost||5,801||$165.74|
|Average Cost Per Day, Per Person||$8.29|
By far, this is the cheapest we’ve eaten in a foreign country. Heck, take that $8.29 per day and multiply it by 30 days, for two people, and that’s less than $500 per month. That’s about what we spend on food here in the states, and we’re making our own meals like suckers! Curse this international travel! It really makes you realize how cheap it is to live deliciously elsewhere. Maybe the ex-pats have it figured out.
There’s a lot of great restaurants in Chiang Mai that not only make fresh, authentic food, but make some northern Thai dishes that never make it on to Thai restaurant menus in the US. Khao Soi is a yellow curry-like soup with mustard greens, fried egg noodles, chilis and lime that is a must-try here. We also had some papaya salads, a spicy, crunchy salad made when the papaya is still green. And out on Koh Kood, I had a barracuda fried in tons of garlic. Check out the teeth on that thing.
Throughout the trip, we became experts on the mango smoothie. Most restaurants serve smoothies, and they’re usually between $1 and $2. We also saved money because our hotels mostly served a free breakfast. I wasn’t expecting that. At the Sea Far Resort on Koh Kood, in addition to some normal continental offerings and weird things like hot dogs and tiny sandwiches, they had different Thai food every day. I think it was just leftovers from last night’s dinner, but that was was fine with me!
I’d recommend any of the restaurants above, except Cozy Coffee, where we had a very disappointing and overpriced breakfast, probably the only bad food on the entire trip.
|Price in Baht||Price in $USD|
|Wat Chedi Luang||80||$2.29|
|Lana Folklife Museum||180||$5.14|
|Wat Phra That Doi Suthep||60||$1.71|
|Total Recreation Cost||720||$20.57|
All of these places are in Chiang Mai. Many of the temples in Chiang Mai are free to enter. Sometimes there’s a fee if you’re a foreigner, but it’s never much. Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep are both extensive complexes and are worth much more than their admission price.
Museums in Chiang Mai though are few and far between. The Lana Folklife Museum was worth a visit, but despite its TripAdvisor ranking, I’d skip the Insect Museum. Visit only if you’re really into insects. Kids might like it, I guess, but I mostly just found it odd. You have to ring a buzzer to get in, and the one woman there turns the lights on for you.
On Koh Kood… I don’t know if there were any paid attractions at all. There is a waterfall you might have to pay to hike to.
|Price in Baht||Price in $USD|
|Praew Phun Silk Store – Gifts||1,570||$44.86|
|Postcards and postage||84||$2.40|
|Laundry at Sea Far Resort||245||$7.00|
Miscellaneous spending was limited to some gifts and laundry. We stopped at a silk store in Chiang Mai and bought some scarves for family from an enthusiastic salesman. He wasn’t pushy, but he sure wanted to show off every color available.
And once again, we used our trick of doing laundry in the middle of the trip so we could pack our backpacks lighter. Shockingly, this laundry service was even cheaper than in Peru! We had 3.5 kg of clothes, and Sea Far Resort charged 70 baht per kilogram. That’s a week’s worth of clothes that came back all washed, neatly folded and smelling great for $7.00. I don’t know how they do it, but Marge and I highly recommend having your laundry done in a third world country.
To cover the entire trip, I only had to withdraw 8,000 baht ($228) in cash. It was really important to calculate how much we would need in cash before going to Koh Kood, because there is only one ATM on the entire island, and it is sometimes empty. And in a very proud moment, I was able to spend almost exactly as many baht as I had withdrawn, so on the very last day I had almost nothing left to bring home. We probably have about 30 baht in coins for souvenirs, and that’s it. Foreign currency is neat, but if you have some left over, and not enough to make it worth exchanging, it’s a little annoying.
I’m still shocked at how little this trip cost. Take the gifts out and it only cost $840. It just goes to show how far using some frequent flyer miles will get you.