Dear Backpackers is a new series addressing issues within the backpacking and budget travel community. If you would like to contribute, please contact us with your pitch.
Please stop calling yourselves poor. Please stop telling cab drivers and market vendors that you’re broke. Please stop haggling over pennies and asking for pity because you blew your savings account getting drunk in different rooms around the world.
Because I’m most familiar with Central America, I’m going to contextualize this first using Costa Rica. But I know this stuff happens everywhere.
Budget backpackers, especially the ones making their way through Central America on the Gringo Trail, often complain when they get to Costa Rica. It’s too Americanized and touristy. Well, you went to Tamagringo for a bachelor party and stayed at a Best Western, so of course it was. But that’s another discussion for another time.
Here, I want to talk about the most common refrain: it’s too expensive.
- For context: According to Expatistan and Numbeo, the cost of living in the United States is 26% higher than the cost of living in Costa Rica, yet the average salary in the United States is 600% higher than the average salary in Costa Rica.
It really rubs me the wrong way when I hear budget backpackers, who likely gave up the chance to make a salary at home that’s 4, 5, or 6 times the local average income to travel, complain about how much everything costs non-stop. What really irks me is the sense of entitlement it’s often said with…as if all Central American countries/Latin American countries owe them $8 hostels, $2 cab rides, and 3-course meals that cost as much as a beer back home. They SHOULD be cheap.
Backpackers demand cheapness for a reason, and it’s not just because they’re “broke”. It’s because they’re white traveling in brown countries. Because they’re Americans/Brits/Australians traveling in the “Global South”. Because let’s be real here, you barely ever hear this crap in Paris or London, which are far more expensive. Brown countries have an obligation to make themselves cheap and ripe for our exploitation, right?
I’ve overheard 100 too many tourists arguing with service people (cab drivers, bartenders, bus drivers) over some petty 2 dollars, claiming to be ripped off because the tourist doesn’t understand how to count the local currency (and that is the problem, every time).
I once sat on a full bus in Costa Rica while a couple travelers from Germany argued with the bus driver about correct change (a difference of less than a dollar) for TWENTY MINUTES while the entire bus waiting for them to get off so we could continue our journey. They yelled in English because they didn’t speak Spanish, and they were actually just confused because they paid in U.S. dollars (NOT the local currency) and didn’t understand the exchange rate. Looking back, as an English speaker I should have grown some ovaries and walked up there and confronted them.
The point is, how often do I hear tourists arguing with service people in white countries about prices or accusing them of ripping people off? Never.
Price inflation is a problem in Costa Rica…in fact, it’s one of the biggest issues they face as a country right now. But it’s a problem for locals who LIVE here (and make, on average, around $600/month), NOT for travelers who made a CHOICE to forgo their (much higher) income. That extra $2 service charge on your bill that you’re so angry about? That’s going to a real human being who deserves a real living wage just as much as you (if not more, considering they’re employed and the ppl complaining often aren’t..no offense, I was an unemployed backpacker too, I’m JS.)
Another example: A video that recently went viral of a Nepali woman chasing a British tourist who refused to pay full-price for a cup of tea that costs her the equivalent of less than 2 British pounds.
The video, of course, does not present the whole story. The Daily Mail didn’t bother to go beyond getting the British woman’s account of what happened, which is typical. According to a Nepali local to the area who encountered to story in a Facebook group:
“The story behind is the tourist stayed overnight on a tea house for free [hence the part in the video where the Nepalese woman says ‘room free’] as she was agreed to eat and buy a food from them. The tourist is aware of cost but in the morning she bargain to lower the cost and paid lower then the cost in the Menu and left tea house without paying a full amount. The video didn’t show everything. That is the reason why the tea house lady got mad at her. This incident happened 10-12 days of far walking distance from the motor access nearly at the elevation of 5000m. Now imagine if you were that tea house lady how much would you charge for one cup of tea? Everything has to be shipped either by helicopter, human power mule, or Yak. every tea house has fixed priced provided by conservation area project. There is no over charged price at all. Everything is written in the menu. The tourist lady went beyond the limit.”
According to another commenter regarding the hike:
“Higher up the mountain you go, the higher the price. It reflects the time and effort by the men and donkeys going up those mountains.”
As the story spread and the truth came out, it became clear that the British tourist had actually stolen from the Nepali woman and then painted herself as the victim in her recounting of the story to the Daily Mail.
If you can’t believe this kind of thing happens regularly, budget tourists from wealthy nations plain stealing from locals in less wealthy nations, here are a few more recent examples: Drunk Americans Steal Wooden Elephant on Koh Samui (Thailand), Australian Tourists Paraded as Criminals After Stealing a Bike on Gili Islands (Indonesia), British Tourist Caught on CCTV Stealing Tuk Tuk Driver’s Wallet (Thailand). Of course, the second article STILL gives the white Australian tourists the benefit of the doubt and paints them as the victims just because they had to wear a sign around their necks, a punishment more lenient than what they would have received for theft in their own country.
I’ve seen it happen. I’ve watched tourists straight up try to walk out of bars in Costa Rica without paying their tab on multiple occasions. Sometimes they feel the price was unfair (the beer was $2 at another bar, and here it’s $2.50), and sometimes they just didn’t want to pay. And in the same breath, these people complain about being ripped off. I’ve seen tourists ask for goods and services, things like a produce or language lessons or a 5-minute taxi ride, for free.
Would these people ever do these things in their home country? Would you ever go to the farmer’s market and just ask if you can have a bag of fruit for free? If you think your Applebee’s steak was overpriced by $1, do you just walk out and not pay? Why would a tourist think they just deserve to get stuff for free, specifically in these countries? Two words: white privilege.
You are probably not one of these people. I’m sure you’ve never stolen from a taxi driver. But the attitude that many backpackers have — that they deserve low prices, that they refuse to overpay, that locals are ripping them off, that white people are good until proven bad and brown people are bad until proven good — it’s these hidden, insidious beliefs that enable the behaviors mentioned above, and much worse.
No one is asking you to start staying at luxury hotels or throwing money at people. At the very least, just check your privilege, and try to be kinder. I get that in YOUR country, you’re not rich. I get wanting to squeeze as much sweet travel time from your budget as you can. But at what cost? Sometimes we take it too far. Besides, shouldn’t we be contributing back to the countries we visit anyway?
I’m not saying you can’t travel on a budget. I do it. But when it’s leading people to argue with a bus driver over a dollar or panhandle in Asia to fund their trip, it’s too much. (Not sure why the second one is a problem? Read this: here’s why asking Asian people to fund your travels is wrong.
What do you think? Have you encountered (or perhaps partaken in) this behavior while traveling? How do you strike a balance between budgeting and exploiting?