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Do Not Buy Bottled Water When Traveling

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Buy jugs of water, not bottles

A liter of bottled water often cost just about the same as two liters; two liters cost roughly the same as four; and four liters is, as odd as it may seem, often more expensive than a twenty liter jug. Giving this, it is truly an economically idiotic move to buy bottled drinking water by the liter. When traveling, save money by purchasing water in twenty liter jugs.

Water is one of the prime necessities of life. It is one of the few basics that all travelers need to obtain every day. The world is full of water — in fact, it is 70% H2O — but only 2.5% of this is fresh water, and only the very slimmest portion of this is drinkable. Therefore the traveler is at the mercy of municipalities, companies, businesses, and the long arm of politics to obtain drinking water wherever they go. In 2011, this is not difficult to do: to get water, you just go to a supermarket and buy it in a bottle.

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Over the last decade many countries in the world have made a drastic shift towards using, almost exclusively, bottled water. Drinkable municipal water is a luxury of the past. In a rough estimate based on my travels and observations, I would say that 30% of the people on the globe are currently living off of bottled water, and this is a number that will continue to rise. These twenty liter jugs of water will soon become a normal fixture in almost every home on the planet within the next ten years, as it already is in Mexico, Central America, Turkey, the Middle East . . . on and on and on.

I cringe when I see trucks full of 20 liter jugs of water moving through the streets doing deliveries, I squirm when I see the stacks of these jugs in grocery stores, because this is a sure sign that the government of the place that I am in has given up trying to provide clean drinking water to its people — it is a sign that the companies are now in full control of proliferating another basic necessity for survival.

20 liters of water for 80 cents

20 liters of water for 80 cents.

But what can I do?

I buy bottled water by the 20 liter jug like everybody else. It is good that these jugs of water sell cheap, and most people in the world can easily afford them. 10 pesos — or 80 cents — is what I paid for twenty liter jugs of water in Puerto Angel; in Zipolite, I paid between 11 and 13 pesos; in Oaxaca City, I pay 16 — or $1.50. One 20 liter jug lasts my family of three around five days — and it is my impression that we consume vastly more water than the average person.

How to buy water by the twenty liter jug

There are often many places to buy these jugs from: supermarkets, convenient stores, and, very often, towns have wate trucks that drive around making home deliveries. Make sure the option you choose is near to where you are staying, as this will be the place where you continue exchanging these jugs for more water.

To buy these twenty liter jugs of water, you often need to leave a deposit. In actuality, you only buy the water, the jug that it comes in is rented out by the place you get it from. This deposit is usually around four or five dollars, and you get it back when you finally return the jug. You are also generally given a ticket when paying this deposit that you must retain and then return to the store with the jug in order to get your money back.

Receipt which says that I paid a 50 peso deposit for the water jug. To get this money back all I need to do is return the jug with this ticket.

When you empty the contents of one jug you can easily return it to the store you got it from and exchange it for a full one — this time you only pay for the water. You can continue doing these exchanges endlessly, but make sure you show the empty jug to an employee in the store before exchanging it for a full one — as if they don’t see you returning a jug they may try to charge you a deposit again.

How to use a 5 gallon jug of water

Update, January 18, 2009: In the comments that ensued from this entry, some readers expressed concerns as to whether a person of average strength could manipulate and use a 20 liter/5 gallon jug of water. To show that it is possible, I took the below photo of my 56 year old mother in law successfully taking water from a 20 liter jug.

Grandmother using 5 gallon water jug

Readers, please don’t make this any more complicated that it needs to be. This is a tip to save you money.

In the above photo, my mother in law had to lift up the jug as it was half empty, but she began using it when it was full. Here’s how:

A link to a video appeared in the comments that shows some weeny girl trying to put one of these 20 liter jugs on top of a holder/ dispenser and needed to lift the full and open jug up to shoulder height, flip it upside down, and put it in place — which can be a difficult maneuver for just about anyone to do.

Watch video of weenie girl and water jug

But, in the case of a traveler using these 5 gallon water jugs, this series of actions is inapplicable — as travelers do not tend to carry around these holders/ dispensers with them. You will never need to do what this girl does in the video.

Keep the jug on the ground.

To use a 5 gallon jug of water, keep it on the ground — these things are a little heavy when full. Just grab the open jug by the neck and tilt it over towards the receptacle you want to pour water in, pour, and then return it to its proper upright position. While the jug is still full and heavy, it should never fully leave the ground — just tilt and pour.

When these jugs become empty enough that you can no longer get any water from it by tilting, then  you need to lift it up — as my mother in law is doing in the above photo — but by this time it is, obviously, vastly lighter and easier to manipulate.

Or, if you do not wish to maneuver one of these water jugs manually, there are little plastic pumps that can be purchased cheaply (see photo at top of article) that are made to fit right on top. With one of these pumps, all you need to do is operate the handle and water pours out from the spigot. This is probably the most common domestic way of extracting water from 20 liter jugs — the chest high holders that are shown in the above video are generally only used in hotels and other businesses.

Jugs of bottled water conclusion

If one liter and 20 liters of water cost the same price, I am going to go for the larger quantity — hands down, this makes sense to me. I am truly baffled as I travel the world and see other travelers laying waste to hundreds upon hundreds of small bottles of water and, in the process, raising their cost of travel, literally, by hundreds of dollars. Though I suppose convenience — hey, who wants to carry a heavy 20 liter jug around the streets? — often usurps cost/ quantity ratios.

Even if a traveler just stays in a place for two or three days and only consumes half of a 20 liter jug of water, they are still saving themselves a good deal of money. Even if you don’t need 20 liters of water there is nothing that says you can’t just dump the excess when you are finished — $1 for ten liters of water is, relatively, still a good deal.

Bottled water truck in Oaxaca, Mexico

Bottled water truck in Oaxaca, Mexico

On a global scale, it is truly beyond me why bottled water has taken precedence over water filters. I suppose businesses found that they can make a lot of money by controlling a population’s access to drinking water than by providing the power for people to clean their water themselves.

I often recommend filtering tap water to make it drinkable as a travel strategy, as this is perhaps the absolute cheapest way to go, but paying $1 for a week’s supply of water is not going to break any traveler’s budget. Filtering a day’s supply of water for yourself usually takes around twenty minutes start to finish, and I would gladly pay 15 cents a day to not have to do this chore. Where I can, I choose to buy water by the twenty liter jug.

Obtaining water in this way has become the rule for so many people on the planet, and all travelers well knows that if they can hone in on the living strategies of the locals they can find ways to travel cheaper. This is perhaps the golden rule of travel: live like the locals to live cheaper. In this current era of human existence, the locals are buying 20 liter jugs of water.

Find more Vagabond Journey travel tips.

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Filed under: Food, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Polis, Republic of CyprusMap