Browsing Posts tagged Central America

Budapest train

What’s the biggest perception difference between an experienced budget traveler and one planning to take off around the world?

The first has learned what really breaks the budget over time. The latter generally has it all backwards.

Here are some paraphrased quotes from people who have sent me e-mails or asked questions on message boards I’ve been on.

– “Yes, I know we’re going to a lot of expensive places in Europe, but we’re going to sleep in hostels.” (Person who had Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, England, France, Spain, Italy, and the Greek Islands on their itinerary.)

– “We’re on a tight budget, but we really want to hit all every continent except Antarctica on our trip.” (A trip that was just 12 months long.)

– “I’m trying to find a cheap round-the-world flight that includes South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia but I’m not having much luck.”

These statements are inherently at odds with traveling on a budget. They’re hoping for a magic bullet answer that is the equivalent of defying the laws of physics. If you don’t tackle the big budget items, you had better have lots and lots of money saved.

You can ignore most of the “Top-10 Ways to Shave Your Travel Costs in Europe” articles that are meant to be click bait. Most of the time they’re just about messing with the margins, the small stuff. It’s like trying to fix the U.S. deficit problem by cutting funding for the arts. To really make a difference we would need to reform social security, truly fix the health care system, or cut defense spending. All three at once to achieve anything dramatic.

hostel prices

For the price of a hostel bed here, you get a really nice hotel room for 2 in a cheap destination.


Budapest is a fantastic bargain. Nobody will ever call Oslo a bargain, or even London for that matter. You can buy a round of drinks for all your friends in Hungary for the price of one in Norway.  The price of a hostel bed in Copenhagen will get you a spacious hotel room for two almost anywhere in Eastern Europe. One nice restaurant meal in Switzerland will feed you for a week in Portugal.

Now take that further and go to Central America, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent. Prices drop in half again, for almost everything you could possibly spend money on. So don’t think of how you can shave costs by self-catering and staying at hostels. If you cut the entire “basket of goods and services” cost by 2/3, messing with the margins isn’t necessary.

And as I’ve said often, getting out of the big capital cities will usually help no matter where you are.

long-term travel

Did you really leave home to do this every day or two?


The more you’re moving around, the more money you’re going to spend every week, every month. It’s not far-fetched to say that someone visiting 24 countries in one year is going to spend twice as much as someone visiting 12. The one visiting 8 will spend even less.

If those 24 countries are on multiple continents that require long-haul flights, bump the budget up by thousand of dollars. Even in places where transportation is cheap, being on the move a lot requires constant spending on some kind of tickets. If you’re in one place for a month though, it’s just your feet and local buses or subways. Plus when you get to know an area, you don’t have to throw money at hurdles because you’re in a hurry. You can figure out cheaper/better options for everything from lodging to groceries to bus options for leaving town at the end.

Many people setting out on their first round-the-world trip act as if their life is going to end the moment they return home. They have to do it all, see it all, on this one grand adventure. Hey, you’re 28 years old; is this really the last time in your life you’re going to get on a plane and go somewhere? On my three round-the-world trips, I never even set foot in Latin America. Now I’ve been to a dozen countries in Latin America. They didn’t disappear from the map. I still haven’t been to New Zealand. But I think it’ll wait for me.

round the world flight

This route STARTS at $7,250.


I’ve written a few articles related to my book on traveling in the cheap clusters of the world. This one is getting a bit dated, but apart from Turkey getting more expensive it’s still pretty accurate.

The idea is, you take a long-haul flight to a cluster of cheap countries, then go overland from there. The most common one is to get a flight to Bangkok and then you can hit a half-dozen other countries without getting on another long-haul flight. You can get a cheapo flight from Singapore to Indonesia or a not-so-bad one from Bangkok to Nepal or India, which is the start of another cluster. The cheapest cluster option from the U.S. or Canada is to fly to Mexico or Guatemala and then make your way south by land and boat. For the Brits, a cheap flight to Budapest or Prague can then turn into lots of jaunts by train and bus to the least expensive parts of Europe.

The easiest way to ratchet up your long-term travel budget in a hurry is to try to check far-flung places off your list on one trip. Sure, you may have always dreamed of visiting Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, and France, but if you’re trying to find a ticket hitting all those areas, it’s going to be the price of a used car, no way around it. Save some for later.

What lesson did you learn the hard way between planning and actually traveling?

Panama beach

Panama can be one of the world’s greatest places to live on a lower budget than you could in a developed country, especially if you’re a retiree. It’s also a place favored by thousands of very wealthy Latin Americans and business tycoons, however. So whether you find the place a bargain largely depends on where you live and how you live.

As I’ve been mentioning lately, I’m working on a book called A Better Life for Half the Price, about moving abroad to a cheaper destination to lower your monthly expenses. Panama doesn’t figure into my World’s Cheapest Destinations travel book except as a brief honorable mention. While it’s cheaper than Costa Rica, it’s nowhere near as good a value as some other countries in Central America. It is a poster child for publications such as International Living though and has been for at least a decade. That’s for a lot of good reasons:

– It’s a very stable country politically.
– It uses the US dollar as its currency and inflation is minimal.
– The banking system is good.
– Health care is excellent and affordable in the cities.
– Taxes are low, including on alcohol and electronics.
– Regulations are minimal for setting up a business.
– It’s easy to get a residency visa.
– The pensionada program for retirees has terrific benefits.

Panama is no backwater dirt-poor country though relying on what they can grow or dig out of the ground to build wealth. There’s a large middle class employed in all kinds of decent-paying jobs, from call centers to quality construction to the Panama Canal to banking. Most multinational companies have a base here and the whole country is like a big duty free zone.

luxury real estate Panama City

I did an interview that will air soon with Taylor White of the Overseas Property Insider Podcast. He’s stacking cash buying and selling real estate in Panama City, so he subscribes to the philosophy of “You’re going to spend what you’re going to spend, no matter where you are.” For some people that’s true and they didn’t move to Panama City to save money. Taylor spends about as much as he did in San Diego. You can spend a few hundred grand on a fancy condo with a view and there are plenty of temptations in terms of high-end restaurants, clubs, casinos, and beach resort excursions. For many, especially wealthy Latinos, the capital of this country is a “work hard, play hard” city akin to Miami. Living here can cost far less than Miami if you’re careful, but you can easily spend as much as you would there if you want.

There are retirees living in Panama City for less and the live abroad magazines and newsletters continually highlight people getting by on two U.S. social security checks—around $2,400 per month. A typical basket of goods and services is lower here, especially domestic help, transportation, domestic food, wine, and entertainment. Real estate is high for the region though as this is considered a “safe haven” investment for Venezuelans, Argentines, and others.

Outside the Big City

There are plenty of other places to live in Panama, however. Many retirees are attracted to the Chiriqui highlands around David and Boquete or the Bocas del Toro islands. Both these areas have far lower prices to rent or buy.

Panama adventure

Former Texan Richard Kongable lived in a few places in Panama before moving to a rural area near Volcan, on the side of a mountain. I tried a few other places in Panama before settling here,” he says. “I like that I never need heat, I never need air conditioning, and there’’s always a gentle breeze. I’m on the edge of a valley, with a volcano on the left and two rivers. I can see islands in the ocean even though it’s an hour and 20 minutes away.”

Richard rented his house for years for $300 a month and thought he was going to have to leave eventually when the American owner put it up for sale. Instead the owner fell into health problems and needed to sell in a hurry, so with no buyers in sight Richard got the 1,600 square foot house for half price: $25,000. He estimates that his family of three spends about $1,700 a month, including car expenses and about $300 a month for his son’s private school.

Retirees Kris and Joel Cunningham pay $385 per month for a house in a nice middle class neighborhood on the edge of David, Panama and they love it. “We have woods and a river behind us, there’s only one way into the neighborhood so it feels really safe. We’re surrounded by local professionals who are just lovely people.”

The Cunninghams were paying $1,200 per month in Sarasota, Florida where they lived before on their mortgage and taxes. If they had been renting, it would have been more. “The house next to us, similar to what we have now, was renting for $1,500 per month,” she adds.

They have been living on her husband’s social security payment and have a little savings from selling their house in Florida. Kris was about to start receiving her own social security payment when I talked to her, which will double their income and enable them to meet the income requirements for the pensionada program: $1,000 for one person plus $250 for each dependent. “It’s already so cheap though, I feel kind of guilty getting all those extra discounts,” she says.

Kris Cunningham says she has been pleasantly surprised by low costs in Panama, particularly groceries. “Food is definitely a great deal, especially fruit and vegetables. If you spend $20 on those in our local market it will be more than you can carry. We paid two or three times more for almost everything at home, including meat and fish. If you buy what the locals buy and cook, living here is very cheap.”

There’s the key advice that applies almost anywhere in the world: eat what’s local and you’ll probably be both healthier and wealthier. The usual advice that goes with that is to avoid imported products. With some of the cheapest wine and liquor prices in the world here though, you don’t have to make any adjustments in what you drink. This is one of the few places in the world where California wine is cheaper than in Napa Valley and Chilean wine is cheaper than in Santiago. (See this post on prices to booze it up in Panama.)

Granada tour

You’ve probably seen a handful of photos from Granada, Nicaragua posted here and there. Usually you get the central plaza, the cathedral, a bell tower view over the roofs, and some horse-drawn carriages. Or in the case of a cheapskate like me, photos of signs showing how cheap everything is in Nicaragua.

I just visited Granada for the second time this week and got out of the center to some other areas. One of the great things about this gorgeous colonial city is that there’s lots to do outside of it within a short drive. That photo at the top, however, is from a place on the edge of town that you can get to by bike or cheap taxi: the city cemetery. I got all kinds of terrific shots from there and it’s really interesting to see how elaborate the graves are. One is a marble replica in miniature of a local church. Unlike when I’ve visited the famous ones in New Orleans or Buenos Aires though, there was almost nobody else here.

Granada isletas

The most common excursion is to go out on a boat ride around the little islands and peninsula jutting out into the giant lake where the city is situated. These islands have homes on them, some quite grand, that are weekend getaway places for wealthy Nicaraguans and a few foreigners. You may also stop at an old Spanish fort, but the best reason to go is to check out all the bird life. You see lots of herons, egrets, oropendolos, cormorants, and often an osprey or two.

Nicaraguan artisan

Excursions go to the Masaya volcano, where you can drive right up to the crater. If the crater is really active with sulphurous steam though, like it was when we visited, you probably won’t see much beyond the edge. The town of Masaya is a big craft center though, so you may be able to see some artisans at work. At the market there you can weed through the junky stuff and find some real treasures for a great price.

Masaya Lake Nicaragua

There is a lagoon to the side of that volcano and a few great overlook restaurants in the area where you can take it all in as you have lunch. The shot above is the panoramic view we got at ours. Then there’s Lake Apoyo, a deep one set in an extinct crater nearby. You will probably visit an overlook point with a great vista if you go on some kind of tour. But this would be a great place to chill out for a while and relax or get some work done. No motorboats allowed.

No matter what price range you’re in, you will eat well in Nicaragua. In my experience the food is a step up from most other parts of Central America, plus it’s a better value. If you want to splurge, you can spend $15 and get a big lobster platter or something like this that’s meant to be shared around the table. There’s lot of fried greatness in there and you won’t need to eat again for a while.

fried cheese tostones

Naturally, this is one of the cheapest places to live in the world as well. It’ll figure prominently in a book I’ve got coming out later this year on living a better life for half the price. Get on the newsletter list here.

cheapest places to travel americas  cheapest travel destinations in Asia  cheap travel Europe

Are you going on a long trip that’s just to Central and South America?

Traveling to Asia only for a few months?

Want to know details just on the cheapest places to travel in Europe?

No, you’re not seeing triple at the top. In a couple days you’ll see shorter e-book versions on Amazon excerpted from the full edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, priced at $3.98 (or the in other currencies). So if you were hesitating on buying the full book because you weren’t taking some epic round-the-world journey, you can lay out less than a spruced-up Starbucks drink in a paper cup and get the scoop on where your money will stretch the most.

Sure, the Asia and Americas ones are longer than the Europe one, but I like to keep things simple, so they’re all under four bucks. But in the places featured in all of these, four bucks will really get you something—far more than a cup of coffee.

Amazon took less than a day to get these posted, so here are the links (also in the book covers above):

Americas edition

Europe Edition

Asia Edition

This a Kindle-only release, but you can use the Kindle app to read them on your iPad, phone (Apple or Android), and many other devices.

Oh, and here’s what some other people have to say about what’s in the full edition:

“Want to know where it’s cheap to travel and how do it for less than $100 a day? Then The World’s Cheapest Destinations is the book for you! Tim Leffel makes me want to pack up my bags because in most of these places it’s cheaper than staying home.”
– Johnny Jet DiScala, editor of

“There are two ways to travel overseas: You can visit overpriced countries, or you can go to equally exciting destinations on the cheap. Tim Leffel is a master storyteller who graciously informs us on how to maximize our travel experience the inexpensive way. This latest edition updates the best locations worldwide where you can stretch your travel budget to the fullest!”
– Brad Olsen, author of World Stompers and Future Esoteric

“In Tim’s 4th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, he scoured the world again to help travelers make the most of their travel dollars. Even though I’ve been studying travel writing and guides for 15+ years, I always learn something new with each edition of Tim’s book.
– Sean Keener, CEO of

“Tim Leffel has long been a guru of balancing the practicalities of cheap travel with a keen sense of judgment about the aesthetic value offered by varied countries around the world. In this newly researched and expanded edition, Tim’s easy conversational style turns the book into a page-turner, leaving you hungry to set off on the many paths he opens up to the traveler’s imagination.”
– Gregory Hubbs, editor-in-chief,

“As dollars get ever tighter, this book becomes all the more precious. But what’s most brilliant about it is that Leffel really doesn’t just think ‘cheap’-he thinks ‘smart.’ As valuable a travel book as you’ll find today, in ways too numerous to even count, no matter what your budget.”
– Chris Epting, author of Led Zeppelin Crashed Here and Marilyn Monroe Dyed Here

“Tim manages to use his considerable knowledge of travel to put to rest the myth that travel has to be expensive by highlighting 21 destinations in the world where your money goes far. His tips and suggestions will prove invaluable for someone who desires to travel but has a limited budget.”
– Nomadic Matthew Kepnes, author of How to Travel the World on $50 Per Day

“Take it from a travel editor who has spent many years reading about destinations and talking to writers who have traveled everywhere. This book is full of great advice and steers you with practical and useful tips to the cheapest places on earth. So many travel books are full of generalizations; this one stands out for specific tips, specific places, and the kinds of details that can help you make a vacation even if you’re close to broke.”
– Max Hartshorne, editor of

Costs for Panama Canal

If you’re going to ride a yacht or transport cargo through the Panama Canal, be ready to pony up some serious cash.

I just handed in a magazine story on Panama and was going through my notes from the trip. I visited the Panama Canal for the second time. The first time I actually went through it on a 14-person ship, while this time I just went to the Miraflores Locks visitor center.

You find out lots of factiods when visiting, but I’m most fascinated by the commerce side of it. Obviously it’s easier for a shipping company to go through here than to spend weeks sailing around the bottom of South America, so they’re willing to pay. A lot.

Cargo ships are billed $82 per full container, $74 for an empty one. (So you really don’t want to have a lot of empties.) Then in a system that seems like it was copied from U.S. airlines, there are lots of extra fees on top of that. The ship passing by in the photo above was loaded with 3,800 containers, so here’s what the captain paid:

– $321,446 for the containers

– $11,445 for the work of 7 tugboats

– $4,745 for ground assistants

– $3,600 for ground wires

When they exit the other side of the canal, that transit alone will have added 1/3 of a $million to the cost of the goods on the ship. So if you’re in Boston getting coffee from Sumatra or a car from Korea, keep this in mind when you look at the price.

Speaking of prices, you’ll pay a surcharge if you go on a cruise ship through the Panama Canal. Those ships are levied a fee of $134 per bed. Enjoy the ride that day—you’ve paid handsomely for it.

So what about the poor soul trying to live a lifelong dream of sailing around the world?

canal transit Panama

It’s definitely best to go small than to look like a new money Russian tycoon. Small ships of less than 50 feet in length pay $800 for the transit. Those of 50-80 pay $1,300. Those 80 to 100 feet pay $2,000. Above that it’s $3,000. But hey, if you’ve got a yacht that big, three grand is probably chump change anyway. No, you can’t use a credit card. Or cocaine. Supposedly someone tried that once.

If you’d like to just see a bit of the (slow) action instead, entrance to the Miraflores Locks complex is $8 adults, $5 kids and seniors. There’s a restaurant and bar on site. If you’re a Panama resident, you only pay $3. That includes entrance to the museum and a guide explaining how everything works. [Update – the price has nearly doubled in 2014, to $15 for foreign adults. More info here.]

Keep in mind these are 2013 numbers and will surely rise. Next year a wider section of the canal opens to allow container ships through. This engineering feat cost billions and billions to pull off, so you can bet those ships making use of it will pay handsomely.

If you ask me, a couple days in Panama City is plenty and there are far more interesting places to go within a few hours. See the Visit Panama site for ideas and gorgeous photos.