Browsing Posts tagged travel advice

Latin America budget travel

I started traveling a lot in Latin America after I had a child and needed to hit the ground running when returning from a trip. With two continents only varying by a few hours for time zones, staying in this hemisphere has obvious advantages if you’re American or Canadian. You also only have to wrestle with one language for most of it except for Brazil, which you should probably avoid anyway. (See tip #2.)

Much of the region is a great value too. If you’re on a low budget and want to maximize what you have to spend, here’s how to do it right.

1) Pick the Right Destination(s)

This is going to have a bigger impact than anything else on this list, so I’m putting it first. Saving $100 by flying to Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua is going to be offset by much higher prices once you get there, for nearly everything. Most countries from Mexico on down fit into one of three tiers: very cheap, not too painful, and Ouch! Read The World’s Cheapest Destinations for details, but that bottom rung includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru, though that last one depends a lot on when you go and where you go. Lately Argentina has dropped into the very cheap category again, but only if you’re bringing in lots of cash. Mexico is borderline cheap too, depending on where you go within the country. Panama is not too bad once you get out of the capital.

2) Avoid Brazil

This is the most expensive country in Latin America by far, the expense compounded by the fact that hotel supply has not nearly kept up with demand. Add long distances, high taxes, and a reciprocal visa fee, and this is one to save for later when you’re loaded.

lunch Nicaragua

This was $3…

3) Make Lunch the Big Meal

If you’re going to eat one restaurant meal a day, make it lunch. A “meal of the day” goes by different names in different places, but it usually means a multi-course sit-down meal for somewhere between $2 and $6, sometimes including a drink. It’ll be filling and reasonably nutritious and can sometimes be downright great. If you want the very cheapest version, then…

4) Head to the Market

I think it’s safe to say that any Latin American town with more than 1,500 people or so in it has some kind of local market that has food stalls. This is where you’ll sit next to local workers and chow down for the equivalent of a few dollars. You’ll probably find a set meal here, but also you can order whatever the local cheap and filling food happens to be: big sandwiches, stuffed tortilla variations, rice & beans, stews, or whatever else is popular locally. While you’re there you can stock up on fresh fruit and other staples that will load you down for a few bucks.

market lunch

5) Drink What’s Local

Look around at what most everyone else is drinking in a bar and that’s probably what you’ll be ordering too if you’re on a budget. That means tequila or mezcal in Mexico, wine in Argentina, rum in hot countries, and whatever the local beer is everywhere. The one place you can throw this aside is Panama, where anything you want will be a bargain because it’s a duty-free zone. Bolivian beer

The opposite is Ecuador, where only rum and local beer are anywhere close to affordable. On the non-alcoholic side it’ll be fruit juice (or fruit juice mixed with water), cold jamaica tea, or coca tea perhaps. Don’t assume that if you’re in a coffee-producing country though that the coffee will automatically be good or cheap. The best beans often get exported, so you have to seek out a real coffee shop to avoid the drek.

6) Don’t Book All Your Hotels in Advance

Yes, I know it’s oh so easy and comforting to just pull up HostelBookers or Trivago and reserve places to stay all along your route, but it’s often a bad idea financially. A huge percentage of hotels in Latin America are not listed through any booking agency (they don’t want to pay the fat commissions) and some low-budget ones still don’t have a web page or working e-mail address. Unless you’re flying through the region in a blur, which is a bad idea (see the next tip), you’re usually better off looking around after you arrive. Or at least for night two onward. You can actually see the room this way and you have the power to negotiate for a better price or a better room.

7) Take Your Time

If you look at how far it is from Lima to Cusco or Buenos Aires to Salta, you should figure out quickly that it’s going to take you quite a while to get from point A to B. Even when distances look short on a map, however, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get there quickly on the roads you have to travel on. If you’re going to spend 36 hours in transit, it’s pretty silly to then turn around and go somewhere else just 48 hours later. Take your dream itinerary and cut it in half: fewer places, but twice as much time in them. Your wallet will thank you and you’ll have a much richer experience.

8) Learn Some Spanish

Now that we’ve skipped Brazil, that means you can get by with Spanish or English everywhere except the Suriname countries and remote villages in the Andes or Amazon. Since Spanish is so useful in such a vast territory though, don’t assume you’ll be able to muddle through in English like you can in Southeast Asia or Europe. Learning the basics will save you money and make your travels less frustrating.

I went from zero to bumbling with the Pimsleur course and still use it now and then—I’m on Level 4 to help my intermediate fluency along. I especially like using it on a solo car trip because it’s audio only, now in app form. Hit play and let it rip. I’ve tried a fair number of podcasts for the same reason. I sometimes us SpanishDict, Spanish Verbs, Hola Flashcards, DuoLingo, and a few others on the apps side. And of course a good old-school phrase book is one of the best learning tools out there—for less than $10.

local airline

9) Check the Transportation Competition

There’s no cut and dry advice on how to get from place to place in Latin America. In Mexico the buses are really comfortable, but they’re not all that cheap now and prices are pretty uniform between companies for specific classes of service. Sometimes it can be less money to fly on a promotional fare on an airline like Interjet or Volaris for long distances and you’ll save a day or two of travel. Same for Avianca within Colombia. In Argentina, however, flight prices are a total rip-off and in Peru you’ll pay two or three times as much as the locals do for most airlines. Both those countries have several competing long-haul bus companies though, so it pays to do some research and shop around.

10) Book Adventure Excursions Locally

This is a no-brainer for most backpackers, but unless you’re trying to book something with limited permits, like the Inca Trail in Peru, you’ll nearly always be better off waiting until arrival before booking an adventure tour. Ask around for who’s good and find out what’s worth doing from people who just went. This is true for rafting, trekking, biking, or just touring outlying villages. I’ve heard of several people getting half-price Galapagos trips by just flying to Baltra and finding an open cabin to fill.

costa rica rafting

11) Hit Big Cities on a Sunday

I did a whole blog post on why Sunday is a great day to be in a capital city. Free museums, closed-off streets, and outdoor music performances are common on Sundays in Latin America.

12) Don’t Skip the Culture

When you’re in Europe, you have to be really picky about which cultural attractions are really worth splurging on. I can’t remember ever paying more than $8 to enter a museum anywhere in Latin America and more often it’s a dollar or two. Live music and dance performances are often 1/5 what they would be for a comparable show in the USA, Canada, or Europe. Take advantage of it!

For more, check out these Transitions Abroad articles I wrote a while back on getting to Guatemala from Mexico and in South America.

Guelaguetza Oaxaca

When dishing out budget travel advice, I usually tell people to avoid going somewhere when it’s high season. There’s a whole chapter on timing in Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune about finding the sweet spot of shoulder season where you’re going. When crowds are at their peak, prices are bound to be at their highest.

Sometimes it’s worth it though. Sometimes it’s high season not just because of vacation schedules, but because there’s really something fantastic going on. That’s what I’m experiencing right now during the week of the Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca. We didn’t even know this was going on when we first planned our vacation; we just lucked out. But now that we’re here during prime time, I’m really glad we made it when we did.

tamale festival

Woman making “tejate” drink at the tamale festival

I was originally going to call this post “Mole and Mezcal in Oaxaca” since we spent the first morning here at a tamale festival (many of the tamales featuring different kinds of mole sauces) and the next afternoon at a mezcal fair. In both cases we got to try a huge variety of them in one place. The tamales were less than a dollar each and the equivalent of $3 got us into the Feria de Mezcal where we could walk around sampling them or buying bargain-priced cocktails for a few dollars each. Both of these events were unique to the Guelaguetza week and would not be going on other times during the year.

The same goes for all the artisan stalls taking up the whole rest of that park, with each booth listing the Oaxacan village that artisan came from. You can buy direct from them at this time, with no middleman and no traveling out to some remote town and finding the workshop behind an unmarked door. Two other artisan areas were set up in different parts of the center, also temporary, coming down in a few days.

mezcal festival

But what’s Guelaguetza? It’s an incredible dance performance featuring groups from different villages around Oaxaca. It’s an elaborate affair in an amphitheater overlooking the city and was far more spectacular than I had expected. There were 16 dances in all, over several hours. That sounds kind of excessive, but it never got boring because they were all very different. My daughter was also more into it than I thought she’d be too due to one key factor: at the end of each dance they threw things into the audience. So besides the hat, seat cushion, fan, and t-shirt we got upon arrival, gifts were flying through the air every 15 minutes or so. We scored some things like cool little baskets, woven fans, fruit, rolls, chocolate, and packets of coffee.

Guelaguetza Festival dance

Guelaguetza is the reason to have lots of other things going on in Oaxaca the same week though. We saw Lila Downs one night in that same amphitheater and it was quite a production with all the extra dancers in town.

We had already planned to do some shopping to buy things for our house in Mexico, so we had a lot to choose from with all the artisans in town. Thankfully we’re taking a bus back instead of a flight because we have loads of extra stuff to carry.

Oaxaca City

There was one downside to being here in high season: we couldn’t rent an apartment to stay in near the center, so we ended up in a hotel. The hotel, Las Golondrinas, didn’t jack up its rates though and we paid 780 pesos a night for a triple. It’s a decent deal. We got into restaurants fine and no place felt packed out. This is a tourist city anyway, so Oaxaca can absorb the traffic okay. So in the end, I don’t think we paid a premium at all for being here during high season, despite renting a car for two days too. Everything was just more crowded than it would normally be.

For more information, see the Oaxaca Tourism site, where they’ll have info posted on the 2015 Guelaguetza Festival far in advance. See their festivals page in Spanish for others or get a good guidebook. You can also trust what you see on the About.com Mexico site because the writer Suzanne lives in Oaxaca and also works as a guide.

 

budget Galapagos tough

A bit over a year ago I wrote this post on building splurge money into your shoestring travel budget. Sometimes you have to throw that $40 a day budget out the window. While I’m a big advocate for going to cheap destinations where you can get a lot more for your money, even in those places you have to drop some serious dough sometimes if you want to get the full experience.

I got an e-mail last week from someone who was flabbergasted at how expensive lodging was in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. But he was going in July, the peak of the peak season, and going to the most popular spots in Peru. I gave him some advice on shaving costs here and there by staying in some towns that wouldn’t be so mobbed, but there’s only so much you can do. It’s the same story in Ko Pha Ngan, Agra, Bali, or Pokhara if you come at the very peak. That may be a good time to be there weather-wise or event-wise, but understand that the laws of economics still apply.

There are other cases though where you are paying a lot because the place or experience just plain costs a lot. Because of a writing assignment, I just took my second trip to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. If you search around on the web, you can find articles on how to “do the Galapagos on the cheap,” but really it’s all relative. You have to spend a few hundred dollars to fly out there in the first place, you’ll pay $110 in fees after arrival into a conservation fund, and then virtually everything on Santa Cruz Island is going to be twice the price as the mainland while you’re lining up a tour.

marine iguana

Once you do get some kind of bargained-down tour, it’s still going to cost you north of $150 a day per person most likely to just take short jaunts to see the nearby islands. That’s cheaper than going with a well-known tour company where people are happy to pay $500 to $800 per night, but it’s not exactly shoestring travel territory. That’s because of a lot of good regulations that are in place to keep the environment from getting degraded. Guides must be trained and licensed, plus only around 100 ships are authorized to ply these waters with passengers.

Captains also have to be licensed and must undergo training on, among other things, how and where they can dock and send passengers to shore. They don’t really have a say in their itinerary. For good reasons, you can’t just hire a fishing boat captain in the harbor and say, “Show me some boobies!”

Galapagos OwlThat guide you’ll get at the low end will be the kind of guy who can’t get hired by any of the real tour operators paying a good salary to real naturalists. After he struck out with all of them or got fired because of a string of guest complaints, he has ended up with you. It’s a pretty safe bet he won’t be able to lead you to the hard-to-spot creatures like this owl who hunts in the daytime. He probably won’t be able to explain why this bird is so strange and how it got that way.

I’m using this fragile Galapagos ecosystem as an example, but all around the world there are spots like this where governments have in purposely put hurdles in your way for a good cause. If you want to go to Bhutan, be prepared to pay $300+ per day. There’s no budget tour to Antarctica. Visiting Petra is really going to cost you, so suck it up and overpay. If you want to go deep into the jungle almost anywhere, be it the Amazon, Borneo, or Sumatra, you’re probably going to have to pony up some cash to do it right.

If nothing else, this is all a good reminder than you don’t have to cram everything in on your first trip around the world. You can do that river cruise down the Danube or the Amazon later when grandma is paying for it. You can do that tour up the coast of Brazil when you’ve got a good job later and are making the big bucks. You can go scuba diving on the barrier reef of Australia when you go there as a vacationer rather than a backpacker.

Traveling on a budget means understanding that you can’t do it all, whenever you want, wherever you want. You’ve still got a thousand things to pick from. Save the most expensive ones for later instead of trying to do them half-assed on a limited budget. Even with climate change and economic growth going full-tilt, those experiences should still be waiting for you…

writer

I’ve got my head down trying to finish up a book called A Better Life for Half the Price, about drastically cutting your expenses about moving abroad. The problem with running your own show though, being an entrepreneur, is that you don’t just clock out at 5:30 and say goodbye to The Man. I am The Man. And I’m a really demanding boss.

So to take a break from coming up with all new material this week, here’s some stuff I’ve published lately and some interviews.

Here’s an interview of me that ran on the blog The Gift of Travel, talking about round-the-world travel, budget travel, and living abroad with a family.

Another in The Franklin Prosperity Report is about getting the most for your travel budget every time.

Here’s one in SmartyCents on how to travel on a budget as a family.

Nora Dunn gave a shout-out to my Travel Writing 2.0 book in this great article about how to earn a living while living abroad.

Machu Picchu

At Global Traveler Magazine, in April I had a feature story about Machu Picchu and in May one about what to do if you have a week in Nicaragua. The latter is still on newsstands, but click the link for the online version.

On Practical Travel Gear, I’ve been writing about travel tripods, carry-on insect repellents, and two under-$100 daypacks from Kelty.

While I go to work, two quick plugs: if you want to travel around the world, you ought to have a copy of The World’s Cheapest Destinations book. If you want to go all in and move abroad, sign up for the Cheap Living Abroad newsletter and I’ll help you make it happen.

Drinking what's local

“Yes yes, that’s all good advice,” she said, “but my editor really wants to focus on what’s new. What are people doing now to save money that they couldn’t have done a year or two ago? New social websites, apps, that sort of thing.”

This was from an interview I did with an ambitious young associate editor sitting in a desk in NYC who writes for a well-known women’s magazine. It happened a year ago, but I’ve had the same conversation four or five times since. Most publications want to appear as if they have their finger on the pulse, that they know everything months before you do and are bringing you the hottest tips, the latest trends. “What’s new?” is the daily mantra.

In the real world of travel though, things don’t move that fast. We can make all our travel plans online now and always find the best prices on hotels or flights, something unthinkable before the World Wide Web came along. But on a year-to-year basis, the best travel advice stays relatively tried and true. Occasionally there’s a game-changer, like Hotwire, Air BnB, Google Flights, or Trivago that can save you money. Others like Uber or TripIt can make your trip go more smoothly. But most new travel tech innovations are solving something they think is more of a problem than it really is.

In that spirit, here are some old articles from this blog—some very old—that could be run today with just a few pricing tweaks. Do these things and you’ll come out ahead, even if you drop your smartphone in a river and can’t get online for a week.

Find the Screaming Bargains – Every destination has a few items or services that are a better deal there than elsewhere. Find them, use them, consume them.

eat what's local

Slow Travel is Cheaper Travel – Related to the above post somewhat, eating and drinking what’s local is usually a smart move for your budget. And the more you’re moving around, the higher your daily budget needs to be. Help Mother Nature and your wallet at the same time: slow down! If you stay in one place for a month or more, your costs will really plummet. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s all about location, velocity, and distance.

Exchange Rates Matter a Lot – I’ve written about this at least once a year (like here, and more recently here) because if your  home currency rises or falls 25% against the one where you’re going, that’s going to greatly impact your costs, far more than where you’re going to eat lunch.

Where You Go Within a Country Matters a Lot Too – The price difference between big capital cities and small towns applies nearly everywhere in the world. Also, tourist magnets that draw short-term vacationers are always going to be a bad bet for backpackers. Don’t automatically head to the places you’ve heard of when you get to France, Spain, India, or Ecuador. Chances are there are better spots to hang out in for less money. Keep your options open.

Rural travel

Last, remember that just because you can now plan and set up everything in advance, it doesn’t mean you should. A person standing at the hotel front desk at 6 pm with money in their hand has negotiating power. A person booking on a website has zero negotiating power unless they’re bidding on Priceline. And besides, a lot of the best things happen when you allow time for interesting things to happen. The more your plans are tightly scheduled, the tougher that can be.

If you haven’t traveled much yet or have some clueless friends you’d like to enlighten, pick up a copy of my timeless book Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. It’s full of key principles to follow in order to always find the best deal every time, regardless of what shiny new app the magazine editors are getting excited about at the moment.

Otherwise, here are another 8 great travel books for anyone setting off on a long-term trip.