My Travel Costs in Central America: A Complete Budget Breakdown (with Spreadsheet)

Note: See the end of this post to see how you can get/use my expense tracking spreadsheet (free).

Many people are interested in how much around-the-world (RTW) or other long-term travel costs, especially as a budget traveler or backpacker. Latin America, generally being a fairly inexpensive destination, is popular for long-term itineraries. So, I bring you some good news and bad news. The good news is I am going to give you a full and complete breakdown of my expenses covering most Central American countries (South America will be covered in another post). The bad news is that I started my journey in Mexico in March 2009 so some of these numbers are now fairly old. As I recall, I was surprised at how much some prices had gone up in 2009 from my those listed in my 2007 Lonely Planet so I can only imagine that now in 2012 my 2009-2010 Central America prices are inaccurate. Still, they might be useful for getting a baseline idea of budget travel costs, for comparing countries and for understanding where the relative costs lie.

About My Trip

As I mentioned, I began this trip in March 2009 in Mexico, specifically the Yucatán peninsula.  I spent a bit more than a year (385 days) in Central America and will end up spending a bit less than two years in South America. In fact, I will finish my time in South America shortly (early April). I will wait until then, when I will have all the data, to post my full expenses for South America. In the meantime, let me know if you would like to see anything different or not covered in this post.

How I Travel and Other Observations

Any breakdown of this nature deserves some background information, and the value of my particular expenditures tracking will naturally depend on how similar your travel style is to mine. Perhaps the best description of my travel style is comfortable cheap. Whenever possible I try to save costs but I am not on such a tight budget that I will put up with extremely unpleasant or unsafe circumstances just to save a little money (though I can’t always say the same for slightly unpleasant or unsafe circumstances; I should work on that). Here are some more details, based on the categories I tracked, of how I travel to help you understand my numbers better:

Lodging

For lodging, I prefer a private room if it is reasonably priced, but I am perfectly fine with a shared bathroom. I am also fine with a dorm room depending on the circumstances, including: if I am in a social mood and want to more easily meet fellow travelers; when the dorm is particularly nice; when I plan to be so busy that I just need a room for sleeping; when I just don’t think the added cost of a private room is worth it.

As a general observation, I found the differences in cost between a dorm room and a private room much less from Mexico to Nicaragua. In Costa Rica and Panamá the price differential went up and I switched more to dorms. South America was more of a mixed bag, but generally the further south I got, especially in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, the larger the differences in prices became. I don’t have a rule, but looking back it seems that I am usually willing to pay up to a 50% difference in price to get the luxury of a private room (more if the base price for a dorm is very low).

I love CouchSurfing and use it often to meet locals when I travel, to find language exchanges and other interesting groups. And, I have been meaning to use it to stay on a couch but never have for a variety of reason. I hope to begin using it in that way in the future.

In four different places I stopped and rented a room. I have noted those below where appropriate.

Food

I have never been a foodie, and while I enjoy trying local dishes, food rarely takes a central role in my travels. Like anyone, I occasionally want to treat myself to a good meal, especially when I am in a country where doing so is reasonably priced, but I don’t do it often. That’s as much personal preference as a concern for my budget. I generally eat out once a day or less, and often at local establishments that offer better prices. As I usually opt to stay in hostels, even when getting a private room, I usually have access to a kitchen and try to take advantage (even though I am not a very good cook!).

Travel / Transportation

Instead of calling this site Lengthy Travel, I could have called it Slow Travel. Besides the many social and cultural benefits, traveling slowly saves on lodging (when renting a room) and transportation (not moving around so often) and other items (when you get to know where the best values can be found).

I generally travel by bus, usually opting for semi-cama on longer journeys. I have taken cama service before but I generally don’t find it worth the extra money for my needs. I definitely think semi-cama is worth the extra money compared with the cheapest, local service option though. I haven’t taken many flights but when the distance is very far and the cost isn’t too much higher I am always willing to consider flying as an alternative.

I have a natural aversion to taxis. It’s not rational, but whenever possible I try to avoid them, preferring to walk when possible (I always want and need the exercise) and to take local transportation if I feel I can manage it. I’ve never hitchhiked, though perhaps I should try in the future.

Drinks

I am not much of a drinker. This fact alone is probably the biggest budget savings in my favor. Even though beers (my personal preference when I do drink) are generally quite cheap in Latin America, drinking as much as many of the other travelers I meet can quickly add to your daily average spending.

Tourism

For tourist activities and attractions that really interest me I am usually willing to pay the necessary costs, but for some (yet another church?!) it depends on an entirely unscientific evaluation of whether the activity is worth the price. Below I note when I spent unusually large amounts of money on tourism.

Study

I enjoy learning languages. One of the reasons I spent so much time in Latin America is because I wanted to learn and practice Spanish. Along the way I took some courses. I also learned to dive (PADI) on this trip.

Entertainment

I am generally content to see the places I visit, do tourist things, try to meet and spend time with locals, and work. Combined with the fact that I don’t drink much, my entertainment costs are generally low. I do admit that I sometimes am inconsistent in how I categorize expenses, however. For example, sometimes I seem to have recorded my surfing (board rentals usually) as entertainment, other times as tourism, and other times as miscellaneous.

Laundry

I generally pay for my laundry as I am too lazy to be washing my things in a sink all the time. But, I do travel with a lot of underwear so that I generally can get away with doing laundry less often.

Internet / Phone

I don’t generally pay for phone service in most countries unless I plan to stay a while and make local friends. When I do, I always get a pre-paid SIM card to use with my unlocked phone. As I travel with a netbook, I rely heavily on free WiFi (hostels, parks, libraries, etc.) and don’t often like to work in cafés (not least because I don’t drink coffee). If I am staying somewhere without WiFi I usually opt for an Internet cafe/kiosk instead.

Misc

  • All dollar figures are based on my actual exchange rates at the time (averaged) and all euro numbers are those same dollar numbers converted at today’s Internet exchange rate for dollar-euro.
  • A few major cost items inflated my overall numbers. See each country for specific details.
  • I haven’t included pre- or post-travel costs, such as the initial flight (very cheap from TX to Cancún), the electronics I bought before leaving, insurance, clothing, etc. Basically I am only including what I spent on the road.

Costs by Country

Overview

Overall, in Central America, I spent 385 days and US$11,751 for an average of US$30.52 per day.

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CountryDaysTotal CostDaily Cost
Mexico36$1,026.92€   770.19$28.53€21.39
Guatemala56$1,628.37€1,221.28$29.08€21.81
Honduras31$1,350.56€1,012.92$43.57€32.67
El Salvador24$   773.08€   579.81$32.21€24.16
Nicaragua55$1,767.36€1,325.52$32.13€24.10
Costa Rica146$3,679.73€2,759.79$25.20€18.90
Panamá37$1,524.71€1,143.53$41.21€30.91
Total385$11,750.71€8,813.04$30.52€22.89

 

Mexico (Yucután)

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My lodging costs in Mexico were on the high side because I almost exclusively stayed in private rooms. I started my trip in Isla Mujeres (Cancun) and only traveled through the Yucután peninsula. I hope to see the rest of the country another time but for now I can’t be sure how my expenses compared with the central and northern parts of the country.

Guatemala

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Notice the huge difference between food and lodging costs. I was still staying in private rooms in Guatemala but the fact is that lodging in that country can be dirt cheap, even for private rooms. We’re not talking the Hilton in terms of quality, but acceptable. The food wasn’t especially expensive, but much more so than room and I did eat out more as some of my lodging choices had no kitchen. Notice also that Guatemala would have been closer to a US$20 a day country if I hadn’t taken several weeks of Spanish classes. For the record, I can’t think of any place better to study Spanish in terms of quality and cost. I paid about US$5 per hour for private lessons.

Honduras

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Honduras needs some explaining. First, notice that the daily spend would have been closer to US$24 a day if it wasn’t for that big tourism column. What was that? My PADI open water and advanced diving certifications on Utila (Bay Islands). The PADI costs included about 8 nights of free lodging so that also skewed those numbers down. By the way, if anyone is heading that way, have a baleada for me. I really miss those!

El Salvador

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Again, I mostly stayed in private hostel rooms, making lodging more expensive than it could be. Like the baleadas in Honduras, you can save some food costs by eating the super cheap and super delicious pupusas in El Salvador. I really miss those too.

Nicaragua

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I spent more time in Guatemala mostly due to Spanish classes. In Nicaragua it was to learn surfing, though I also took some more Spanish classes in Granada. Again, I was mostly staying in private rooms. If you aren’t doing any of those things you should see your costs come down significantly.

Costa Rica

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As you can see I spent a LOT of time in Costa Rica. Actually, my original plan was to spend the least amount of time there. But, as life happens, I met a girl and you can guess the rest of the story. So, even though Costa Rica is generally the most expensive country in Central America, my daily costs were reasonable since I was staying in a home and because I didn’t have that many expensive tourism expenses. Likewise, I wasn’t traveling very often.

Panamá

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There were two main reasons my costs were higher in Panamá. First, I went diving. Second, I took the sailboat from Panamá to Colombia and included the costs in my Panamá stay. I also did a week of surfing and made some supply purchases in the mall in Panama City as there is a free trade agreement with the US and thus taxes are significantly lower.

How I Track My Expenses: Get the Spreadsheet Yourself

If you are wondering how I managed to track all these expenses over such a lengthy travel, the answer is that I travel with a computer and I have a spreadsheet I use to record my expenses every couple of days. Over time I have made improvements to that spreadsheet and in preparation for these posts I really did an overhaul. It’s now pretty impressive if I do say so myself. For example, it will automatically convert to US dollars and Euros; it can handle a variable number of days, up to 366 (including a leap year); and it will automatically graph your expenses. If you’d like a copy for yourself, I have posted it as a public Google Doc titled Travel Expenses Tracking Template, so feel free to copy or download it there. If you prefer an Open Office version, just contact me directly and I will be happy to email you a copy. If you do use it and find any mistakes please let me know and I will correct them for everyone’s future benefit.

Finally…

Spending Breakdowns Around the Web

Here are some other bloggers’ breakdowns that I have come across. If you know of others (or have one yourself) please post a link in the comments section.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks and congratulations! I will be posting a similar summary for South America in about a month or two so if you think this post could have been better in any way please let me know and I will try to consider your suggestions for my future post(s).

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19 Comments

  1. Hey! Thanks for the Link. I agree – this IS an impressive budget breakdown. I like the graphs. They're pretty. Looking forward to your South America break down – compare a little bit. Cheerio!

  2. Wow! I can't believe how precise you are with your numbers. I could take a cue from you in my non-traveling budget. I can't wait to see the South America one. I found Brazil very expensive.

    1. Yes, tracking my expenses is a habit that goes back long before I started traveling, but I did always have the idea that tracking them during my travels would allow me to make this kind of post someday. I didn't think I would drag my feet 3 years though! Brazil is a funny place, expensive in many ways and not too bad in others. You will see that my costs here varied greatly, largely due to transportation costs and the visa cost at the beginning.

    1. That doesn't surprise me. Are you tracking your expenses carefully? Regardless, check out my spreadsheet if you find those kinds of things cool. I have a couple of nifty sumif and lookup features. Not really necessary but an ode to one of my former lives where I used spreadsheets a lot.

  3. Wow! I'm impressed at how diligent you are in keeping track of your spending and laying them out here for people to see and understand.

  4. Wow I never thought of making a travel expense spreadsheet. I guess it can be really helpful to analyze our habits when it comes to travel expenses and plan on how we can adjust a bit and lower it down. 🙂

    1. Yes, especially for longer travels. I often keep an eye on the totals and average columns to see how I am doing on my budget. I find the discipline of maintaining the spreadsheet useful as well.

  5. Just another big THANK YOU for the info. And thanks also for using a blog theme that includes the date of publication. It boggles my mind how many budgeting blog posts I've come across that don't include any date whatsoever, an omission that essentially renders the information useless.

    1. Yes, knowing the dates is important for budgeting info. That's why I also mentioned what dates my breakdown cover, but I do regret having waited so long to write this post as the information is a bit old now. Still, I hope it is of some help to you and others who find it. Safe travels!

  6. Very useful and practical post, especially since we seem to have similar styles of travel (slow, not much drinking, etc.). I usually spend about $35 USD per day, but try to budget up to $50.

    As an unrelated side note, I am a terminal Spanish student and have recently discovered a couple of podcasts "News in Slow Spanish" and "News In Slow Spanish – Latino" that you might enjoy.

    Feliz Viaje!

    1. Gracias por escribir y por la sugerencia. Actually, I run another site you might want to check out, dado que (dadoque.com), a directory of useful learning resources for Spanish learners. The site also features a great learner's novel that you can read free online and there is also a grammar summary.

      I just started a Thai language course in Chiang Mai, and before Thailand I was working on my Japanese in Tokyo, so my Spanish is undoubtedly deteriorating.

  7. Incredibly useful, thank you!

    I'm embarking on a similar trip this March through as many countries as possible. I was wondering if you could also share your itinerary? So far I have money saved and a one-way flight booked into Buenos Aires. And that's about it..

    Researching now to put together a rough outline of my route.

    Thanks again!

    1. My trip was LONG and I have forgotten the itinerary so it would be hard to share. Also, I started in Mexico and ended up in Brazil, quite the opposite direction your are traveling, it seems. I hope you have a great trip though.

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