Visiting Central America - Budgeting

Friday, September 02, 2016

If you're a frequent reader you'll know I've covered a lot of specific destinations in Central America and I've shared a lot of personal  travel experiences, opinions and photos. I wanted to round that up by writing a detailed series of travel in Central America guides, including travel hacks, itineraries, planning tips, eating, sleeping and budget! I'll start with the boring stuff and budgeting. The most necessary part of travelling that most people dread.

The ultimate guide to budgeting in Central America

We spent roughly 3 months in total in Central America. We started off flying to Havana, Cuba for 2 weeks then flew into Cancun, Mexico to start our 5 week Mexican adventure. We then went on to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama overland.

Central America is an incredibly inspiring place, if you're planning a trip I need you to know I'm currently extremely envious. Central America is such a vibrant and captivating  place to visit and I feel so privileged to have spent such a long time exploring and creating memories in the countries we were able to see.

Even now I get excited just mentioning the word Nicaragua or Guatemala


There are so many reasons to visit Central America the people are so welcoming and friendly, the culture is mesmerising and everything from the border crossings to the infrastructure is deeply intriguing. You're really lucky if you've chosen to visit this part of the world because you're in for a lot of fun. But with fun comes sacrifice, especially when were talking about budgeting. I hope some of the advice I offer enables your time in Central America to be everything you expect plus more. And I also hope my budgeting advice takes that feeling of budget dread away. 

Budgeting; is it the boring part of travel? I don't know. It's probably my least favorite aspect of being on the road. But budgets are undoubtedly a huge chunk of any trip. Budgets control your trip and are the life source of any travels. Without your budget your trip is essentially over. Everyone you meet on the road has a budget, no matter how big or small. Budgeting is important but it doesn't need to keep you up at night. Here are some of my top tips on budgeting for travel in Central America. 

When we first started out on our travels through Latin America we were very big on budgeting. During our time in Cuba and Mexico especially our budget was very important to us. I remember sitting in bars in Cuba after one too many mojitos and wondering if we'd just crossed off a day of  an entire day travelling later on. In Mexico there would be a certain amount of guilt surrounding splashing out on a meal over a couple of dollars too. When it came to budgeting we just wanted to make sure we got it right, there was no room for mistakes.

I talk in dollars a lot and I'll explain for the benefit of this post that although we are British all our budget was calculated in US dollars. El Salvador and Panama both use the US dollar, the Cuban CUC is pinned to the dollar and we converted all our sterling in to dollars on our Thomas Cook Cash Passport currency card. It made sense for all our budgeting to be in dollars. 

For the first 3 months of our time and all the time we spent in Central America we managed to mostly stay on budget, it wasn't until the second leg of our trip when we reached South America that our budgeting seemed to disappear out the window. The running out of time factor definitely played a part in this towards the end of our travels.

Some of my favourite Central American beaches

Let's get to the break down, for the 3 months we roughly spent in Central America we budgeted $30 USD each per day, $60 USD a day for the two of us. That worked out as $10 for sleeping per day and the rest for food, drinks and activities. Something we really did manage to stick too quite well, without a great deal of effort towards the end of our time in Central America. Budgeting well kind of became a part of our daily routine. We'd only leave for the day with the money we needed and always an emergency something just in case.

Budgeting for us, in Central America became quite easy. This is partly because of how cheap Central America can be if you do things right. Sleeping is cheap in Central America and great value for money. Dorms are obviously always cheaper but for two people it often worked out as better value for us to book a private and halve the cost between the two of us. If a dorm is $10 each per night and a private is $19 that's an extra cerveza right there. This works out for groups too, we found a lot of our private rooms in Central America had a double and a single or somethings a double and a sofa bed. This is a winner for groups of three who are looking to split the cost. 


Travel Hack: Private rooms in Central America are often paid for per room rather than person so for a group of 3 to stay in a private rather than each pay per person for a dorm bed is great value - ultimate budgeting tip. 

More often than not we we were able to stay in air conditioned private rooms with private bathrooms for $20 or less per night. Right on budget! Dorms in Central America can start from anywhere as little as $4 and go up depending on the size and quality of the dorm. 

Travel Hack: Watch out for hammocks or camping space in hostels. We managed to find some $1 per night hammocks in Nicaragua and some hostels even let you pitch your tent for free or a small fee. Bigfoot in Las Penitas outside Leon offers this if you're heading to Nicaragua.

 
Along with sleeping food is a key element of budgeting. These two things make up your absolute budgeting essentials. I'd like to say food is the biggest essential but I'd be lying if I said we didn't skip meals on the road. Central America is a great location for eating, especially when it comes to street food. I'm not going to promise you there won't be days when you suffer, but surely that's all part of the journey. Don't quote me on that.

When it comes to eating in Central America this is where budgeting gets very easy, restaurants, fast food joints, street food stalls and people selling fruit on the beach are all options for anyone visiting Central America. Prices and ratings vary but most of the time you can find cheap eateries in every town or city. Tacos, tamales, empanadas and pupusas are what you should be looking out for. You'll be sick of the sight of them by the time you leave.

Travel Hack: It's an obvious one but pack immodium, it's your friend! You don't always know how clean food prep areas are and there isn't much you can do about this. Just prepare for the aftermath.

Okay so I don't want to sound really uncultured but sometimes you want some comfort food especially if you're Jamie. We found that in bus stations especially Mcdonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC, Domino's and Burger King were ridiculous value for money. You can grab a meal in some places for as little as $3. We had an anxious 2 hour wait in San Pedro Sula, Honduras - a place notoriously known for its crime rate and violence - where we were able to eat at one of the fast food five for under $2. Not the best meal I ever had but great for budgeting on travel days and eating for cheap in between bus journeys, usually without getting ill. Safety.

Budget breakdown

Number of people: 2

Number of months: 3

Number of countries: 7 (8 including Cuba)

Daily budget per person: $30

Daily sleeping budget per person: $10


Another great thing about budgeting when it comes to food in Central America is the abundance of markets and shops. Food is widely available to purchase in shops and markets for very cheap right across Central America. We found this to be true in every country we visited except Cuba so try to be aware of that if you plan on visiting.

Another great budgeting tip is something we clicked onto very quickly but didn't do so much ourselves was cooking. Many of the hostels we stayed in had kitchens! We didn't really cook too many times but on the days we were really trying to cut back it was so easy for us to boil some pasta and eat for under $1 each. This makes budgeting very easy and we met a lot of people who used the kitchen facilities every evening and swore by it.

Travel Hack: When you're browsing for hostels on tripadvisor you can find really great places to stay that offer a free breakfast included in the cost of your room or dorm. Another handy budgeting trick we used often. This was the case a lot of the time in Guatemala and on one occasion at The Black Cat in Quetzaltenango we were even able to pick anything from their big breakfast menu.

I think when it comes to any trip and any budget it goes without saying there will be days where you aren't on budget. Some days we'd spend half or less, lying on a beach or travelling two hours to see a free entrance ruin or church. Other days we'd spend double, even triple on the things we love to do. During our time in Utila, Honduras we even got our PADI open water dive certification, something we never factored into our initial budget.

The tropics of Central America

It's really all about balance when it comes to budgeting your trip effectively. Don't let overspending or nights where you blew 3 days budget get you don't there are always ways to save money when you're travelling. Breaks are always a good idea, moving a lot and too quickly becomes very expensive and although it's what you're there to do a few days spent in one place is never a bad move. Staying in one location for a little longer than planned allows you time to save up the money you spent on a big journey, plus a little relaxation never hurt anyone. 

We always figured 3 days in between a big bus journey gives you enough time to save back some of the money you'd spent on the bus fare. If you aren't taking chicken busses, shuttles and first class busses add up and not everyone can do over 6 hours on a un-padded chicken bus seat. What I'm trying to say is that if a spontaneous or long distance bus takes you slight over budget for that day, week or month a couple of beach days would get you back on track.

Travel Hack: Night busses mean you travel through the night and you save on a nights accommodation. Taking a night bus isn't always the most enjoyable experience but would you really want to waste 8 hours of a perfectly good day? This applies more for Mexico and skipping countries in Central America as apart from Mexico most of the distance in between popular places are less than 10 hours.


Towards the end that budget kind of went out the window, after 4 solid months of travel we'd reached Southern Colombia with only one internal flight left to take. We booked our flight home and I think the security of knowing we had that we had that final last expense paid for really inspired us to make the most of the last part of our trip. Not to say that we weren't doing that anyway, I just mean that the thought of going home was always in the back of our minds which makes spontaneity more justifiable.

I can't decide if going over budget and having to turn to my dad was a big travel fail, I know we pushed the boat out on several occasions when it came to big nights out, diving, trips to places we never budgeted for, an extra boat trip here and there. I think budgeting is definitely a working progress and there are many lessons to be learnt. I know next time round I'll do some things differently and also stick to some of the rules I learnt during my time on the road in Central America.

Travel Hack: Before great budgeting comes great saving and with saving comes sacrifice. Make the sacrifices you need to save enough cash for your trip. Don't go short and don't over estimate the value of money.

To put things into a conclusion $60 USD a day for two people doesn't sound like a lot of money but we were eating most of the time for under $5, often $1 street food and sleeping is something I think we managed to master. Our budgeting varied, we weren't always sensible and there was never a daily 'are we on budget' stress for us. We were quite laid back about managing our money because once you understand your budget well enough budgeting becomes second nature on the road.

Good times in Central America are to be had everywhere and most of the time come free, it's up to you what you decide to do on top of that. For us diving, snorkelling, fishing and socialising where big aspects of our trip. Be sure to budget well but don't sacrifice the good times.

Click here for more of my Visiting Central America Series


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14 comments

  1. That's a super great tip for people to take health precautions when traveling because countries always have different sanitation regulations and I know I get sick almost everywhere!

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    1. Thanks! I'm totally the same, no matter what I do if anyone gets ill its me. Sometimes these precautions are a lifesaver.

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  2. I never thought of traveling to central america but now you got me to think about it. Seems really amazing and staying on budget is always so hard and tbh I think you did really well. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. It's an amazing place! You should really consider going. Yeah, budgeting is so tricky, I'm no where near as pro as I'd like to be, but this trip definitely helped :)

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  3. I have friends that travel to central america every year. They simply love it there but come back home after their visit only to plan to go again. Thanks for sharing the information
    come see us at http://shopannies.blogspot.com

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    1. It's so amazing! Would definitely return! Okies fab will check it out :)

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  4. I love trips like this, where you stick to a budget. It's more fun and it's also a great way to save while exploring a country you've never been to before.

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  5. i've never been to any parts of america, but it is very nice reading your journey. Totally love how you inserted Travel hacks for your readers! very useful informations!

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  6. We have not traveled much in Central America. So this post is really useful as a reference for us. The hacks provided by you are all practical and make sense.

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    1. Thank you! I hoped this post would be helpful to others :)

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  7. I've never there! Such a beautiful and great place for family.

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travelsandmore was originally just an outlet to document my travels. It turned into something much more and now its more of an obsession for me than anything else. Thanks for stopping by. Don't forget to subscribe, I'll only ever send you my latest travel related blog posts right to your inbox.