This is a guest post shared with us by Marek Bron. He is a fellow budget travel blogger who writes about Latin America travel (and other destinations) at his blog IndieTraveller.
Having just concluded a five month trip through Central America, I’d like to share some money-saving tips specifically for this part of the world. These can of course be used in combination with your usual cost-saving methods, which are covered in other articles on this site (such as 5 tips to travel with extremely tight budget).
The cost of travel in Central America differs quite significantly from country to country. In some parts (like Nicaragua) it’s very easy to stay under $25 a day as prices are nearly as low as in South-East Asia. In other parts (like Costa Rica) you will certainly need a budget-conscious mentality if you are on a tight budget.
Here are a couple of tips for making your money go the furthest when traveling Central America.
How to Travel Central America on a budget
#1 Avoid the more expensive countries
Costa Rica oddly appears in lots of lists of ‘cheapest travel destinations’ online, however it’s significantly more expensive than other countries in the region. To holiday tourists it probably does seem cheaper, but it will certainly strike backpackers as expensive. Dorm beds start around $15 in many places and food is often costs twice as much as neighbouring Nicaragua. If you are on a budget, consider spending less time in Costa Rica (or make sure you cook your own food or bring a tent or hammock).
Belize is another expensive country. A hostel dorm bed sets you back about $15 there, with privates starting around $30-40. Most meals start at $10-15, unless you find a cheap Chinese eatery where you might still find a basic meal for $5. Caye Caulker is a popular stop on the Gringo backpacker trail, though stay there too long and your funds will dwindle quickly.
Mexico is still quite affordable, though can get expensive if you try to cover much ground in this large country. A rule of thumb for the cost of buses is about $5-7 for every hour travelled. (Mexico is technically part of North America, but it is often included in Central American trips.)
Generally speaking, the Carribean side in Central American is more expensive than the Pacific side—most likely due the remoteness of some of the towns there.
#2 Learn some Spanish
Knowing some Spanish will pay dividends throughout your trip, as you can negotiate better deals and will be ripped off much less often. Bring some audio lessons along for your bus journeys, or stay somewhere for a week to take some Spanish classes. I wrote some tips about learning Spanish here.
#3 Use local transportation
Most Central American countries can be travelled through very cheaply by using local transportation. Shuttle services catering specifically to tourists are a little more convenient, though can cost as much as ten times more.
Collectivos are short-distance minivan services. You can find them at bus terminals or you can usually flag them down on the road. While not that comfortable (I recently had to hang partly out of an open sliding door), they can be incredibly cheap. Driving for one hour in one will set you back about $0.50 – $1.
Chicken buses are converted former US school buses, named so because various goods including live chickens will sometimes be transported on them. They cover somewhat longer distances. People will usually be shouting out destinations at the bus terminal, so just hop on board one that’s heading the right direction. For prices, think single-digit dollars. A man usually comes to collect the money from you during the journey. Remember to keep a close eye on your bags.
Some travelers don’t use chicken buses because of reports of crime. It’s true that generally it is not advised to use inner-city buses in capitals such as Guatemala City or Managua as these are much less safe. However outside the main cities and during daytime, chicken buses are typically fine (inquire locally if unsure).
#4 Avoid flying
Those accustomed to low airfares in North America, Europe or Asia thanks to low-budget carriers may be surprised by the high cost of air travel in Central (and South) America. There are few low-budget carriers here, so prices are high.
If you must fly, it’s worth checking flights that go via Miami or Fort Lauderdale airport – these are two key hubs for the region, and sometimes flying via Miami is cheaper than flying directly between two Central American capitals even though the distance might be much greater.
Within Mexico there are some well established low-budget domestic carriers, so if you want to cover lots of ground there you can do it reasonably cheaply.
Crossing the Darien Gap from Panama into Colombia is relatively expensive with prices hovering around $500 USD for a single one-way ticket. Many backpackers opt to sail from Colon to Cartegena instead.
#5 Be selective with your sightseeing
The more touristy the place the more you will have to spend on sightseeing. So instead of seeing the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza near Cancun in Mexico (typical price for a tour $60) consider going to Tikal in Guaremala ($30 for a tour). This also happens to be a larger and more interesting archaeological site.
For diving consider going to the Bay Islands in Honduras, and skip diving off the Yucatan or Caye Caulker. While the diving is very good there, your money will go much further elsewhere.
Have you ever travelled in Central America? If so, what was your favourite country?
About the author: Marek Bron has been traveling the world since 2012. He writes about Latin America travel (and other destinations) at his blog IndieTraveller. Marek is the author is Travel the World Without Worries, an in-depth book all about preparing for a big trip abroad.
62 thoughts on “5 Tips On How To Travel Central America On The Cheap”
Some great budget tips here. Would have loved to see something about food bargains.
Marek, maybe it should have been obvious for me but flying out of Miami makes sense. Are there other cities in the U.S. you would recommend as well for flying to Central America?? We flew from Houston to Cancun and back the same route. I must have stared at your picture of Lake Atitlan for several minutes…gorgeous! Good post, sir :)
Good advice. I’ll keep that in mind if I visit Central America…
Good tips from Marek. Central America is a hot spot on my To-Do-Go list…
Love the portrait of the Guatemala winners of a pageant contest.
I think that would be the hardest part of travel in Mexico, not seeing all of it. It would cost so much in transportation. I’ve been only once and left wanting more!
I’d suggest that markets for ingredients and making your own food are generally your best bet for cheap in a lot of places. Hostels in central america are surprisingly good for having kitchens. This option is best for dinner.
In a lot of places lunch specials are also a really good deal (markets or resturants), comida coriente, comida corrida, or especial del dia (please forgive my spelling).
Marek, what a great timing! I’m just about to go to central america after a few months in the US and since my budget is usually tighter that of most backpackers I’ll take a good look at your blog to get inspiration :)
Do they have prices for tourist and prices for locals?? I ask this because I can easily blend in and pretend Im from there if that’s advantageous.
I didn’t realize it was so expensive to see the ruins or to fly between countries!
I hadn’t known it was expensive to fly in central America! I’ll definitely be sticking to the buses and like when I head to Costa Rica in June. Good advice.
It’s just the opposite of what we should do in Asia :)!
Flights are expensive throughout Latin America. It’s nuts: sometimes a single 4 hour flight between two countries costs as much as a 10 hour flight return from my home in Europe.
Internal flights are a lot cheaper though. There’s some decent bargains within Mexico. For South America you can find great internal flights within Colombia with Vivo Colombia for example, or cheap internal flights in Brazil (you can get all the way from the Amazon region in the north down to Rio for about $200). Basically the big countries can be used as ‘warp zones’… but cross a border and prices go up dramatically. Nothing like AirAsia in S-E-A!
Thanks for the nice comments everyone!
@santafetraveler For cheap food your best bet is to find a local eatery. Look for signs that say Casado, or Soda (I know, weird… doesn’t mean the same thing) in Costa Rica. A typical meal includes rice+beans, chicken or some beef, and some salad or fried plantains. Prices ranging from $1.50 in Nicaragua to about $4-5 in Costa Rica, if I recall correctly. This set meal gets very samey after a while but it definitely fills you up. Other than that, there’s making your own food of course — quite a few hostels have kitchens, even in cheaper countries like Nicaragua.
@Mike: Fort Lauderdale is the main hub I know – Spirit Airlines flies to loads of destinations from there. But you probably did well flying into Cancun – it’s such a tourist hub with so many flights going there that you are bound to find a good deal. I know that for a majority of Central America travellers Cancun is their starting point.
@Yara: I have noticed doubling pricing only a few times (mainly at tourist sites), but you may be able to benefit :)
I think I will choose Panama as my favorite, but definitely I need to go back!
Take me with you!
I loved Guatemala. Everything was super cheap especially market food and the people are nice. Agree with you with Mexico. Traveling can be expensive especially if you get the”nicer” buses, but the food in Oaxaca is well worth the trip.
Don’t get me started on Costa Rica :-\
Good to know. We like cheap countries :)!
You’re right about the food in Oaxaca! The mole dishes are very interesting.
Costa Rica was so expensive that it actually dampened my spirit a bit–I felt like I had to calculate my every decision there because I’m on a budget. Even grocery prices seemed to be on the expensive side.
That’s so true about knowing the local language – a good tip for saving money in many places. And being selective with sightseeing is a good one too – it also avoids the “ticking off the boxes” feeling people sometimes get when visiting a new country and they feel like they should see everything.
Knowing some local language is crucial in our opinion. We always pick up some basic words and keep practicing them with locals.
Great post and very helpful for me as I probably head to Mexico and the Central American region in the second half of the year :) unfortunately the countries I can’t wait to see most are apparently the most expensive ones (Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize).
Costa Rica and Belize are very expensive (similar to Western prices) but Mexico is more in the middle. There’s great affordable street food there, and if you keep a tight circuit (i.e. not travelling by bus from north to south or something) you can keep costs low. A lot of people combine southern Mexico with Guatemala (which many people consider the highlight of the region).
Great ideas on saving money when in Central America; I also loved your selection of pictures too.
We’re glad you liked it!
Great post I’ve been thinking about Panama for a while now!
I really have done no traveling in Central America, something I need to change as soon as I can, and I’ll keep all these tips in mind. What a helpful post!
Good tips! We found Costa Rica to be quite expensive too. We’d love to spend more time in Central America. I have a friend with a baby I haven’t met yet in Panama and another old friend in Honduras, so it’s about time to plan a trio I think!
Great to hear that Tamara!!
These are really great tips! Central/South America are “on my list” so this was quite helpful.
I think you’re right about Costa Rica from what I’ve heard as well. Cheap holliday, not cheap for backpackers. :)
Chicken busses sound like a really awesome experience!
I know… I want to travel by chicken buses when I make it there!!
Thank you this interesting and helpful post. Learning Spanish may indeed help you to bargain but above all, it will give you insights into the people and culture that a non-Spanish speaker would never have access to. I would suggest you to have a look at Nicaragua, one of the most affordable, friendliest and safest countries in the Americas. Just a minor error in your post: the photography you have at the top refers to Granada, which is a stunning colonial city too!
Ha, you are right, that is Granada of course. :) I too thought Nicaragua was fantastic.