Travel with Kids: Budgets

Keepin’ it Real: Travel with Kids

Installment #2: Stretching the Almighty Dollar:
I recently read an article in the Huffington Post from a travel writer with the title “Why ‘Quit Your Job and Travel the World’ is the Worst Advice Ever.” Basically, the writer’s perspective is that you are going to either need to save up a bunch of money for a very long time or be able to earn money abroad in order to make long term travel successful and the idea to up and quit your job is asinine, actually, she says “a huge steaming pile of crap” and “The world doesn’t work this way. It’s not reality”.  At first read, my response was “why not? why can’t the world work that way?” Agreed, to quit your job without a plan or forethought is not a good idea but with planning it is possible to travel without working, at least for awhile.

The word “travel” has many different connotations. The kind of travel we are doing and the type the writer is referencing in her article, is not the 5-star luxury beach resort in every location, that kind of travel is more accurately described as “vacation” .

The kind of travel we are attempting to do is to peel away that top layer of tourism and find at least a taste of what really makes a place tick and the people who, in each country we visit, are winding the clock.

We want to do this in as many places as our money will allow and for this reason we are taking our time in each location (which also helps the girls), limiting our tourist excursions and doing our best to observe and participate in each culture. In this definition of travel the writer and I are in agreement. However I had to laugh when I read the title of her article, obviously, since that is exactly what we have done. Quit our jobs to travel the world.

The part I disagreed with is the notion that in order to make this adventure work we should have gone directly from our jobs in the US to a job abroad like teaching English as a foreign language. Right now, we are not working, on purpose. We wanted to detoxify our psyches from our hectic life. Our full time work and graduate school life. From the early morning crock-pot dinner preparation (on a good day), lunch making, working 8-9 hours then sitting in traffic cursing at the cars to move so that I can pick up my kid in time to make it to gymnastics then home for homework, dinner, baths, reading and collapse into bed to do all over again the next day: aka life.

I’m not saying we always felt stressed and unhappy or that we did not find fulfillment in such a life, we did. However, going back into a work environment, even if in a new exciting country did not sound appealing straight out of the gate. Now, might that change? Yes. We gave ourselves three months of detox before we started the “what next” conversation. Might we one day return back to that same lifestyle…. maybe, but I am hopeful it will look much different, much less hectic, much more balanced. Are we asinine for doing it this way? I don’t think so but others might.

In order to make this work for us, we took a close look at our resources.  One of the payoffs of working as hard has we have for as long as we have is that we had assets in places we hadn’t looked at as assets before such as our house and our stuff.  We realized we could take advantage of a hot housing market and seize the day, use that equity for something we both yearned for instead of more remodeling (which I can tell you is not fun to live in a house that is constantly being improved). We were, of course, mindful to leave some seed money behind in order to start up again at the end of the year. So, I guess in someways we did save up a bunch of money over 11 years, just in the form of home ownership and stuff accumulation.  Then, after knowing we had the money, the question became how do we make this money stretch?

Based on initial research of airline, food, and accommodation costs, we set a budget.   To make our money stretch the year, this budget needs to be fairly strict. We have to be cautious of the alluring adventure and cultural tours and any extras like souvenirs.  At the start of our trip, Jacob and I were at odds with each other on this quite a bit. We are constantly trying to find that balance of travel versus vacation; living life in the foreign country versus touring the foreign country.

I am the grasshopper; Jacob is the ant.

The way I see it, both have legitimate points of view for living the way that they do. Sadly, the grasshopper gets “left out in the cold” at the end of the story because he partied too much, which, legitimately Jacob is afraid will happen to us if we go nuts and do everything possible in a given location.   However, in my opinion not only does the grasshopper get a bad rap, the ant doesn’t enjoy the journey for fear of not having enough, something that causes me suffering too. Somewhere in there is the balance of planning for our money to stretch and enjoying each country that we visit so that we don’t go away from it saying, “I wish we would have”.

How do you do that and live within a budget without working to bring in money? We rent accommodations with kitchens and cook at home, a lot. Jacob, in his glorious research, figured out an approximate daily food and shelter budget in each country. If we buy groceries and cook at home, we typically stay well under that budget, allowing for a more spendy meal out at a later time. When we are really on it, we research the restaurant we want to try beforehand so we don’t feel like we just spent a bunch of money on just an ok meal. Obviously this doesn’t always work out. We struggled a lot with this while visiting Cusco, Peru. Our hostel there was not open to us using their kitchen forcing us to eat out more. Also, the internet was subpar, which made research a challenge.  The restaurant gems in Cusco seemed to be hidden away and we got trapped in the tourist machine more than once and paid for it with an overpriced, bad meal.

We do a lot of walking or public transportation instead of taking taxis. Not only does this allow you to get around more cheaply but also experience more closely the way of life in that place.   We use the amazing excel spreadsheet Jacob created to keep us in line, and enter EVERY penny we spend.  In this way, we have been able to stay within and even be a bit under budget, which is then how we can do extra “vacationey” excursions such as the zip-lining for Quinn on her birthday.

My inner consumer is desperate to buy the beautiful hand-woven wall hangings in Peru, paintings by local artists or clothing in Spain. Not only is it unrealistic to carry all that around with me for a year, it is very expensive to ship things home and if I choose to spend the money to ship stuff, then I am choosing to limit an excursion or beautiful meal later.  I am working to temper this grasshopper desire with the knowledge that we have some amazing photographs that will one day adorn our walls and the handmade woven bracelet I am wearing for $1 from Peru will be a reminder of the local craft. I’ll let you know if I am able to resist the clothes and shoes in Spain, ay yai yai!

Part of our budget juggle is the awareness that we need to balance the needs of the girls as well.  As we predicted, our travels in Peru would give us much information on what the girls can handle in terms of bouncing around from place to place in one county.  Our plan in Peru was to fly into Lima, stay for a few days before heading to the Sacred Valley, spend 2 weeks in the valley and then charter a bus to take us South to Arequipa (a 7 hour bus ride) stay there for a week before moving onto Puno, Nazca, Paracas and eventually back around to Lima.  All of this in the time span of one month.  However, after being on the move in the Sacred Valley (Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calliente, Cusco) we discovered that a. the girls get carsick very easily so buses were out and b. they are tired and long to have whole days at home for playing and resting.  Spending whole days at home is difficult when you only have a few days in each city.

For me, adventure awaits!  There is the whole world out there to explore and I will exhaust myself until I feel I have seen everything!

(There’s that grasshopper again)  For kids, this doesn’t work.  We knew that family travel would look very different from solo or couple travel so when we sat at our hostel in Cusco discussing our next move we chose to fly to Arequipa and spend 9 days there rather than visit the other three cities.  Is it a bummer that we missed Lake Titicaca and the floating islands in Puno or the amazing Nazca lines? Yes. But was it better for the girls and the sanity of our family? Yes. That is ultimately the best decision. You might think more flights sounds more expensive though, right? Wrong. Actually, the bus for all of us plus short term stays and eating out in all of those cities was about the same as staying in one place longer and flying around the country instead. This is where that spreadsheet comes in so handy, it allows us to compare prices and lay it all out before making our decisions.

We have been at this travel thing now for three months and so far so good staying within our budget. We have come to a point where we are talking about how we want our life to look like at the end of this and even ways we might start earning some money now, while we are on the road. We are looking into websites for people seeking house sitters or work exchange programs although I am yet unsure how these work for families. If we can offset our housing expenses then that allows us to allocate that money somewhere else. While I felt the author of that travel article was very absolutist and narrow minded about how to approach this kind of travel, I do think it is important to keep your feet on the ground and look at all angles of earning and spending money. Our goal is not to cross every item off the bucket list or pull up to the finish line dead broke but instead have the experience of assimilating into each new culture and new place; making it enjoyable for everyone, grasshoppers and ants alike.

hot peppers

Eating in Costa Rica – Part 2

As one of our servers described, as a Costa Rican, he prefers milder food and isn’t very adventurous when he eats out in his home country or when traveling.  I am not sure if this is the reason that the food tends to feature few spices other than a bit of salt and the occasional pepper, but in general eating in Costa Rica was at times very disappointing and often a tad bland.  Our best bets were the restaurants that featured foreign cuisine or interestingly vegan/vegetarian cuisine. See below for more details about our dining adventures.


It was also very expensive on the whole.  We often kept costs of eating out low at most one drink each and we typically had the girls share a small side dish (papas fritas or patacones) along with one main dish.

Homemade patacones!

Kid’s menus are not typical in these areas and the amount of food was generally more than enough for our girls. Even with these tactics we averaged $43.34/meal when eating out.  If you ignore some of the anomalies, like the time we only had fries and four cokes, the total pushes nearly $50/meal to dine at a restaurant.

Recapping these numbers makes me miss our tiny kitchen in our cabina in Punta Uva.  A couple of days before we departed, they replaced our little burners with a small gas range.  With an oven, we could have been a tad more creative in our own home cooking and would have saved homemade casadoeven more.  As it was, we really did fantastic eating at home. Shopping nearly daily for just what we needed and using almost every bit of it went a long way to keeping our costs down.  On average, we spent $8.89/meal.  This included the cost of buying our water every day, a variety of snacks, a small cache of salt and spices and a few storage helpers to allow us to save leftovers in the fridge more easily.

I will post final budget numbers for Costa Rica after our last day there (we return for a day before flying to Perú), but here are some other numbers that might interest you:

  • Snacks/Fruit when out and about: $24.76 for the month (this is by no means all snacks…with two kids that snack constantly this just represents the times we bought things other than at the market)
  • Ice Cream on hot days: $35.45 for the month, about $9-10 for the four of us to indulge a bit.
  • Pipas frias (cold coconuts): $1.50-$2.50 each depending on vendor.
  • Total daily spent on food: $38.18
  • About $13/meal for a family of four. If your kids are older it will likely be higher.
Place Notes Total
Selvin’s Terrible food…the place itself was amazing. Cool lights, beautiful wood tables and chairs and tucked into the jungle just off the main road. Sadly the service was severely lacking. We have come to expect a slower pace than typical in the USA, but this stretched our patience. Then our food finally came…my steak was gristly and cooked poorly, chicken was dry and over-cooked, and the sauce was a salt bomb. The kids had the Sea Bass and this actually was very nicely cooked, but Mackenzie complained it was too lemony. I would say if you do find yourself here, stick with the seafood and avoid the Caribbean sauce. $60.57
Alice Ice Cream Bar Ice cream was very nice and the family running it is very friendly. An expat couple from New York provided great information about the Puerto Viejo area and a few words of advice about our next foray to Panama. As an added bonus, their 8 year old son asked Mack to play soccer with him. Amazing what 30 minutes kicking a ball (especially being allowed to do it in an unused corner of the restaurant) does for connecting two kids 🙂 $11.73
Bri Bri As Amy previously mentioned, we took a trip into an indigenous reserve to visit the Bri Bri people. As part of this a family shared a traditional homemade meal with us consisting of stewed fruits, vegetables and poultry of some sort. This concoction was served in a banana leaf bowl (a tad challenging to manage for the uninitiated) and a coconut cup with a lemony water. After we finished our meal, we sampled fresh handmade chocolates. This included a sample of the raw cacao fruit, a cluster of nuts covered in a slimy white flesh that tasted like jolly ranchers, and eating a fresh roasted cacao nut. Later we were also treated to a traditional hot cacao drink.  Delicious! N/A (Part of larger package)
Maxi’s This Caribbean style soda just off the beach in Manzanillo was a gem.  The food isn’t necessarily all that special, but coupled with the view and friendly staff it was very nice. It was recommended by many of our friends and family that had visited the area in years past. Reggae is thumping and the restaurant upstairs features great views of the water. The chicken was well cooked, with savory seasoning and a tasty side of rice and beans, plantains and cabbage salad. The fish version was ok, the fish was nicely cooked, but wasn’t a great fit with the rice and beans. The girls however loved their arroz con pollo! $56.30
Como en mi Casa A fantastic accident! I was first made aware of this locale by our Spanish teacher Matías and it caused me a bit of confusion. I had asked him if we could maybe have a lesson somewhere besides my kitchen and he suggested that we could go someplace…como en mi casa! I mistook that to mean “like my house” instead of the name of a restaurant. The menu is simple and features vegan, gluten free and vegetarian cuisine. The baked goods were fantastic, the organic local produce was amazing and the preparation was perfect. My Gallo Pinto featured perfectly fried eggs, flavorful rice and beans, fresh fruit and a delightful semi-hard cheese. Amy chose the Mediterranean sandwich and enjoyed every bite. The girls split the hummus snack and goat cheese platter (both of which I sampled). The staff is friendly and the owner brought the girls two organic gluten free chocolate cookies. When asked if the owner was nice, Mack replied, “Yes, cause she didn’t ask you first if we could have a cookie!” $34.29
Wandha We were stuck…last night in town, no food in our fridge and only a credit card to pay for dinner. After multiple strikeouts (no reservation, no we don’t take credit cards, no we are closed) we wound up at Wandha, a restaurant attached to Hotel Shawandha in the area of Punta Uva. This was a budget buster! they featured a kids platter of spaghetti bolognese that included a drink for $10 a plate. My corsair shrimp dish was tasty with a nicely spiced coconut curry and Amy’s steamed white fish was tasty and well prepared. Amy had a nice glass of wine and we shared a fantastic desert of chocolate mousse with ginger sorbet. The service was fantastic and the atmosphere was nice. A great place, but very expensive for anyone on a budget. $95.24

Eating in Costa Rica – Part 1

Eating in Costa Rica has been an adventure all its own.  Our cabina is equipped with a small outdoor kitchen.  We have a nice size fridge/freezer, small microwave, toaster, coffee pot and a two-burner stove. No oven, no dishwasher and generally poor lighting conditions at night.  Despite these challenges we have really done very well at preparing our own food.  We tend to buy enough food for a couple of days, keeping our fruits and veggies fresh and processed foods to a minimum.

Food prices in Costa Rica are generally comparable to those you would find in the US.  A loaf of non-white bread is about $2.50, eggs are about $3.50 for a carton of 15 free range eggs, $1 for a dozen tortillas and $1.50 for a 2 lbs bag of black beans.  Perhaps unexpectedly, local fruits are fairly inexpensive: about $1.50-$2 for the best pineapple ever, 60 cents for an avocado, and less than $1 for a large bunch of bananas.  Other items are extremely costly: Beer is $8-9 per six-pack (local beer only)*, cheese is $8-10/lb, and $6 for a small jar of peanut butter.  Additionally, we happen to be staying in the one region of Costa Rica where the tap water is not safe to drink.  We mitigate this cost by buying a large 19 L jug of water every 2 days for about $6 (smaller 6 L jugs are about $4-5 each).  We have found juice and yogurt to be VERY sugary (although the box says 100% juice, I’m not sure I believe it)

Eating out is even more expensive.  This is no different than at home…we often struggled with the work/life balance in this area.  Too exhausted after work, school and activities, we often ate out.  My middle certainly suffered the ill effects and so did our savings.  Here in Costa Rica, we haven’t indulged too much.  The costs are similar to what we payed in Colorado for a dinner for four (so far an average of about $35 per meal).  The difference is that now we are on an extremely tight budget: if we want to eat out, an excursion or event is likely out of the question or must be scaled back. Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “why did they have to go to Costa Rica to discover that?  I live it every day!” We were certainly blessed to not have this be an overwhelming concern in the States, but looking back we can see how this impacted us even beyond the obvious costs.

Here in Costa Rica we have found a much better paradigm.  Amy and I now cook together…what used to be a debate is now a partnership.  We clean up after each meal together too, otherwise we pay the price of a million fruit flies, ants and wasps in the morning.  We often cook simple food for dinner such as our version of Casado (rice and beans with some form of protein) or pasta, fresh fruits and veggies.  Lunches are generally sandwiches with more fruit and breakfast is cereal and/or eggs.  One of my favorites is taking the leftover rice and beans from the night before and frying an egg to break over the top of it.  Our kids have taken to this new mode too.  They are constantly “starving” (snack foods are crazy expensive) so they have been willing to try many new things.  Fresh made guacamole, various rice and bean concoctions and squash casserole are just of few of the former “gross” foods they now trying and generally loving.


Place Notes Total
Pita Bonita This place was worth every penny. It is a hundred meters down the road from us in Punta Uva. Amazing fresh hummus, great falafel and spectacular kabob accompanied by super fresh pita bread that I couldn’t stop eating. The owner, Elan, is an Israeli expat who moved to the area for a new way of life. He was very helpful and friendly. $50.00
Jungle Love The ambiance was fantastic (except for Mack throwing a pouting fest that resulted in her spilling her very full banana batido, a fresh fruit “shake”, all over the table). We were tired and all a little out of sorts. We had been in Punta Uva about a week by this time and needed a bit of comfort food so we decided that it was a great pizza night. The pizza was fair, but having had many amazing pies and slices over the years I may be a bit slanted. For me, the sauce was a tad sweet and the crust was a little too biscuit-like. The toppings were fantastic: fresh garlic, sautéed spinach, delicious mushrooms and a slightly spicy sausage were a winning combination. We ordered a large and a medium pizza and had enough leftovers for a nice lunch (although reheating pizza without oven is a challenge). $42.74
Pan Pay This bakery and restaurant was recommended by our Spanish teacher. It is located near the beach in Puerto Viejo on the north end of town. The place was small and the server was impatient with our lack of Spanish. It might have just been the woman helping us as others appeared very friendly. The girls loved the Batidos here and my Pinto Gallo with Tocineta (rice and beans mixed with bacon and eggs) was awesome. The girls had Bocadillos with Queso and Tocineta. Not bad, but not amazing. $19.81
Soda Chino A Chinese influenced soda in Limón. This place served chop suey alongside the traditional casados popular in sodas across Costa Rica. We only had fries and four cokes…don’t think the food would have been great based on what we saw. $10.67
Wok and Roll We took a drive to Turrialba, a mountain valley dominated by an active volcano. It was cloudy, so the only eruptions we saw came from the backseat as Quinn was carsick multiple times on the winding mountain roads (she started the day in a dress, upon arrival in Turrialba she changed into pants and a t-shirt purchased in town, ended the day naked, poor girl). We chose an eatery featuring Chinese food because Mackenzie likes it so much. It was a pretty good option, with nice kid friendly dishes and an amazingly friendly staff. Amy and I shared the Singapore Noodles (one of my favorites) and it was very well prepared. This was a pretty expensive place, but it is close to the main square. $40.00
Punta Mona Center
for Regenerative Design
& Botanical Studies
“An 85 acre off the grid, beach front, family owned,
environmental education center,
botanical collection, permaculture farm
and eco-lodge, dedicated to regenerative ways of living.” The vegan fair was amazing, a squash dish with hearts of palm, garlic, coconut milk and coconut oil; Kale and lentils with savory mushrooms; fried plantains with guacamole. Amy and I enjoyed it immensely and it was about $10 per person. I am not sure if you can arrange to simply eat there on your own, but our tour guide Omar arranged the lunch for us after a kayaking tour.

*A former colleague of mine was certain I was crazy for going on a trip where alcohol may be out of the question because it is such a budget buster.  She suggested that I mitigate the cost by forming a GoFundMe. Well Mindie, here it is: Buy me a Beer