The Proof is in the Pudding – A Look at Our Summer Vacation

by Melissa

View of Arenal Volcano from our hotel room balcony.

After posting our budget of $50 a day per person for the world trip, I wanted proof that we could indeed live off the budget that Ryan had pulled out of thin air.  The best place to look was our recent Costa Rica trip.

In June, 2012 we traveled to Costa Rica as a “test run” to see how the kids would do with international travel and to see if our budget would really work.  More on how the kids did later – for now, lets talk the budget.

This was officially a vacation, so we tried to keep it as cheap as possible while still doing everything we wanted – ziplining, seeing the animals, beaches, nice dinners, and paying for tour guides. We didn’t budget per say, but tried to keep spending low and then analyze the results when we got home.

The outcome was amazing.  With all that we did, we were actually very close to our projected budget for world travel.  Here’s what we spent our money on:

Cash (or, a little bit of everything)

Over the trip, we took out $1,829 in cash.  We don’t have the patience to keep and track our receipts, so the cash amounts aren’t itemized. It went into everything from paying for lodging, food, tours and souvenirs.

The majority of our spending was on tours. Much of this was cash, but it was probably 25% of our budget, or about $926. We had private guides, drivers, and saw some truly amazing creatures and sights that we don’t think we would have seen without the guides.

We hired a private guide to take us through the hanging bridges and hiking around Arenal volcano. He was worth the money as he showed us the history and wildlife of the area.

Poison dart frog, or "blue jeans".

We debated little things like paying for the hummingbird garden in Monteverde. We paid about $20 for it, but it turned out to be more than worth the price. The hummingbirds were so big, and there were so many of them, that we could feel their wings beating in our chest. It was like all their tiny little wings were powerful subwoofers.

Hummingbird garden at Selvatura Park in Monteverde.

Food and Restaurants

Our approach to food was to eat breakfast for free by staying at hotels and hostels that included breakfast. For lunch and dinner, we ate at sodas, which are small, inexpensive restaurants. We bought snacks for the kids in grocery stores, and did splurge a couple times on nice restaurants.  We were frustrated with the price of food and restaurants in Costa Rica – even the “cheap” places cost as much as going out to a nice restaurant in the US.

A Tico breakfast.

El Avion restaurant in Manual Antonio. You pay for the view, not the food.

Hotels and Hostels

We stayed in four different hotels. Our first and last nights were at the Hampton Inn in San Jose, which was paid for with points (free because the points came from signing up for a credit card).

In La Fortuna, we spent $92/night at the Monte Real, which was expensive for us but had a great view of the volcano, was right by the city center, and included breakfast at a local Soda. Honestly, the breakfast at a soda is what sold us on this place. It was worth the price.

We loved the Monte Real in La Fortuna. Worth three times what we paid.

In Monteverde, we stayed in a private room at Tina’s Casitas hostel. We paid $14/pp which came out to $56 per night. This place had a great view of the town, a homemade breakfast every morning, and we even had suicide showers.

Suicide shower at Tina's Casitas hostel.

Watching the clouds roll in from the balcony at Tina's Casitas.

In Manuel Antonio, we stayed at La Posada, a great little hotel right at the edge of the park, and just a short walk away from the beach. This place was perfect – it had a great pool, huge rooms, and monkeys even visited one morning after breakfast. We stayed three nights at $80/night.

Capuchin monkey in Manuel Antonio.

A sloth in Manuel Antonio.


We bought plenty of souvenirs for ourselves and the kids. We spent at least $100 in coffee for ourselves and to take home to friends as gifts, and the kids spent another $100 to $150 on toys and trinkets. Again, we were treating this as a vacation, so we didn’t mind spending money on random stuff. When traveling the world, we won’t be able to spend money on souvenirs – and we definitely won’t have space for 10 pounds of coffee or 5 stuffed animals in our backpacks.


We spent $467 on shuttle buses. We used Interbus line. These were 10 person vans that carried mostly tourists. We probably could have taken local buses for less than $50 total, but we wanted to move fast because of our limited time and because we didn’t want to put too much stress on the kids.

Airline tickets were $300 total – that’s round trip for four from Dallas to San Jose. We have been practicing our “travel hacking”, and last year signed up for two British Airways Citibank credit card deals. Each card had a signup bonus of 100,000 miles. We used the miles to buy the tickets, and only had to pay $75 in fees and taxes for each ticket.

The departure tax came out to $118. It would have been less – maybe $100 for all of us – but we had to use our debit card because we were out of cash, so we ended up paying a ton of fees.

Transaction Fees

Speaking of fees, we paid just under $49 in transaction fees from using our credit and debit card on the trip. This is a huge amount that could have been avoided with just a little planning on our side – lesson learned.

So what was the end result?

Total Cost for 12 nights in Costa Rica – $3,705.80

Cost Per Person –  $926.45

Cost Per Person Per Day – $77.20


So this is higher than our $50/per person per day budget. True. But it’s much lower than we expected. And we could have made it $50 with a few tweaks. The main spending came from lodging, food and transportation. We could have stayed in hostels in all of the towns we went to to keep those costs down. We could have been more careful about our restaurant choices, and made our own meals, to save on food costs.  And we could have taken local buses instead of shuttles to save on transportation.

Can We Make it to $50?

From our Costa Rica budget, we learned that we can make our budget of $50 by cutting out the easy things – travel more slowly. Use local transport to save on the bus costs. Sleep in hostels. Buy and prepare our own food instead of eating at restaurants. Use a guide book instead of hiring a guide.  These four things could have put us at $50/day.

We see that our budget is doable, and that we won’t have to sacrifice “seeing the world” to make it happen.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Susie Austin September 10, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Loved reading this. I think you guys are right on track. What an opportunity!


Melissa September 20, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Thanks Susie! We are really excited about this and enjoying crunching the numbers.


Nirisha October 3, 2012 at 10:54 am

Melissa: It is exciting when you know you can do it.
On KERA 90.1, I have occasionally listened to a show called “Travel with Rick Steves”, which comes on Sunday. He once had a guest on his show who had (youth) hostels in Europe. It was more cost-effective and also more social way to travel and not meant just for youth. Look up his website:


Melissa Harris October 3, 2012 at 8:51 pm


This is so cool you sent this site. I have been hearing from lots of people about Rick Steve’s and Europe. After I send this reply I am going to this site to check it out. We went to Paris almost 10 years ago and we used a Rick Steve’s book. It was fantastic. I am a big fan. Thanks!!


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