Category Archives: Travel

Going on a Cruise Part 4 – The Food!

This is the final post on cruising for a while.  And it’s a food post!  In my first post on cruising I talked about the basics of cruising. In the second post, I showed how to get the best deals when booking a cruise.  In the third post, I provided tips on saving money while on board and on your trip to the cruise port.

I’m all out money saving tips, so here’s a picture post of the different types of food you can enjoy on board.

In my first post on cruising, I mentioned you can get “Five star dining every night.  Or all you can eat buffets, burgers, pizzas and ice cream.”  One poster took exception to the “five star dining” comment, claiming that’s just hyperbole, and that the food is just adequate.

We thought the food was pretty good, but not everyone agrees.  The food varies from cruise line to cruise line, ship to ship, restaurant to restaurant, and even night to night.  It’s possible we’ve had a string of good luck with the food on the five cruises we have taken so far.

We really enjoy the variety of dishes because we get to experience things we don’t routinely cook at home.

Are we foodies?  I hate the connotations that go with the term “foodie” – snobby, elitist, holier-than-thou, overly concerned with authenticity and presentation instead of taste.  We just like to find good food, cook in our kitchen, and eat.  We also love to try new foods while on vacation like we did in Mexico this past summer.  So I’m not sure if we are foodies or not.

Here’s what happens when you sink too far down the foodie rabbit hole and lose your common sense (and taste buds):

“The taste is a lot richer.  It’s pure, it’s pure.”

 

Now it’s time for some good cruise eats!  Bon appetit!

 

A staple of cruise lines. On many ships, pizza is available 24/7. These slices are topped with prosciutto

A staple of cruise lines. On many ships, pizza is available 24/7. These slices are topped with prosciutto.  I love pizza and this was some pretty good thin crust (“NY Style”) pizza from the Costa Atlantica (an Italian cruise line)

 

Prime Rib

Filet Mignon with a side of… well who cares, it’s filet mignon.

 

For the kids - bacon macaroni with fries

For the kids – bacon macaroni with fries

 

Lobster and shrimp

Lobster and shrimp

 

indian-medly

Indian medley of (clockwise from top) dough balls in a creamy curry, curried potatoes, dal lentils. A delish vegetarian dish for those into shunning meat

 

Frog legs with parmesan on top. Tastes like dark meat chicken

Frog legs with parmesan on top. Tastes like dark meat chicken

 

Crab cakes so good I ate at least eight of them. Plus scallops with penne pasta, meatloaf, chicken drumstick, and pan-seared tuna

Crab cakes so good I ate at least eight of them. Plus scallops and shrimp with penne pasta, meatloaf, chicken drumstick, and pan-seared tuna

 

Chili relleno (stuffed chili pepper) with rice and beans on the side

Chili relleno (stuffed chili pepper) with rice and beans on the side

 

Spanakopita (greek pastry with spinach and feta inside), pepper stuffed with couscous. Another good vegetarian entree. Goes great with a side of steak (you can order a second main course any time you want).

Spanakopita (greek pastry with spinach and feta inside), pepper stuffed with couscous. Another good vegetarian entree. Goes great with a side of steak (you can order a second main course any time you want).

 

Snack plate with salami, provolone and parmesan cheese, octopus, and smoked salmon with wasabi

Snack plate with salami, provolone and parmesan cheese, octopus, and smoked salmon with wasabi

 

Lots and lots and lots of parmesan. There's even a bowl made from the rind of a huge ball of parmesan cheese.

Lots and lots and lots of parmesan. There’s even a bowl made from the rind of a huge wheel of parmesan cheese.  In case you want to eat it by the fist full.

 

Smoked salmon

Smoked salmon with capers

 

Salmon, scallops, muscles, clams, and shrimp on penne pasta

Salmon, scallops, muscles, clams, and shrimp on penne pasta

 

From the buffet - fish, ribs, eggplant, salami, pasta salad, seafood salad (clams, mussels,

From the buffet – fish, eggplant, salami, pasta salad, seafood salad (clams, mussels, shrimp, squid, octopus), olives.  With a rib on top.

 

Corned beef and pastrami reuben panini

Corned beef and pastrami reuben panini

 

Prosciutto, salami, and fried shrimp

Prosciutto, salami, and coconut fried shrimp with alfredo pasta.  We eat an embarrassingly large quantity of prosciutto on every cruise.

 

Mexican food from our cruise to Mexico. Almost as good as the real deal in Mexico.

Breakfast from the Blue Iguana Cantina Mexican restaurant on the Carnival Glory.  Breakfast is usually a pretty tame event on cruise lines, but not with this Mexican restaurant on board!

 

hot-chocolate

The kids enjoying hot chocolate on our balcony

 

A typical meal

I found a copy of the menu from the formal dining room.  The menu changes each night.  Here’s what you get to choose from for just one night:

Appetizers:

  • seared tuna
  • broccoli salad
  • veggie spring rolls
  • navy bean soup
  • gazpacho andalouse
  • tortilla soup with braised chicken
  • shrimp cocktail
  • flatbread w/ apple, bacon, and parmesan cheese
  • a variety of salads
  • braised rabbit

Mains:

  • veal parmesan
  • seared Tilapia
  • rosemary lamb shank
  • baked ziti
  • chick pea biscuits with roasted squash and peppers
  • vegetarian Indian medley with ~5 different veggies, papadum, yogurt sauce, etc
  • steak tacos
  • salmon fillet
  • flat iron steak
  • chicken breast
  • pork chop

Sides:

  • corn and veggie succotash
  • loaded baked potato
  • sauteed beans with bacon
  • mashed potatoes
  • basmati pilaf
  • steamed broccoli

Dessert:

  • chilled rhubarb almond strawberry soup
  • chocolate melting cake (unimpressed with this one!)
  • passion fruit flan with a coconut/tapioca/basil syrup
  • coconut lime cake
  • fresh tropical fruit plate
  • cheese plate
  • ice cream assortment
  • pie a la mode

That’s all free. There was an extra charge on this night for lobster, surf and turf, filet mignon, and NY strip steak (though that stuff was free at other times on the cruise). This was their “American Table” menu focused on traditional American cuisine with some twists thrown in, plus a couple things to recognize the port of call for the day (tortilla soup and steak tacos for Cozumel, Mexico).

That sounds like a foodie-approved menu to me.  I know almost all the food we received was well executed in terms of seasoning, texture, temperature, flavor, and presentation (how I usually evaluate a plate). The buffet restaurants of course are much closer to average, and you can definitely find the cafeteria grade eggs for breakfast for example (just skip those and go to the egg/omelet station for a fresh omelet, sunny side up, over easy, scrambled, or however you take your eggs).

 

Desserts

It’s hard to save room for desserts when the main courses are so good.

 

The best chocolate cake I've ever eaten.

The best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten.  I remember being very full from lunch and saddened by the fact that I could only eat a slice of this cake.

 

Cheesecake,

Cheesecake, coconut cream cake and banana custard

 

Chilled mango soup

Chilled mango soup

 

Key lime cheesecake (left), Napoleon almond cake (right) - Mrs. Root of Good's favorite

Key lime cheesecake (left), Napoleon almond cake (right) – Mrs. Root of Good’s favorite dessert ever

 

Fudge cheesecake, strawberry cream

Fudge cheesecake, strawberry cream, chocolate cream cake

 

Blueberry cheesecake (left)

Blueberry cheesecake with pistachios (left), cherry cream filling on top right, gelatin with fruit on bottom right

 

cr

Crème brûlée custard with caramel popcorn on top

 

Strawberry cheesecake,

Strawberry cheesecake, assorted cookies and cakes

 

Dessert buffet

Dessert buffet

 

Brownie

Brownie

 

A triumvirate of chocolate cakes

A triumvirate of chocolate cakes

 

I’ll let the reader decide for themselves whether cruise food might be worth trying based on these pictures.  I can’t say with certainty that everyone, including foodies, will be happy with the cruise cuisine, but in our experience the dozen or more restaurants on board offer enough variety to satisfy burger-n-pizza folks, picky tastes, healthy eaters, carnivores, vegetarians, and low carbers.

 

Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

Could you manage a week on a cruise ship with all this food? 

 

 

Going on a Cruise Part 3 – Save on Board and on Transportation

This is part three of my series on cruise vacations.  In my first post on cruising I talked about the basics of cruising.  In the second post, I showed how to get the best deals when booking a cruise.

In this post I want to cover other ways to save money on cruises while on board and while traveling from your home to the cruise terminal.

 

Saving money while on board

Be a cruise deadbeat like me. Cruise lines lose money on your basic cruise fare but they make it up by selling you extras while on board. Skip or limit all the extras like the photos, spa, art auction, alcohol, and in port excursions and you, too, can get a cruise subsidized by your spendthrift fellow passengers!

From reviewing Carnival’s annual report to investors, they take in around $700 per cabin per seven night cruise from selling all the extras while on board. That’s roughly the amount we pay per cabin for our entire cruise! Those sales come with an 86% gross profit margin for the company since they are selling to a captive audience once you’re on board and don’t need to set competitive prices. If you want a frozen margarita, you’re paying whatever they’re asking or you’re not getting it.

Some people claim the fun of cruising is going crazy on board and buying all those expensive drinks. And that’s okay, but it certainly changes the value proposition if you buy all that pricey booze.

You can hang out here and sip coffee for free!

You can hang out here and sip coffee for free!

Some unscrupulous souls manage to sneak alcohol aboard, thereby depriving these poor corporations of their outsized profits. I can neither confirm nor deny whether the Root of Good household has engaged in this morally ambiguous behavior. But if one were so inclined, here’s a few tips on how to do it:

  • Buy a rum runner. With these flasks, you can sneak alcohol on board like the pros during prohibition.
  • Buy a small bottle while in a port and don’t turn it over to security when you walk back on board. Odds are you won’t get caught if it’s a 375 mL bottle. If you get caught (“oops, sorry I forgot!”), they confiscate it and return it at the end of the cruise. No biggie.
  • Empty a disposable water bottle and fill with clear liquor. Or do the same to an apple juice container with amber colored spirits.

Most cruise lines allow you to bring one bottle of wine per person, so this might last you for much of the cruise if you enjoy a small glass once per day.

costa-atlantica-hallway

While on the topic of alcohol, it’s worth mentioning the bargains you can find in the liquor store on board ship or in your ports of call. On most cruises, we find some incredible deals on liquor at prices about half of what they are back at home in North Carolina. For example, we picked up a few one liter bottles of Jose Cuervo tequila for $8 each ($29 in North Carolina) and one liter bottles of Crown Royal whiskey for $16 each ($40 in North Carolina).

There is supposedly a one liter per person limit on what you can import to the US duty free but we’ve routinely bought more (like 7-8 liters for 2 of us), declared it on the Customs form, yet never paid any duties. Just smile at the Customs agent and play dumb. YMMV of course, but we “saved” $160 on top shelf liquor on our last two cruises, and even if there was an import duty assessed, it would be much less than $160.  We buy the stuff at home anyway, so we aren’t falling into the trap of spending “extra” money just because it’s cheap.  It’s been over a year since the huge liquor haul, and we still have around half of the liquor we bought.

Live performance on stage? Yep, almost every night.

Live performance on stage? Yep, almost every night.

Here’s another radical way to save while on board. Become a shareholder and get free on board credit. If you purchase 100 shares of Carnival (ticker: CCL) or Royal Caribbean (ticker: RCL) then you will get $100 per cabin on a seven night sailing on the respective cruise line or their operating subsidiaries. Carnival owns Costa, Princess, Cunard, and Holland America while Royal Caribbean owns Celebrity. You get a smaller award for shorter cruises and a larger award on longer sailings (up to $250 on 14+ night sailings). When Carnival and Royal Caribbean were trading in the $30-40 range in recent history, it wasn’t too expensive to pick up 100 shares. Both companies have done well and now trade around $50 and $90 per share, respectively, so it’s much more expensive to acquire 100 shares just for the shareholder benefit alone.

Water slide on the Costa Atlantica

Water slide on the Costa Atlantica

While you are in port, you’ll probably want to get off the ship and see stuff. The cruise line sells prepackaged excursions at near-usurious markups, but it’s easy and convenient so many cruisers buy these excursions. Save a fortune by booking your own excursions with private providers ahead of time. Even better, skip the excursions and DIY your time in port. For a cheap cab fare or bus ticket, you can usually get around town and see a few sights on your own.

Some ports, like Nassau in the Bahamas, have a few attractions within walking distance or not far away by water ferry. On our first visit to a port we like to walk around the port or town and get a feel for the area without planning any big activities.

The free aquarium at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau Bahamas. Manta ray!

The free aquarium at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas. Manta ray!

 

Consider the total cost of the entire vacation

Think big picture. Your cruise ticket covers almost all of your expenses from the time you hop on board until your last day of the cruise when you sadly mope down the gangplank and head back home. In addition to the cruise fare, you’ll have to pay for travel to your port of departure. Squeeze out the savings on that part of the trip budget, too.

Cruises leave from all over the US coast, so check for local cruises. Paying a little more for a cruise that departs from a nearby port may save you money overall. For example, I can book a 5 night cruise from Charleston, South Carolina that’s a 4.5 hour drive from home instead of sailing from Miami that is 11.5 hours drive time from home. I’m willing to pay more (or accept a slightly worse itinerary) for a local cruise to avoid the cost and inconvenience of driving an extra 7 hours or having to fly instead of drive.

The water is still clear, the sun warm, and the breeze calming no matter how much you pay for the cruise.

The water is still clear, the sun warm, and the breeze calming no matter how much you pay for the cruise.

Cruises leave port around 4 pm on the day of departure, so you’ll typically want to get to the port around 12 or 1 pm to maximize your time on board and to make sure you don’t miss the cruise if you’re running late. If we’re driving to Charleston, we can leave early in the morning and make it there by noon, whereas if we’re driving to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, we definitely have to spend the night somewhere along I-95 on the way south.

The mid-day cruise departure time usually makes it impossible to fly down the day of the cruise unless you’re fortunate to have access to a very early non-stop flight to the airport near the cruise terminal. Add in a hotel night and the possibility of a taxi from airport to hotel and hotel to cruise terminal and you’re talking a large additional expense versus driving. Which is why we tend to drive to the cruise terminal, even when we’re departing from a Florida port (a 7 to 11.5 hour drive from Raleigh, NC). In addition, airfare for a family of five is way more expensive than gas for the drive to and from Florida since we can all ride in the same car.

Local ports along the east coast from north to south:

  • Boston
  • New York City
  • Cape Liberty (Bayonne, NJ)
  • Baltimore
  • Norfolk, VA
  • Charleston, SC
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Port Canaveral, FL
  • Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • Miami

Local ports along the Gulf coast from east to west:

  • Tampa, FL
  • Mobile, AL (starting in 2016)
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Galveston, TX
  • Houston

Local ports along the west coast from north to south:

  • Seattle
  • San Francisco
  • Los Angeles
  • San Diego
Carnival Fascination waterslides

Carnival Fascination water slides.  Departing from Jacksonville, Florida

From my east coast perspective, the biggest down side to choosing a local port instead of a major south Florida port like Miami or Fort Lauderdale is that the cruise won’t get to the Caribbean as quickly. You’ll probably spend additional time at sea transiting to your Caribbean island paradises, and you might not have as many days in port in the Caribbean. Your destinations might only include the Bahamas instead of other islands further away. For wintertime cruises, a non-south Florida departure might mean experiencing chilly winter weather for a day or two of your cruise (and that’s what you’re trying to escape, right?).

That’s not a complete downer, since I really enjoy time on board the ship and don’t care as much about the destinations. But it’s not as much fun being above deck in the wind when it’s 55 degrees and cloudy instead of 75-85 and sunny.

It's hard to get bored

It’s hard to get bored when there’s mini golf on board

We look at every expense of getting to the cruise terminal and try to keep those to a minimum. For cruise parking, we always skip the in terminal parking at the port that usually runs about $20 per day. Instead, we find a private off-site parking provider that typically charges $4 to $7 per day and provides a free shuttle to the cruise terminal. We’ve done this in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. Quality of service varies, so be sure to do your due diligence and read the reviews.

Another popular option is a “stay and sail” hotel where you get a room the night before the cruise and it comes with free parking for the duration of your cruise and a free shuttle to/from the cruise terminal. We’ve never done this but prices tend to be around $99-159/night (roughly the cost of in terminal parking).

I could also DIY a “stay and sail” package. When we stayed at the Jacksonville Aloft hotel, they said we could leave our car there for the week while we went on the cruise. Then I could have hopped on a $15 Uber ride to the port (and you can save $20 with that link). So many options to avoid $100+ in parking fees at the port.

We usually stay at hotels for free using Starwood Preferred Guest points obtained through credit card sign up bonuses on the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card (more on credit cards), and free flights are easy to obtain as well using credit card sign up offers. I just wish I could find a good credit card bonus offer to cover a cruise fare!

 

Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

Where would you draw the line on frugality?  Limiting drinks?  Smuggling liquor?  Driving 11 hours instead of flying? 

 

 

Going on a Cruise Part 2 – Getting the Best Deal

This is part two of my series on cruise vacations.  In my first post on cruising I talked about the basics of cruising like what the cruise fare covers (and what it doesn’t) and life on board the ship.

In this post I reveal how to get the best deal on cruise fares.

 

Finding the best cruise fare

Cruise fares are highly seasonal, so you’ll save a lot of money by traveling during the off season.  For cruises, low season starts in September once the kids are back in school and the odds of a hurricane in the Caribbean skyrocket. The low season ends sometime in February as the spring breaker business picks up, with higher rates in the late spring and throughout summer.  Peak season cruises during summer are usually two or three times the price of off season cruises.

We love booking in the low season.  In the fall, it’s a little cooler in the Caribbean so you don’t burn up as much.  In the winter, we escape the freezing temps at home.  The only problem is the kids’ school schedule so we try to pick a week where they have one or more days off school.

costa-atlantica-deck-panoramic

Hurricanes have never caused any problems in our cruising itinerary, and even if there was an active tropical system in the Caribbean, the cruise ship will typically detour around the worst of the storm to visit other ports that aren’t impacted by inclement weather.

For the absolute lowest fares, last minute cruise deals are the way to go.  When we’re thinking about taking a cruise soon, we’ll start checking prices and watch for a really good bargain to show up.  Prices are typically the lowest during the three or four weeks before sailing, so be ready to hit the road not long after booking if you go this route.  Be flexible as to cruise line and ship, departure port, and ports of call, and you can usually find some great last minute bargain cruises at $40 per night per person or less.

Another great source of low fares, sometimes even lower than last minute cruises, are “repositioning” cruises.  Particularly cheap are transatlantic repositioning cruises.  Each April and May, cruise ships leave the warm waters of the Caribbean for a summer of cruising in the warm season in Europe.  In October and November, these ships leave Europe and return across the Atlantic for the warm Caribbean winters.  Hop aboard one of these Europe-bound cruises in the spring or a Caribbean-bound cruise in the fall and you might pay as little as $30-35 per person per night plus tax.  I’ve also seen similar rates on a repositioning cruise from San Diego, California to Chile.

These repositioning cruises are a smoking hot deal if you can devote two weeks to the cruise and deal with one way airfare to or from Europe.  We’re hoping to take advantage of the repositioning bargains to or from Europe some day, and get free one way plane tickets by redeeming airline miles from credit card sign up bonuses.  While we’re in Europe, we can do some sightseeing before returning home.

Just shootin' some hoops. On a ship.

Just shootin’ some hoops. On a ship.

 

Picking a cabin to save money

The cheapest rooms aboard are “inside” cabins.  This means they are in the interior of the ship and do not come with windows.  The next category of rooms are “oceanview” cabins where you get a porthole or window so you can see the ocean.  Upgrade once more and you get the “balcony room” where you have a door to your own private balcony overlooking the water.  The ultimate upgrade is the suite that comes with a balcony and usually has separate living and sleeping quarters and is more spacious than the lower category cabins.

All the cabins have access to the same dining rooms, shows, and entertainment while on board, so the extra cost that comes with the upgraded room is really just a nicer room.  You do get some extra perks with the suites depending on the cruise line (like an on-call butler).

Being cheapskates we tend to book inside rooms.  Sure, we can’t see the ocean from our room but we don’t stay in the room very long anyway unless we’re asleep.  If you like to sleep in, it’s really nice to have the absolute darkness that comes with a room devoid of all windows.  I like looking around the formal dining room and thinking of all the guests that paid five or ten times what we paid even though we’re chowing down on the same filet mignon and lobster.

If you’re flexible on your room assignment, you can save even more with the “guaranteed inside” cabin category.  Book a “guaranteed inside” cabin and you’re guaranteed some cabin on the ship but the cruise line gets to pick where it is.  It’s typically one of the lower cost cabins but one time we received an outside cabin with a window view (partially obstructed with a lifeboat).  You’re doing the cruise line a favor by soaking up their excess inventory of cabins and in exchange you save some dough.

View from our cabin's balcony

View from our cabin’s balcony

 

Booking a cruise with kids

When booking a cruise, you’ll see the advertised price.  Double that and add in a bit of tax and that’s what you’ll typically pay for a cabin with two people in it.  Our $199 cruise last September was actually $650 for a two person cabin with taxes included.

The two person cabin is the commodity good of the cruise industry.  Drop to a person traveling solo, and you’ll pay almost the same price as a two person cabin.  Add in a third person to your room and you’ll usually get bumped to a higher category cabin that costs more for the first two cruise fares.

Disco party for the kids

Disco party for the kids

As a result of the increased cost for cabins accommodating three or more people, it’s often about the same price or sometimes cheaper to book two cabins if you’re traveling with four people.  If you’re traveling with kids, it’s nice to have that second cabin so the kids have their own space and the adults have their own, too.  We usually book me and one kid in one cabin, and Mrs. RoG and the other kid(s) in the second cabin since they want an adult present in each room.  Then we switcheroo once we’re on board.  Our cabin attendants knew what we were doing and they never raised it as an issue when our two year old stayed with his 8 and 9 year old siblings in one room while the adults stayed down the hall.

We booked “inside guarantee” rooms on the last two cruises and lucked out with cabins near each other.  If being in a room next door to your kids is a must, you’ll have to pay up for a particular room and forgo the “inside guarantee” savings.

Conversely, sometimes it’s significantly cheaper to book a four person cabin if the cruise line has a “kids sail free” promotion.  We snagged a steal on Costa a few years ago where a balcony room for four of us was under $1,100 total for a seven night cruise.

Our children love the kids clubs on the cruise

Our children love the kids clubs on the cruise

 

How to search for and book your cruise

If you’re focused on finding the best cruise value, you should be looking at the “price per night” metric.  Travelocity used to have a very nice search interface with filters and screens for cruise length, departure port, cruise line and other features and also allowed sorting by price per night.  Unfortunately they revamped their website and it’s now harder to use.  I contacted them a year ago to suggest a “sort by price per night” option but never got a response.

Travelocity is still a pretty solid option for searching for cruises, and my preferred option for completing the cruise booking.  Travelocity lets you sort by price for the whole cruise.  But if you want to be able to sort by price per night, Vacationstogo.com is a better option for the search.  They have a 90-day ticker for last minute cruise deals and a full search function for all cruises for the next couple years.

I like booking with Travelocity because they offer very competitive sales and incentives to get your business.  They occasionally have sales that beat the rates available at Orbitz or other online travel sites.  Travelocity also offers “on board credit” promotions when you book cruises through their site.  For example, the cruise you want to purchase might be $259 per person at every cruise site on the internet while Travelocity also offers $50 or $75 back in the form of an on board credit you can spend while on the ship.  I use on board credit to buy bottles of alcohol to take home or to pay the mandatory gratuity (around $12/day per person), so it’s almost like a cash rebate.

Speaking of cash rebates, don’t forget to use your favorite online shopping portal.  We usually get $40+ back on each cruise just for clicking through a shopping portal like Mr. Rebates or Ebates.  Looking at those two sites for purchases from Travelocity, I see 4% cash back at Mr. Rebates and 7% back at Ebates on cruises right now.  7% of a $1000 cruise is an easy $70 in exchange for 10 seconds of clicking.  I find the cruise I want to buy, then click through the Mr. Rebates or Ebates site and complete the purchase for some quick cash.

costa-atlantica-atrium

The atrium on Costa Atlantica. Look out below!!!

Another neat site for booking cruises is CruiseCompete.com.  It’s like a reverse auction for cruises where the travel agents bid for your business.  You pick the cruise and cabin you want and submit to Cruise Compete, then wait a few hours and get a number of quotes from different travel agents.  For the bargain basement last minute cruises in the lowest room categories that we usually buy, I haven’t received any great offers through cruisecompete since I’m usually getting a promotion from Travelocity and stacking it with 4-7% cash back from Mr. Rebates of Ebates.  From talking to travel agents I found through Cruise Compete, they have mentioned the higher priced cabins and more expensive sail dates typically have more wiggle room to offer free cabin upgrades or on board credits to win your business.

You can also purchase cruise tickets direct from the cruise lines or through your own travel agent.  I’ve found that a lot of the discounts go away if you’re booking straight with the cruise line, though that is how we got our amazing deal on Costa a few years ago.  If you have a preferred travel agent, you’ll get great service from them although you might not get the best pricing or promotions (then again, you might).

 

Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

 

Do you have any tips or tricks for getting a great bargain on a cruise?

 

 

Going on a Cruise Part 1 – Overview

In the past year, the Root of Good family went on two cruises in the Caribbean.  I wrote about the first cruise in my September 2014 financial update, and a few people wanted to learn more about cruises.

I think cruising gets unfairly painted with a broad brush.  My advice is to discard any preconceived notions you have about cruising such as “it’s for old people”, “it’s boring”, “I don’t want to be stuck on a ship with 3,000 other people”, or “no thanks, not interested in plastic wrapped vacations”.

Just think of a cruise as a floating resort hotel with free food and free transportation to a few sunny and sandy destinations.  With free entertainment for kids and adults, 360 degree oceanfront views, and maybe some sea spray if it’s windy.

We probably don’t fit the stereotype of the typical cruise customer.  We’re big on slow travel.  We spent seven and a half weeks bumming around Mexico this past summer and set out on a five week road trip to Canada last year (though we returned home half way through the five weeks).  Travel is so important to us that we devote about a sixth of our overall early retirement budget to it.  Now that I’ve established my independent traveler street credibility, let’s talk cruises.

 

Cruise Basics

Cruises come in many shapes and sizes.  Big boats, small boats.  Except don’t call it a boat, it’s a ship.  The smallest ships carry as few as a couple hundred passengers while the largest ships carry 5,000 or more passengers.  Most of the ships from the big brands like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line carry around 2,000 to 4,000 passengers.  Add that to another 1,000 crew members, and you have a lot of people on a big hunk of floating metal.

How long is a typical cruise?  Seven nights is the standard cruise length (if there is a standard) and what I would recommend for a first time cruiser.  There are plenty of three and four night cruises, and also many cruises of two weeks or longer.  The three or four night cruises are very affordable but won’t permit a lot of time to relax and enjoy the time on board since three nights aboard equates to only two full days aboard.  Cruises of two weeks or more can be nice, but if it’s your first cruise I wouldn’t commit to more than a week in case you really don’t like it.

If you’re in the US, most cruises visit the Caribbean or Mexico and depart from ports on the east coast (mostly in Florida) or from the west coast (Los Angeles).  There are other ports of departure with limited sailing dates up and down the east coast, the gulf coast, and the west coast.  You can also visit Europe, Central America, South America, Asia or really almost anywhere in the world.  Sometimes these more distant destinations are part of a multi-week cruise departing from the US, but just as often you will depart from a port near the continent you will be cruising around.  Cruise ships only cover about 500-600 miles per day so it can take a week or two to cross the Atlantic or Pacific ocean or skirt the shores of a continent.

Are cruises cheap?  They can be very inexpensive.  The cruise we booked last September was $650 per two person cabin including taxes for a seven night cruise.  I can’t find a land based all-inclusive resort for that amount, and certainly not one within driving distance of North Carolina.  A three night cruise from Florida to the Bahamas can be under $300 per cabin.  Cruises can also be expensive.  A 32 night cruise from Florida to Chile (by way of Cape Horn at the tip of South America) can set you back $8,000 per cabin.  Some luxury cruises last a month or two and approach $100,000 for the cheapest cabin (which I bet isn’t too shabby).

The advertised cruise fare can be misleading.  The cruise we booked in September was advertised as $199.  That’s per person and doesn’t include taxes.  A cabin is what you are actually booking, which means two or more people.  On our cruise, taxes of $125 per person increase the advertised price by more than 50%.  That’s usually the case for the least expensive cruises.  The advertised price is often for the cheapest cabin on board, and if you want to upgrade to something luxurious, you’ll pay more.

 

What the cruise fare covers (and doesn’t)

What do you get for the $650 cruise fare (or whatever you pay)?

  • Food.  Five star dining every night.  Or all you can eat buffets, burgers, pizzas and ice cream.  We enjoyed fifteen different restaurants on our last cruise including a fish and chips counter, a fresh burrito joint, and the formal dining room with favorites like lobster, filet mignon, and crab cakes.
  • Some drinks.  Juices, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, and tap water are pretty standard.
  • Entertainment.  Broadway stage shows, dance clubs, live music, DJ’s, comedy clubs, magicians, game shows, and outdoor movies
  • Port visits.  What you do while visiting the port is up to you.  We visited Mexico, Honduras, and Belize on our last cruise.
  • Kids club.  Free childcare for kids.  Our kids love it.  Those still in diapers may not qualify for the kids club, and some cruises charge extra for childcare on port days.
  • Fitness and recreation.  Gym with treadmills, weight sets, and stepping machines are standard.  Table tennis, basketball courts, volleyball courts, mini golf, rock climbing, zip lines, water slides, swimming pools.
Mexican food from our cruise to Mexico. Almost as good as the real deal in Mexico.

Mexican food from our cruise to Mexico. Almost as good as the real deal in Mexico.

What the fare doesn’t cover:

  • Excursions while in port
  • Internet
  • Alcohol and sodas
  • Premium restaurants on board
  • Gratuities

In our experience, cruises are pretty good value propositions.  You pay a lump sum price for the entire vacation and as long as you don’t overindulge on extras, cruises can be a rather inexpensive way to vacation and experience a taste of luxury.

 

Life on board

While you’re on a cruise your day can be jammed packed with activities or laid back and filled with nothing more than seaside lounging with a good book with occasional breaks to dine at the seemingly endless assortment of restaurants and dining spots on board.

Each evening you receive a newsletter outlining the next day’s schedule of activities on board as well as the restaurant schedules and food themes.  Glancing back at the daily newsletter from the first day of our cruise, I see the programmed activities started at 7:00 am with a free morning stretching and fitness class at the spa and the day ended with a midnight comedy show in the cabaret lounge at the rear of the ship.  Throughout the day there are dozens of planned activities like:

  • a cooking demo in the ship’s steakhouse
  • sports trivia, music trivia, and entertainment trivia in the lounges
  • karaoke awesome party (they seriously put “awesome” in the name of the party on the schedule)
  • family friendly comedy shows
  • cornhole competition
  • mini golf tournament (did I mention the ship had a full mini golf course?)
  • two different broadway style musicals in the evening.
  • acoustic guitar performance
  • live jazz music
  • hairy chest contest (can’t say I’m sad I missed this one!)
  • ping pong tournament
cruise-newsletter-schedule

The daily schedule

Those are all covered in your basic cruise fare.  There’s also a huge array of organized activities to essentially separate you from your money like the art auction, designer watch seminar, bingo, slots tournament, Texas Hold Em tournament, “free” diamond gemstone consultation, spa tours, and jewelry by the inch sales.

Between eating and lounging, we usually didn’t make it to more than the main broadway stage show each night and a little ping pong, mini golf, and swimming sprinkled throughout the day.

Early Retirement Interview

Eating, swimming, and lounging all day.

On sea days, you’ll have the chance to get off the boat for most of the day until around 4 or 5 pm and explore the day’s destination.  On our cruise, the ship stopped at Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico, Roatan Bay in Honduras and Belize City in Belize.

Sabbatical

Who wants to get off the ship and explore when the view from the deck is this nice?

While on board, dress is pretty casual most of the time, but this varies by cruise line.  The only time there is a dress code is in the formal dining room.  During our cruise, the dressiest night in the dining room required “Cruise Elegant” attire (“shorts, t-shirts, jeans, flip flops, bathing suits, sleeveless shirts for men, sportswear, and baseball hats are not allowed in the dining room”).  I translated that to mean khakis and a polo shirt or button up shirt with no tie should be fine if you don’t mind being surrounded by some folks in tuxes and cocktail dresses.  So far we’ve never been tossed from the dining room for dressing inappropriately.

While on the subject of the dining room, it’s worth mentioning the social opportunities aboard ship.  You can choose to dine with your own family or group at a perfectly sized table, or you can choose to sit at a larger table with random strangers (that soon become friends).  We’ve never opted for the “dining with strangers” program, but for the extroverts it should work well.

With the advent of the internet, you can also meet strangers online (sounds like fun!) before your cruise departure date and then meet up in person once on board the ship.  If you’re interested, check out the “roll call” forums at cruisecritic.com (a great resource in general) or search facebook for the ship name and sail date for the facebook group for your sailing.

For those traveling with kids, you are in luck.  Most cruise lines operate some form of kids club which is basically all day babysitting for ages 2 or 3 up to 17.  These kids clubs are generally free though some cruise lines charge for late night service or on days that you are in port.  Our kids love love love the kids clubs because it’s like summer camp with a bunch of other kids.  The adult staff get paid to entertain kids all day.  What do the kids do?  Arts and crafts, music, video and board games, sports, and sometimes on stage performances in front of the whole ship.  On our Costa cruise a few years ago, the kids club ended each evening with a kids’ disco party in the night club complete with a real DJ, flashing lights, and awkward dancing.

And not only can you ditch your own kids in the kids club, you can also get away from all other kids on board in one of the adults only areas of the ship.  On the Carnival cruise line ships, the adults only area is called “Serenity”.  The adults only swimming pool and hot tubs were serene other than the occasional drunk 22 year old stumbling around.

 

Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview (this post)

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

 

 

Ever been on a cruise?  How did you like it?  If you’ve never been, what kind of preconceptions do you have about cruising?

 

 

The Gear Post: What We Packed For A Seven Week Trip With Kids

For those following our crazy seven week adventure in Mexico, you might be wondering what we packed for our trip.  Here’s the answer!

First a bit of philosophy.  While we were on our trip, we wanted to be nimble and not encumbered by heavy bags.  Large luggage with wheels means checked bags on airlines and the need to flag a taxi if you’re going more than a few blocks.  We chose to pack light and take smaller bags so we could walk a mile or so if necessary without needing to take a taxi.  Light bags mean we can stop at a store and grab something quickly without fumbling with huge luggage.  Packing light also let us hop on and off local buses and subways instead of calling a taxi.  This meant spending $1.30 USD to get to and from the airport in Mexico City, for example, instead of $20+ for a taxi.  It also means we can exit the plane with all our luggage in hand and proceed directly to our destination and not wait 30+ minutes at baggage claim (if the bags ever show up at all!).

Our light packing made us look a little silly at times.  We sometimes get the question “where is your luggage?” because we’re only carrying bookbags for a two month trip.

Another constraint on our gear is our general frugality.  We’re cheapskates, so we don’t like to pay much for anything.  This applies to luggage, tech toys, clothing, foot wear, and all the other stuff we brought with us on the trip.

 

The Luggage

We checked out larger backpacks that are designed for backpacking through the wilderness but often used by those “backpacking” across Europe or Mexico (usually by bus or air).  Two packs we checked out were the 43-liter Kelty and the Osprey Farpoint 40 liter pack.   Then we realized we might not need to buy larger backpacks if we commit to packing light.

We already had a pair of brand new largish book bags we picked up for free back in the days of Office Max giving away free book bags and other goodies via their Maxperks rewards program.  The bookbags’ thick padding on the back and shoulder straps plus good, sturdy stitching and fabric made them worthy candidates for our gear hauling needs.  An added bonus is a laptop sleeve built into the main compartment that fit my 15.6″ Dell laptop perfectly.

After a test run, we determined we could fit all our clothes, tech gear, and footwear into the book bags we already owned.  They are the Ful Sweet Melissa Daypacks.

A casual daypack great for primary school. The Sweet Melissa features two main compartments, organizers, and stash pockets in the backpack

From this description at Amazon, it sounds like we’re traveling the world with an elementary school student’s day pack.  I’ll take that as a compliment to our packing skills and minimalism.

We picked them up on sale for $30 each at OfficeMax a couple years ago (they were free after the Maxperks Rewards).  Seven weeks in, they are holding up well even though I’ve loaded mine to max capacity with 20-25 pounds of gear (once I throw a few bottles of water in them).  They are also fairly light at two pounds in spite of plenty of padding and thick fabric.

For the three year old, we went with a plush monkey bookbag ($8 at Aldi) that was a Christmas present.  He likes it and is usually okay carrying it.  And it makes people smile.

The older girls used old bookbags they used to carry to school every day.  They are generic bookbags ($8 from Toys R Us) and the quality reflects the price.  I had to stitch one of the straps back onto the bag to prevent it from ripping off completely.  Otherwise, the bags are decent – lightweight and comfortable with enough pockets to be useful.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

Yep, packing for seven weeks in bookbags.  52 pounds of luggage for the whole family.

We have two smallish thin lightweight sacks (weighing 1 oz and 4 oz respectively) that we put any overflow into. Good for packing light stuff, maybe some snacks and water, and random crap that won’t fit into our backpacks.

The Ful backpacks are pretty big but easily fit into the airplane overhead bins. They fit in some bus’s overhead compartments and fit underneath the seat fine.

 

Tech Toys

If weight weren’t an issue, we would each carry a full size 15 inch laptop.  They are cheap, offer a large viewing screen and are very versatile.  We can play games, watch movies, edit photos, surf, read, write, research, manage finances, and video chat all with one device.

The downside is the weight.  A standard 15 inch laptop itself weighs about five pounds.  Add in a mouse and the power adapter and it’s closer to six pounds.  As a result, we decided to bring only one full size laptop and rely on tablets and a phone for other computing and entertainment needs.  The 15 inch screen size worked well for watching Netflix movies or TV shows late at night after the kids were in bed.  A little taste of normalcy while on the road, sometimes accompanied by popcorn.

I skipped a laptop case to save on weight (and money) and relied on the laptop sleeve built into my Ful bookbag.  Once in my bookbag, the computer is padded by the plush back lining on one side and my clothes on the other so it’s fairly safe from damage while on the road.

I bought a refurbished Dell 3537 laptop a year ago for well under $300 and it has proven a good choice for our trip.

In the future if we do more extended traveling, I’ll be looking closer at ultrabooks and Chromebooks.  Both of those share one thing in common: they are light weight.  Otherwise they are completely different machines.

Ultrabooks tend to pack quite a bit of computing power into a compact form and usually weigh around three pounds (a two pound savings over run of the mill 15 inch full size laptops).  Prices range from $700-$1,000+ but you get a lot of features even at the lower end.  It’s like a half price Macbook that runs Windows.

Chromebooks go the opposite direction.  They tend to have lower end CPUs, storage, and RAM but come with a price tag of $180-$300 to match the lower specs.  Many come with smaller screens around 12 inches which pushes the weight down to the 2-3 pound range for the smaller devices.  Since chromebooks run on Google’s Chrome OS, I would lose access to some Windows programs and games that I own and that I’m already familiar with.  On the upside, I’m a power user of Google apps and services that tend to be well-integrated with Chrome.

In addition to a laptop, we packed three Amazon Fire HD 7″ tablets so each kid could have their own dedicated device.  These were new purchases for this trip, and we found each tablet for around $60-70 on eBay.  In hindsight, the Fire HD 7 is a great tablet for kids (and Mrs. RoG enjoys playing Call of Atlantis on it, too!).  The Amazon App Store has a ton of free stuff for the kids including books for them to read.

I spent $7 worth of virtual Amazon Coins I acquired somehow on Minecraft Pocket Edition which all the kids installed on their own tablets.  That’s been a big hit with all of them.

The Fire HD 7 is solidly built.  The three year old dropped his tablet (without any protective case) at least 20 times yet it still works flawlessly.  Battery life is okay to great.  Minecraft, for example, chews through the battery in a couple of hours but reading an e-book or surfing the net lets the battery last at least 5-6 hours.

One kid asked to buy an iPad but after seeing the price tag of 5-10x the cost of a Fire HD 7, she quickly decided that the Fire HD 7 was about the same as an iPad without the cost.

If these tablets ever do break, at least they were very inexpensive and won’t be burdensome to replace.  If I wanted a tablet for myself, I’d probably spend a little more and get some form of android tablet like the 8″ Samsung Galaxy Tab 4.  There are a few apps on the Google Play store that aren’t currently available on the Amazon App Store for the Fire HD like Google Drive.

Otherwise, the Fire HD 7 is a nice little tablet for goofing off and surfing the web.  It only weighs about 12 ounces, so it’s great for carrying on the road.

electronic-gadgets-for-mexico-trip

Five devices, five people. 7.5 pounds of computing firepower.

I brought my Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone that I have activated on Freedompop in the States.  The service doesn’t work in Mexico, but it’s a great device to use for offline maps with Google Maps.  That’s been our go to navigation tool in Mexico.  I’ll research places to visit and save them through google maps in my Chrome browser on the PC, then the saved locations automatically show up as little golden stars on my phone’s Map app.  Pretty nifty, Google.  It’s also really easy to select a city you’ll be visiting and save the whole city in an “offline map” so you can view all the streets even if you don’t have cellular data or a wifi connection.

The Galaxy S3’s Battery life is wonderful.  I routinely make it through a whole day of intense navigation and other use and rarely exhaust the battery.  It’s also not a brand new phone so if it’s stolen or I break it, I’m not out $500+.

We brought another phone, the Nokia 1616 dumb phone.  It’s just a few ounces of extra weight and it’s been very handy a few times when we really needed to make a phone call but couldn’t get the phones or internet to work where we were.  We’re on T-mobile’s prepaid plan, and calls in Mexico eat about $1.80 USD per minute.  For an infrequent minute or two, that’s not a bad price since we have a big unused balance on the phone and rarely use it at home.

We unlocked the phone before leaving, so we would have the option of buying a Telcel or Movistar SIM chip for $5-10 USD if we needed to make calls more frequently.  Telcel has a prepaid plan where you can put 20 pesos ($1.30 USD) on the phone and pay under 1 peso per minute (about 6 US cents) with the airtime lasting at least 10 days.  Excellent choice if you need to order a pizza or call a taxi without using your own phone plan’s international rates.

The final tech item in our bag is the Canon A3100 12 megapixel point and shoot digital camera.  It’s not a dSLR so the pictures are just okay.  But it’s compact and weighs very little.  If we were going to upgrade, it would probably be to something like the Canon EOS Rebel T5.  Three times the price and three times the weight of our Canon A3100 point and shoot camera, but probably three times the quality, too.

 

Clothing

For each person, we packed:

  • 4 shirts
  • 4-5 undergarments
  • 4 socks
  • 2 shorts/skirts (no skirts for Mr. RoG)
  • 1 pants (except for Mr. RoG)
  • 1 swimsuit/trunk

This turned out to be plenty of clothes since we had a washer and dryer for 99% of our trip.  The Aloft in Cancun (where we are currently staying) even offers a free washer and dryer though we probably won’t have to use it.

We could have economized by packing half the amount of clothes and doing laundry every 2-3 days instead of every 4 days, but we had enough room so we went crazy and packed a four day clothing supply (with some extras for the three year old).

 

Footwear

I bought a new pair of shoes before our trip because my old ones were falling apart.  Since I didn’t want to have inferior footwear for 7 weeks, I bought what I hoped was a good name brand piece of footwear, the New Balance 750 V2 running shoe (around $30 on sale).  At first, the shoes were a little uncomfortable while breaking them in at home.

While on the road they performed beautifully.  Great on flat pavement, grass, sidewalks, rough trails, rocks, and slippery surfaces.  The only problem I had was walking on the wet, slick, polished cobblestone pavement in San Miguel de Allende since the soles are very flexible and pliable.

I doubt there is a good shoe to handle these streets.

I doubt there is a good shoe to handle these streets.

The shoes themselves are well built with a light foam sole and a grippy but flexible rubber lining on the tread surface.  The toe area is covered with a highly breathable material (great when it’s hot, sucks when it’s freezing out).

I didn’t buy any special socks for my trip and just packed my normal every day socks (the 8 pair for $7 plain white socks from Walmart).  Small mistake.  They are thin and lightweight which is usually a good quality for a sock.  Until it wears through after walking miles and miles.  When this happens at home I toss the socks out.  On the road, I didn’t want to buy socks that don’t match the ones I already own so I tried sewing up the holes without lasting success. My workaround was wearing the socks upside down.  This is a great way to get two times the life out of a sock, but now I have holes in my socks on top of my foot.  Time to get new socks when I get home.

holy-socks

How many MPS (miles per sock) do you usually get? And check out those brand new kid’s shoes after 7 weeks of busting it down dusty Mexican roads and trails.

On our next long term trip, I might invest in some Thorlo socks.  They are supposed to be the gold standard in comfortable and durable footwear.  However they come with a gold plated price tag at roughly $10-13 for a single pair (around 10 times the price of the cheap but less durable socks from Walmart).  The Thorlo socks get excellent reviews at Amazon and I’ve heard strong personal endorsements from many people.  I feel like spending $60 on five pair of socks is crazy, but maybe it’s worth it if I amortize the sock cost over a very long period of time.  Perhaps I’ll compromise and splurge on a brand new $7 bag of Walmart socks right before our next big trip.

 

Miscellaneous gear

We each packed a lightweight rain poncho except Mrs. RoG who packed a compact umbrella.  We’ve used the ponchos once or twice.  The umbrella gets used a lot to protect us from the rain and to provide shade.  The ponchos only weigh 1-4 ounces whereas the umbrella weighs 8 ounces.  We economized on weight by only taking a single umbrella.  This mixed solution worked perfectly and lets one of us run out quickly and easily in the rain without donning the cumbersome poncho.

We carry one hand picked first aid kit with:

  • tylenol and ibuprofen pain meds
  • anti-diarrheal tablets
  • dayquil and nyquil tablets
  • Zyrtec (cetirizine) allergy tablets
  • Benadryl allergy tablets
  • menthol cough drops
  • bandaids
  • tums antacid

So far we have used half the stuff in our med kit.  All of this stuff is available locally in Mexico but we already had it on hand from the $0.88 generic medicine section at our Walmart in Raleigh.  And when you need medicine, you need it bad.  I didn’t want to have to rush out and navigate the streets and stores of Mexico to track down these meds, so I packed a well rounded med kit ahead of time.

The only possible addition would have been a series of cipro antibiotics, but with our high deductible health insurance plan, it would be a very expensive doctor’s visit to get a prescription for “just in case”.  It’s easy enough to pick up while in Mexico by paying $2 USD or so for a consult at the pharmacy or $20-30 USD for a real office visit with a real doctor.  We didn’t need antibiotics, so it worked out in our favor to not get those meds ahead of time in the US.

We brought basic personal hygiene items like a safety razor, floss, toothpaste, toothbrush, and deodorant.  We purchased shampoo and conditioner once we arrived in country since it’s so heavy.

Other random items on our packing list include a sewing kit, fingernail clippers and file, deck of playing cards, small pad, pen, hat, and sunglasses.

Mrs. RoG’s electric hair dryer didn’t make the cut for our final packing list.  It’s probably a pound or two and pretty bulky.  As it turns out, she still had access to a hair dryer for roughly half of the seven week trip.  It was a sacrifice for her but probably a smart move since it would have pushed her into a larger piece of luggage.

The kids couldn’t bring any stuffed animals with them, and the only toy we packed was a small Thomas The Tank Engine for the three year old.  I can’t tell that we’ve inflicted any long-lasting psychological damage by depriving them of thousands of toys like most kids their age have.

That rounds out our packing list.  We tried to split out the loads fairly evenly between the adults and kids based on ability to carry loads.  I carried around 20-25 pounds in my pack, Mrs. RoG carried about 14 pounds, the 8 and 10 year olds each carried around 7-8 pounds, and the three year old carried 3-4 pounds in his monkey bookbag.

 

Closing thoughts on travel gear

Every time I saw someone with huge backpacks or multiple large pieces of luggage, I thought about how we made the right choice in packing light.  No regrets at all.

We knew we would miss some things while we are away from home, but we didn’t miss much of our stuff.  Even though we have thousands of pounds of stuff at home, the 52 pounds of gear that traveled across Mexico with us proved perfectly adequate.

The only specialized purchases with this trip in mind were the three Fire HD 7 tablets.  Everything else we already owned (like bookbags) or needed to buy anyway (like shoes).  I anticipated spending a lot more to gear up for our big trip.  But as it turns out, most of what we already own was “good enough” to get us out the door and all over Mexico.

 

 

If you were limited to just one large bookbag for a seven week trip, what would you put in it?  What item would be hardest to leave at home because it wouldn’t fit? 

 

 

Eating Our Way Across Mexico

Our seven week trip through Mexico is slowly coming to an end.  As we work our way across the country, we are doing our best to sample every menu item possible.  Since we only have seven weeks, we are setting ourselves up for failure given the regional and national diversity of food in Mexico.

The food was a key motivator in our decision to come to Mexico.  It’s good.  Really good.  So good that I eat it all the time at home (mostly cooked in my own kitchen).  In fact, while we were on our summer vacation in Canada last year, I suffered from Mexican food withdrawal in Quebec City.  Here in Mexico we are (obviously) surrounded by Mexican food every day.  And I love it.

I tried to include pics of everything we have eaten so far on our vacation, but I had to cut it off at 29 images so this article doesn’t time out when loading in your browser.

If your eyes are still hungry after reading this article, then check out a few more food pics from our first week in Mexico, our day trip to Guanajuato, and in this article where I question whether we could retire abroad to Mexico.

 

Meaty eats

Who doesn’t love meat?  Vegetarians I suppose.  Meaty goodness forms the core that anchors most Mexican dishes.  The smell of meat on a grill often wafted us in to a restaurant or food stand where we had our fill of carne.

In addition to the meaty treats shown here, we also feasted on roasted chickens, tortas al pastor, empanadas filled with things like tuna, chicken, pork in mole sauce, chilis and cheese, and picadillo (ground beef and veggies in a tomato sauce).

The tlayuda with a fat strip of steak on top.  Quintessential Oaxaca cuisine.  35 pesos;  $2.25 USD.

The tlayuda with a fat strip of steak on top. Quintessential Oaxacan cuisine. It’s basically a medium sized pizza covered in beans, cheese, and avocado.  35 pesos; $2.25 USD.  Enough to feed two hungry children.

 

"Mixed meats" on the lower right including pork ribs, steak, and chicken.  Eggs with chorizo on the lower left.  A vegetable medley of potatoes, onions, and poblano chiles in a garlic butter sauce.  On top, a freshly made tortilla and a tlayudita.  Part of the 40 peso ($2.50 USD) all you can eat buffet.

“Mixed meats” on the lower right including pork ribs, steak, and chicken. Eggs with chorizo on the lower left. A vegetable medley of potatoes, onions, and poblano chiles in a garlic butter sauce. On top, a freshly made tortilla and a tlayudita. Part of the 40 peso ($2.50 USD) all you can eat buffet.

 

alambre

An alambre. Basically an omelet without the egg. Or a Mexican stir fry. Steak, pork, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and bacon covered in melted cheese. Served with a stack of 10 or so tortillas and another onion. 40 pesos or $2.50 USD.

 

memela

The memela, another Oaxacan regional specialty. A thick tortilla covered in pork lard (“aciento”), refried beans, chorizo and cheese. Then smothered in green and red salsas. Incredibly good and cheap at 10 pesos or $0.60 USD. Two or three of these will bust your gut.

 

entomatadas-con-carne

Entomatadas. Corn tortillas drenched in a delicious mild tomato sauce served with a strip of steak on top (steak is Mexico’s bacon – a very common topping). 40 pesos or $2.50 USD.

 

dinner-at-home-in-oaxaca

Leftovers for dinner one night. Clockwise from the top: steak in gravy with potatoes (or was it jicama??) and cactus (“nopales”); chicken in mole sauce; refried beans with panela cheese; lime; bean tamale wrapped in a corn leaf; onions and poblano chiles. In the center, cochinita pibil pork on the left and a meatball on the right.

 

steak-marinated-pork

A small mountain of steak and marinated pork. It comes thin sliced from the grocery store butcher for $2-3 USD per pound, with the pork already marinated in a perfect chili seasoning. You just have to cook it.  Delicious on tortillas or in a sandwich. Or plain. Because it’s meat.

 

yummy-crickets-in-oaxaca

Chapulines. Crickets. Piles of crickets. Do these belong in the “meat” category?

Did I try them? Of course. Twice. I even fed a handful to our 3 year old and he kept asking for more. They are covered in lime and chili powder so you taste that more than the crickets, which I think taste a little like shrimp.

We hired a taxi for a day and had a chance to chat with the driver.  The subject switched to local cuisine and we talked about food in the market.  The taxi driver asked if we tried chapulines (crickets) yet.  I said I had and they were okay, but I didn’t like the crunchy parts left in your mouth after eating them.

I asked him whether he eats crickets.

Of course!  I’m Zapotec and we grow up eating crickets all the time, so it’s just another food.  You really have to put a big handful in a tortilla to get a true taste of them.

I’m not sure I like crickets enough to eat a whole taco full of the little critters.  But I realize it’s just another source of protein like cows or pigs or tofu (just a lot smaller and crunchier).  If you’re used to eating them growing up, I guess there’s nothing weird or disgusting about devouring a big mound of crickets for lunch.

Later on, we observed a family shopping in the market with a few kids around age 4-8.  The little kids couldn’t keep their hands out of the bowls of crickets.  Sample after sample, these little ones were eating all the cricket vendor’s profits, one insect at a time.  At least the parents had the kindness to buy a few bags of chili lime crunchy goodness.  These kids and their insatiable snacking prove that if you grow up eating crickets, there’s nothing weird about it.  Just a fun taste of the local food culture.

 

cochinita-pibil-torta

Cochinita pibil torta with a side of pyramids. Cochinita pibil is Yucatan style marinated roasted pork. We bought a kilo from the grocery store for 90 pesos ($6 USD) and were able to get many meals out of it (on tortas or in tortillas).

When we plan on being away from home for many hours at a time (like the trip to the Monte Alban pyramids in Oaxaca), possibly in areas without a lot of food service options, we’ll often pack a picnic lunch.  Three or four bolillos or torta rolls total $0.20 or $0.30 USD.  Add some meat, maybe some refried beans, cheese, and onions and you have an incredible picnic lunch.  We tried a bunch of the local cookies and pastries and those make great sides on the go.

 

pick-your-own-meat

Walk up to the huge meat displays and pick the cut you want. We tried pork, steak, and chorizo sausage. The tripe didn’t make the cut for our table. They grill it up right in front of you (grill with hood on the right).

 

basket-of-meat

A big basket full of meat. That’s 1 pound of steak, half a pound of marinated pork, and half a pound of chorizo sausage. Tortillas and roasted onions and peppers on the side. Everything at the grilled meat stand is a la carte. The meat totaled 155 pesos ($10 USD), tortillas 10 pesos ($0.60 USD), and grilled veggies 25 pesos ($1.50 USD).

 

Vegging out

I love meat.  Fruits and vegetables are good too.  In addition to the fresh fruits and vegetables shown in the pictures here, we also gorged on mangoes, coconuts, papayas, oranges, bananas, watermelons, and broccoli.  Everything was incredibly fresh and ripe compared to grocery stores in Raleigh and the prices on most fruits and vegetables were 50-75% less than comparable prices at home.

a-la-carte-vegetables-and-sides

The selection of veggies and sides at the grilled meat place. Grilled nopales (cactus), avocados, various salads (including nopal salad), salsas, and radishes. Everything was 15 pesos ($1 USD) except the 5 peso limes ($0.33 USD). Want more? Wave at the veggie lady. Don’t forget to pay the tortilla lady, the veggie lady, and the meat guy at the end of your meal because they are all independent operators.

 

cactus-fruit

What has blood red meat and tastes like a toned down version of a kiwi? No, that’s not a joke about cannibalism in New Zealand. It’s a description of this cactus fruit.

While walking through the open air markets, it’s easy to pick up a fruit or vegetable you’ve never tried, ask “como se llama?” and “cuanto cuesta?” then buy one.  This cactus fruit, which tastes like kiwi and is about the size of a kiwi, was one peso or about 7 US cents.  Perfectly ripe and juicy.

 

rajas-con-queso

Rajas con queso, or alternatively, rajas con crema. Served with a side of rice, beans, and a bag of tortillas. 30 pesos or $2 USD. It’s sliced poblano chiles with corn and onions in a creamy cheese sauce. I could almost be a vegetarian with eats like this.

 

Souping it up

Lots of varieties in soups.

pozole

Pozole with hominy corn, beef, lettuce, onions, and cilantro in a tomato broth.  Pozole is a native food from pre-Columbian times.  30 pesos or $2 USD.

Mmmm pozole.  It used to be made with people meat in the days of human sacrifices. Now beef and pork are much more common.

According to Wikipedia’s article on pozole:

After the Conquest, when cannibalism was banned, pork became the staple meat as it “tasted very similar”, according to a Spanish priest.

 

fish-soup-and-fried-fish

That’s seafood soup on the right. A big chunk of skin on, bone in catfish cooked in a broth of tomatoes and cream. Subtly seasoned. Part of the 60 peso ($4 USD) seafood buffet. It reminds me of the $8 USD she crab soup at a fancy restaurant we used to visit for special occasions.

 

caldo-de-pollo

Caldo de pollo con arroz. Chicken soup with rice and vegetables in a light broth. Served with tortillas. That’s a whole chicken thigh steeping in the broth.  40 pesos or $2.50 USD.

 

caldo-de-piedra

Caldo de piedra. Stone soup. 120 pesos or $8 USD. Large chunk of fish and a half dozen shrimp cooked in a light broth with tomatoes and onions. They take a stone out of the fire pit and drop it in the soup which causes it to boil instantly.  One downside is the rocks apparently split occasionally.  I bit into a small pebble.

The stone soup was just okay, and at $8 USD it was probably the single most expensive food item we bought.  Hey, it’s a novelty to watch the chef cook your soup by throwing a red hot rock in it.  We’re also spoiled by eating crazy awesome soups and broths at home like pho, tom yum soup, and tom yum ramen.  And Mrs. RoG’s mom’s various Thai/Cambodian beef, pork, chicken, and fish soups rich with some combo of garlic, fish sauce, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and Thai basil.

 

At the grocery store

We spend a lot of time at the grocery store.  The Mexican grocery store includes a tortilleria (tortilla shop), a panaderia (bakery), carniceria (butcher), and a cafe or hot foods counter (sometimes called the “soda fountain”).  Sweet sales ladies ply you with free samples of bread, tortillas, salsa, hot dogs, cheese, spreads, peanuts, and other snacks.

It’s a great place to grab a bite or a whole meal.  The prepared foods from the cafes are usually average to good and often less expensive than at a restaurant.

 

moles-in-the-grocery-store

Mole in bulk. Mole isn’t a furry little critter that digs tunnels just below the surface of your lawn. It’s a sauce or paste that is a mix of dozens of different ingredients and comes in a variety of flavors and colors. We bought 20 pesos worth ($1.33 USD) of a spicy mole paste while in San Miguel de Allende and it was more than we could eat during our two week stay.

 

grocery-store-tacos

5 tacos for 36 pesos ($2.25 USD) at the grocery store lunch counter. The meat fillings were cochinita pibil pork, barbacoa pork, and pork carnitas.

Fun story.  We bought two orders of the five taco packs for 36 pesos each.  When the taco lady asked what kind of tacos we wanted, I asked for four cochinita pibil, four barbacoa, and two pork carnitas (because I bought 10 total tacos, right?).  No, that’s not how it works.  After a couple minutes of confusion, I realized she wanted me to give her the order for just five tacos at a time, and then repeat the order when preparing the second tray of tacos.  This was the only time I had a problem ordering tacos in Mexico.

 

Non-traditional Mexican food

Mexico isn’t all steak, beans, tacos, and tamales.  We enjoyed a few dishes that aren’t Mexican food at all but were still delicious.  Sometimes you want comfort food that reminds you of home, especially when you have kids that aren’t as adventurous at the dining table as you are.

In addition to what is shown here, we also cooked rice at home (served with eggs and soy sauce) and visited KFC for fried chicken and french fries.  KFC’s sauces were unique, with jalapeno and pica-pop being two interesting ones.  I also accidentally ordered one set of fried chicken drenched in green chimichurri sauce.  I was the only one that liked the chimichurri chicken.  Lucky me, I got to eat fried chicken leftovers for a couple of meals.

 

chinese-takeout-oaxaca

Chinese take out. Pretty much like what you get in the US. Beef, broccoli, pork, onions, carrots, cabbage, and sweet and sour chicken served on lo mein (aka spaghetti noodles) or rice. 32 pesos ($2 USD) per plate. Egg rolls were 2 for 15 pesos ($1 USD).  This was also about twice as much food as we could eat in one meal.

I had an interesting conversation with the server at the Chinese restaurant.  Her Spanish was just a little worse than mine, but we managed to ask each other where we were from (I think she knew I wasn’t from Oaxaca).

She was from China, which explains the broken Spanish on her end.  I told her the food they serve is very similar to the “Chinese” food we have in Raleigh.  When asked if this was like the food they eat in China, she first said “no”, then “yes”.  Then I explained the question again and she laughed and shook her head “No, of course not!”.

 

pizza-in-oaxaca

I love pizza. This pizza did not disappoint. Pepperoni pizza was 104 pesos for two ($7 USD). The specialty pizzas were “Mexican” and “Party” for 140 pesos ($9 USD) for two. We visited this pizza place on Thursdays to take advantage of their weekly 2 for 1 special.

Almost every pizza place in Mexico has a “two for one” special on certain days of the week (usually Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday).  Some pizza parlors have two for one deals all the time, where the price of two pizzas is just a small fraction more than the price of one pizza.

The Mexican pizza in the picture came with chorizo, jalapenos, onions, sliced tomatoes, and refried beans.

Watch out for non-traditional toppings.  Hot dogs (“salchicha”) and bologna (“salami”) are pretty common toppings and not that great on a pizza in my somewhat expert pizza-eating opinion.

one-dollar-mexican-hamburger

The one dollar burger. At home, I can’t get much more than a thin sliver of beef between two buns at McDonald’s for a buck. The one buck burgers (17 pesos) in Mexico City came stacked with a slice of American cheese, a huge chunk of queso Oaxaca, a slice of ham, toasted sesame buns and mayo, mustard, ketchup, tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos (to your liking).

We bought two burgers to share as a snack.  Then we realized how good they were and bought three more and finished them on the spot.  Embarrassed a bit, I walked back to the burger stand and bought five more.  “To go.  For dinner.  For all my kids over there” I apologized to the burger entrepreneur.

 

Did you save room for dessert?

We usually don’t.  But we made room for a few sweets from time to time.  In addition to what’s in these pics, we also dined on churros, budin (bread pudding), ice cream, flan, malt chocolate milkshakes, freshly ground chocolate paste, cookies, and tejate (a corn meal drink with cinnamon and spices).

panaderia-picks

From the panaderia at the Bodega Aurrera grocery store in Mexico City. With a couple of Indio beers and tequila partially visible in the background.  All the pastries were 4-8 pesos each ($0.25-$0.50 USD).

 

the-sweet-shop

The sweet shop (dulceria) in the market.

 

pasteleria-1

A pasteleria in Mexico City. Huge slices of cake for 12-15 pesos each ($0.80-$1.00 USD). We visited this place a second time. Amazingly good cake.

 

beautiful-cakes

It’s art that you can eat.

 

Now I’m hungry

If you made it this far without stopping for a snack, congratulations.  The food in Mexico is incredibly diverse, delicious, and full of flavor.  And for those with their savings in US dollars, it’s incredibly cheap too.

We never spent more than about $20-25 USD for a sit down meal for a family of five including drinks and tip.  And occasionally we wouldn’t spend more than $3-5 USD on street food where we grab some grub and sit in the park and chow down.  As our trip wraps up, I realize we spent significantly less than our budgeted $40 per day on food.  That’s not for a lack of trying though!

 

 

Which dish do you want to try the most?  Would you try just one cricket?  

 

 

June 2015 Financial Update

June is over which means we are half way through the year already.  After climbing for most of the year, our net worth reversed course and dropped to $1,519,000 due to fluctuations in the stock market.  Our income outpaced our expenses by a few thousand dollars and spending for the year remains within our budget.  I’d say we are doing pretty well in spite of the drop in net worth.

Right now we are at the midpoint of our seven week vacation in Mexico, so our spending is very different than it normally is while at home in Raleigh.

 

Income

June provided us with $4,833 in investment income.  Our dividend income comes at the end of each quarter since we own mutual funds and ETFs.  We also received another few thousand dollars in the first few days of July, but those will be reflected in next month’s financial update.  About $2,500 of our investment income came from our taxable investment accounts.  That represents about one month’s worth of expenses.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart was lower than normal at $463 for the month.  It would have been a lot higher if I was able to cash the checks that are (hopefully) waiting for me at home.  I expect July or August will have phenomenal blog income once I return home and cash all those checks!

Freelance writing income was fairly steady at $125.

Even though Mrs. Root of Good hasn’t worked since early May, her paycheck still shows up each month since she’s on a paid sabbatical.

The $162 of “insurance” income was a refund of my home and auto policies that I cancelled after obtaining new insurance with more coverage at lower premiums.  Now I’m the proud owner of an umbrella policy!  In general, you should be your own insurance company but in this case the extra liability coverage wasn’t very expensive and will protect me from all but the most expensive lawsuits (should the need arise).  When you have significant assets, it makes sense to protect them if the cost of insurance isn’t ridiculous.

june-2015-income

If you’re interested in tracking your income and expenses like I do, then check out Personal Capital (it’s free!).  All of our savings and spending accounts (including checking, money market, and five credit cards) are all linked and updated in real time through Personal Capital.  We have accounts all over the place, and Personal Capital makes it really easy to check on everything at one time.

Personal Capital is also a solid tool for investment management.  Keeping track of our entire investment portfolio takes two clicks.  If you haven’t signed up for the free Personal Capital service, check it out today (review here).

 

Expenses

Now let’s look at June expenses:

june-2015-expenses

At $3,089 for June, we spent slightly more than our target of $2,700 per month (1/12th of our $32,400 per year early retirement budget).  Almost all of our spending was vacation related or insurance.

Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City

Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City before the hike up

Travel expenses of $1,687 made up our highest category of spending for the month.  This breaks down to $1,100 in cash withdrawals from the ATM and spending on the credit card as follows:

  • $130 at grocery stores here in Mexico
  • $400 on bus tickets for the five of us
  • Under $100 on restaurants

The $1,100 in cash wasn’t fully spent in June but I’ll leave it in the June report for the sake of simplicity.  We carried about $600 of the $1,100 cash into July and it should last us the rest of the trip (or close to it).  I haven’t been keeping track of every dollar (or peso) spent in the cash category since I’m more interested in having fun than being an accountant.  It’s roughly 80% restaurants, snacks and produce at the open air markets, 10% museum admissions and fun stuff, and 10% local transportation (taxis, buses, subway).

Some of the fun stuff: $2 USD for admission to the ropes course and zip line.  Wheeee!

Some of the fun stuff: $2 USD for admission to the ropes course and zip line. Wheeee!

I talked about how cheap it is in Mexico in my first week’s trip update and in the post where I considered whether we could retire to Mexico (or at least spend extended periods of time here).  From $0.30 USD metro tickets to $8 museum admission fees (for a family of 5!), it’s a very affordable place to vacation or spend a longer period of time.  With longer stays we can take advantage of the economics of slow travel.

Pyramid with snakes and monsters, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City

Pyramid with snakes and monsters, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

Mayan Temple, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

Mayan Temple, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

So far we aren’t spending as much as I planned in our full trip budget.  I budgeted $8/day for local buses, subways, and taxis and we are closer to $3 or less on most days.  Groceries and restaurants have been less expensive than anticipated probably because we are dining at home more than dining in restaurants (some cooking, some take out).

All other categories of our budgeted trip expenses are cheaper than planned except intercity bus travel.  We’ve already spent the budgeted $800 because we decided to take the two hour flight to Cancun instead of the 26 hour bus ride.  We still have to buy round trip bus tickets from Cancun to Tulum, so we’ll come in a little over budget in this category.

Main courtyard of the National Palace, Mexico City

Main courtyard of the National Palace, Mexico City

Our Raleigh based utilities were only $120 for the month.  I prepaid our water bill and electricity bill in previous months to meet our minimum spending requirement on the Chase United Mileageplus Explorer card and the Chase British Airways card.  Those cards gave us over 100,000 airline miles (= how we fly for free).  Check out all of the current credit card deals if you want to cash in on free travel too!

Grocery expenses back home in Raleigh were under $100 since we were only there for a week.  I’m missing the convenience of a well stocked fridge, freezer, and pantry we usually have at home since we’re only able to buy what we can consume within two weeks (we’re moving to a new city every two weeks).

june-2015-ytd-expenses

At $14,384 year to date spending, we are almost two thousand dollars under the $16,200 budgeted for the first half of 2015.  And that’s in spite of spending seven crazy weeks on vacation in Mexico.  Our spending for the year as a whole should be roughly within our budget and possibly below budget as long as no major unexpected expenses pop up later in the year.

Monthly spending for 2015 to date:

 

Net Worth: $1,519,000 (-$31,000)

This is month #4 above the magical $1.5 million mark but we’re dipping dangerously close to the line after a $31,000 loss in June.  $31,000 used to seem like a lot of money, and I guess it still is since that’s about what we spend each year.  But in the game of watching your investment portfolio fluctuate month to month, it’s just noise.  It goes up some months and it goes down other months in an unpredictable fashion over the short term.

june-2015-net-worth

Last month I said:

[Our portfolio growth] won’t continue in a relatively straight line forever, so perhaps June will be that month that looks like a bump in the road a few years from now (but feels pretty ugly as we experience it in real time).

I guess the loss of a year’s worth of expenses should be troublesome.  But I’m not worried about it yet.  We still have plenty of funds to provide our living expenses for this year, next year and many years afterward.  I don’t think we are likely to run out of money any time soon.

We have been so busy exploring San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Mexico City that I haven’t paid much attention to daily fluctuations in the stock market.  Other than logging in to transfer the thousands of dollars of dividend income to my checking account, I just haven’t had time to dwell on what’s happening each day in the market.  It’s just as well since there will always be some crisis distracting us from the long term approach required to be a successful investor.  Today it’s the Greek financial crisis, tomorrow it will be something else.

 

 

How was your financial June?  

 

 

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Retiring Abroad – Could We Do It?

We are in the middle of our seven week adventure in Mexico right now.  Although we traveled to Mexico just for fun, I’m also viewing the trip as an opportunity to explore a few places where we might spend prolonged periods of time in the future.  That might mean spending a year or more living abroad or spending summers or winters chasing nice weather.

Mexico tends to top the lists of places to retire abroad.  I think I know why: inexpensive living, good weather, and close proximity to the US.  But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns south of the border.

Throughout the decade of building my retirement stash, I was always intrigued by the early retirees that chose to live overseas.  Jeremy and Winnie, who blog at Go Curry Cracker retired in their 30’s and have traveled or lived in various locales in Latin America and Asia since then.  Billy and Akaisha Kaderli also retired in their 30’s and have been traveling the world for the past 25 years.  The maybe-retired Jed at Bucking the Trend is living in Granada, Spain at the moment with his wife and two kids.  The folks at Bumfuzzle, though not likely to self-describe as “early retired”, have trotted the globe by van and by boat for around a decade now (and are currently in Mexico not far from us).  They also had a couple of kids along the way.  Others are doing it, so I know it’s not impossible.

Moving to a low cost of living destination overseas that many people visit on vacation sounds exciting.  It’s not currently our Plan A but might be a decent Plan B or Plan C.

Here’s my take on the pros and cons of retiring abroad:

 

The Pros

Living in Mexico is cheap.  Virtually everything is the same price as in the US or less.  Sometimes much less.  Fruits and vegetables are half the price of what we pay in Raleigh.  There are amazing bakeries all over called “panaderias” that serve up hot and fresh breads and pastries for well under a buck each.  Sit down restaurants run roughly 30-50% less than Raleigh, while incredible street food can be 50-75% less than something similar back home.  Check out our $12 USD lunch of steak tacos, soup, fish, and french fries.

That is way too many french fries for one family to eat.

That is way too many french fries for one family to eat.  In the bags are ketchup, spicy salsa, cilantro and diced onions, sliced onions and peppers, limes, and radishes (free stuff they give you when you order take out).

Beyond the price of food, there’s also the freshness of the fruits and vegetables.  Because the climate allows year round growing seasons, there are lots of somewhat locally grown fresh produce all the time.  Many tropical fruits like mangoes, pineapples, and avocados are hard to find at peak ripeness in Raleigh at any price. But that’s not a problem here where fruit stands are plentiful.

As far as access to US goods, it’s pretty easy to find almost anything you want here.  There are Walmarts, Sam’s Clubs, Costcos, and a variety of other similar warehouse and big box stores offering any grocery product, electronic item, household good, or clothing article you want.  The styles and varieties might be different than what you are used to, but overall it’s not hard to find what you want.

Housing can be cheaper than many parts of the US, though maybe not by much if we were to stay in an expat area or a decent part of Mexico City.  Our current rental apartment of about 700 square feet in Mexico City costs $135,000 USD, similar to our 1,800 square foot house in Raleigh.

Our swank little Mexico City rental.  At nightly airbnb rates it's $350 USD per week furnished including all utilities.

Our swank little Mexico City rental. At nightly airbnb rates it’s $320 USD per week furnished including all utilities.  Monthly rentals would drop the rate quite a bit.

Transportation is about $0.30-0.35 USD (5-6 pesos) for local buses or the subway.  Mostly clean, generally fast, and with a more respectable clientele than what I’ve experienced on public transit in the US.  Taxis are incredibly cheap, with fares starting around $2 USD for a short trip and usually no more than $3-4 for most places around town.  Cheap and convenient buses, subways, and taxis make it easy to skip car ownership, unlike where we live in Raleigh.

Some public areas like parks and playgrounds are very nice but it’s highly variable.

climbing-wall-in-park

Services like housecleaning and repairs are very affordable.  Essentially any labor-intensive service won’t cost a lot compared to US prices.  In Mexico City, 4-5 hours of housekeeping runs about $20 USD (300 pesos).  In San Miguel de Allende, we were asked to pay the maid an extra $2.67 USD (40 pesos) per hour if we have her cook for us or render additional services.

Saving money isn’t the only good thing about Mexico.  The weather is incredible.  This summer the temperatures have been in the 70’s and low 80’s during the day then dipping into the 50’s at night.  Air conditioning isn’t necessary at all at these temps.  Back home in Raleigh it’s been a steady 90-100 degrees almost every day.  Some folks winter in Mexico, but we are tempted to summer in Mexico.  The weather stats I’m throwing out pertain to the central highland area in and around Mexico City.  It’s crazy hot and humid in many coastal locations similar to the southeastern US during summer.

We’re also enjoying the novelty of new parks, museums, food, music, customs, and culture.  A trip to the grocery store or market is an adventure, whereas at home it’s just a chore.  I imagine the novelty would wear off after a certain point though.

 

The Cons

Some costs are higher, such as imported foodstuffs or items that aren’t very common in Mexico.  Spaghetti sauce, for example is $1.50-$2.00 per not very tasty can here (or $3 for a jar of Prego), whereas back home I can get decent pasta sauce for $1.00 per jar or can.  Italian deli meats are crazy expensive and you’re mostly stuck with expensive cooked and pressed ham or uninspired turkey meat if you want sliced meat for a sandwich.  It’s obviously smart to live like the locals when imported goods are expensive.

“Don’t drink the tap water”, they say.  As a result, you have to buy bottled water ($.50 for a small bottle or a few bucks for five gallons) and can’t simply quench your thirst at water fountains scattered around town at parks and in stores and museums.  Brushing teeth and washing produce require extra effort compared to using tap water.

At $2.60 USD (39 pesos), this 750 mL of tequila is cheaper than mouthwash.

At $2.60 USD (39 pesos), this 750 mL of tequila is cheaper than mouthwash.

It’s easy to save money on almost everything down in Mexico, but flying back to the US to visit friends and family would eat into any cost savings (particularly for our family of five).  We could partially offset the flight costs by travel hacking credit cards (which is how we got free flights to Mexico this year!) but I’m not sure if we could get free flights indefinitely through travel hacking.  Eventually the kids would be out of the house and at that point, buying two round trip tickets is much more affordable for the occasional trip back home.

As foreigners not quite fluent in the language, we are occasionally subjected to the “tourist tax”.  Cashiers and shopkeepers sometimes “forget” to give us the correct change.  Taxi drivers know we don’t know exactly what a trip should cost, so we end up paying a little extra.  We have been fairly vigilant about not getting ripped off but it will happen.  No point in getting mad.  It’s just a cost of doing business.  The longer you are here and the more fluency you have in the language, the less likely you are to pay tourist rates for anything.

On the subject of language, it’s a big deal.  Unless you’re staying in an expat area that caters to English-speaking Americans and Canadians, not knowing the local language will make life a lot more difficult.  On the flip side, living here forces you to learn more Spanish since you can’t avoid it.  “Language” could be a positive aspect of life abroad if you are interested in learning the language (which we are).

Culture shock can be challenging.  Clothing choices, for example, vary between the US and Mexico.  No one here wears shorts.  Trash is pretty common on the streets in Mexico, whereas the US does a better job of providing (and emptying) trash receptacles and enforcing litter laws.  Dog poop on the sidewalks is another common sight here, whereas in the US it’s mostly picked up by the dog’s owner.  Otherwise, our societies share a lot of common characteristics given our western European cultural origins.

For long term residents, immigration issues can be an issue.  In Mexico, everyone gets a 180 day tourist visa no questions asked.  Without filing for residency, you’ll have to make a border run every six months to reset the clock on your tourist visa.  I’m not up to date on Mexico’s take on “permanent tourists” that make visa runs every six months, but they might catch on and deny you entry (at least in theory).  And leaving the country every six months could grow tiresome pretty quickly if you just want to relax and enjoy life at home.  Plus it’s not cheap to buy plane tickets for a family of five twice per year (though travel hacking credit cards helps), nor do we enjoy quick weekend trips like making border runs to renew visas since we have young children.

 

The Kids’ Perspective

Since we have three kids between age three and ten, we have to keep them in mind when deciding whether we want to live overseas in retirement.

After three weeks of living in Mexico, the kids have developed a routine.  Plenty of down time, some time at the park, some time on chores (they are the official Root of Good dishwashers!), and some touristy stuff like visiting pyramids and museums.

When I asked the kids what they thought about living in Mexico, they say they don’t want to live here (yet).  The tap water isn’t clean and according to them, “you could die from it”.  I’m not certain you could actually die from ingesting Mexican water, but you can get a stomach ache.

On the upside, the kids realize that their money goes further here in Mexico as measured by ice cream.  Prices range from $0.25 USD for a popsicle up to a buck or two for a large cup or cone of hand made ice cream in tons of different flavors.

pyramid-of-teotihuacan

Our 3 year old keeps asking to go back to the pyramids. Guess he’s a fan!

They are able to keep in touch with family and friends through video chats on Skype and Google Hangouts, so they aren’t socially isolated while we’re on the road.  If we lived here on a more permanent basis, they would eventually make new friends and learn enough of the language to get by.

The final concern with living abroad with kids is schooling.  We could always home school, and incur minimal costs for a curriculum and materials.  If we wanted to go the traditional schooling route, there might be substantial costs for a private school if the public schools near where we live are not adequate (though we are no strangers to less than perfect schools).

A rough estimate of costs for tuition at a private school range from $2,000 to $5,000 USD per year per kid.  If we went the traditional schooling route and wanted an education similar to what we can get in the US, it will be very expensive.  In fact, paying for private education would likely offset any cost of living savings from housing, food, and transportation costs.  Homeschool might be our best option if lowering our cost of living is the primary objective of living in Mexico.

 

Why Retire Abroad?

Why would we want to retire abroad?  Lower cost of living is a prime motivation.  Or phrased a different way, we could stretch our dollars further and live a nicer lifestyle than we can afford in the US on the same budget.

We are able to get by on a retirement budget of about $33,000 per year including a paid off house.  We could rent our house in the US and net $800-900 per month which might be enough to allow us to rent a decent furnished house or apartment in Mexico.  Almost all of our costs would drop, but we would have to use part of our $5,300 vacation budget for visits back to the US.  Food, transportation, and entertainment costs would drop.  Electronics and appliances tend to cost the same or more down here, so we might see an increase in these expense categories.  Overall, I imagine we could live a slightly more luxurious lifestyle on a little less money.

But should we move 2,000 miles away just to save a little money?  That’s the tough part of the equation.  I don’t think it’s necessarily better or worse in Mexico assuming you have adequate funds to live on.   Just different in some aspects.  There’s a vibe here that’s hard to explain.  The parks seem to attract more people having fun.  There’s always a festival or parade or protest going down.  Running errands can be a cultural and language adventure.

So far, we aren’t committed to retiring overseas, but I’m still taking notes on the three cities we are visiting for extended periods of time.  Our next step in pursuing overseas living would be to spend an entire summer in a longer term rental to see how we like it.  Although we miss a few things about home, no one has broken down in tears crying to return to Raleigh just yet.  We’ll see how the next month of travel treats us.

 

 

Could you retire overseas?  What would it take to motivate you to leave your home country and live abroad?

 

 

The Start Of Our Adventures in Mexico

As I’m writing this at our house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the house maid laboriously scrubs all horizontal and vertical surfaces in the kitchen and just finished washing the dishes.  It’s taking some time to get used to having a maid deep clean the house every other day while we lie around the house, stuff our faces and head out for a day of adventuring.

When I say “house”, I should really say “compound”.  There is a main house and a separate apartment above us where the kids sleep.  Each house has its own kitchen, living room, bathroom(s), and patio.

main-patio-casa-turquesa

Main house’s patio

We’ll be staying at this house for two weeks before moving on to Mexico City for another two weeks (full trip outline).  This was our most expensive weekly rental at $62 USD per night plus a few bucks per night to tip the maid.  The maid comes four times per week for four to six hours each visit which seems like overkill to me.  After we arrived we found out that the maid washes the dishes in the kitchen for us on every visit.  Which is awesome.

We decided to spend a little more on lodging during this trip after last year’s bad Airbnb experience when we rented a very cheap but very dirty dump in Quebec City.  When housing is as cheap as it is in Mexico, an extra $100 per week means a lot nicer place.

The house also provides virtually everything we need to get by day to day other than food.  The only household goods purchased so far are laundry detergent, shampoo, and paper towels.

 

The Food.  So Much Incredible Food.

One of the key reasons we wanted to visit Mexico was the food.  It’s cheap, it’s delicious, and offers a lot of variety in flavor combos (sweet, sour, salty, spicy, creamy).

Our first meal in Mexico City was at the Restaurant Without a Name.  That’s not it’s name, I mean it didn’t have a name.  Not a lot more than a hole in the wall.  The bathroom door was an upcycled shower door and the flooring and walls were constructed from reused shipping pallets.  I’m assuming these were cost saving efforts and not an attempt at some silly hipster irony (in spite of the fancy Roma neighborhood we stayed in the first night in Mexico).

The restaurant without a name.

The restaurant without a name.

This joint is straight up Mexico.  Inattentive wait staff with a blaring telenovela on the TV behind us.  I asked the waitress/chef/hostess if I could photograph the kitchen and got declined.  This Restaurant Without A Name might also be a Restaurant Without A Valid Operating License.

Chilaquiles with chicken.  Sort of like a really wet version of nachos.

Chilaquiles with chicken. Sort of like a really wet but delicious version of nachos.

My chilaquiles and tacos were really impressive but the rest of the family gave it mixed reviews.

Now that we have settled in San Miguel de Allende, we are mostly ordering take out and bringing it back to our house to enjoy.  I can’t get over how cheap the food is.  Here’s a pic of the chickens I picked up on the way home from the market.

two-chickens-with-fixings

2 whole chickens neatly wrapped “para llevar” – to go.

$8 USD ($120 MXN pesos) for two roasted chickens, potatoes, roasted chiles, pickled cabbage/carrot/jalapeno, and tortillas.  The chicken was pulled off the rotisserie spit and chopped then neatly wrapped right in front of me as I fumbled to pull the right number of pesos from my pocket.  We didn’t manage to eat all of this in one meal. Or two meals.  Or three meals.  So far we aren’t spending the $40 USD per day that we budgeted on food, but it isn’t because we aren’t eating well.

20 pesos ($1.33 USD) for 5 tacos and a bottle of Coke in the metro station.

20 pesos ($1.33 USD) for 5 tacos and a bottle of Coke in the metro station.

30 pesos ($2 USD) for a huge ripe coconut.  The vendor put the juice in a bag with a straw and after cutting up the coconut meat, placed it in a second bag.

30 pesos ($2 USD) for a huge ripe coconut. The vendor put the juice in a bag with a straw and after cutting up the coconut meat, placed the meat in a second bag.  It was so much coconut we couldn’t eat it all!

We also visited the grocery store Bodega Aurrera which is a subsidiary of Walmart.  It looked like a Sam’s Club inside but didn’t require you to buy anything in bulk.  I picked up some yogurt ($0.16 USD each), local chipotle and avocado salsas ($0.75 USD each), domestic Oaxaca and Asadero cheeses (about $2.50 USD/lb), crema, chorizo sausages, mole paste, and a mixed bag of breads and pastries.

grocery-store-run-mexico

Fresh fruits and vegetables are available from the open air markets, vendors sitting along the street, or in small stores all over.  Prices are crazy cheap.

fresh-fruit-market-san-miguel-de-allende

Mini bananas!!

A sampling of produce prices in the markets:

  • Bananas – $0.21 USD/lb ($7 MXN pesos/kg)
  • Broccoli – $0.30 USD/lb ($10 MXN pesos/kg)
  • Mangoes – $0.36 USD/lb ($12 MXN pesos/kg)
  • Oranges – $0.18 USD/lb ($6 MXN pesos/kg)
  • New potatoes – $0.50 USD/lb ($17 MXN pesos/kg)
  • Avocados – $.75-1.05 USD/lb ($25-35 MXN pesos/kg)
  • Limes – $.30 USD/lb ($10 MXN pesos/kg)

Most produce is less than half of the going price in US supermarkets.  Mangoes are about $0.20 to $0.25 each for example while I’ve never paid less than $0.50 for individual mangoes in Raleigh.  Limes are incredibly cheap with small ones around two cents each.

If you want to see what I usually pay for groceries in Raleigh, check this out.

 

Transportation

Getting around Mexico hasn’t been a problem at all.  We flew into Mexico City then caught the metro to our hotel.  The metro is only five pesos ($0.33 USD) per person and kids age four and under travel free.  The metro can be crushingly busy during rush hours however we arrived in the middle of the day and didn’t feel crowded at all.

We spent the first night in Mexico relaxing at the Four Points by Sheraton Roma (another free hotel night from our Starwoods Preferred Guest points thanks to travel hacking credit cards!).  The next morning we traveled by metro to Mexico City’s northern bus terminal (the city has four bus terminals!) and boarded a first class Primera Plus bus to San Miguel de Allende.

Fresh pastries in the bus station?  Don't mind if I do!   And check out those bookbags that are light enough to allow us to go shopping while carrying all our gear.

Fresh pastries in the bus station? Don’t mind if I do!
And check out those bookbags that are light enough to allow us to go shopping while carrying all our gear.

First class buses in Mexico are roughly the equivalent of business class seats on US airlines.  You get food and drinks for free.  The bus had two bathrooms on board for men and women and both were very clean (yes, I peeked into the women’s room for investigative journalism purposes).  Lots of leg room and soft cushioned seats were a nice upgrade after flying coach on US Air from Charlotte to Mexico City.

Sandwich, cookies and a fruity beverage for lunch.

Sandwich, cookies and a fruity beverage for lunch.

After a very short and punctual boarding and departure process in Mexico City, we arrived in San Miguel de Allende at the exact scheduled arrival time in spite of a long traffic jam in San Miguel de Allende.  After suffering long delays while riding Greyhound in North Carolina to get to Charlotte, we appreciated the on time performance of the first class Mexican buses.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

We didn’t pack a whole lot for this trip since we are moving around every two weeks.  Each person in the family carries one backpack.  The total luggage weight for the whole family is 52 pounds.  That’s an incredible figure since airlines typically allow checked luggage up to 55 pounds (for one suitcase).

Our family has hopped on and off local buses, long distance intercity buses, trains, planes, and subways in the last week.  Packing light helped make it all easier.

 

How are the kids doing?

They are loving it here and having a great time.  However when I ask them if they want to move here they say “no”.  I’ll give it a few more weeks and see what they think.

We are taking it easy and generally go out for a few hours of exploring then head back home for a meal and some down time.  Sometimes we make it back out a second time in the afternoon or evening, even if it’s just a quick shopping trip to the market.  We’re really applying the concept of Slow Travel to make our trip easier and more relaxed.

These kids are troopers!

These kids are troopers!

Our approach is more of living in different spots for two weeks at a time instead of being tourists.  We are still managing to hit most of the cool places on our list, but there’s not any angst over missing out on some of the attractions.  We can always come back in the future if we want to see even more.

The moment we finally arrived at our home for two weeks

The moment we finally arrived at our home for two weeks

 

Checking out San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is a fairly compact city which makes traveling on foot to visit tourist destinations around town very easy.  Buses and taxis are also cheap at $0.33 and $2.50 USD respectively, though we haven’t needed either one yet.

The Parroquia San Miguel Arcangel

The Parroquia San Miguel Arcangel

Inside the church

Inside the church

 

Thoughts on the trip after one week

There was a small part of me that said taking a seven week trip to Mexico with three kids was either crazy or stupid.  One week into the trip, I realize my fears were unnecessary.

Life on the road is occasionally challenging but mostly laid back.  We aren’t following a strict itinerary other than the milestones of moving to a new city and new apartment every two weeks.  We go out exploring, sometimes with very little planned, and usually come back home hours later entertained, amazed, exhausted, and feeling like we earned the relaxation back at the casa.

I wrote about safety in Mexico a couple months ago then forgot to worry about safety until a few days into the trip when I was staring out the window at the placid countryside.  I cracked a smile and realized that some folks back home in the US think all of Mexico is this horrible, dirty, dangerous craphole (outside the disneyfied resorts of Cancun at least).  It’s hard to reconcile that negative image with the reality we see on the ground here.

As we were walking out the door one week ago, I reflected on what I thought we would miss about home.  So far, there isn’t a whole lot I miss since I know we’ll be back in six more weeks.  The lack of air conditioning in our rental isn’t an issue at all since the weather is moderate and fairly dry.  Even though the outside temperature climbs into the mid 80’s every day, the inside temperature hovers comfortably in the 70’s due to the shade trees and heavy thermal mass of concrete and brick walls.  We often go out in the hottest part of the day and the heat isn’t that bad.  If we were at home in Raleigh with temperatures in the mid 90’s and high humidity, we would be housebound nearly every day because those temps just plain suck for doing anything outside.

Overall, this trip is a great way to spend a summer.  Mrs. Root of Good will use up two thirds of her sabbatical during the trip.  The kids will spend two thirds of their summer vacation on the trip.  We can already see an improvement in all of our Spanish skills.  We’re active and outdoors for hours each day seeing new sights and trying new foods.

 

 

Are we having fun yet?  🙂

 

 

What Will We Miss About Home While On The Road

Right now we are rushing to pack the last few items in our backpacks so we can hit the road for our seven week adventure in Mexico.  I’m sure we’ll all have a great time while on the trip, but travel fatigue is also a possibility.

Before we leave, it’s a good time to reflect on how great our lives at home are by thinking about the things we’ll miss the most.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder and you don’t know what you got till it’s gone, as they say.  Even though we don’t spend a lot of money, I recognize by world standards that we live a luxuriously bountiful life that offers everything we need and then some.

Here’s what everyone in the family thinks they will miss over the next seven weeks:

 

Things Mrs. Root of Good and I will miss:

  • Air conditioning. We won’t have this for 6 weeks and high temps will be in the low to mid-80’s (but 55 to 60 at night).
  • Comfort of our own home.  Everything is how we want it and it’s all familiar and easy.
  • Lounging on the back deck.  It’s getting too hot for that most days at home, but should be nice enough for relaxing on the patio or rooftop terraces at our rentals in Mexico.
  • Peace and quiet. There’s a possibility of fireworks, loud cars, and barking dogs since we’ll be staying in town.
  • Family and friends.  Skype videochatting will help.
  • Babysitters.  We won’t have our family to babysit whenever we need it.
  • Conveniences like our car.  We’ll have to think a little more about where we are going and which bus or subway line to take.
  • Grocery stores that we are familiar with.  However, visiting foreign grocery stores is a cool part of the culture, so learning what they have for sale and how they are organized is part of the fun, too.
  • English being the default language. It’s easy and natural and we don’t have to think.  After a while you Just. Want. To. Speak. English.  But the Spanish immersion will help all of us grow our foreign language proficiency.
  • Waking up every day with nothing to do.  Hey, the routine of early retired life is pretty awesome!  We hope to mix in lots of relaxation with sightseeing so we don’t get burned out too early in the trip.
  • A well stocked fridge, freezer, and pantry.  It’s nice to have a variety of cuts of meat at your fingertips plus a selection of canned goods, dry goods, fresh fruits and vegetables to complement the main dish.  In Mexico, we’ll be shopping for a day or two at a time since we’ll be carrying the groceries back home on foot.
  • A diverse spice rack and sauce selection (curries, pastes, seasonings, etc).  When we cook while on the road, we’ll have to economize on the seasonings and make substitutions at times so we aren’t buying a ton of ingredients for a single dish.  We won’t be able to haul a lot of stuff to the next rental.  Sometimes simple is good though.
Training for the Mexico trip: backpacking the 1.8 miles to Grandma's house.

Traveling on foot or by public transit means thinking ahead.

 

Things our ten year old daughter will miss:

  • Knowing where things are around the neighborhood and around town.  Although she might learn where things are since we are staying in one place for two weeks at a time
  • Knowing where things are around the house.  The unfamiliarity of new apartments or hotel rooms will be a challenge.
  • Friends.  But she knows we may be able to skype with them.
  • All the normal types of food like candy, pizza, and ice cream.  But she is excited to try the versions of these foods available in Mexico and other new dishes.
  • Our cat. In spite of having to feed her daily.
  • Speaking lots of English.  Time to practice Spanish!
  • Air conditioning
  • Riding in our own cars
  • TV.  She has a tablet and should be able to watch Netflix on the road
  • Laying on a soft couch relaxing.  Our apartment and house rentals have nice sofas!

It sounds like our ten year old has a good grasp on the challenges of life on the road.  And her list has a lot of overlap with our list.

 

Things our eight year old daughter will miss:

  • Her toy unicorn named Wishful.
  • Her long pants. We’re making her pack shorts due to the heat.

Nothing else, she says.  She is a girl of few words.

 

Three year old son:

  • His tablet

He was playing on it at the time of the interview.  And proceeded to play on it during the ten seconds he paid attention to me.  I told him we were taking it with us and he said “I can play on it on the buses”.  Smart kid.

 

Leaving home

To summarize, the adults and the ten year old will miss a lot.  The eight year old and the three year old won’t miss much at all (so they say!).  We’ll see what happens once we’re on the road.

The plan is to put out travel updates once per week.  So keep in touch with us throughout the trip via Facebook, Twitter, or by email or RSS reader (in the column to the right).

Hasta la vista!

 

 

What would you miss most about home if you were gone for two months?

 

 

photo credit: Russ Bowling @ flickr

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