Category Archives: Travel

Going on a Cruise Part 1 – Overview

Pool deck on the cruise

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

All of our gear for seven weeks in Mexico.

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

tacos-al-pastor

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

diego-rivera-mural-national-palace

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?

mexico-city-cathedral

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

fruits-from-market

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

departing-for-mexico

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

Safety and Security in Mexico

straw-umbrella-mexico

Mexico – the land of kidnappings, drug gangs, shoot outs in the streets, massive criminal organizations in armed conflict with the corrupt police.  That type of sensationalism works well if you want to sell newspapers or get clicks on a “news” website.  The reality is that most of the country is very peaceful.  However, the states bordering the US tend to have the most security issues along with a few other areas of the country.

I took a look at the US Department of State Travel Advisory on Mexico and checked out each state we might visit on our trip.  The result?  All states we intend to visit have no listed security concerns except the Estado de Mexico.

US Department of State Travel Advisory for Mexico 
States we will visit:Advisory:
Guanajuato (Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende)No Advisory
Queretaro (Queretaro)No Advisory
Federal District (Mexico City)No Advisory
Estado de Mexico (Teotihuacan pyramids)Exercise caution
Puebla (Puebla)No Advisory
Oaxaca (Oaxaca)No Advisory
Tabasco (Villahermosa)No Advisory
Campeche (Campeche)No Advisory
Yucatan (Merida, Progreso, Chichen Itza)No Advisory
Quintana Roo (Cancun)No Advisory
Just passing through:
VeracruzExercise caution

Since we only plan on being in the Estado de Mexico to visit the Teotihuacan pyramids for the day and that area isn’t listed as dangerous in the travel advisory, our overall risk on the trip is low.  We will be passing through the state of Veracruz on a major highway while heading east toward Cancun, but don’t plan to stop.  I’m not trying to downplay the potential for violence in Mexico, but rather hope to present a realistic picture of the security situation.  Some areas present elevated risk of violence, other areas are okay.  We’re sticking to the okay areas.

I like to put things in perspective.  It isn’t as if we live in a risk free world.  Right here at home in Raleigh, the headlines show continuous episodes of gun violence, murder, robberies, gang activity and similar horrible things all the time.  At the time of writing this post, the headlines reveal two separate violent murders in the area (the first incident left several others severely injured from the shootout).  To phrase it in a more objective sense: 1,199,998 area residents were NOT murdered in the last week while two were.  99.99983% of us survived.  In Mexico, 122 million people are fine while several tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands are not over the course of a year.

From an international perspective, the USA is also dangerous, according to this travel advisory from the British government:

Violent crime, including gun crime, rarely involves tourists, but you should take care when travelling in unfamiliar areas. Crime associated with the illegal drugs trade is a major issue in Mexican states bordering Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Some foreign nationals have been among the victims of crime in the border regions, but there is no evidence to suggest they have been targeted because of their nationality. Research your destination before travelling, be vigilant, and follow the advice of local authorities.

What if this advisory said “exercise caution in the state of Michigan due to severe gang related violence in regions of Detroit”?  We would think it ridiculous. That’s the way I view travel advisories in Mexico – avoid the specific dangerous cities or regions mentioned in the advisories and use caution everywhere just like you’re at home.  But don’t skip visiting the country at all (whether it’s the US or Mexico) just because some areas have elevated risks.

Some general precautions go a long way like maintaining a low profile.  Leave the thick gold necklaces, sparkly diamond rings, and other flashy bling at home.  We are fortunate to not own any of that stuff (which is how we can afford to spend seven weeks in Mexico), so we are good on that front.  Don’t pull out wads of $100 US bills when trying to buy tacos from a street vendor.  Avoid pickpockets and petty theft by using money belts or keeping your real wallet hidden, only carrying what you need for the day, and having back up credit cards in another location.

 

Actual real safety concerns in Mexico

What concerns me the most?  Food poisoning, water born pathogens from contaminated drinking water or fresh fruits and vegetables, and motor vehicle accidents where we might be the pedestrian victims.  Roughly in that order.

There’s a good chance someone will get sick at some point while we’re in Mexico, and for that there are antibiotics, rest, hydration, and doctors.  To avoid catching a bug in the first place, we can skip really dodgy street vendors.  But food-born pathogens don’t always discriminate based on appearance or status of the restaurant.  If it’s a busy establishment, that’s usually a good sign that the restaurant hasn’t killed it’s local fan base and the food turns over quickly enough to avoid spoilage.

Water quality is highly variable across the country and even between one hotel, apartment, or restaurant and the one next door.  We’ll stick to bottled water for drinking unless it’s patently obvious that the tap water is safe (like filtered water in a nice hotel).  Lucky for us, bottled water is cheap and ubiquitous (and often ice cold).

While we’re walking around, we’ll have to keep our eyes open and hold hands with the three year old while crossing busy streets.  We walk along our fairly busy streets at home so all of the kids (and adults) are accustomed to avoiding errant drivers and crossing the street carefully.  Practice makes perfect?

 

Are we crazy?

No, just adventurous.  Nothing in life is risk free.  It all comes down to assessing the risks and ensuring you avoid or mitigate any risks you can.  Being an objective educated risk taker is a good strategy in life generally and applies to traveling overseas just as much as it does to choosing a long term investment strategy, where to live, or what to do for a living.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with this gem from Go Curry Cracker about his friend’s visit to Guatemala.  They will kill you for your shoes!  And this other one: Gunshots! Or is it just fireworks?

 

Other posts on Mexico at Root of Good:

Trip Summary

Cost of Seven Weeks in Mexico

 

 

What do you think?  Are we crazy?

 

 

The Cost of Seven Weeks in Mexico (And How to Minimize it)

mexican-palm-tree

What does a seven week trip through Mexico cost?  For us, it’s just over $1,000 per week.  The budget comes to $7,668 for all lodging, food, transportation, entertainment, and miscellaneous expenses.

Travel budget for 7 weeks in Mexico for a family of 5 
Lodging Total3,000
5 weeks apartment rental ($500/wk)2500
1 week free hotels (26k SPG points)0
1 week hotels ($71/nt)500
Food Total ($40/day)1,960
breakfast ($4/day)196
lunch ($12/day)588
dinner ($18/day)882
treats ($6/day incl. beer)294
Transportation Total1,679
airfare (+ 100k frequent flyer miles)408
bus (Raleigh to Charlotte)79
intercity buses in Mexico (1,600 miles at $0.50/mi)800
local buses and taxis ($8/day)392
Entertainment and Attractions ($15/day)735
Miscellaneous ($6/day; laundry, doctor, toiletries, etc)294
Grand Total for 7 weeks in Mexico$7,668
Savings from not living in Raleigh for 7 weeks-1750
Net Vacation Cost ($121/day)$5,918

 

We plan on staying in apartments rented by the week for most of the trip.  Two great resources for this are vrbo.com and airbnb.com (with Airbnb offering $25 off your reservation by clicking through that link).

Since there are five of us, a two bedroom apartment or house rental provides tons of space for us to spread out.  Hotel rooms can get cramped with three kids, so we will stay in hotels when we are only staying in one place for a few nights or less.

The weekly rentals might end up cheaper than the hotels.  For planning purposes, I’m assuming we pay $500 per week and can’t find any places that will offer discounts for stays longer than one week.

I have $40 per day budgeted for food.  Breakfast, at $4/day will mostly be something we eat at home.  Fresh fruits like mango, bananas, and oranges are incredibly cheap and plentiful in Mexico and will be a breakfast staple.  Delicious breads and pastries are also ridiculously cheap from the panaderias (bakeries).  Eggs and yogurt are also good breakfast options.

We’ll probably eat lunch out most days since we’ll already be away from the house.  At $12/day on average, this should afford a healthy serving of tacos, tortas, and other simple meals.  We will spend more at sit down restaurants occasionally, but also spend less from time to time by dining at home or packing a picnic.

Mexican food from our cruise to Mexico.  I can't wait for the real deal.

Mexican food from our cruise to Mexico. I can’t wait for the real deal.

At $18/day for dinner, we can get some good fresh meats and veggies from the market or grocery store and eat well at home perhaps half the time.  We might spend $28 on dinner at a restaurant one night then $8 on groceries for dinner the next night, and end up with $18/day on average for dinners.  Or maybe we blow the budget and dine out all the time if the food is unbelievable.

For transportation expenses, we booked flights using frequent flyer miles and ended up paying $408 for taxes and fees. The local and intercity buses in Mexico are cheap as are the taxis.  Hopefully we can walk to some destinations, but we’ll still need to take a bus or taxi occasionally to get around town (for $8/day).  Buses are about $0.40-.50 per person and taxis are a few bucks for short trips.

Intercity buses are very affordable.  For the 280 mile route from Mexico City to Oaxaca (the same distance as Boston to Philadelphia or Los Angeles to Las Vegas), first class deluxe service is $37.  And the Mexican buses are really nice.  Children ride at half off adult fares, so our family of five can make the roughly seven hour bus journey for $130 (with the potential for discounts when buying tickets online).  For planning purposes, I assumed a rough cost of $0.50 per mile for our family of five for intercity bus travel (or $.15/mile for someone traveling alone).  The route through Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, and Cancun is roughly 1,600 miles which leads to an approximate cost of $800 for all of the intercity bus travel.

To put bus costs in perspective, flights from Mexico City to Oaxaca would cost around $400 if we happened to fly on the cheapest day and reserve tickets weeks ahead of time.  We can save $270 by taking the bus and only spend a few extra hours, drink in views of the countryside, and enjoy the luxury of the first class bus instead of the cramped second class economy seats aboard a plane.  We might be able to fly from Oaxaca to Cancun for just a little bit more than the price of bus tickets, so this may be an option although we would miss seeing large parts of Mexico.

For entertainment costs, I threw $15/day into the budget.  That will be museum admission fees (usually a couple dollars for adults, less for children), movie tickets, and throwing a few pesos into street performer’s upturned hats.

Miscellanous costs of $6/day include things like laundry, toiletries, and the rare doctor visit.

 

Save money by going on vacation?

Will the trip really cost us $7,668?  No.

Since we won’t be living our normal lives in Raleigh, we’ll be saving about $1,000 per month out of our $2,700 monthly early retirement budget.  What costs are we skipping at home?

  • Utilities (likely to be paid by housesitter) – $280/mo
  • Groceries – $520/mo
  • Dining Out – $80/mo
  • Entertainment – $80/mo
  • Gas – $40/mo

For 7 weeks, that adds up to $1,750 in normal living expenses that can be subtracted from the cost of our trip, leaving us with a net cost of $5,918.  This is actually more than the $5,350 we planned to spend on travel in 2015, and we already spent $325 earlier in the year on a cruise.

Two thoughts come to mind.  The first is that we can afford it.  Check out our February 2015 financial update.  Our investments keep growing and we can afford to live it up a bit during these times of plenty.  The other thought is that we won’t be taking trips like this every year.  Or will we?  The plan is to cut back on spending when our investments drop below a certain point.

 

Travel Hacking

Flights to Mexico City from Raleigh were about $600 per person and flights to Cancun were $400 per person.  We spent 100,000 frequent flyer miles plus $400 for taxes and fees for five tickets to Mexico City and returning from Cancun, which means we saved about $2,100 versus paying cash for five tickets (taking the average of the two ticket prices).

I learned that it’s pretty tricky to book five tickets on the same flight for some frequent flyer programs.  United had the best availability going to Mexico, but I found an even better deal with American Airlines on the way down.  Using British Airways Avios points to book the American Airlines flight, I only spent 10,000 points per ticket for a non-stop flight out of Charlotte.  Sure, we have to get to Charlotte, but we’ll also land in Mexico City at noon instead of flying on crazy routes with long layovers using other frequent flyer programs.

For the return trip, I couldn’t find anything to Raleigh or Charlotte in late July on any of the programs I belong to.  Except one flight with really crappy routing on United for 17,500 points per ticket.  When I returned to United the next day to book the tickets, they were gone.  My choices at that point were to fly back home out of Guatemala City or Cancun.  Cancun had the best redemption option on Southwest at 10,000 points and excellent routing through BWI on the way to Raleigh for a total flight time of only six hours.  Sold.

For us, having a diversity of frequent flyer accounts made it much easier to find flights that fit our schedule (as long as we remained flexible on the location of the airports).  With points at United, American, Southwest, and British Airways we have four chances to find good routes with short layovers and low point cost.  By booking through Southwest, we even saved about $70 on fees compared to the other airlines’ “free” tickets.

For our free hotels, I’m using Starwood Preferred Guest points.  There are a few Category 2 hotels in Mexico that are very nice and don’t cost many points.  We will probably book the Four Points by Sheraton in Mexico City and the Aloft in Cancun.  Each hotel is 3,000 points per night on weekends and 4,000 points during the week.  Or 26,000 points for a week.  The standard offer for the Starwood Preferred Guest Amex card is usually 25,000 SPG points plus another 5,000 from meeting the spending requirement.  That means one credit card bonus is good for a week of free hotel stays!

Here’s a quick summary of the cards we signed up for to get enough points for our trip:

  • Chase British Airways Visa – currently 50,000 points bonus offer
  • Southwest card by Chase – 25,000 points bonus offer (sometimes as high as 50,000)
  • Starwood American Express – 25,000 bonus points offer (sometimes as high as 30,000)

Whether it’s hotel points or airline miles you seek, it certainly helps stretch the travel dollar.  Check out some of the airline or hotel credit card offers if you would like to get free flights or hotel nights too.  It won’t take long to accumulate enough points to travel the world for free, even if you have a family like us.

 

Handling travel expenses while on vacation

We will use a combo of credit cards and cash withdrawn from an ATM (= cheap way to get local currency).  To keep track of spending and make sure we aren’t going crazy, all transactions automatically go into Personal Capital (review here).

I’ll use our Chase Sapphire card or another card with no foreign transaction fees to avoid a 3% surcharge on every purchase.

Cash is king in the markets and for street vendors, so we’ll have to keep plenty on hand for small purchases.  Larger purchases like intercity bus tickets and sit down restaurant meals can be charged on the credit card (to earn more points toward our next vacation!).

On our trip to Canada, we managed to spend significantly less than we budgeted ($77/day instead of $125/day) and there is a chance the same thing will happen on this trip.  Mexico offers a lot of opportunities to get by on a shoestring budget, although that isn’t our goal this time around.

 

Other Mexico trip posts:

Trip Overview

How we plan to stay safe 

 

 

Any money saving tips for Mexico (or in general) that I’m missing?  

 

 

Summer In Mexico: The Next Big Adventure

costa-maya-mexico

The plane tickets are booked. In early June the Root of Good family packs up and hits the road for a summer in Mexico.  Just another crazy thing you can do when early retired.

We’ll be chasing the kids up and down pyramids and mountains, into the crystal clear water, and then relaxing in the shade until the smell of grilling meats lures us to the explosive colors of the local markets.

 

Logistics

The adventure begins when we fly into Mexico City in early June.  We depart on a non-stop flight from Charlotte instead of Raleigh, so we are taking an afternoon Greyhound bus halfway across North Carolina the day before.  It’ll be boot camp for all the buses we plan on taking between cities in Mexico.  Except the Mexican buses are ten times nicer than the Greyhound buses here in the US.

mexico-summer-2015-route-map

The plan is to spend a week and a half in Mexico City, then head north to San Miguel de Allende for a couple of weeks.  After that, we head south to Oaxaca for another couple of weeks.  Once departing Oaxaca, the route blurs a bit.  The final destination is Cancun, with possible stops in Villahermosa, Campeche, and Merida for a night or two each.  This is all subject to change if we find a compelling reason to stay in some places more or less than planned (nicer accommodations or more local attractions are two reasons).

In the next post I reveal our trip budget for just over $1,000 per week.  And reveal how we saved thousands of dollars on this trip from travel hacking flights and hotels with credit card bonus offers.

Gear

Since we’ll be gone for almost two months and hopping on and off buses, planes and taxis throughout our journey, I need to evaluate our luggage needs.  We have a range of wheeled suitcases that could work but it would be a huge chore to carry these things more than a block or two.  We already have two small backpacks that can double as suitcases for the two older children and we can use them for daypacks while we’re out exploring each day.

I’m looking at travel backpacks for me and Mrs. Root of Good so we can carry our stuff more easily on this trip and similar trips in the future.  The Mad Fientist shared his backpack choices in his globe-trotting multi-month trip summary, so that’s probably a good place to start the search.  He went with a 43-liter Kelty while his wife went with the Osprey Farpoint 40 liter pack.  I haven’t bought a travel pack like this since I was a teenager so I guess I need to go to a sporting goods store or outdoors outfitter to try a few types on before committing to anything.

For portable electronics, I have a couple of old smartphones and my current Samsung Galaxy S3.  I don’t think any of them work on overseas wireless networks, but we can use them for offline navigating via Google Maps or the Maps.Me app.  We also have a T-Mobile prepaid phone with hundreds of minutes on it that might work in Mexico in a pinch.  To our surprise, it worked perfectly in Canada (although at high international rates that chewed up the minutes pretty fast). Do we want to carry the extra few ounces of weight for an emergency phone?

We have two 15″ laptops that weigh between 4.75 and 5 pounds.  I’m debating between taking one or taking two with us.  Since there will be five of us, it would be nice to have two “full size” entertainment and productivity devices.  But do we really want to carry an extra five pounds of electronics in order to have a full size second device?

A better solution for the second (and possibly third) entertainment device is a 6-7″ tablet like the Amazon Fire HD 7 in the $100-150 range.   I like to read, so I might also go for a 6″ tablet for me or a dedicated e-reader like the Kindle (for $79).  I don’t really want to load up on special purpose electronics that won’t get much use at home, but cutting down on the weight will be nice.  Although I might fall back on good old paperback books since I really enjoy the analog experience.  I don’t think second hand or new English language books will be that hard to come by, and there might even be books at the apartments we will rent or at community libraries.

In an ideal world, I’d like to take a really sharp kitchen knife with me.  Since the friendly TSA agents typically frown on things like that in carry on luggage, I’ll probably skip it.  Another food-related gadget that I would love is a multi-purpose tool or pocketknife for those times when you really want to cut up some fresh fruit from the market while on the go.  Mmmm mangos mmmmm.

Concerns

We’re traveling with three kids including a three year old.  Many of the concerns revolve around the kids and how they will deal with the sometimes adverse conditions on the road.

For the kids, I’m concerned about whining, picky eaters, heat, and mosquitoes.  Any one or two of those in isolation isn’t that bad.  Three or four, taken together, can turn a fun trip into a not so fun one.  I don’t like the heat and mosquitoes that much either, so we plan on spending more time in regions that have nice weather and less time in the hot and humid locales.  If it is hot and buggy, air conditioned hotel rooms and bug spray will become very important.

tired-kids-mexico

Their first taste of Mexico. It was hot.

I addressed the security concerns of traveling in Mexico in this post.  People think Mexico equals gang warfare, kidnappings and severe violence spilling blood in the streets.  That’s about the exact opposite of what most of the country is like most of the time.  Getting sick from drinking the water or food poisoning is a concern (also addressed in a future post).

Exhaustion is another concern, so we’ll be taking slow travel to heart.  While on our five week road trip to Canada last year, we all decided we had enough fun for one summer half way through the trip and returned home early.  The two year old will be three this year, making the trip much easier for us.  But will we make it?  Stay tuned to find out!

 

Why?

Top goals of the trip are relaxation, good food, and adventure.  Oaxaca has been on my radar for a while since some consider it the food mecca of Mexico.  I have to visit to verify the accuracy of that claim one huarache stand at a time.  We like to cook at home, and I hope to learn a few new tricks while eating my way across Mexico.

San Miguel de Allende (SMA) gets good press as a cool little expat town with good weather.  Unfortunately we are visiting during the hottest time of the year, but it’s still very moderate compared to our North Carolina summers.  I want to investigate SMA to see just how relaxing it is there.  Jeremy and Winnie at Go Curry Cracker had a great time in their $1,000 per month three bedroom house, and we hope to find a similarly nice place for our two week stay.

We chose Cancun as the final destination on the trip because I couldn’t find a return flight from anywhere closer to Mexico City (other than Guatemala City).  I booked tickets using frequent flyer miles and had a hard time finding return flights home for the five of us in July, so we compromised on location instead of trip length.  I’ve always wanted to visit the Yucatan peninsula (for more than a day like on our cruise to Mexico last year), and this was an easy way to make it happen while saving money and frequent flyer points.  Having the time to be flexible paid off big time in this case.

Fifteen years ago Mrs. Root of Good and I spent six weeks traveling around the northern and central parts of Mexico on a shoestring budget ($700 each for six weeks).  This time, we are returning with more money and more kids for round two of our Mexican adventures.

 

 

What’s the longest trip you’ve ever taken?  Was it too short or too long?

 

 

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