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

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?  

 

 

28 comments

  • Sounds like you have everything mapped out fairly well. Out of curiosity, how did you come up with your food budget estimate? Have you been there before, or are you making your best educated guess? Just curious.

    Sounds like fun! I love traveling to Mexico and observing the cultural differences between our two countries. Sometimes, the differences are pretty big.

    • The food budget is a somewhat educated guess. I know we’ll be eating out some and eating at the apartment some. For 6 weeks, we’re staying in apartments in relatively low cost areas (as in “Not Cancun”).

      We have been to Mexico before for 2 summers (the “real” Mexico, not Cancun), so have a general feel for prices (or what they were 15 years ago) and how easy it is to eat on the cheap. I also searched around to find current prices, and it looks to be about like I remember 15 years ago plus some inflation. If we eat in the markets or local restaurants, it’s still possible to get a pile of food for $10-15. Mix that in with cooking at the apartment some (to use local ingredients like mole in Oaxaca!) plus the occasional “nice restaurant” meal and the average price I posted in this article is about what I think we’ll spend.

      Some of our apartments also have cleaning ladies that double as cooks (for a small additional fee). I’m definitely interested in seeing what that small additional fee might be, since this could be an awesome way to get an ad hoc cooking class in our own home for $10-20 or so.

      However, the food budget is area of spending where I’m least confident in my estimate. Not because I don’t think it’s realistic, but because we might spend more just because we find awesome restaurants we want to try and don’t mind spending the money.

      • Justin, get those cleaning ladies to point you to local grocery stores. You’re going to find your money will stretch even further going there. Just go with an open mind as far as the actual foodstuffs you might buy. (It’s different down there.)

        Like I said before, walking down the side streets in search of good but cheap eateries is something that always worked out for me. If you are apprehensive about safety, do this for lunch — when there is light and it is safer.

        But I think you’ve done the most important thing already. And that is arranging to stay at homes and apartments instead of hotels. Hey! You are going to have refrigerators, stove tops and ovens. You are all set!

        • We definitely plan on hitting up the markets and stores and cooking on our own (assuming it’ll save money over buying take out or partially prepared meals). I actually looked at the location of places in relation to markets (the open air markets, not supermarkets). They tend to have ridiculously good and cheap food (cooked meals and ingredients). I’d also like to give the in-house cooks a shot at a meal or two, and maybe pick up some techniques while I’m at it. Some people pay good money for cooking schools, and this might be an even better way to accomplish the same thing (depending on how willing they are to have us meddle in the kitchen while they’re cooking).

  • Awesome update. Travel isn’t my thing in FIRE (although I took my dad to Hawaii shortly after I retired). But you appear to be doing it right. I need to look into Chase Sapphire card.

  • Great thought out budget. I’m sure you’ll eat out less than you budget since a full day of activities with the kids may point to more dinners at your apartment rentals. As for your housesitter, are you trying to Airbnb your home residence during the trip or do you already have a housesitter lined up?

    • I factored eating out less for dinner into the budget, but figure dinners out might tend to be nicer and more expensive than lunches out. So the dinner budget will probably be more of $5-10 for cooking dinner at home mixed with $15-20 meals and some $30+ meals.

      And yes, I’m expecting to be exhausted at the end of the day if we’re touring around and sightseeing all day. 🙂 Luckily, they have this thing called the “siesta” that I hope to try out occasionally.

  • Nice! Well planned and with a very reasonable budget for a large family, especially for that duration of time on the road. You guys will have a blast for sure.

    We are usually good at general planning before we go (and have a rough idea of what we want to do and where we want to go), but we tend to go on the fly once we start a trip. Still seem to be able to manage the finances and have a great time along the way.

    Thanks of the insightful post!

    • We didn’t book anything ahead of time on our last long term trip in Mexico (15 years ago). I had the names of a few hotels in each city that was on our list, but that was it. It worked out perfectly fine, but there was one city (Jalapa, Mexico) where we showed up and found some festival or convention was in town and there weren’t any hotel rooms. Luckily, we found a pretty good room at a hotel that had a recent cancellation and it worked out in the end. We also slept on a park bench for an hour while we waited for a hotel room to open up in another city (overnight bus = arriving at 7 am still tired but all the rooms were booked and not cleaned yet).

      Kids add a little more complexity to the trip. Since we’re planning so far out, we get choice picks on apartment rentals that might be booked up at the last minute. We’re also missing out on potential cost savings by booking last minute. Some folks offer steep discounts just to avoid a vacancy. But finding accommodations for 5 (including a 3 year old) is a little trickier than for 2!

  • How did you work out that your housesitter is going to pay the utilities? In our experiences, we’ve always covered that for our housesitters, because we pay these bills online. Are they paying for just electricity, or covering other bills like internet and such?

    • Hey Sarah!

      He’s family and really enjoys the space of our house since he’s living at his parents’ house that’s crowded (a house smaller than our relatively modest house and has 9-10 people living there plus visitors during the day). I haven’t actually discussed the utilities yet with him, but we’ll probably come to some agreement. We’ll physically pay the utilities and leave them in our name, but maybe ask for $250-300 or whatever (perhaps leaving the electricity open ended because it can be $150 if with reasonable use or $250+ if you aren’t careful).

      I figure if he wasn’t staying here, we could disconnect the internet and water and turn off the gas hot water hear and set the thermostat really high to use minimal electricity. Maybe save $200/mo. We would have to pay $50/mo for lawn care and for someone to feed the outdoor cat (or re-home it while we’re gone). So maybe we ask for $150-200/mo? We’ll see.

  • Well done sir! It looks like you made a vacation for about $5k that would be about a week for most people! I agree that having multiple travel point balances is a big help. I keep a lot in my Chase Ultimate Rewards account to add some flexibility with Southwest, etc.

    • Yeah, it’s crazy when people ask how we do trips like these for little money, and my first thought is “uhh, it’s pretty simple”. I forget that so many are accustomed to booking package deals and paying for upgrades and convenience. A week at a not particularly nice all-inclusive in Cancun would be about what we’re spending for the whole 7 week trip.

      Keeping points in Chase Ultimate rewards is a great idea that I’m really starting to appreciate now. I luckily had 8000 pts in there, just enough to transfer a few thousand to get me what I needed in my United account for 5 one way tickets. Although by the time I got the pts transferred to United the next day, the tickets I wanted to book were gone (so we booked on Southwest instead). That chase UR point balance adds a little flexibility if you’re close to having enough points but not quite.

  • This sounds like a great vacation and value. I would probably blow the dining out budget, just because I love Mexican food and well dining out.

    Have fun!

    • If we blow the dining out budget, I won’t be sad at all. Very very full, but not sad. So far, it looks like we’ll be saving a lot on lodging compared to our $500/wk budget, so those funds can be “reallocated” to eating all kinds of good food. And I just found out they have groupon in Mexico city.

  • Looks like you got everything covered my man!
    Enjoy your trip and don’t worry TOO much about the expenses. Like you said – you can afford it.

    You’ve definitely done well with managing your money up to this point to be able to retire early and afford to go on a trip. So enjoy it to the fullest.

    Tomorrow is not promised to anyone, so do all the things you want to do and can AFFORD to do without worrying too much about the expense.
    You’ll treasure these memories and moments with your family much more in your senior years than you will treasure “how much money you saved”

    Know what I mean!

    p.s
    Is there any room in your budget to add 1 more person? I don’t eat much, and I can sleep on a floor(so no extra lodging costs)
    LOL!

  • Looks amazing, I’m jealous as usual. I really enjoyed Oaxaca when we were there back in 2008.

  • I love the extensive planning you have done with this. Travel hacking is something I have wanted to try, but haven’t gotten around to yet. Apparently, I need to pick up some pointers along the way. Sounds like a great trip. Me encanta Mexico.

    • This post is sort of the 10,000 ft view of what our trip will cost. I just wanted to know was it going to be closer to $5k or $15k or what, since we budget just under $6k/yr.

      Since writing this post, we switched it up a little and bought plane tickets from Mexico City to Cancun. The price is almost the same as bus tickets, so not a lot of change to the budget. But after digging into bus options from Oaxaca to Cancun, I realized that we would probably be on 2 overnight buses and for closer to a combined 26 hours instead of 18-20 like I guessed based on google maps directions. As it turns out, the bus route follows the main roads and not some winding road through the mountains that happens to be the shortest path.

      The good news is that our apartment rentals are all coming in under our $500/wk budget which I set based on a quick look at airbnb and vrbo type places. So we’ll probably end up well under budget barring a 7 week fancy dining gluttonous binge across the country or some hidden costs I’m completely overlooking.

      As far as travel hacking, I’ve always focused on accumulating the points first, then figuring out how to use them best. In this case, it was “hey let’s go to Mexico or somewhere” and then struggling to find dates that worked, fit our schedule, didn’t use too many points, and got us near the places we wanted to visit. From there it’s easier to drill down and get specific between cash for hotels, hotel points, apartment rentals, etc.

  • Sounds like you’ve got a great plan here! And now I’m hungry for Mexican food at 7:30am… :). We also use the credit card/ATM withdrawal technique for foreign currency, it’s definitely the best deal. I like that you deducted the amount you’ll save by not being home–I always love having the realization when we travel that we’re not spending money on groceries, etc at home.

    • The whole “not spending money at home” analysis is part of my intentional lifestyle design efforts. I’ve thought about perma-travel some day (maybe with kids, maybe post-kids). Even with our low overhead costs at home, I think we could permatravel for about the same amount of money (assuming we ditched the primary residence or rented it out).

  • Sounds like a really fun trip. I loved my trips to Mexico. Prices of food really depends where you are. If you’re in a tourist area, the prices are not much cheaper from the US. But I’m sure there are lots of cheap options if you go where the locals are. Seven weeks is a long time, should be a blast, have fun!

    • We’re staying in residential neighborhoods in rental houses or apartments for 6 out of 7 weeks, so we’ll be living somewhat like the locals (though eating out more!). I expect prices to be about half what they are in the US for restaurants, and the same or way less for groceries. Produce is one thing that seems to be really cheap down there.

  • Right on Root of Good, I spent 3 weeks in mexico 8 or so years ago, and you should easily be able to eat on the budget you lay out. Mexico is a great frugal travel location if you’re going to non-resort locales, and there is so much native culture (e.g., pyrimids) to check out. One thing I like about your frugal travel approach is the transportation. Insisting on using rental cars can really blow a travel budget, especially for a trip this long. Since I don’t own a car in “real life,” I do like to sometimes get a rental car on vacation, but I wouldn’t get one for any trip longer than one week. Good luck with the trip!

    • I’m feeling good about the food budget. I think it’ll be easily doable while letting us sample all the awesomely delicious variety all over the country. We’ll have full kitchens most of the time, but I don’t know if we’ll cook a lot because dining out is so cheap.

  • Hey ROG,

    Thx for the detailed insight of your 7 weeks travel plan. Mexico is a great country. We have been there some 10 years ago. Beautifull scenery, good food, excellent historical sites. We also used the local busses for transport. First class is not that expensive and indeed better than second class plain. We juster Once a night bus, saving a hotel night as well and arriving really early at an historical site, way ahead of the tourist busses coming from cancun. We had the park almost for ourselves…! try to include that into your pan, it is worth it.

    Just this morning I was talking to my wife on doing extensive travel with our kids once they are up for it. At age (almost) 3 and 5, I feel they are too young to travel a lot. Most of the time would be spend in playgrounds and not in exploring the local life: food, way of living, history, scenery. Therefore, we tend for now to keep holidays local.

    As from what age do you take the kids along on such a travels?

    Amber Tree

    • We’re definitely planning on 1st class buses. We might go for the luxury class if the schedules work out and it isn’t a lot more money. We decided to skip the overnight buses though because it could be pretty hard with the 3 year old if he decides he doesn’t want to sleep.

      As for the perfect age to travel with kids, I would say 3 is probably the minimum in my opinion if you expect to do much sightseeing. We probably averaged 2-3 hours per day with a 2 year old last year (plus a 7 and 9 year old) while we visited Canada. A little disappointing when you drive thousands of miles to see new places, but not completely surprising either. The 7 and 9 year old didn’t always appreciate the awesomeness of what we were seeing.

      At age 3, kids are able to walk maybe a mile or two at a time if you get them accustomed to walking. This means getting lodging near public transit and relying on it is much more feasible and doesn’t require a stroller, kid carrier backpack, taxis, or rental car. By 3 they are pretty good at communicating why they are crying and not just screaming generically. Makes troubleshooting issues a little easier with an error code that explains what’s wrong.

      We’ll still end up on playgrounds a lot I’m sure, but also able to get hopefully a full morning and part of an afternoon of playing tourist. And we’ll mix that in with some do nothing days probably, where we focus more on the swimming pool, playground, relaxing fun stuff, wandering around the neighborhood, etc. With 7 weeks I hope we have plenty of down time to relax which is key when you’re vacationing with kids.

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