Before moving anywhere permanently for our retirement, my husband and I have decided that we must visit all the places we are considering at least once. Once we decide on a short list, we will return to those places. The last thing we want to do is move somewhere and hate it!
Right now, those places, in no particular order, include: Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Roatan, and Belize. Traveling to these places in a short amount of time (less than 7 years!), requires finding unique and cheap ways to visit each country. Traveling to our potential future retirement cities and staying in them for less than it costs to spend a weekend away in the US is our goal.
We did just that with our first retirement destination. Destination #1 was Belize, where we spent 4 days and 3 nights in Ambergris Caye. We kept this vacation affordable at under $800 total, including flight, lodging, diving, and food for the weekend.
See the Ginger’s 6 steps below to see how we did this:
Step #1 Use free or deeply discounted airfare
My husband and I have been loyal Southwest flyers for most of our adult lives. In my husband’s current job, he travels a decent amount for work, and when he can, he flies Southwest. Southwest flies to most of the locations where he is needed for work, so this has allowed him to accumulate a large number of Southwest Rapid Rewards points over the years. Rapid Rewards points are the Southwest currency that is used in place of dollars to buy plane tickets.
Keeping our Rapid Rewards points up by not only religiously flying Southwest, but by using the Southwest credit card has become a way of life. Purchases made on the Southwest credit card are converted into Rapid Rewards points, so every charge on his card converts to more Rapid Rewards points. The great thing about Rapid Rewards points is that flying isn’t necessary for accumulating points. A lot of our points come from using the credit card.
For those who haven’t flown Southwest, the airline has open seating. A-list allows the A-list traveler to board the plane first and choose the best seat. My husband has this perk so he always boards early. Boarding first allows him to snag a seat early and save a neighboring one for me.
Companion Pass is by far Southwest’s best perk. It allows the holder of the Companion Pass to select a companion to fly with them for free. That means, the holder only has to buy one ticket and then the companion’s is free. This is available on any flight on any day. There are no black out dates. Companion Pass allows me to travel for free anytime my husband is flying on the same flight. So, in this case, when he bought a ticket to Belize, he simply listed me as his companion and I flew to Belize for free.
Normally, tickets to Belize would have cost in excessive of $300 US Dollars per person. However, we used Rapid Rewards points, instead of cash to purchase our flight. The Rapid Rewards points needed for a round trip ticket to Belize from Denver equaled 28,285 points. Using our Companion pass and Rapid Rewards points allowed us to fly these two whole flights at a cost of only $70 per ticket. The $70 is comprised of mandatory fees charged for entry and security fees. So our total price for round-trip tickets to Belize was $140.
Step #2 Discount Lodging
My husband is not only a loyal Southwest flyer, but also a loyal Starwood hotel guest during his business travels. So, although my husband and I tend to stick to Starwood properties (e.g., Sheraton, Westin, Four Points) for most of our travels, this wasn’t possible in Belize for a couple of reasons. First off, there are no Starwood properties in the country and second, Sheratons don’t tend to be the cheapest hotels. So to keep our costs low, we searched AirBnB and found an apartment with 5 star ratings for $59 per night. Situated just 3 blocks from the beach and just one block off the main road, our AirBnB property, Chez Caribe Sundancer, was in a prime location. Adding in taxes, this came to just under $220 US Dollars for three nights.
FUTURE TIP: Allowing for accumulated points to be applied to AirBnB nights is a perk of the American Express card. I didn’t realize this when booking this AirBnB stay, but in the future, I will be applying my American Express points to future AirBnB stays.
Step #3 Free Activities
Just because something doesn’t cost money, doesn’t mean it’s not amazing and unique. Scuba diving, which does cost money, wasn’t the only activity we planned to do. Exploring the beaches of the ocean and lagoon, meeting people in the street, watching kids play soccer, experiencing Lobster Fest (the annual celebration of the start of lobster trapping season), and lounging in beachside hammocks were all on our list of things to do. We wanted to experience the city and the atmosphere like we were living there. Living as a local doesn’t mean spending each night out on the town dropping tons of cash. Instead it means sitting back and enjoying the same day to day experiences the locals experience.
Step #4 The Art of Haggling
Step #5 Local Hot Spots
Asking where the locals where to go is a great way to save money. I asked both our AirBnB host and dive instructor where they recommended to go and get a cheap drink, good food, and hang with the locals. Local restaurants tend to have lower prices than tourist areas, simply because locals usually won’t pay what tourists do.
We were told there were three main streets in Ambergris Caye: the front road, the middle road, and the back road. The back road, furthest from the sea was known as “the local street.” We were told to head there to find deals on food. It’s here we found the little pupusa joint called Waruguma. Eating pupusas was a first for us. Pupusas are a traditional Salvadorian street food. Pupusas are made of different types of meats or vegetables stuffed between bread. The pupusa bread was thick like a pancake but had the taste of a tortilla. My favorites were the potato and cheese or the lobster pupusa. A whole pupusa dinner costs $7 US Dollars.
In order to keep prices down, we also went grocery shopping at the local grocery store. There we bought breakfast foods and pasta to make in our Airbnb. Eating out only happened twice on our trip. Once at the pupusa restaurant and another time at the Palapa Bar. I did also snack on a lobster tail smothered in curry during lobster fest…..so good! Total costs for food and drink for the weekend cost less than $150 US Dollars.
Step #6 Travel off Peak
Knowing when an area’s off-peak season is helps in planning when to go. Many resorts and excursion/tour companies will offer discounted rates during off-peak. The same goes for airlines. Resorts, airlines, and excursion companies all want full planes, rooms, and buses. The easiest way to do that is by slashing prices.
Belize’s off-peak season is summer. Most North Americans tend to visit Central America during our winter from November through April. June is the start of hurricane season. However, it’s unusual for the big hurricanes to hit the Caribbean in June or July. They usually save the big ones for August through October. Weather in June in Belize was warm and calm. Slight Caribbean breezes, only scattered showers, and no threats of impending floods or hurricanes. Traveling to Belize during off-peak season was great because no where was crowded.
Round-trip Flights for 2 people= $68 Total
Lodging for 3 nights=$220 ($59/night)
Scuba Diving for 2 days for 2 people (minus advanced certification) = $320
Food and Drink= $150
Grand Total: $758