Travel: Planning a Trip to Costa Rica

Travel: Planning a Trip to Costa Rica

All my friends know me to be a "deal queen". 👑💰 That's because I have a talent for finding the best deals. Not just cheap prices, but luxury for less. So I'll try to teach you some of my tricks. 

My husband Cam and I wanted to go on a trip abroad for Thanksgiving. Initially, we were looking at Puerto Rico and Miami because we didn't want to travel very far. But eventually we landed on Costa Rica, which while it is further, turned out to be the cheaper and more luxurious option. I'll show you why. 👍🏽👍🏽👍🏽

This may seem basic, but I've noticed a lot of people don't know how, or don't take the time, to do comparison shopping. 🤔 It takes more effort, and it takes some repetition, but it will undoubtedly save you money.

For travel, I always start with the Kayak app and check flight prices. Flights are always cheapest mid-week and when you book far in advance. Booking in advance is the best way to save money on travel. By booking more than two months out from a trip you can save hundreds of dollars in airfare and lodging. I also know that the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the most heavily traveled day of the year, so I have us return in the middle of the following week.

I like to look at Trip Advisor to understand activities and look at photos of the different places; the reviews are also excellent and help with researching areas I don't know much about.

Option 1: San Juan, Puerto Rico

First, I did a Kayak flight search to see how much flights would cost. ✈️ This showed a round-trip flight price per person of $350.  At that price, with plane transfers, the trip would take 9 to 12 hours each way.

TIP: On Kayak, it's always helpful to use the filters for travel time, number of connections, and takeoff time. For example, I don't like to do more than one connection for a longer trip, I don't like to fly out before 10am, and I make sure my connections don't require more than an hour of waiting (sometimes Kayak will set up a connection with more than 5 hours of waiting in an airport even when there are better options available).

Second, I did a Kayak hotel search to see how much hotels would cost. I also googled what part of San Juan was the most gay friendly, and I found that Condado was the place to be. Hotels in the Condado area where around $200 per night.

TIP: Try sorting hotels by different filters: price (limit the highest price), stars (filter out lower-rated options), location (neighborhoods). Also use the map view to look only at hotels in the exact area you are interested in.

Puerto Rico has a lot of great reasons for tourism: amazing beaches, great weather, delicious food, and soulful music. The Old San Juan area has lots of history and Spanish colonial architecture. And there's a reason I married a Puerto Rican man. 💅🏽💅🏽💅🏽

 Condado Beach, Puerto Rico

Condado Beach, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is on the dollar, which means that everything has American prices. 💵 That means it's not a particularly cheap place to vacation.  Food, clubbing, and visiting attractions would all need to be budgeted.

I also researched activities on the island. Though there is lots to do, the activities are pretty spread out, so I would need a car rental.  

TIP: Check hotel parking fees and resort fees. A lot of hotels will charge you $30/day if you park a car or a $30/day resort fee that you can't opt out of. 💸

Option 2: Miami Beach, Miami

Again I do flight searches and hotel searches. The flights are $400 with 7 to 9 hours of travel time. But the hotels in South Beach are anywhere from $200-$600 per night. That's way too pricey.  Even when I sort by price the decent hotels are pretty expensive, and it also seems like the rooms are fairly small. 

Miami isn't a cheap place either. It's a cosmopolitan city where some of Latin America's most wealthy go to luxuriate. So we would need to budget for daily spending on food, nightlife and shopping. 💎

Miami for vacation is all about the beach, so if we can't get a hotel walkable right to South Beach, we will need to rent a car or will spend lots paying for Ubers back and forth. So perhaps for this trip, South Beach won't be affordable. 🏖 😭

TIP: Read through reviews for hotels and focus on what people who left negative reviews were mad about. Were they upset about their bill? (That might have been their fault). Or were they upset about cleanliness or noise? (These can be big issues.) If you see a common theme appearing in negative reviews, consider it.

Option 3: Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Running the searches for flights and hotels for Costa Rica show that even though Costa Rica is farther away, flights are only $10 more than San Juan. And the travel time is about the same. The hotels are about $200 per night, so the same as San Juan. That's enticing. 

 Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio

I knew of Manuel Antonio from the time I lived in Costa Rica during college. I was volunteering for nonprofit in San Jose, and I would take weekend trips with the other volunteers to different parts of Costa Rica. Manuel Antonio always stood out as a place I wanted to go back to because it has a large gay population, gay friendly bars, a nature reserve, beautiful beaches, and lots of fresh fruit to eat. It's a tropical paradise. 🌈🏝

The beaches are often empty, meaning it's easy to meditate, breathe, and enjoy solitude. At times, it can feel like a private island that no one else has yet discovered. Iguanas stroll along the shore, monkeys hoot in the trees, toucans fly branch to branch, and sloths move lazily. 🐒🐠🐬 There are fresh mangos and papayas growing everywhere, and there's nothing wrong with grabbing one and taking a bite. 🍑🍊🍌 The water is warm, so it's easy to spend hours swimming or floating.

TIP: Exchange rates aren't the only thing you need to focus on with travel. For example, at the time of writing 1 US Dollar is equal to 105 Japanese Yen, but that doesn't mean that everything in Japan is cheap. No, that doesn't mean that you can buy something that would be $100 in the US, and it would be $1 in Japan. You'd be surprised but many people would think that having an exchange rate like that would mean the US Dollar would go very far. In fact, Japan is one of the most expensive places in the world, and prices are set so that hotels are actually more expensive in cities like Tokyo. "Cheap prices" are about how much you can buy for an amount of money. So, you have to research the cost of basic items in the local economy. For example, how much does the average meal at a restaurant cost? You can Google that for most places.

The currency in Costa Rica is colones, and the conversion rate has always been very good with American dollars; in addition, food and activities are very inexpensive. A meal at a restaurant costs $4-$7. The hotels also have shuttles to the beach, and since it's a small beach town, everything is walkable. Being out of the city, we are also more likely to fully relax on our trip. When you compare the surroundings, the comfort of the larger hotels, and the cheaper prices once you get there, Costa Rica was the obvious choice. 😌😌😌

 Gaia Hotel & Reserve

Gaia Hotel & Reserve

We selected the Gaia Hotel and Reserve. I know the owner, so that was an extra perk. It's a true five-star hotel. It has infinity pools, a spa, views of the jungle and ocean, and it's a gay owned hotel with an LGBT clientele. 

 Gaia Hotel & Reserve

Gaia Hotel & Reserve

The only remaining cost is getting from the San Jose airport to Manuel Antonio. Some googling shows that there are buses and shuttles services for transport. I checked the bus schedule (which is the cheapest option - about $20) and checked the flight landing and departure times for our potential air travel. The buses don't look like a good option for arrival because the last ones depart before our flight would arrive. So I researched a shuttle company and asked for prices for two people, one-way and round trip; this way, if it's possible to take the bus back instead of the shuttle we may end up saving a lot of money. The price was $150 one-way and $290 round-trip. So if we can get to the airport in time by bus on the way out, it will end up saving us $130.

Summary: Costa Rica for Thanksgiving 2016

Doing research is the best way to save lots of money on travel. Compare flight prices, travel times, and local prices to decide on the most optimal experience for your money. It's also possible to look at hostels in these different places, because many of them have clean and comfortable low-cost lodging as well. My best advice: don't get too attached to any particular itinerary or destination before you've done all the research, and consider multiple options from the start.

We're so excited for our trip to Costa Rica in the Fall. For the same price as going on vacation in the US, we're able to stay at a five-star resort in a tropical paradise. More for less. Looking forward to posting about Costa Rica again after our trip! 😍😍😍