How to Make a Travel Budget

How to Make a Travel Budget

When I left for Mexico years ago, all I had was a few thousand dollars, a desire to learn Spanish, and a vague dream to live and work in a country other than the United States. However, I had no specific strategy for implementation. I needed a plan.

My plan came in the form of a budget, a travel timeline of six months, and an end goal of steady income in Mexico.  My idea was to start in Mexico City, and head south through the country until an eventual arrival in Xela, Guatemala, a place renowned for its glut of language schools.  My itinerary was flexible, though it was the formation of a budget beforehand that allowed me to maximize my time in Mexico, and turn my vague dream into a definite reality.

Pre-Trip Costs

First, consider pre-trip costs, such as the flight to your destination. Depending on where you are going, this can be anywhere from $100 to $1000 USD. Save accordingly.
Consider additional pre-trip costs: visas, travel insurance, immunizations, a decent bag. This can set you back another $200-400. For Mexico, a tourist visa is given upon arrival ($20) and is valid for six months. To renew, you just need to cross the border out of Mexico, either into the U.S. or a Central American country.

Setting Your Budget

Your budget is determined by the kind of traveling you will be doing. Will you be staying in hostels or nice hotels? Do you prefer private cars or public transport? Do you pay top dollar for western cuisine or do you thrive on local food? In Mexico, I lived well on $35 a day. I rented private accommodations, used public transport, ate local fare, and took frequent day trips.

What to do in Chiapas - Palenque
Palenque, Chiapas

Below are cost estimates based on different styles of travel for destinations such as Mexico, South America, and North Africa. To see cost approximations for other countries, check out the crowd-sourced figures from Numbeo.com or BudgetYourTrip.com.

  • Budget (hostels, local food, day trips): $35/day
  • Mid-range (private rooms, western meals, frequent activities): $50/day
  • Luxury (nice hotels, lavish meals, private transport): $100/day

Regardless of lifestyle, building a travel budget is the same—begin with the number of days you would like to travel, then multiply that number by your daily cost estimate. For example, say you want to travel for six months, or you want a six-month financial cushion while you acclimate, travel, and network on your way to find steady work. Based on the estimates above, a six-month financial cushion for a “budget” lifestyle is $5400, “mid-range” is $9000, and “luxury” is $18,000. However, if needed, there are several ways you can reduce these numbers. That’s where I come in.  Below I offer a budget plan and savings tips for Oaxaca, though this advice can be applied to almost anywhere with a similar cost of living.

Cutting Costs – Accomodation

Accommodation can add up, especially if you value privacy. Shared rooms go for $10-25 a night and private rooms can be twice that much. If you pay $25 a night, you will be spending over $750 a month on accommodation alone. A great way to reduce this cost is to rent a room in one location and stay for a while.

Staying in one location allows you to use your “home” as a jumping off point for day trips and comes with the added benefit of community involvement. You are able to immerse yourself in the local culture, meet your neighbors, and glean information

Whenever I visited a new town, I would stay in a hostel while I scoured community boards in coffee shops and other tourist havens—oftentimes, there are plenty of advertisements for rooms to rent. In Oaxaca, especially, there were three coffee shops with endless information: Café Brujala, Café Nuevo Mundo, and Lobo Azul Tostadores.

Using those community boards allowed me to find a room in Oaxaca for $150 a month, including utilities.  This apartment was a twenty-minute walk from the city center, and while it was sparsely furnished, it was in a safe area, with a rooftop terrace, and all the amenities (i.e. bed, kitchen, bathroom, internet) I would need.

How to set a travel budget
My home in Oaxaca

By living in my Oaxaca apartment for two months, I was able to keep my spending to a minimum with a daily budget of $35. My private accommodation was $5 a day and I did the majority of my eating at home, buying fresh fruit and vegetables from the nearby ferias and mercados.  Local food is cost-friendly and is also an essential part of the authentic gastronomical experience.  However, I wasn’t overly strict—once or twice a week, I would eat out with locals, expats, or other travelers I had met.  Three meals a day, including superfluous drinks and treats, cost roughly $10-$15 a day.

Food and accommodation was half my daily budget, and the rest was free to spend how I pleased. The remaining $15-$20 a day went to Spanish lessons, special events, and trips (Hierve el Agua, Mitla, Monte Albán, Mazunte, San José del Pacífico, etc), or I saved what I didn’t spend.  In this way, one could live and travel comfortably through Oaxaca and beyond for six months—without working—for $5400.

However, I lived in Mexico for six months starting with only $3000.  How did I do it? Hostel Work and Volunteering.

Additional Ways to Save

Hostel Work

Aside from reducing daily expenses, another way to save is to work in a hostel.  Many hire travelers for reception, cleaning, or bartending in exchange for free accommodation and/or a stipend.  Websites such as Hostel Jobs and Hostel Management lets you find work before you go.  I secured a job in charming San Cristobal de Las Casas at the Iguana Hostel for two months, saved money on accommodation, earned $400, and had a fun and unique experience.

travel in Mexico
Iguana Hostel

Volunteer

Those two months at the Iguana Hostel allowed me to find other opportunities in San Cristobal—volunteer work.  For one month, I volunteered with La Casa del Pan, an organic restaurant located on one of the main tourist drags in San Cristobal.  My compensation was free accommodation and two meals in exchange for six hours of light farm work, five days a week.

Traveling through ChiapasHomestays

At the end of my time in San Cristobal, I rented scooters with some friends I had met while working in the hostel and we traveled through Chiapas.  After a couple days, we ended up at the border of Guatemala, where we parted ways. I headed towards Xela and they returned to San Cristobal.

In Xela, Guatemala, I ended up at the Spanish Language School, El Portal  where they set me up with a home-stay with a Guatemalan family.  A week’s worth of four hours of one-on-one language instruction a day, plus accommodation and three meals a day was around $150.  It was a great way to save money and learn Spanish.  I stayed for one month, dramatically advanced my Spanish, and was able to frequently travel the area (Lago Atitlan, Salcajá, Fuentes Georginas, San Andres de Xecul, Los Vahos, etc) all for less than $1000.

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Fulfilling the Dream

My financial plan played a huge role in my success in Mexico.  By utilizing a daily travel budget, I was able to live comfortably for six months with limited funds while I explored Mexico and Guatemala.  At the end of that period, I had made contacts from all over the country and found steady work in Mexico City– first as a private English teacher, then as a copywriter for a pineapple company, which in the end, launched my current career in freelance writing.

The rest, as they say, is budgeted history.

Have Smartphone, will travel.

Have Smartphone, will travel.

When I traveled before the world of smartphones, I would either a) not use a phone, or b) use an old Nokia with a country-specific SIM card.  Now, I am reveling in the glories that are smartphones: The access! The simulated feeling of safety and knowledge! Google!

If you want to travel but perhaps have some trepidation about maneuvering public transportation in foreign countries, finding decent places to stay, or don’t have a lot of extra cash to blow, this article is for you.  I specifically focus budget travel in Mexico, complete with a review on all the modern-day amenities that come with using a smartphones—connections to Uber, AirBnB, and even 4G data if you want it.

International Cell Service

I am a Verizon customer, and for my short-term trip to Mexico, I utilized Verizon’s International Plan.  For US customers traveling to Mexico or Canada, this plan is great.  For $2/day (in addition to your normal rate), you have access to the same amount of texts, minutes, and data in your destination country as you do at home.  However, if you’re headed to Europe or Asia, the cost jumps up to $10/day, so depending on your needs, you may be better off using your cell phone just as a camera or as a connection to wifi.  For example, when I was in Morocco, I did just that. I kept my cell phone on Airplane Mode and used it just for photos and as a timepiece.  When I was in my hotel or a cafe, I turned on the wifi and used it to check email or browse the internet.  If you must have a cell phone, there are always solutions.

I know AT&T has a pay-per-use and Passport Plan, and T-Mobile offers international travel rates as well.  Check with your cell phone service provider to see what they offer and what works best with your plans.

Uber

Uber and other such ride-sharing companies exist almost everywhere (except where I reside for some reason).  While I was waiting in the Mexico City Airport, I began talking with the people around me, and each person raved about how wonderful Uber was in the city, how easy, how inexpensive! I decided to go with a normal taxi first and download Uber later.

The taxi ride from the airport to my centrally located AirBnb was 200 pesos, which isn’t much considering the 19:1 exchange rate at the time.  However, if I had taken Uber instead, I would’ve  paid less than 100 pesos—half the price I paid using a taxi.  Take a look at the price breakdown below.  All in all, I only used a taxi twice (the second time was because I had no cell service in the TAPO bus station).  All other times I used Uber, the Metro, or walked.

Uber Costs Mexico
Uber vs. Taxi

Besides the monetary savings with the use of Uber, I appreciated the added aspects of safety and convenience.  Years ago, when I was living and traveling  in Mexico, I felt safe the majority of the time, but I did have a few instances where taxi drivers attempted to impose their will onto mine.  I want to stress that in my two years of traveling alone, I took hundreds of taxis and this only happened a few times—it is not the norm.  That being said, with Uber, both the driver’s information and mine is stored in the system.  There’s a record of where I was, when I got picked up, and where I was going. If that doesn’t give you peace of mind, I don’t know what will.

And, as mentioned, the convenience is great.  While metered taxis will charge by distance and time, there are some taxis with which you have to agree upon a price.  If you know where you’re going and how much it typically costs, you should be fine, but if you don’t, you’ll end up paying more than you should.  Uber puts this concern at rest as the cost of the trip is already determined.  You can take it or leave it.

Air Bnb

Yes, yes, we all know about AirBnb.  Love it or hate it, it sure makes budget travel easier.  I love it because I don’t want to stay in shared hostel rooms anymore.  I did that in my twenties, and as I get older I realize that there’s nothing I love more than some goddam privacy.  Plus, I like having a plethora of options when it comes to location, price, and style.

AirBnb In Mexico City

L-R: Studio in Condesa, Rooftop terrace in Escandon

In Mexico City, I stayed in two different colonias (neighborhoods), and a different AirBnb in each one.  One in Colonia Condesa, and one in Colonia Escandon (my old stomping grounds.  Each one was in a great location—walkable, close to food, bars, and parks, and also close to the Metro.  The AirBnb in Colonia Condesa was a terraced building, offering several types of rooms, all with a kitchen, balcony, and private bathroom.  The small, rooftop studio in Colonia Escandon didn’t have a kitchen, but did have a small fridge, hotplate, and a roof terrace to hang out on.  Both were about $27 dollars a night

AirBnb, Uber, and International Data Plans are just a few of the obvious conveniences that come with smartphone travel.  There are thousands of apps designed to make travel easier.  Control is in your hands—use it and go.

A Guide to Good Food in Colonia Escandón

A Guide to Good Food in Colonia Escandón

Mexico City, Colonia Escandón

Mexico City (D.F.)  is enormous, teeming with history, activity, and people from everywhere.  Despite its massive size, the city’s individual neighborhoods (called colonias) can make it feel more intimate than its 26 million population would have you believe.  That being said, there are hundreds-if not thousands-of colonias in D.F., all with their own distinct essence that sets them apart from the others.  Escandón is one of them.
good food in colonia escandon
Streets of Escandon

History of Colonia Escandón

In the late 19th century, Colonia Escandón was crop terrain, part of a large hacienda belonging to the Countess of Miravalle, and later Dolores Escandón y Arango.  The family Escandón were supporters of President Porfirio Díaz’s regime and enjoyed many bourgeoisie perks because of this; namely, wealth, power, and great real estate.
Everything changed at the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920; huge swaths of land that had previously belonged to the few were divided up, and Colonia Escandón began its development as a neighborhood.
colonia escandon architecture
Fire Station in Colonia Escandon

Nowadays, Escandón brings a historical and nostalgic feel to the big city.  It has a simple and handsome allure to it, full of colorful buildings, family owned businesses, tree-lined streets, and  20th-century architecture styles.

 

good food in colonia escandon mexico city
Escandon Architecture

Getting to Escandón

Located alongside Colonia Tacubaya, south of Colonia Condesa and Roma, and a stone’s throw from Parque de Chapultepec, Escandón is well-situated for easy access.
map of colonia escandon good food transportation
(another map will be provided at the end, detailing where to find the Good Food)

It sits between two major metro stations (Tacubaya on the west side and Patriotismo on the north), and is flanked by bus stations and frequented by taxis, while also supporting a healthy collection of ecobici stands.

Escandon Ecobici good food mexico city
Cycling through Escandon

Good Food in Escandón

Taqueria El Paisa: Colonia Escandón, Ave. José Martí

This is a veritable hole-in-the-wall restaurant, with the best birria I’ve ever had.   Birria is a tasty, spicy stew made from goat meat or mutton and hails from the land of Jalisco.

This restaurant, or birrieria, doesn’t have a website nor any yelp reviews, but is always full of locals chowing down.  They have windows that open to the shady street of Ave. José Martí, and you can drink a beer as you watch the cooks prepare giant pots of fragrant stew. It’s cheap, delicious, and spicy.

good food colonia escandon taqueria birria

Leon de Oro: Colonia Escandón, Ave. José Martí 103

Leon de Oro is a famous cantina and probably the most well-known restaurant in Escandón, set dead center in the neighborhood on Ave. José Martí (catty corner from Taqueria El Paisa above).  It was founded in 1954, and still maintains a sense of Mexico past, with live mariachi every Saturday and a great variety of patrons.  Any day of the week you will find most of its 150 tables occupied by families, couples, business folks, and students gathering to enjoy a meal, watch fútbol, or get drinks.

Cantina and food in Colonia Escandon mexico city

The food offered is traditional Mexican fare, Spanish tapas (entremés), and salty snacks like peanuts, chicharrones, shrimp broth, and onion soup to eat with your beer.  Leon de Oro’s pricing is not cheap nor is it outlandsish.  Expect to pay 500 pesos (~50 dollars) for a meal and drinks for two; check out their website for a full menu and pricing.

Tuesday Market: Calle General Salvador Alvarado (crosses Ave. José Martí)

Every Tuesday afternoon in Colonia Escandón, a farmer’s market sets up and sells fresh fruit, cheese, meat, tortillas, spices, and almost anything else you need to keep yourself sated and happy.  My roommates and I would go every week under the guise of buying groceries, but really we were there to gorge ourselves.  I would balance a plate of rajas con crema guisado in one hand, grip a squash flower quesadilla in the other, and eat my way through the eternally red-tinted market. If it wasn’t tacos de guisado, it was mixiotes or licuados or infinite postres.

good food colonia escandon outdoor market
Photos by Eunice Adorno

As mentioned, the mobile market of gastronomical delights is every Tuesday, starting in the late morning and lasting until the food runs out.

Los Pambacitos de Benjamin Franklin: Colonia Escandón, Ave Progresso

This little gem is situated on the small street of Ave. Progresso, in between the streets La Paz and Murguia.  It’s a mom-and-pop operation which has been around since 1947. They’re open in the evenings, though during the day you can see the family  behind the half-raised shop door preparing everything for the evening.

As their name suggest, they’re known for their pambacitos, which are wickedly good miniature fried sandwiches with fillings ranging from pork in green sauce (Chicharrón en una salsa verde) to potatoes and chorizo (papa con chorizo) to sweet mole.  I lived around the corner and feasted on too many pambacitos too many times.

Good food in colonia escandon mexico city
Photos courtesy of el gráfico

Another one of their delicious offerings is pozole (a thick Mexican stew made with hominy and pork), and the warm corn-based cinnamon and sugar drink known as atole.  They have several flavors in rotation (strawberry, chocolate, etc), but my favorite was always the original, straight up.

When I was there (circa 2012) everything was 10 pesos, with the exception of the pozole, which was around 30-40.  All their food can be taken to-go, or you can enjoy it at the counter and watch the family work as they fill orders.  Below is a short video (presented by El Gráfico) about Los Pambacitos; you don’t need to speak Spanish to understand that they’re damn tasty.

La Poblanita de Tacubaya: Calle Gobernador Luis G. Vieyra 12, Colonia San Miguel Chapultepec

I am cheating a little on this one…it is not located in Escandón, but it’s so close and so good, I had to add it (you’ll thank me for my discrepancy once you’ve eaten of their riches). La Poblanita de Tacubaya is a traditional restaurant located where the three colonias of Escandón, Tacubaya, and San Miguel Chapultepec meet.

good food in escandon la poblanita de tacubaya
Photo courtesy of Flickr

I first heard of the place from my boss who lived colonias away in Coyoacán.  When he found out I was living in Escandón, he immediately drew me a map to La Poblanita de Tacubaya.  He told me their mole was the best in the city, and their (seasonal) Chile en Nogada had garnered attention and awards throughout the country and beyond, and that if I did not dine there I was fired.

Though the threat of termination was hyperbole,  I soon found everything else he told me was not.  I went that following Sunday and continued to go almost every Sunday after that.
good food in escandon la poblanita de tacubaya

The interior of La Poblanita

Their decor is traditional, bright, and festive and everything comes on gorgeous blue and white dishes with fresh hand-made tortillas (but, of course) .  The restaurant has plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, excellent service, and a delightful neighborhood atmosphere; sometimes they have live mariachi music.  The food is rich, plentiful, fresh, and completely fulfills its  reputation.  The pricing is reasonable at 100-200 pesos per dish.
good food in escandon la poblanita de tacubaya
Mole on the left, Chile en Nogada on the right
As mentioned before, Chile en Nogada is a seasonal, celebratory dish, typically served around September 16th–Mexico’s Día de la Independencia.  David, writer of the blog I Want Some A That, sums its history up nicely:
The Chile en Nogada is a lively and spectacular feat of culinary and Mexican excellence. Made for its colours of green (the chile poblano), white (the walnut cream), and red (fresh pomegranate kernels), to symbolise the country’s national colours in pride of El Grito. The Chile en Nogada was originally made by the Madres Contemplatives Agustinas of the convent of Santa Monica in Puebla when the General Agustin visited the city after signing the treaty of independence. The nuns of the Santa Monica convent used their freshest ingredients, the walnuts and pomegranates, which both come into season at the end August, along with the best local chile, the poblano, to concoct a dish worthy of the general and symbolic of the newly obtained independence.
I recommend reading the full blog post, as the writer delves further into the construction of Chile en Nogada (and mole!) and even features a little interview with La Poblanita de Tacubaya’s head chef.
 La Poblanita has a website, which gives their menu, hours, location, and history.

In Conclusion, Go to Escandón!

If the hectic cadence of the Big City starts wearing on you (or even if it doesn’t) hop on the metro (or bike, bus, feet) and spend a tranquil afternoon in Colonia Escandón.  Enjoy the small-town atmosphere, walk the colorful streets, and of course, eat all the food.

Good Food Map

As promised, a map for your geographical eating pleasure.

Guide to Good food colonia escandon mexico city

Have you experienced good food in Colonia Escandón? Let me know in the comments and we can expand our feasting territory.