Frugal Travel Case Study to Puerto Rico

by Michael Scepaniak on November 12, 2019 in finance, travel

Corner of city block with colorful houses with balconies on blue-bricked street - Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

From the outside looking in, our relatively frequent personal travel (as in vacations) can come across as pretty luxurious. However, it actually serves as a good example of my frugal early-retiree lifestyle. If more people were to adopt some of the practices we follow when vacationing, I think fewer of them would view cost as such an imposing roadblock when considering a possible trip.

For a long time, I’ve thought about presenting our vacations as case studies in frugal travel. Pre-retirement, my lovely Deborah and I would typically take three vacations each year:

  • A vacation to someplace warm and beachy (e.g., the Caribbean) during the winter, typically a day or so shy of a week in duration.
  • A modest vacation to a local beach resort in late-May/early June, typically for five days.
  • A relatively more-ambitious vacation, frequently to someplace overseas, in late Summer/early Fall, typically for longer than a week.

Post-retirement, I’ve managed to maintain this vacation “schedule” with Deborah. Over the years, some of our destinations have included Aruba, Colombia, Barbados, Turks & Caicos, Mexico, California, Scotland, Ireland, Greece, and France. All of our trips have turned out to be pretty wonderful. They’ve also turned out to be relatively cheap, without being what we consider spartan or bare-bones.

Without further delay, I present our frugal travel case study to Puerto Rico.

Flights

$11.20/person + 16,770 points/person

Yes, we play the travel rewards (points & miles) “game”. It serves a key role in reducing our travel costs, primarily airfare.

We live in the Baltimore, Maryland area, which means Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) is our home airport. BWI is a major hub for Southwest Airlines. Unsurprisingly, our flights to/from Puerto Rico were on Southwest.

We accrued our Southwest Rapid Rewards points via credit card sign-up bonuses (after meeting minimum spend requirements). When paying for Southwest flights using points, you still need to cover various government taxes and fees out of pocket, hence the $11.20/person cost. These were non-stop flights into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU).

Our flight total does not factor in offsets purchased from Carbonfund.org, which I have been doing on an annual basis for the past few years. Purchasing those offsets is part of my effort to cancel out the negative impacts of my travel.

Lodging

$55.81/night ($383.69 total for 7 nights)

We spread our stay in Puerto Rico across two Airbnbs. The first Airbnb was in San Juan for 3 nights and the second was in Fajardo for 4 nights. The first Airbnb was in an owner-occupied unit in an apartment building. The second Airbnb was in a one-story multi-unit building where the host lived in the adjoining unit. Both Airbnbs worked out well, with the second being especially nice.

In general, Airbnb is our go-to option for lodging. Compared to comparable hotel options, we regularly enjoy significant cost savings. Staying at Airbnbs can also make for more enriching stays. We mitigate a lot of the risks, costs, and social impact downsides frequently associated with Airbnbs by staying in owner-occupied places, when possible (meaning, the host is there during our stay).

Ground Transportation

$28.76/day ($201.33 total for 7 days)

The amounts shown here include $26.60 for tolls and $16.33 for gas. We rented from Alamo via AutoSlash. AutoSlash has become my go-to option for booking rental cars.

For most every trip, we tend to be presented the choice between a) paying more for lodging that is located where renting a car would be unnecessary and b) paying less for lodging that is located where renting a car is necessary. In the case of Puerto Rico, for both Airbnbs, we chose the option that necessitated a rental car. The unimpressive state of public transit infrastructure in Puerto Rico pretty much made this decision for us, but going car-less wasn’t off the table.

Activities

$80.65/person ($161.30 total)

The bulk of our activities budget was allocated to a guided group kayak tour of the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo (Laguna Grande) for $112.80. Another chunk was for a guided group walking tour of Old San Juan. The rest amounted to entrance fees for Castillo de San Cristóbal, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and La Cueva del Indio. If I recall correctly, our entry into El Yunque Rain Forest was free. While in Fajardo, we spent several days on Luquillo Beach, which was free.

Food and Dining

$19.11/person/day ($267.58 total)

When traveling, we tend not to eat much. For my part, my pattern is to hold off on eating each morning, eat a snack of some sort in the afternoon, and then fill up on a large dinner (which is typically vegetarian). However, I’m a sucker for indulging in chocolate chip cookies and other desserts I come across during the day. As far as Deborah goes, she eats small, in general.

Neither of us tend to drink much of any alcohol. Both of us carry around refillable bottles full of water everywhere we go, obviating the need to buy bottled water while out and about. However, we did buy large jugs of filtered water to use at our Airbnbs and fill-up said refillable bottles.

Miscellaneous

$79.81 total

The most interesting purchase included in our miscellaneous bucket was a folding beach chair I bought at a local Wal-mart in Puerto Rico for $14.47. When researching Airbnbs for beach destinations, I try to find ones that offer the use of a folding beach chair. For me, having a comfortable beach chair at my disposal really makes for a satisfying day on the beach.

It’s true that most beaches we tend to find ourselves at have a vendor offering chair and umbrella rentals. However, the cost of those rentals tends to add up, depending on our number of beach days. More importantly, at least for me, is that the chairs offered for rent aren’t chairs, but rather loungers (which I don’t find comfortable to use all day long).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a winning Airbnb for the beach portion of our vacation that offered a beach chair. While I’m not a fan of making “disposable” purchases, $14.47 for the use of a perfectly satisfying beach chair for several days seemed like a good deal to me. At the end of our trip, I ended up leaving the chair with our Airbnb host, to offer to his future guests during their stays.

Aside from the chair, our miscellaneous purchases included a refrigerator magnet (which we collect as travel souvenirs), sunblock, and other items/costs which I’m unable to recall.

Travel Total

Below, please find the total cost of our trip:

Puerto Rico Travel Costs
Flights $22.40
Lodging $383.69
Ground Transportation $201.33
Activities $161.30
Food and Dining $267.58
Miscellaneous $79.81

It would have been pretty satisfying to keep this total under $1,000, but that would have required sacrifices that we weren’t willing to make (such as foregoing the bioluminescent bay tour). It’s concessions such as these that prevent our vacations from feeling too bare-bones.

Hopefully, this article helps you wrap your hands around the financials of your own trip to Puerto Rico. If so, please let me know in the comments below.

If you’d like more details about our trip than what I’ve provided here, including our actual itinerary, specific Airbnbs we stayed at, specific restaurants we dined at, etc., please subscribe to the blog and then email hidden; JavaScript is required. When subscribing, if you’d prefer, you can opt to only subscribe to those articles I post to the travel category. When sending the email, specify that you’d like to email hidden; JavaScript is required. Thanks.

Mike

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