Travel on a Budget: Puerto Rico

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By In Her Shoes Guest Contributor: Tonya Rapley of My Fab Finance

Just a couple weeks ago I blogged about the value of getting away from it all (especially after suffering through no less than 6 snow storms this season and fighting off a recurring case of cabin fever). As I pack bags for my own little escape to Jamaica, I’m excited to have Tonya Rapley of “My Fab Finance” join us as a guest blogger today on In Her Shoes. You may remember her from a feature on the blog last summer where she shared tips on how to curb impulse spending. Fresh off of her trip to warmer temps last week with her beau, Tonya gives us the inside scoop on how she vacationed in Puerto Rico on a budget. Here’s what she had to say:

One of my promises to myself in 2014 was and is balance. Focusing on growing the blog but also making sure that I’m devoting an appropriate amount of time to things and people that matter to me.

Our vacation was splendid. Disappointed by the chilly temperatures in the Bahamas back in November, we decided that we’d take advantage of Presidents’ Day weekend and take a mini vacation. Options ranged from Turks & Caicos to Costa Rica. We knew we wanted to go somewhere warm and quick. After gushing over pics posted by my friend Belkis and chatting with her about her December vacation to Puerto Rico, we decided to go there. It did not disappoint.

I admit, I always wrote Puerto Rico off as nothing special because you don’t need a passport to get there. I felt like an exotic vacation included different currencies and passport stamps. After spending a few hours in Puerto Rico I learned that it remains very influenced by its Spanish roots and it’s a Spanish country with U.S. amenities.

Before I start, let me say that I fell in love with Puerto Rico. I can’t wait to return and want to own a vacation property there. You don’t get the benefits of a cheaper currency, but you get beautiful weather, warm people, and the amenities of more developed localities.

Flights and Accommodations
Due to the time of year, northerners are in a frenzy to take flight from chilly temperature so at $377 each, our tickets weren’t the cheapest. (You can find cheaper flights if your travel plans are a bit more flexible. Ours were not) We flew coach class on JetBlue so the absence of checked bag fees is always a treat. As mentioned in a previous article, we booked a studio apartment via AirBnB that cost us $370 total which was $185 per person for 4 nights and 5 days.  So our total including lodging and flights was $562 each.

We decided to rent a car because we wanted to explore what the island had to offer rather than being confined to Condado and Old San Juan.  This is not absolutely necessary but worked for us and ended up saving us money in the long run. I booked the rental on Hotwire.com and after taxes the rental was $90 however we added the GPS package, a full tank of gas, purchased additional insurance (after finding out what insurance my credit card didn’t cover) and tolls we walked away spending $114 each, taking our trip total to $674.

To cut down on costs we took advantage of the stove and pots that came with our private apartment, a benefit of renting a place on AirBnB. We ended up cooking breakfast every morning and had sandwiches for dinner on Friday and lunch on Sunday.

Day One
We arrived fresh out of NYC. Our flight left at 6:00am and we were fleeing the blizzard which made our landing in San Juan that much sweeter. We met with the owner of our AirBnb place, took a nap and headed to the beach as soon as we woke up.  One of the things I noticed was that the beaches in San Juan were gritty. Beautiful, but I was digging the juxtaposition of the grafitti covered walls and the rolling seas.

Day Two
Renting our own car enabled us to see Puerto Rico our way. Rather than paying a tour guide $90 each to take us to El Yunque, the only rainforest in the National Park system, we drove there and toured absolutely free. El Yunque is about 1 hour and 20 minutes from San Juan. We stopped into the visitor center and paid $4 to basically use the restroom and get information from the help desk which was actually very helpful. We checked La Cocoa Falls which is visible by the only road in and out of El Yunque and the lighthouse.

My favorite part of the trip was hiking to La Mina Falls. I had never seen a real waterfall in my life and I was taken back by its splendor. My boyfriend and I played around in the water which was extremely refreshing after the 30 minute hike to the fall. I do recommend wearing water shoes and a bathing suit so you can get in the water fall. The terrain is natural and untainted so it’s really rocky. We paid a total of $8 for this magnificent experience.

After leaving El Yunque we journeyed to the Luqillo Kiosks for dinner. It was a delicious and scenic hands down the best food and service I had while in Puerto Rico. We splurged a bit on lunch but it was worth every penny.

Day Three
On Saturday we explored Old San Juan. Parking was cheap, $5.95 for the entire day we were there from 10:30 am- 8pm. We were on a mission and took the Ferry to the Bacardi factory for the free tour. The ferry was $2 per person round trip and it was $6 per person once you got off for the taxi. We could have driven there, but I wanted to take the ferry since I knew I’d be drinking once we got to the Bacardi distillery. The tour is free and you get complimentary drink tickets. I noticed some people paid for the tour because they went through their hotel. Please save yourself the $20-30 and do it yourself. I promise you can. We enjoyed the tour thoroughly and especially enjoyed the opportunity to try two new types of Bacardi Rum absolutely free. Thanks to their master bartender I also learned to make my own daiquiris at home and will be looking forward to that.

After returning from the Bacardi factory we journeyed around the streets of old San Juan and visited Castillo San Cristobal.  Because it was Presidents Day weekend, admission was free.

It also included a FREE 15 minute info session with one of the park rangers. We learned a lot about the history of the structure and the history of Puerto Rico. It offers you a beautiful view of the city.

Old San Juan is vibrant and rich offering a little something for everyone. I purchased a few pieces of street art as one of my “things” is purchasing street art from every country that I visit. We had a lovely cost-effective dinner at a quaint restaurant tucked into Old San Juan, called Monditos. I had the Chillo fish with Criolla sauce which was to die for. Our dinner came to $30 for two, which isn’t bad at all compared to other options. We headed home and rested for our trip the next day.

Day Four

The next day we woke up at 5am to drive to Ponce which is in the south of the country. There was something so relaxing about driving through the mountains of Puerto Rico with Mari.  Our reason for heading to Ponce was to go to the private island, Isla Caja de Muertos. It’s a local’s spot, we were 2 of 10 Americans on the 125 passenger boat chartered by Island Ventures.  I purchased the tickets ahead of time which cost us $25 per person. We also rented beach chairs and an umbrella once on the island bringing our total to an additional $13 per person. The island was breathtaking. The water was still, the sand felt like butter, and we slept, swam, and ate sandwiches we packed to bring along with us.  We ended up purchasing two beers and 2 pinches (amazing Puerto Rican style chicken shush kabobs). We spent the entire day on the island arriving at 10am and boarding for Ponce at 3:30pm. Our only paid excursion cost us $38 dollars each.

We enjoyed every moment including a drive back through the mountains and an opportunity to view a rainbow stretching over the hills of the Puerto rican countryside.

On our last night we kept it simple and visited a spot that was close to our hotel for traditional Puerto Rican cuisine.

Our trip in total including souvenirs, car rental, food, flights, and accommodations cost us about $850 total, $377 to get there, $185 on accommodations and $288 spent on the rental, food, and activities once there. Some may say that’s not on a budget, but a trip to Puerto Rico could easily run you $1,300 after excursions and fine dining. Remember, it’s a vacation location that uses American currency. I’d say that the bulk of our spending went into food. We spent about an additional $150 per person on food, because we remained close to tourist areas to eat since English is very limited in the country. We also had alcohol with every meal which can add up. Next time we will venture even further off the beaten path and try local spots to save costs. I will also aim to cut this number down to $500 on my next trip which is easily accomplished for the informed traveler. I’m also going to look into the necessity of car rental insurance when traveling abroad.

I didn’t do well on budgeting for this vacation, but I’m creating a trip budget template that will help me arrange organize my spending. A co-worker of mine did Mexico for $10 a day including lodging. That’s a little ambitious for me, but I’m going to aim for a relatively low daily spend  on our next few trips.

If you are going to Puerto Rico feel free to reach out to me for advice on how you can have a memorable budget vacation on the “Five Star Island”. It’s a beautiful experience!

To learn more about Tonya and her mission to prove that being financially responsible is fly, visit www.myfabfinance.com!

As a New York City beauty PR strategist, Renae Bluitt created "In Her Shoes" to empower and enlighten women committed to realizing their dreams.