Granted, Central America is a pretty cheap place to travel.
Yet, even in this, one of the most budget-friendly places on earth, there are always ways to spend less and travel more!
Having spent 2 years travelling the length and breadth of this fabulous continent on a very small daily allowance, I certainly learnt a thing or two about ways to keep the fun rolling and not the cash.
So there are, my top budget travel tips for Central America…
- 11 Things You Need to Know About Bus Travel in Central America
- 10 Unforgettable Things to Do in Costa Rica On a Budget
- 10 Important Things You Need to Know Before Backpacking Central America
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#1 Eat on the Street
It’s a common budget tip, but one that is often overlooked through fear, ignorance or language barriers.
Sure you can get sick, but you can get sick anywhere!
I ate from street stalls almost everyday I was in Central America and can honestly say that, in 2 years, I did not get sick once.
This may have something to do with me being vegetarian, but nonetheless eating from street stalls is delicious and CHEAP!
Hit up the roadside grills, or fritangas – as they’re known – for some warm dinner, or sample the local markets for a dazzling array of fruit and snacks.
Guatemala’s handmade blue tortillas smeared with a ripe avocado are a must!
And El Salvador’s pupusas are incredible, especially if you can find one stuffed with beans and cheese!
Corn is a hit in Southern Mexico and Guatemala, while it’s rice and beans further south.
And everywhere, you’ll find chocolate bananas!
#2 Drink like a Local
It’s all about the cheap, local beer and rum, when it comes to having a good time in Central America.
Nicaragua has some of the best rum around, in the form of the wonderful ‘Flor de Caña’ and comes highly recommended!
Stick to this, or locally produced beer, rather than imported alcohol, if you want to cut back your spending on a night out.
#3 Stay in Locally-Owned Lodgings
One of my key budget travel tips for Central America is that Western-owned lodgings will generally cost you more.
Asking bus drivers or following legit touts, rather than reading your Central America Lonely Planet, is a great way to find the best bargain when it comes to accommodation.
#4 Team Up with Others
If you’re travelling alone, try to find other travellers to share a room or even a bed with!
Accommodation prices in Central America are often given by the room.
Dividing this by 2 or even 3, if you manage to share, is a great money saver.
In Nicaragua, I managed to share a set of bunks beds with 2 other people!
It was certainly squashy, but a great laugh and cost us only a couple of dollars each a night as a result!
#5 Stay a Few Nights in One Spot
Staying longer than night or two in a place will give you a great negotiating power that is bound to score you a better deal on a room.
Many places will offer weekly or monthly deals too.
If you find somewhere you like, considering parking yourself there for a while and doing day trips out.
This will save you a ton on accommodation costs.
Remember slow travel is one of my top recommendations when people ask me how to travel longer for less.
#6 Camp or Hammock
Many hostels offer camping, so take your own tent to Central America and you’ll be rewarded with prices half that of a dorm room.
See my guide to buying the best backpacker tent for more info
Alternatively, sleeping in provided hammocks is also popular on the steamy coast.
This is another great way to bag a cheap sleep, although do make sure the mosquito net covering is a good one!
#7 Stay in Places with Free Drinking Water
Some accommodation places include free drinking water in their room price, as drinking the stuff out of the tap is generally not recommended in Central America.
Staying in places that do offer this is definitely one of my best budget travel tips for Central America.
You may pay a dollar more overall for the room, but you’ll soon make that back when the heat has you reaching for the H2O.
#8 Buy Water in Bags, not Bottles
Instead of continually buying water in bottles, which is both expensive and a disaster for the environment, many places in Central America sell mineral water in small bags.
Yes they are still plastic and therefore not biodegradable, but they certainly produce less rubbish than bottles and are much cheaper.
Normally they are sold out of cool boxes at bus stations or in markets, rather than in shops.
Keep your eyes peeled!
#9 Use Local Buses
There are few things as fun in this world as catching a chicken bus in Guatemala and it should certainly be on your bucket list.
Add to this fun the buses’ cheap price tickets and it’s unmistakably high up on my list of budget travel tips for Central America.
Many countries in Central America offer tourist shuttles, which they sell on the proviso they are safer, but this is just not true.
After all, they will likely be driven by the same people on the same roads, and are open to the same chance of being held up.
They’re really not worth it in terms of finances or fun, so save your pennies and get on the local buses instead.
#10 Take Night Buses
On long-distance journeys, between the countries of Central America for example, it’s a good idea to take a night bus.
This will ensure you get to where you want to go and will save you the price of a night’s accommodation.
TicaBus is the most popular company as they run continually between Mexico and Panama, stopping at most major cities on the way.
It is a bit pricey than local transport, but will certainly be cheaper than flying.
Just remember to take a few jumpers and blankets on board with you, as the drivers love to crack the air-conditioning.
#11 Don’t Go Everywhere the Guidebook Suggests
Ask other tourists, or read travel blogs(!) and you’re much more likely to get an honest opinion about what is worthwhile seeing in a country and what is not.
Not shelling out for every tour or day trip will save you a fortune.
Check out my list of the most overrated places in Latin America to give you some ideas on where to save your money by avoiding.
#12 Don’t Take Tours You Don’t Have To
At least, don’t take tours without checking out your own independent options first.
Organised tours are, in my experience, one of the most costly ticket items in any traveller’s book and many of them are a waste of money.
Often you can make your own way to the same attractions on local transport for half the price and double the fun.
There are some worthwhile trips however that can’t be done without a guide or a shuttle if you don’t have your own transport i.e. Pacaya in Guatemala.
There are also the rare occasions that taking an organised tour or transport bus is cheaper than the independent option i.e. Agua Azul near Palenque in Southern Mexico.
In these cases, I’ve always found that it’s best to wait until the last moment (i.e. the morning of the trip or perhaps the evening before if it’s an early start) to bag yourself one of the last couple of spots.
The organisers will be super keen to fill up the tour bus and, with only a few hours left until departure, you can barter yourself a superb bargain!
#13 Check Taxi Prices with Locals First
All across the world, taxi drivers lie about their prices!
This includes Central America, but generally other people seem more honest!
I almost always asked an unsuspecting local in Central America what the taxi journey should cost me and then repeated this to the taxi driver when they inevitably inflated their rates.
If you say you know what the price should be, and you are correct, you’ll almost always pay the right fare.
#14 Don’t Dive in Belize
Yes, prices are cheaper than Europe or Australia in Belize, but if you are travelling further south in Central America, then save your cash for scuba diving in the Corn Islands, Nicaragua, or Utila in Honduras.
They don’t have the blue hole, granted, but they can still offer some spell binding underwater marine life at much better prices.
As such, they are certainly better options for getting certified too.
My recommendation would be Dolphin Dive on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua.
After living there for a year, I can personally vouch for the excellent management, instructors, and boat drivers!
#15 Don’t Take Language Courses in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is by far one of the more expensive countries in the Central America zone.
It does have some incredible wildlife and national parks, which should not be missed, but when to comes to services that are also offered by its cheaper neighbours, why pay more?
Spanish lessons in Guatemala, Nicaragua or El Salvador can be picked up for a fraction of the price of what you will pay in Costa Rica without any compromise on quality, which is why this is one of my best budget travel tips for Central America.
I personally recommend Nicaragua Mia Spanish School in Granada, Nicaragua, who really helped me get started.
#16 Don’t Stop for Ruins in Honduras
If you’re travelling to Tikal in Guatemala or Palenque or the Yucatan in Mexico, you’re going to see a lot better ruins there.
Many people only cross the border of Honduras to stop at Copan and ending spending a lot more money getting there and back than they need.
If budgets are tight, wait for the better ruins further north.
#17 Do Shop in Guatemala
Guatemala has the most fantastic range, quality and price of indigenous and artisanal products you’ll find in the whole of Central America.
Stock up on gifts in places like Chichicastenango markets, (rather than Antigua) and you’ll save yourself a fortune.
There is even a handy post office there to send stuff home if you need (and it’s dirt cheap to do so, as long as you’re not in hurry!)
#18 Do Fly to Mexico
You can score some great cheap flight to Central America if you fly into Mexico.
Many tour operators, particularly from Europe, offer cheaper flights to popular resort holiday destinations such as Cancun.
You can skip the resort bit, but grab yourself a cheap last-minute seat on one of their scheduled flights instead.
Check out my post how to get to Latin America cheaply from Europe for more ideas.
#19 Do Head to Panama for Cheap Travel to South America
If you’re looking to travel onto South America after Central, then Panama is going to be the cheapest place from which you can do this.
There are a whole heap of ways of crossing the Darien Gap, but almost all begin or end on Panama City.
It’s from here that you’ll pick up some real bargains, especially if you’re looking to fly across to Colombia.
READ MORE: How to Travel from Panama to Colombia
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So that’s my list of top budget travel tips for Central America.
Have you travelled to this magical continent?
What are your money-saving ideas?