Belize on a Budget

Pre-kids, my husband and I spent six weeks in Europe, backpacking around, mouths agape, soaking in all the sights and getting lost in the most charming places (usually). We had our mishaps for sure, and more than one night found us huddled on the bed, adding up crumpled receipts from the previous day, trying to figure out if we could afford to take the train to Switzerland or check out the fabled castle in Garmisch. On that crazy trip, it really hit me that the world is so very big, filled with history and culture and so many wonders, you can’t possibly see them all in ten lifetimes, but I sure wanted to try.

We ate a lot of ramen and lived on a really unique hand-me-down bubblegum pink couch for years.   We also saw the breathtaking sculptured garden island of Mainau, had the best veggie burger in the world amongst the tulips in Holland, took a train INTO a frozen mountain in the Swiss Alps and kissed behind a rainforest waterfall in Jamaica.

And then we had kids.

Two beautiful, funny, brilliant kids born with their mother’s insatiable wanderlust. Even with careful budgeting, the Explore The World Fund soon shriveled under the near constant need for diapers and ever-outgrown clothes.

In November, we decided to try for some new passport stamps. We set a budget of $6,000 for the four of us, and I spent weeks pouring over TripAdvisor, Pinterest, travel blogs and library Lonely Planet guides for the perfect place to jumpstart our Explore the World campaign. I didn’t think the kids could handle the 14-hour flight to Europe. Iceland, while stunning, was too far out of our budget, even if I filled the suitcase with ramen and peanut butter. Some locations seemed too risky with political unrest or a colossal list of pre-travel vaccinations. And then we found Belize.

Belize is a wonderland of ancient Mayan temples, pristine dive sites, mind-boggling subterranean rivers and brilliant green iguanas calmly munching banana leaves while we scrambled for the camera. The possibilities are endless here. You can hike to the top of a 2,000 year old Mayan temple before breakfast, and after lunch you can zip line through the rainforest, keeping an eye out for jaguars and howler monkeys. Feeling more adventurous? How about snorkeling or diving with nurse sharks and giant sea turtles, or leaping from waterfalls 500 feet beneath the surface of the earth? Seriously, you can do all that in Belize.

Most importantly, the people here couldn’t be more kind. Everywhere we went, especially in the region of Cayo (on the ‘jungle’ side), we never met a person without a smile or a wave. I never once felt unsafe traveling with the kids in Belize, and we made some very treasured new friends along the way.

So… a budget of $6000 for four people for 15 days in Belize. With some careful planning and a little research, it’s completely doable.

If you’re willing to plan ahead and even open a new credit card, you can get your cost down even lower.   I opened a Chase Sapphire card with no international fees. This means that whatever I purchased with my card in Belize (food, trips, souvenirs, car rental, whatever) they don’t charge the 3-5% international fee that some cards charge. I pre-booked our first tour on a different credit card before we left for Belize, and found a $24 fee on my statement for using the card out of the country. This can REALLY add up. Make sure you use a card with no international fees.

The Sapphire card also had auto rental protection included, very handy to have when renting out of the country. I turned down the rental company’s extra coverage because we were covered through Chase in the event of an accident (which thankfully didn’t happen).

If you plan ahead and open a card with travel bonuses a few months before you start booking your travels, you can rack up all kinds of bonuses. The Sapphire card I opened offered 50,000 bonus points if I spent $3000 in the first three months. By running our monthly bills through the card, we received the bonus points and an extra 2% back on household purchases. You can use all these lovely points for airline tickets, some hotels, or you can just request cash back on your card. The table above has cash values for airfare, but we saved $800 on our tickets with the bonus points, bringing our airfare out of pocket total down to $700 for the four of us to get from California to Belize.

Airfare was our biggest single expense, and I researched flights like a madwoman. I compared different airlines, different days of the week to fly out or return, and even shifted our trip by two weeks to get the best deal. I also booked the flight one-way instead of round-trip. I found an incredible deal on a flight from California to Belize, but the return flight was uncomfortably high and eating into my excursion budget. For two months, we had a flight out to Belize but no flight home. After hunting down fares, patiently waiting (sort of patiently) and setting up a flight tracker, I found a steal on a return flight with four seats available together. Score!

I scoured the ‘net for lodging, too. We wanted to divide our time between the Cayo district (‘jungle’) and Placencia (ocean). Hotels put us over budget and most didn’t have a kitchenette for meal prep to lower our dining budget. I packed all available nooks and crannies our suitcase with noodles, peanut butter, granola bars and jerky. Corner supermarkets are everywhere in Belize, and markets sell delicious local fresh fruit and veggies. The kitchen was essential, and we agreed to eat out once per day, doing meal prep at home for the other two meals.

When I first started researching Belize, I wanted to do everything. Feed a jaguar? Yes, please! Explore an ancient Mayan ceremonial site in an underground river system? Sure! Learn how to make chocolate the Mayan way? Sign me up! Adding up all these excursions, it became clear that we would be far over budget if I tried to get us to all of them. I picked eight. Eight amazing excursions for a family of four in Belize, and it came to $1750, roughly $50 per person per excursion. Some were far less, a few (like a breathtaking side trip to Guatemala and Tikal) were considerably more. I’m telling you, if you find yourself with the good fortune to end up in Belize, you won’t believe the adventures waiting for you!

So, if you too are looking for a vacation you will remember for years, but you’ve been living off of ramen, possibly on a hideous bubblegum pink sofa, this adventure may be more attainable than you think. Do your research, look for bonuses, and get out and explore!


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