Our Expert’s Tips For Low-Cost Travel in Latin America

My husband Dan and I have been scouring Latin America since we began our expat adventure in 2001. During that time, we’ve lived in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, and visited many other countries in the region. By trial and error, we’ve learned the secrets to getting the best bang for your buck when traveling here. This is how you do it.

 

Getting There From the States

From the U.S., you can book any of the major U.S. airlines and budget carriers, including Southwest, Frontier, Spirit, and JetBlue. But don’t overlook locally based international airlines that often offer newer planes and better services, such as complimentary food and drink.

The bigger players in the region include Copa, Avianca, LATAM, and Aeromexico. Lesser-known carriers include Volaris, InterJet, and VivaColombia.

You probably know this, but two of the best aggregator websites for finding airfares from the U.S. are Kayak and Google flights. Use the “flexible dates” feature to pull up the best fares.

As for buying domestic airfares within Latin America, you’ll sometimes find them listed on the big aggregator websites, but not always. And you may find better deals if you go directly to the airline websites.

 

Getting Around Latin America

Don’t disregard bus travel. In most Latin American countries, bus travel is nothing like the grungy experience in the U.S. Instead, you’ll find many upscale (but very affordable) bus lines.

Seats tend to be fully reclining and comfortable. There’s often a bathroom on board. Sometimes you’ll even get a snack and a soft drink. And they show movies (if you’re a Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, you’re in luck). Some have free WiFi. And you’ll be treated to wonderful scenery along the way.

“Last week I found myself traveling by bus down the spine of the Ecuadorian Andes,” says IL Ecuador Highlands Correspondent Wendy DeChambeau. “The original intent was simply to transport me from point A to point B. But it turns out the journey was an amazing experience all its own. As the bus traveled south of Quito the mountains opened up into wide valleys. Here folks tended their patchwork farms while dressed in their traditional clothing, complete with knee-length skirts and bowler-style hats.”

“The entire journey took 10 hours (including three stops along the way for bathrooms and lunch) and cost just $10.”

For bus travel in Mexico, you can typically buy tickets online. But in other Latin American nations, you’ll need to buy them in person, either at the main terminal or in a substation or office, usually found in every community of any size. Bus line websites are good for checking schedules, although these can change at any time. The website The Bus Schedule is a great resource for finding bus schedules in any country you’re traveling in.

Similarly, new online services like Andes Transit and Pantrek are consolidating regional schedules and ticket-purchasing options. Be sure to read the fine print when booking on budget carriers. For instance, know your baggage limits: Many charge for checked bags and for more than one carry-on. Often those carry-ons have weight limits. If your bag is overweight, you may pay a steep fee. You can often find better deals at in-country websites in the local currency.

A word of advice, no matter what bus you’re traveling on, don’t forget to pack a sweater—it may be warm outside, but onboard the air conditioning is often on full blast.

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