Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying flights)
I realized this weekend that we’re down to just over 6 weeks until we fly to Guatemala!! (Cue mild panic.)
This is a busy time right now, trying to do everything that needs to be done further in advance and giving myself enough of a window to not have any last minute panic.
Reality check: There will still be last minute panic. But I’d like to avoid it as much as is humanely possible.
Right now, some of the things that are on my list include:
- Renewing passports for our two youngest boys. They’re technically still valid for our entire trip, but I’m feeling like it might be worth renewing them before we go since some countries prefer you to have a full 6 months left on your passport and they’ll only have about 3 months left.
- Ordering the gear we still need. I’ve been shopping around online for about a month, comparing brands and prices, as well as checking out local thrift and consignment stores to see if I could save any money on pricey items before buying them new. I’ve also dug through all the bins in our storage room and through the kid’s current clothes and shoes so I know exactly what we have and need. But at this point, I’m feeling like it’s time to start placing orders for everything I haven’t found yet to allow for shipping (and potentially, return shipping) and just to know that we’ve got all our gear (bags, clothes, medicine supplies, etc.) at least a couple weeks in advance. We’re lucky in that we already own a good deal of what we need because of our previous travels, which is why I can leave this as long as I’ve left it. Back when I planned our first big trip, I started this gear shopping more like 3-4 months in advance.
- Booking our first accomodations. We don’t book many of our accomodations before we leave. In fact, I book a whole lot of them at the last minute, a couple days before we show up somewhere. But for that first week or two on the road, I love having details tied up with a bow so there are less decisions to make while we’re adjusting to jet lag and life on the road.
What’s not on my list anymore? Buying flights.
Because we purchased them about two weeks ago. And that’s when it gets real, people. We’re really going!!!
It was a little later than usual for us. I prefer to buy more like 10-14 weeks in advance, and this time we were just around 8 weeks out of our first flight. Such is life.
In update #1, I walked through how I begin planning and developing an over-arching vision of what our trip will include. So let me catch you up on what we’ve done since that last update:
How we bought our flights
Since flights are probably your single biggest line in your travel budget (as they are in ours), let’s park here for a while.
We knew the most costly flights would be going down from Canada to get to Central America, and then the flight back home at the end. In between, we’ve got a few short hops between countries to cut down on travel time or to cover areas that might be particularly tiring or even unsafe to travel by land.
Our order of flights/countries is a bit odd this time around, because we had two very specific places we had to be at the beginning and then the end of April, right smack in the middle of our travels.
As a result, instead of doing a more logical loop or traveling in a linear fashion, we ended up deciding on this:
- Fly from Ottawa to Guatemala City
- Fly from Guatemala City to Merida, Mexico
- Travel overland to Belize
- Fly from Belize City to San Jose, Costa Rica
- Travel overland through Costa Rica and up into Nicaragua
- Fly home out of Managua, Nicaragua
We looked at all sorts of variations on this plan, going in and out of different countries or cities, comparing flying or going overland, etc. In the end, this was the plan that a) made the most sense for our goals and what we wanted to do in each country, and b) saved us the most money.
Some of the possibilities we considered that we didn’t choose in the end:
- Booking a return (rather than a one-way) between Ottawa and Guatemala City. This would have required us to travel overland from Nicaragua through El Salvador, to get back to Guatemala to fly home at the very end. It would have saved us about $100-$150 per person, BUT we would have spent some money on bus tickets (cheaper, but still) and it would have possibly been an exhausting way to finish up our time there. Ultimately, it didn’t feel worth the small savings.
- I spent a lot of time looking into the possibility of renting vehicles to do the driving ourselves but it’s complicated to bring a vehicle across international borders and most rental companies won’t allow for that, not to mention that many Central American roads are truly not safe to travel on as a non-local and not safe for anybody to travel on at night. It was just too complex, so we flushed that idea down the toilet.
- We considered more overland travel by bus between countries to avoid one or two of these flights, but the comfort, cleanliness and safety of the bus options seemed potentially sketchy and some of the distances would have been quite long. Not to mention it would eat up valuable days we’d rather spend enjoying a country, not trying to pass the time on a smelly bus with bored, restless kids (been there, done that). That said, we did keep two overland portions in our trip, when the distances were significantly shorter.
- We explored other possible cities to go in and out of – Cancun instead of Merida, Dangriga instead of Belize City, Liberia instead of San Jose. Ultimately, sticking with the main airport hubs in this region saved us a lot of money and since local transportation is cheap (buses or shuttle vans), it made sense to fly in or out of the larger airports. This isn’t always the case in every region, but in these countries, it seemed to be true pretty consistently.
How did I research flights? These are my favorite tools for comparing options and prices:
I’m quite partial to how they display all the prices for every possible date. You can clearly see which days are cheaper and more expensive, and if you’ve got flexibility in your dates, this makes it easy to maximize your flight money.
Although they don’t show the incredible date/price spread that Google Flights offers, Kayak does still offer a better look at flexible dates and prices than most other sites. They also show a lot of “hacker fares” and sometimes include flights that other websites don’t include in their database.
Out of all these options, Airtreks is the only one that isn’t DIY. They actually provide a service for travelers like us, piecing together one-way, budget, international flights. More on this below.
Though it’s not my favorite, I still usually run a comparison search on Expedia because every once in a while, it finds a flight that I didn’t see anywhere else. Out of all the bigger travel sites, this is the one I like best (though I couldn’t give you a particularly substantial reason why).
It may seem strange to use multiple tools that seem similar, because sometimes the prices and flights are nearly identical.
But other times, I’ll find vastly different options and then I’m always glad I took the time to compare.
Ultimately, we bought our flights through Airtreks…
BUT I’m still glad I spent so much time previously researching it, pricing it out, comparing the options.
Because I was so well informed about which dates, airports, airlines, etc. were cheaper and better for us, by the time I presented the itinerary to Airtreks and had them run it through their system, I could make some really educated suggestions and have them use their more high-powered tools to search for exactly what I wanted.
In the end, their prices were pretty comparable to the prices I had found in my searches, but they do all of the actual booking work for me (which gets tedious for 7 people!), they include a great travel insurance package (which ultimately saves us money from having to buy insurance separately), and if anything changes with one of our flights or we run into any troubles, they’ve got our back and will help us sort out the issue.
In my next trip planning update…
I’ll share the gear, clothing and footwear I’ve been purchasing and why I chose it. I’ll talk more about securing those early accomodations.
I’ll also share an update on all the other things we’re working hard to take care of before leaving – what to do with our current house, what we’ll bring with us for work and homeschool, how we’re preparing to stay healthy on the road, and more.
Any questions for me? How do you like to source out your flights when you travel?
Miss our first trip planning update? Read it here.
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