Expense Report: Panama City and San Salvador

We departed Punta Cana at 12:24 AST on December 23rd and arrived in Panama City at 14:11 EST. We passed through immigration with ease and got our passports stamped. Panama doesn’t require a tourist visa for citizens of the USA. We spent approximately 16 hours in Panama City before departing for San Salvador the next morning at 6:00 EST.

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View of the Panama City skyline from atop Ancon Hill
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View of the Panama Canal from atop Ancon Hill

We arranged a taxi tour of the city through Amber Moon Panama Taxi Service. I highly recommend them if you are doing something similar. Our five hour tour to Ancon Hill, Casco Viejo, and the Amador Causeway was $96. It’s a $35 cab ride ($70 roundtrip) between the airport and Casco Viejo anyways. For only $26 more, we had a tour guide at our service that would take us anywhere that we wanted. We also stopped at a food court on the way home to get a “cheap local dish.” I had the traditional Panamanian soup sancocho and Skye  had a plate of veges and potatoes. We spent $8.25 on dinner and $3.20 on eclairs for dessert and cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. Our one night stay at the Crowne Plaza Panama Airport ($108) was expensive for us, but it was the closest hotel to the airport and offered a free shuttle service. This was especially important because we had to be to the airport by 4:00 am. We really enjoyed our one night in Panama and felt like we made great use of our time.

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View of the Panama City skyline and Amador Causeway from Casco Viejo
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View of Casco Viejo from the Amador Causeway

We arrived in San Salvador at 7:00 CST. The immigration in San Salvador wasn’t nearly as painless as Panama (and it was even worse on the way home when we tried to overnight in the airport.) I had read online that they like to charge a $37 airport tax and that you need to get proof that you’ve paid it prior to getting to immigration. I printed off our receipt from United ahead of time, which showed that we paid the tax and showed it to the immigration officers. After a few officers got together to talk in Spanish about our receipt, they took our passports and receipts away for a few minutes. They returned a few minutes later and directed us back into the airport to pay the $37 even though we had a receipt showing we already had. We talked to the Avianca information desk and showed them our receipt. Avianca looked up our itinerary and said we had indeed paid the $37 tax and issued us another receipt. We took that to immigration and we were finally cleared to pass after paying $10/person for a tourist visa. Our flight to Costa Rica was at 14:30 CST so we had 7.5 hours to explore San Salvador and get back through security and to our gate.

Once again, we arranged a tour ($135) ahead of time to view the city. We did this for two reasons. First and foremost, San Salvador is currently known as the “Murder Capital of the World” due to a gang war between MS-13 and Barrio 18. We wanted a local tour guide that knows the area to keep us in safe areas. Secondly, we had less than 8 hours in the country so we wanted to make the best use of our time. Our first stop was the lava fields. I had never seen anything like it before so it was pretty cool. We then drove to the top of the Parque Nacional el Boqueron to see the San Salvador volcano. There are great views of the city here too. However, ours were somewhat obstructed by smog over the city that our guide said was completely out of the ordinary.

View of the Boqueroncito cinder cone within the Boqueron crater
View of San Salvador

For lunch, we stopped for delicious popusas. For real, they are amazing. If you’ve never heard of them, you must try them. The three of us ate very well for $4.20. Our next stop was the center of San Salvador for an intense history lesson of the last 30 years from our amazing guide, Roberto. We visited the Iglesia el Rosario, Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador, Plaza Libertad, and Plaza Civica. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of El Salvador, it is definitely worth researching.

Plaza Libertad downtown San Salvador
Plaza Civica and the National Palace in San Salvador
Iglesia El Rosario

Our expenses from our 23.5 hours in Panama City and San Salvador are below.

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Expense Report: Bavaro Beach, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

We had a rather interesting entry into the country. Immigration was empty when we got there at 5am and we began to form a line at the counter to wait for the employees. When they arrived, obviously having just woken up, they started to direct us back to where we entered. We paid $10 each for a tourist card, but didn’t receive an actual card or a receipt of any kind. We just handed an employee $20 USD and they let us pass. We spent a total of 4 days and 7.5 hours in the Dominican Republic.

Our costs in the Dominican can be seen below. I will also attach a complete breakdown of our costs at the bottom of the page.

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Best and Worst Use of our Money-

The BEST use of our money was on our accommodation and food, which are two of the biggest expenses while traveling. $43 per night in Punta Cana is very cheap and we didn’t sacrifice comfortability for it. $115 on food and water for four and a half days of eating out is also good.

WORST: Almost half of our budget went to two excursions for a total of $296. We are usually much smarter while sightseeing, but we really wanted to do both of these. We overspent for our $35 taxi ride from the airport and our $10 on souvenirs was a waste.

ACCOMMODATION- $172 ($43/night)

El Dorado Village Bavaro Beach Studio: $172 for four nights. The location was great and the price was even better. We were only 500 meters from the beach with restaurants, a grocery story, and money exchange within walking distance. Our host even drove us to the airport at the end of our trip for only $5.

View from our balcony

EXCURSIONS- SCUBA and Zip-line

SCUBA diving with SeaPro Divers (TripAdvisor): $190 total for a refresher dive ($10 tip) and a two-dive trip ($180) for both of us. We were refunded $90 after a horrible second dive that should have been called off due to zero visibility, which brought the total down to $100.  The dive shop is super laid back and fine for people with a bit of experience, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone trying to learn how to dive. The boat ride along the coast to get to the El Nino dive site was stunning with beaches lined with palm trees and perfect tropical turquoise water.

A fish photobombing our SCUBA selfie

Zip-lining and cenote at Scape Park (TripAdvisor): Zip-lining $89/person + $20 for a second activity and lunch. $218 total minus 10% discount for booking online for a total of $196. The zip-line tour was at the edge of a cliff overlooking the jungle with the coast in the distance. It was a really cool spot. The downfall was that it was super touristy, which meant a high price tag and waiting in line every time we got to the next platform. We had a decent American lunch of burgers, hot dogs, french fries and fruit between our two activities. The second part of the excursion was a short hike to a cenote called Hoyo Azul, or Blue Hole, where we went swimming for an hour. Transportation was also included from nearby hotels. Since we were staying at an AirBnB, we had to walk to the closest hotel to catch our ride.

Zip-lining at Scape Park
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Hoyo Azul or Blue Hole at Scape Park

FOOD!

We spent $109 on food and $6 on water specifically. We ate out for breakfast five times, lunch three times, dinner four times, and a separate dessert place three times. Eating is one of the biggest expenses while traveling because you eat out almost every meal. We try to reduce this expense by sharing an entree and then getting a smaller dessert or snack later. We also rarely drink alcohol on vacation and when we do, we buy a bottle from a grocery store instead of getting drinks from a bar or restaurant. We spent $6 on water since the tap water was unsafe to drink. We bought 1.5 liter bottles for 30 DRP or $0.68 at the nearby Bam Market.

Dinner at Bali Cana

Restaurants-

Delices Francais– Breakfast: $4-5 for the two of us.

Sweet Bella Napoli– Lunch: Split a chicken pesto sandwich ($5.23) Dessert: Nutella Rolls ($1.83) and Flan ($1.48)

Balicana– Dinner: Split a Thai vegetable wok and spring rolls ($15.24).

Pepito City– Lunch: Venezuelan arepas ($7.72 for two.) It’s a bit of a walk, but well worth it.

Garota Rodizio and Grill– Brazilian Dinner: Split a plate of chicken, potatoes and vegetables ($11.68).

La Posada de Gladys– Dinner: Split a Dominican dish of beef, rice, beans and fried plantains ($7.95)

Poseidon– Lunch: Split chicken fingers ($10.90). Located on Jellyfish Beach. There is a big plaza full of shops right behind it.

Nam Nam– Dinner: Two crepes ($9.09)

Taxi

It was a $35 taxi from the airport to our place in Bavaro Beach. We arrived at 5am so our options were limited, but I probably could have haggled better. I couldn’t find any bus options so we were stuck with a taxi. However, we did get a ride back to the airport from our host for only $5. $30 saved!

Souvenirs

…were less than impressive. Skye got a ring that broke already and I got a pint of Mamajuana, which is a Dominican drink mixing rum, red wine, and honey together and letting it soak in a bottle with tree bark and herbs. All of the shops have their own brews, which were quite tasty, but the mass-produced stuff that you buy tasted awful and gave me a stomach ache. I was going to bring the bottle full of tree bark home to try and make my own, but it was confiscated at the San Salvador airport. $10 wasted.

List of expenses. The number in the ( ) is how much we paid in Dominican pesos. The US dollar amount was calculated using the exchange rate we received from wherever we exchanged before purchasing.

Dominican
12/19/2015
$20 Dominican Tourist Card ($10/person)
$35 Taxi from airport to Bavaro Beach
$5 Breakfast pastries at Delices Francais
$2 Smoothie
$.68 (30 DRP) Water
$5.23 (230 DRP) Lunch Chicken Pesto Sandwich at Sweet Bella Napoli
$10 SeaPro Divers Scuba Refresh (tip)
$15.23 (670 DRP) Dinner Vegetable Wok at Balicana
$10.57 (465 DRP) Whiskey and Coca-Cola
12/20/2015
$90 SCUBA SeaPro Divers at El Nino
$5 (200 DRP) Breakfast pastries at Delices Francais
$7.72 (340) Lunch Venezualan Arepas at Pepito City
$2 (90) Waters
$11.68 Dinner Chicken at Garota Rodizio and Grill
$3.75 (165) Dessert Nutella Rolls at Sweet Bella Napoli
12/21/2015
$196 ZIPLINE and Hoyo Azul at Scape Park
$9.89 (435) Souvenirs- Ring and Mamajuana
$7.95 (350) Dinner Beef, rice, beans, plantains at La Posada de Gladys
$1.48 (65) Dessert Flan at Sweet Bella Napoli
$1.36 (60) Water
12/22/2016
$3.4 (150) Breakfast pastries at Delices Francais
$0.91 (40) Water
$1.93 (85) Coca-Cola
$10.90 (480) Lunch Chicken Fingers at Poseidon
$9.09 (400) Dinner Crepes at Nam Nam
$3.75 (165) Dessert Nutella Rolls at Sweet Bella Napoli
$0.68 (30) Water
12/23/2016
$4 Breakfast pastries at Delices Francais
$5 Ride to airport from host

Expense Report: Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica

We spent twelve days traveling over the 2015 winter break. We departed Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport at 6:22 on Friday, December 18th, just 3.5 hours after school let out for break. We arrived back in the US at Chicago O’Hare on December 30th at 1:45 EST.

The breakdown of our expenses is below. I will post a more thorough expense report for each individual country we visited as well. Those expense reports can be found at the following links: Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.

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Flights

We transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United MileagePlus in order to book our flights. We paid $394 and 95,000 points for two people to see four countries. You can read more about booking the reward with my How We Got There: Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica post. We took 7 flights in total.

Accommodation

We spent $700 on 10 nights of accommodations. Our  accommodations included four nights in the Dominican for $42 per night, five nights in Costa Rica for $84 per night, one night in Panama City for $108 per night and one night in the El Salvador International Airport and on a plane for free.

Food

Over our twelve days of travel, we spent $283 on food. That’s less than $25 a day for eating out almost every meal. We were able to save a ton of money in this category by splitting entrees for almost every meal, with the exception being on Christmas day. We also saved money by getting bread and jam from a grocery store to eat for breakfast in Costa Rica. Skye also made a pasta dinner one night in Costa Rica.

Excursions

Our biggest expense, even above accommodations and flights, were our excursions. We spent $830 on excursions. This is much higher than what we typically spend in this category, but is the norm for where we were traveling. There wasn’t much in the form of free and easy sights to see. Our $830 included $235 for two SCUBA diving trips, $240 for two zip-lining tours, approximately $90 for two scooter rentals and gas, $36 for a short hike to swim in a cenote, $96 for a layover taxi tour around Panama City for 5 hours, and $135 for a layover guide around San Salvador.

How We Got There: Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica

During our cross country bicycle tour of 60 days and 3,200 miles, Skye and I decided that we had probably earned a tropical and relaxing vacation. This is how we booked that reward with points.

Ziplining in the Dominican Republic!

We traveled with United MileagePlus miles to the Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica over winter break from December 18 – 30th. We earned the majority of our points through the Chase Freedom and Chase Sapphire Preferred to earn Chase Ultimate Rewards. Ultimate Rewards transfer to airline partners such as United, Southwest, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic. They also transfer to hotel partners such as Hyatt, IHG, Marriot, and Ritz-Carlton. We knew we wanted to fly to the Caribbean and/or Latin America and, after some research, determined transferring to United Airlines was our best option.

I began searching United’s website for award availability and I really like how easy it is to use. There is simply a box titled “Search for award travel” that you need to check while searching for flights.

We could have easily booked a round-trip flight to either the Dominican or Costa Rica, but why see only one country when you can experience two for the same price? United allows a stopover on the way to your destination for no extra cost. A stopover is a “break of journey” between your origin and destination of any length.

Walking through O’Hare Airport in Chicago to catch our plane to the Dominican Republic.

My first step was to search for one way award availability. The goal on United is to find their Saver Awards. They are in the same cabin as the standard award, but cost less miles. I really started my search in early October, which is kind of late to look for awards over a peak travel time like the winter holiday.

I was able to find an Economy Saver Award home from Liberia, Costa Rica to Chicago for 17,500 per person. Score! This is what we were looking for. It departed Costa Rica on the 29th in the afternoon and arrived in Chicago on the 30th after a layover in El Salvador. Skye needed to work on the 31st so this was perfect.

We took this plane from San Salvador to Liberia and Liberia back to San Salvador!

The next step was to find another location to go to before Costa Rica. I was searching locations such as Panama, the Bahamas, Aruba, etc. Pretty much anything that would provide a tropical beach was on the list. I couldn’t find any Economy Saver Awards after hours/days of searching.

I started narrowing in on Punta Cana, Dominican Republic because I was seeing more availability there. I finally found a flight I liked at a decent award. It wasn’t the 17,500 award I was hoping for in Economy, but I did find a 30,000 Saver Award in Business/First Class! The Standard Award in Economy is 35,000 so we were going to save 5,000 per person and travel in Business/First Class. However, this was traveling from Chicago to Punta Cana so I wanted to see if I could do one better. And I did! I found an additional flight from Kalamazoo that leaves at 6:22 pm, school got out at 3pm for winter break on the same day, that arrived in Chicago in plenty of time to catch our flight to Punta Cana. As frugal travelers, we don’t usually opt for first class, but since I could only find Standard Awards in Economy, I was willing to save 5,000 points for Business/First Class.

Business class meant free food and entertainment!

This gave us our package for 47,500 per person for a total of 95,000 points. We had easily accrued this many points after both opening up the Freedom and Sapphire Preferred. It wasn’t the 35,000 per person and 70,000 total I was hoping for with Saver Awards in Economy, but we were definitely treated to a rare first class experience for us.

However, I wasn’t done perfecting this trip quite yet. Why see two countries when you could see three? In order to connect from the Dominican to Costa Rica, we had to travel through Panama City, Panama. Panama City is the main hub of Central America. I quickly found a flight from Punta Cana to Panama City on the 23rd, but couldn’t find a good outbound flight to Liberia.

View of the Dominican Republic coast from our plane.

This is when magic struck. I found a flight out the next morning to San Salvador, El Salvador and then another one to Liberia 7.5 hours after that. This enabled us to explore Panama City for five hours, get a hotel room for the night, then wake up and fly to San Salvador to see the city there, and then on to our final destination of Liberia, Costa Rica. This added no extra miles, only some airport taxes and fees, to add two more countries to our travel map.

I was able to book this all online at United.com by clicking on multi-city travel and plugging in all of the cities for the flights that I had already found.

I am very happy with my first experience booking flights with miles and really enjoyed the entire process. I can’t wait to do it again!