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The Exceptional Traveler: Travel on $1200 a Month!

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"Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." -- Miriam Beard

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Artisinal dairy in Mérida

In a recent post, I described my experience of housesitting in Mérida, Mexico this summer, as being in paradise. Meals featured colossal mangoes, vine-ripened tomatoes, artisanal string cheese, shrimp ceviche; evening activities included concerts, art openings and meeting friends for mojitos at some of the coolest spots in town. What I didn't write about was the cost.

Including the Cancún airfare, Manhattan to JFK r/t airport transfers, and an overnight in the Unesco World Heritage city of Campeche, the total cost for five weeks in Mexico was $950! For a little more money I could have rented a car from Easy Way and returned to the Cancún airport via the world-class rarely visited ruins along the Guatemalan border and spent a couple of days on a Caribbean beach. Everyone asks how I can afford to travel so often and it's time to come clean.

First the mantra: off season, off season, off season. There is less competition off season and you can negotiate better prices on everything from accommodations to car rentals. If you do need a car, rent locally. And travel light. Being burdened with baggage adds hundreds of dollars to the cost of a trip. Learn to focus on the little picture and see how a series of $20 saved adds up.

1. Inexpensive airfare is key: As special offers change constantly, you must not only remain vigilant, you need to be creative and keep your mind open. After a frustrating morning on the phone with the airlines trying to figure out how to fly directly to Mérida in the Yucatán inexpensively, I opened my laptop, booked a $350 ticket to Cancún on JetBlue, and said "screw them!" out loud as I printed the confirmation. Considering the additional 2 hours it would have taken to fly across the country to get to Mexico City (Cancún is only 3.5 from New York), and the 3.5 hours layover waiting for the connecting Mérida flight, four hours on a comfortable first-class bus leaving from the Cancún airport at $30 would actually get me to Mérida faster and far cheaper. For almost the same price, one could rent a car and get there in even less time, but I always choose the simpler option. The hassle of dealing with paperwork for a one-day rental isn't worth it to me.

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Neighborhood of La Ermita, Mérida

2. Affordable accommodations are equally essential if you want to do exceptional things less expensively: There is no better way to learn about another country and become part of the community than by staying in one place for a while, and as every traveler knows, the longer you're away, the less it costs. If you've been following my posts, you know that I'm a big fan of home exchanges (homexchange.com) and housesitting: (trustedhousesitters.com; mindmyhouse.com; housecarers.com). House rentals directly from owners (vrbo.com) and airbnb.com (private rooms with bath or entire apartments/homes offered by their owners in 192 countries) cost more, but can still be affordable. You can find deeply discounted hotels through booking.com, but hotels don't have the cost-saving option that comes with having a kitchen. Eating in is a wonderful way to learn about local food, but it's also essential to keeping expenses down.

An advantage dealing directly with owners is that they usually offer personal tips on the area where you're renting and the names of a few friends so you don't begin as a stranger. After a week you'll know where to buy food for the best price and will be comfortable whipping around on day trips using local transportation.

3. I ball-parked weekly expenses at $150, including food, transportation and a couple of nights dining out each week: When the cost of a pineapple or a bag of five tomatoes is one dollar each, $50 buys you a lot of good food in Mexico. I factor in a few over-the-top splurges each month as well. And don't think, "Oh, she could do this because she was in a less expensive part of the world." I've just returned from a month on Mallorca, Spain, and spent only slightly more than I did in Mexico!

Click on the green comment box to the left of the article as you read. Let me hear about your experiences. Ask questions. I'm happy to offer suggestions and look forward to solving challenges together. And check back every two weeks for my latest travel tips. Next blog: Travel on $1200 a Month! Part II