Four frugal tips for a Puerto Rican spring break

Find good travel tips and cost-saving ideas on spending spring break in Puerto Rico. 

Ricardo Arduengo/AP/File
San Juan is a highlight of a visit to Puerto Rico, as this photo of its Ocean Park neighborhood shows. But there is much more to see in Puerto Rico, and there are many money-saving ways to have a good visit.

I'm going to be completely honest here: I went to Puerto Rico during spring break last year, but the trip was definitely not an exercise in frugality.

I wasn't there to party; two grad school colleagues and I were awarded a grant to report on college-educated Puerto Ricans who were leaving the island to work in the States. Most of the 10-day trip revolved around arranging and conducting interviews, and though our reporting, travel and hotel costs were all covered by the grant, I still somehow managed to spend a ridiculous amount of money--especially considering my status as a broke graduate student.

At the time, I was living on a combination of savings, loans, credit cards and the odd nannying job I could fit into my hectic school schedule, so this trip was not easy on my ever-dwindling bank account.  A year later, I'm still feeling the repercussions of my irresponsible spending every time I look at my credit card statement.

If you're planning a Puerto Rican vacation, I hope you learn from my mistakes. Here are a few ways to avoid spending your life savings over spring break.

1. Stay off the strip

We planned the trip pretty last-minute, and for the first few days we stayed in San Juan at the Condado Plaza Hilton, which, to its credit is a nice hotel with two pools, a swim up bar and its own private beach. The problem with these accommodations was location: the hotel was situated on a long strip filled with hotels, over-priced restaurants and luxury shops, most of which are chains you can find here in the States. We spent the first night trying to explore and instead spent $40 (per person) on a seafood pasta dinner, then bought $9 cones of Ben & Jerry's for dessert and called it a night. When we wanted to get away from the tourist traps and explore the city, we'd end up spending upwards of $30 on a cab ride to get anywhere interesting.

Halfway through our trip, we moved to an airbnb apartment in Old San Juan, which was not only $150 cheaper per night, it was also in the middle of everything we wanted to see and within walking distance of hundreds of amazing bars, restaurants, museums, grocery stores, shops and other attractions. Compared to the Condado strip, Old San Juan is a magical fairy land filled with cobblestone streets, a rainbow array of colonial-style buildings, and magnificent views of the sea, and our apartment was an adorable little one-bedroom with an outdoor courtyard and full, working kitchen.

Comparing the prices at the Condado Hilton for the next couple of weekends with what I could find on airbnb for the same dates, it looks like the latter is still your best option:

  • Cheapest price I could find at the Condado Hilton: $279/night
  • Cheapest price I could find for an airbnb: $100/night
  • Total savings: $179/night.

2. Rent a car

Taxis are expensive, especially in San Juan, and you can't count on finding (or calling) one if you're out after midnight. As we were working during most of our time on the island, we hired a driver to take us to interviews and while he was lovely (hi Waldo!) we could have saved a boatload of money if we'd just rented our own car.

How much money, exactly? Well, I tallied up our transportation costs after we got home, and between our driver and the taxis we took after hours, we spent a grand total of $394.01 on just one week of getting around (discerning readers might note that our trip was 10 days long, but 3 of those days were spent on foot and on the beach--no car needed!). For comparison, I just did a search on Expedia to see how much a week-long car rental would set me back during the same time period this year. The results? Just $170. Even with the added cost of gas, we could have saved almost $200. Le sigh!

3. Venture outside of San Juan

This is one thing we did right, albeit not as much as we should have. While San Juan is amazing and beautiful, there are other cities on the island just as lovely and a heck of a lot less expensive. We took a day trip across the island to the city of Ponce (about a 2-hour drive), and stopped at various small towns in the mountains to take photos and video, eat lunch, and wander around.

If you're wondering, we spent less than $10 total on food that day, as opposed to the roughly $50 we were used to dropping, and we ate like kings. I'm talking fried chunks of succulent pork belly on beds of garlicky mashed plantains with heaping sides of rice and beans, all eaten on a patio high up in the hills overlooking a lush, green valley. I'm half-drooling, half-crying just thinking about it.

If you're less of a road-tripper (although, like I said, this one will only take you 2 hours) and more of a hiker, take a 30-minute drive to El Yunque National Forest and revel in the beauty of the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System! While I didn't get to experience the magic that is El Yunque, my friend Claire (who traveled with us but wisely decided to make her trip a vacation, not a work week) spent a day hiking in the rain forest with two friends from college, and got to take a bunch of enviable selfies in front of a giant waterfall. Remind me to schedule my next work trip in Antarctica so I don't miss out on (free!) fun like this ever again.

4. Don't settle for the convenience of tourist traps--cheap and delicious food exists!

Of all the silly things I wasted my money on during my 10 days in Puerto Rico, I'm most ashamed of how much I spent on food. Don't get me wrong--it was all fresh, delicious and totally decadent (minus the disgusting Denny's appetizer platter I shoved into my face at 3am, but was it worth $40 per meal? I'm gonna go with no. As I mentioned before, the problem with the touristy parts of San Juan is that most of the food close or attached to the resorts is extremely overpriced. However, drive 10 minutes outside the tourist areas and you'll find a lot good food for prices that are actually reasonable.

Sadly I don't have a long list for you (as clearly I blew my unborn children's college fund on overpriced food while I was there), but definitely try Kasalta. It's got reasonably priced sandwiches and outrageously deliciously baked goods. I got the media noche sandwich after hearing that's what President Obama ate when he stopped by the restaurant in 2011. Ya know, I figured if it was good enough for the leader of the free world, it should suffice--and it didn't disappoint. It's basically a ham, swiss cheese, mustard and pickle panini made with a soft, sweet bun, totally worth the ~$7 I spent on it. Remember to brush up on your Spanish before you go here because the menu is devoid of English.

Another good option for saving money on food if you're staying at an airbnb is to buy groceries and cook for yourself. I know, what an idea, right?! It might be a little boring, but did you know they sell a garlic/mayo ketchup combo at grocery stores in PR?? Well they do. That's all.

I've just about exhausted my store of frugal Puerto Rican travel tips (I was only there for 10 days, there's only so much I know!!) but I'll leave you with some final suggestions:

1. No matter what time it is, Plaza del Mercado Santurce is always popping. By daylight it holds a market bursting with fruit of every shape, size and color, and by night the plaza outside (and the many bars lining the square), fills with young people eating, dancing and generally having a good time. Go there.

2. Don't forget to have a beach day. Or several beach days. It might be cliche, but there's nothing more relaxing than spending the day sunning, swimming and snoozing on a white sand beach listening to the sounds of the clear blue waves roll in. Heaven is a place on earth, and that place is Puerto Rico.

3. WEAR YOUR SUNSCREEN, PEOPLE!! For some reason my deranged brain was convinced that because I was a lifeguard (with a killer tan) during high school and college, my pale,  24-year-old Scandinavian skin that hadn't seen sunlight in 8 months would be TOTALLY FINE sans sunscreen for a 6-hour beach day.



I got burnt--like, lobster burnt--on the first day and had to endure 9 days of mean-spirited tomato comparisons from the people I THOUGHT were my friends.

Basically, if you're going to Puerto Rico this spring break, don't follow in the footsteps of this money-wasting lobster. Learn from my folly and save yourself some cash while you're there!

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