Obviously at popular vacation destinations you expect restaurants to have high prices just as they do at tourist beaches, ski areas and amusement parks all over the world, but food prices have gotten crazy in Costa Rica even in supermarkets in backwater ranching towns.
One question that we get a lot from friends and others planning travel is “how much should we budget for food?” Many people think of Costa Rica as a budget destination but our experience is that for sustenance you’ll spend at least as much here and often a bit more, as in the U.S., Canada or Europe.
So how much should you budget for food on your vacation? The short answer is “about the same as what you budget for lodging“.
That surprises most people, but it’s better to know in advance than be shocked after you get the bill.
If You’re an Average Traveler
- you’re staying about a week
- you’re spending about $900 – $1,500 per person in Costa Rica for transportation, lodging and tours (not including international airfare)
- and your average hotel or lodge costs $90-$180 per night double occupancy
Since you’re the average traveler the price estimates below are for average restaurants. Not the cheapest hole in the wall, nor the sunset view lobster bib place on the cliff.
Breakfast is often included and sometimes pretty hearty, but if not, it’s the cheapest meal of the day if you end up going to a restaurant ($5 – $8).
At lunch you might want a chicken sandwich ($9), salad ($8), burger ($8) or personal pizza ($11) and a fresh fruit drink ($3).
At dinner grilled fish ($13), shrimp pasta ($16), steak ($12), or grilled chicken ($12). Split an appetizer ($10) and a desert ($5), add a couple of beers for him ($7) and a couple of glasses of wine for her ($15).
Throw in a couple of powerbars ($3 each), two gatorades ($3 each) and a bag of chips ($2) for snacks on the road or while you’re hiking.
Add it all up and it’s $48 to $69 per person. Tack on the 13% tax and 10% service and two people spending $90-$180 per night on a lodge will be spending about $118-$170 for food each day.
Luxury Food Budget
Move up to luxury digs in the $200-$400 a night price range and you’ll be surprised how your food budget follows you. You might be splurging on an anniversary or birthday trip which means a special (ie expensive) candle light dinner.
Odds are if you can afford luxury lodging you’ll tend towards the nicer restaurants where you can easily double the prices listed above for an average eatery.
You’ll also probably end up at the restaurant where you’re staying a couple of times and meal tabs at luxury resorts and lodges tend to be quite a bit higher. Then there’s room service, poolside service and of course the mini-bar. There also tend to be a lot more people with their hand out after serving you because part of the definition of luxury is more servants – don’t forget to add the tips.
If you’re in the $300 a night price range for double occupancy you should probably budget at least $250 a day for food and drinks for two.
A Budget Traveler Food Budget
Back when I was an avid international backpacker in my teens and twenties and even through our thirties when Sue and I bicycle toured everywhere the food budget was paramount. I was burning so many calories hiking 20 miles or biking 80 miles a day that it seemed like all I did was eat. We’re still extremely active but our metabolisms have slowed down and three normal meals a day is sufficient.
If you’re backpacking on a really tight budget then cheap calories are an important goal but the food=lodging rule probably still applies. It’s likely you’ll be spending between $12 and $25 per person for a dorm bed or $30-$55 for a couple in double room or cabina.
Again, breakfast is the cheapest meal of the day and you can load up on Gallo Pinto, tortillas, eggs, fried plantains and hopefully some fresh fruit for around ($4-$7) per person. For lunch and dinner the cheapest meals are at the little local places called sodas and the best bang for your buck is usually a casado.
That is the traditional name for the meal a wife should make for a married man (casado in Spanish). It usually includes a little salad, some rice, some beans, maybe platanos or papas fritos, and either chicken, beef, pork chop, or fish. In rural areas you might still find a casado for ($6-$7) but in tourist areas they typically run more like ($7-$11). The 13% tax and 10% service is typically included in soda prices.
Throw in a couple of fruit smoothies ($3-$5) or your favorite carbonated beverage, a sleeve of Bokitas ($1 Ritz Crackers) or a bag of chips ($1-$5) for a snack, and a bag of Cocanas cookies ($1.50) for desert and you’re in the ballpark of $20-$30 per person per day.
You might think getting a place with a kitchen and going to the grocery store would be a lot cheaper but in our experience it doesn’t work out “mucho mas barato.”
Alcohol on a Budget
The real killer on a backpacking budget tends to be beverages.
At ($2-$4) a beer, ($5-10) for a glass of wine, and ($7-$12) for a mixed drink and your $25 daily budget can disappear while you watch the sunset.
Even water can easily cost a couple of bucks a bottle so do what you can to re-fill from the tap or cooler at your hostel, carry a filter and buy big jugs when you buy water (6 liters at the supermarket can be the same price as 1/2 liter at a convenience store).