Cheap, Wanderer

South America Prep: Cost Breakdown

In just a week I leave on a one-way ticket to Quito, Ecuador.  While this trip is one I have been planning for quite some time, I don’t believe the magnitude has yet hit me.  Instead, I have busied myself with all of the preparation required for temporarily moving to another continent.

I thought some of you might be interested in the costs I’ve incurred prior to leaving the U.S. to prepare for my trip.  CAVEAT: you do NOT need to spend this much money.  I did a cost-benefit analysis for a number of items and/or services for which I paid, and ultimately determined that the cost was worth it.  There are certainly things I’ve paid for that are not necessary for every traveller; it’s all dependent on what your trip looks like, what you’d like to get out of it, and how comfortable you are in certain situations.

Here’s what my preparatory cost breakdown looks like:

Plane ticket – $0

Most people assume that my plane ticket was the most costly item of my preparation.  In complete contradiction, my ticket was one of the cheapest items.  As I mentioned earlier, I had been planning this trip for quite some time, and on a friends’ recommendation, signed up for the free version of Scott’s Cheap Flights email alerts.  Something that will continue to pop up through this post is the recommendation to start early.  I received a notification that tickets to Ecuador were on sale and purchased a one-way ticket from the DC area to Quito in January 2018 – 10 months prior to my trip.  I bought a ticket in a time frame that I knew worked (my only criteria was “a bit after August 2018”) and literally purchased the lowest price ticket I could find. Yet another tip – be flexible.  My schedule’s flexibility allowed me to save at least $30.

The one-way ticket for October 2018 only cost $137.90, and with my travel credit card points I simply “erased” that cost from my monthly bill (a blog post on travel credit cards is pending), effectively adjusting the cost of my plane ticket to nothing.

Travel insurance – $723.97

I’ve met too many travellers whose eyes glaze over when I bring up the topic of travel insurance.  Travel insurance is one of those topics that isn’t fun or glamorous to talk about, but that doesn’t negate its importance.  I’ve been fortunate enough to never have to file any claims (although I once came close), but knowing I had the ability to do so gave me piece of mind throughout my trip.

Before leaving, as in as soon as you book your plane ticket, take stock of your current insurance situation.  I have a friend whose employer health insurance works internationally, but the vast majority of the time this will not be the case.  Consequently, if you were to injure yourself abroad, the health insurance you have at home would not cover the bills.

Travel insurance also has a number of other perks.  Depending on what kind you elect, travel insurance will also cover situations such as trip cancellation/interruption, non-medical/medical emergency evacuation, personal items in case they are lost or damaged, and baggage delay.  Always read the fine print to understand exactly what is covered.  Still not convinced?  Nomadic Matt does a fantastic job of explaining the ins and outs of travel insurance and why it’s worth the cost.

I personally use World Nomads because I’ve read so many wonderful reviews about them.  I find their website very easy to use and you can easily receive a cost quote without creating an account.  (post-trip update: my World Nomads travel insurance policy covered the cost to replace my camera and driver’s license when I was pickpocketed – a total of more than $300). 

Okay, so that sounds good and all, but you may be asking yourself, $700?  Isn’t that too much?  To clarify, World Nomads offers two types of plans – standard and explorer.  While more expensive, I opted for the explorer plan, mainly because I wanted to know certain activities were covered in case I decided to partake.  For U.S. residents, cliff jumping, rappelling, and certain types of SCUBA diving were only covered by the explorer plan.

I also weighed the pros and cons of opting for a shorter length coverage duration, then starting a new travel insurance plan if I decided to stay longer.  Ultimately, this would have cost more money than an elongated single plan, and possibly would have given me the mental permission to skip out on the trip early when homesickness hit, so the plan I opted for covers 203 days of travel to every Latin American country I could think to include.  Surprisingly, adding additional countries of travel didn’t increase my insurance quote.

Ultimately, my travel insurance winds up costing me $3.57 a day, which I find to be worth the cost.

Vaccinations – $1084

Protecting your health is an instrumental aspect of international travel.  My advice is to seek care at a travel clinic at least two months prior to your trip.  The health care professionals at the travel clinic can recommend which vaccinations are recommended prior to your travel.  Seeing as I am not a medical professional, I will simply list the vaccinations I received; this is in no way, shape, or form a recommendation of which vaccines are required for any situation other than my own.

I ultimately received the following vaccinations:

  • Yellow Fever – $220
  • Typhoid – $105
  • Rabies (a 3-shot series given on days 0, 7, and 21 or 28) – $315 per injection

I will note that I was previously vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B as a child, and coincidentally had my Hepatitis B titers checked for a job-related exam two years prior to my trip.  I also received my tetanus/diphtheria booster within the last year, so I was covered on that front.

While my U.S. health insurance specifically told me travel vaccines were not covered, I did receive some money back from the insurance company; it can’t hurt to submit your bills to your insurance.

I shopped around for prices at various travel clinics in the DC area and picked the one that was cheapest for the vaccines I thought I’d need.  However, I still spent a large chunk of money on vaccinations, mostly due to the rabies vaccination I asked to receive.  The vaccination costs $315 for each of three shots, for a total of $945.  While the rabies vaccination is not required for my travels, I do plan to be in South America for several months and will likely visit some remote areas.  It is also important to note that while I am now vaccinated, I will still need to seek medical care immediately if bit by a rabid animal.  The reason I received the rabies vaccine series is because I spoke with several health care professionals who agreed it would be a good idea for me to get vaccinated against rabies.

Once again, I would like to reiterate that I am NOT a medical professional.  Please run all medical questions and concerns by your health care provider.

Medications – around $35

At the travel clinic I visited I was given two prescriptions:

  • atovaquone – anti-malarial
  • azithromycin – antibiotic

In talking to my health care provider at the travel clinic I mentioned that I wanted to visit the Amazon rainforest, and she advised me that I would need anti-malarial pills due to the presence of malaria in that region.  Since I didn’t have concrete plans, in going back and forth with her, we both decided 39 pills (for 39 days total, as the medication has to be taken for several days prior to- and post-trip) seemed a safe, albeit somewhat arbitrary, number.

However, when I went to fill my prescriptions I was informed that while my insurance would cover these prescriptions with a co-pay, it would only cover 30 atovaquone pills at a time.  Once again, I was glad I had started this process early.  The pharmacist explained that she would give me 30 atovaquone pills.  She could then give me the remaining 9 in 30 days, when I would be “done” with the first 30.  Since I wasn’t leaving on my trip for a few months, I did exactly that, obviously saving all 39 pills for my trip.

My insurance covered each medication fill with a co-pay of about $10, for a total of about $30 for the prescription medication.

The travel clinic provider also recommended picking up loperamide (anti-diarrheal) over the counter, which came to about $4.  I also picked up a four-pack of acetaminophen (AKA Tylenol) in blister form, as I’ve read it’s possible you may need to show medications in its original packaging at border crossings.  This cost about $1.

Workaway year-long membership- $38

Workaway is a website that connects individuals who are looking for volunteers with those interested in volunteering throughout the world.  Volunteer positions can include anything from house-sitting, working in a hostel, working on a farm, teaching a language, baby-sitting, to so many other options.  In exchange for their work, Workawayers, as they’re called, receive a free place to sleep.  Sometimes food is also included.  Since no money is exchanged, no visas are required.

Workaway also has a review feature, allowing both hosts and Workawayers to leave feedback on the ultimate outcome of the experience.  This also adds a level of safety to the process.

There are several similar sites to Workaway, such as WWOOF, HelpX, and Hippohelp.  I ultimately decided on Workaway because one account offered me the flexibility to work in a number of different countries and I liked the site’s interface.

A year-long membership for a single person costs $38, but there is an option for a two-person account for $48 a year.

Miscellaneous Items – $171.24

In packing for this trip, I resolved to avoid purchasing items I would only use for this trip and were completely useless for my life back in urban DC.

Then anxiety hit and buying “just in case” items made me feel a bit better about uprooting my life to fly to South America with little to no plan.  So I wound up buying a few more things than I had originally planned…

  • SteriPen American Red Cross Ultralight Purifier – purchased for $25, retails at $70.  I will be encountering tap water in South America that is unsafe to drink.  I bought the SteriPen to avoid constantly boiling water (tedious and results in unpleasantly hot liquid) or constantly buying plastic bottled water (not ideal health-wise, environment-wise, or wallet-wise).  The SteriPen I purchased uses UV light to purify up to 1 liter of water in 90 seconds and charges via a USB cable.


  • Smartwool Merino Wool Base Layer Long Sleeve – purchased for $20, retails around $80.  After hearing other bloggers sing the praises of merino wool, I caved and bought this shirt.  It’s something I’ll certainly wear in my non-travel life back in DC, and will act as one of many layers to keep me warm during my trip through the Andes Mountains.


  • PrAna Halle Pants – purchased for $28, retails for $80.  I read so many positive reviews of these pants, and had been looking for water-resistant hiking pants to use in my non-travel life anyway.  These pants fold up into capris, are comfortable, and don’t look too tacky.  (Right?)  Note that they run large and while they come in both petite and tall lengths, I actually opted for the regular length because the tall was a bit long.  For me.  And I’m 5’10”.  Bonus: I read many reviews that people are able to pull these pants off in the work place.  Double win!


  • Champion Women’s Snap Scarf – purchased for $0, retails at $5.  After reading this blog post about the Chrysalis Cardi, I was convinced it would solve all of my minimalist packing issues.  Then I saw the price tag – $180.  Gulp.  I couldn’t quite stomach that cost.  I soon found a similar and cheaper alternative in the Lululemon Vinyasa Scarf, but that scarf still retailed for about $60.  Determined to find the once piece of clothing that could act as a cardigan, shawl, skirt, shirt, and more, I came across this Champion brand rip-off substitute.  Retailing at a whopping $5, it seemed the perfect fit.  While it lacks the dress and skirt function of the Chrysalis Cardi, I can honestly count on two hands the number of times I wear either of those in a year.  Plus, I could technically make a very shoddy skirt out of it if needed.  I happened to have a $5 Amazon gift code for donating blood (side note: donating blood can save up to 3 lives; find your nearest blood drive here), so this scarf cost me a whopping $0.


  • NuPouch 2L Waterproof Bag – purchased for $5.99, retails around $15.  I had been looking for a dry bag since I was introduced to the wonder of these bags by a friend back in Iceland.  I plan to use this to hold my camera and/or phone during water activities, or alternatively keeping a wet bathing suit from spreading wetness and mustiness to the rest of my bag.  A simple plastic grocery bag will work, but these bags have much tighter seals and will float if accidentally dropped in water due to the air that’s trapped inside.  It takes up little to no room in my backpack when rolled up.


  • BV TSA-Approved Keyless Luggage Locks x 2 – purchased for $8.99, retails around $15.  I have a regular MasterLock combination lock, but it’s been acting up recently and I’ve found the circular arm portion to be too thick for some hostel lockers.  These luggage locks do double duty to lock up valuables in hostels and to lock up my backpack while traveling.  I purchased keyless because I would be that person to lock the key in the locker.  Ooops.


  • Nikon Coolpix P80 Camera + Rechargeable Battery – purchased for $43.95, camera originally retailed around $300.  I have had a small point-and-shoot camera for several years that I don’t necessarily love and occasionally has some technical issues.  I didn’t love the quality of pictures it takes, and was hoping for something with more capabilities to shoot photos in South America, but wasn’t ready to take the (expensive) jump to DSLR cameras.  I found this Coolpix P80 on Craigslist for $35, and after reading the manual, playing around with taking pictures, and reading copious photography tips, my hope is to take slightly better pictures during my trip.  The battery the camera came with had a pretty short charge, so I purchased another (non-Nikon brand) battery for $8.95.


  • Natrapel Bug Spray – purchased for $7.35, retails for $7.35.  I picked up this 20% Picaridin TSA travel size bug spray at REI to fight the ticks and mosquitoes in South America.


  • Sawyer Permethrin Pump Spray – purchased for $16.96.  This repellant is made for clothes-only and lasts for up to 48 days.  I picked up a 24 oz. bottle from REI and sprayed all of the clothes I knew I’d be wearing in climates with mosquitos, including pants, socks, shirts, and sweaters.
  • Passport Photos – purchased for $15.  I decided to bring these in case I wanted to purchase a visa into Bolivia when I arrived at the border, or to help with the process of getting a new passport in case I lose my original.

I also purchased a new watch and purse since both of mine bit the dust while I was prepping for the trip.  While I kept my South American journey in mind as I made my purchases, I ultimately did not include these two costs as I would have replaced these items regardless of my travels.

So what is the total of money I’ve spent before setting foot in South America?

Grand Total: $2,191.49.  Yikes.

While this number may seem quite high, I want to point out that it could have been higher.  I saved money by shopping around to different travel clinics to find the one that offered the vaccines I needed at the lowest prices.  Additionally, save for the camera battery, scarf, and bug spray, all of my pre-trip purchases were bought secondhand and bartered for on eBay or Craigslist.  Based on my expectations regarding volunteering, I foresee that the $38 Workaway account will more than pay for itself in free lodging, as will the SteriPen in free water.

Could I have reduced these costs further?  Sure.  I could have saved $186.69 by opting for the standard, rather than explorer, World Nomads travel insurance plan.  I also could have skipped the rabies vaccinations, which would have saved me $945.  However, I feel comfortable that I made educated, well thought-out and medically-supported decisions, rather than skimping on insurance coverage or my health.

Post-trip update:  I have no regrets whatsoever about my pre-trip choices.  I did go rappelling in Ecuador (so fun!) and appreciated being able to focus on enjoying the experience rather than being injured and my insurance policy not covering the injury.  In regards to the rabies vaccinatinos, I felt slightly safer being around dogs in South America with these vaccines, as I personally met two travellers who were bitten by dogs in Ecuador.  And my travel insurance allowed me to replace my $35 camera with a more expensive and more user-friendly replacement, free-of-cost. 

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