Kat Sunlove, TheCostaRicaNews.com

As regular readers of this column know, I tend to be bullish on Costa Rica. Although there are commentators who focus on the negatives — bad roads, sluggish bureaucracy, crazy traffic, lax law enforcement — I generally highlight the many wonderful aspects of living here as an expat retiree. The glorious weather, exotic flora and fauna, friendly and helpful Ticos and low-priced fresh fruits and veggies are all good reasons to consider this beautiful tropical land for retirement.

But moving to another country for a tranquilo post-work lifestyle in most cases means moving away from friends and family. This raises an issue that I am currently struggling with myself, and one that you certainly will face if you make the transition to live overseas. That issue is the cost of travel for return trips to your home country.

In the initial planning for our move to Costa Rica, my husband Layne and I factored in the costs of annual two- or three-month trips home in our “what-if” financial spreadsheets. But our estimates did not anticipate the recent upheaval in the Middle East, which has caused instability in the oil markets, pushing up the cost of jet fuel, which in turn has prompted several dramatic increases in airline ticket prices. Just last summer, for example, Layne and I scored a $300 cheap flight round-trip ticket on Continental Airlines out of Chicago to San Jose, Costa Rica. With friends to visit in Chicago, it seemed like a great deal for us, and with our residency application moving along nicely last fall, we even felt that we could afford to just blow-off the return flight if our residency was completed by then. (Some airlines will not sell a one-way ticket into Costa Rica for a passenger holding only a tourist visa, which allows only a 90-day stay; you must be a legal resident in order to travel one-way.) The same trip to Chicago this year on that same airline is approximately $550, plus taxes – more than double. For us to visit loved ones in other parts of the country — Oregon, Washington, California, Texas, the East Coast — ticket costs range upward of $750 each. Once we get to one of those locales, we still have the typical costs of travel, such as eating out, a hotel room now and then and travel between states by ground transportation or air. As you can see, the expense can quickly add up to several thousand dollars.

Some low-cost airlines, such as Spirit Airlines and JetBlue, offer what seem like attractive fares into their hub cities. For instance, on Spirit, a trip into Fort Lauderdale from Costa Rica can be as cheap as $250 round-trip. But you’re in Fort Lauderdale, not where you necessarily want to be. Plus, those bargain flights tend to be “red-eyes,” leaving at 1:00 a.m. and arriving before dawn. If you can face such a schedule — my darling Layne can sleep anywhere! — such creative options may be available to you.

Besides the ticket price, another thing to watch out for are the hidden costs of air travel these days. Most airlines, except for that lovable renegade Southwest, have substantial fees for checked bags and additional fees for overweight bags. There are “priority seating” and “extra legroom” fees. On one recent flight, I learned that there was an extra charge to be in the Emergency Exit row because of more legroom, despite the fact that sitting there carries a responsibility to assist in an emergency. On many flights no food is available, or if it is, it may be a dry sandwich for $10 or a bag of pretzels. Drinks, of course, have always cost extra, with the notable exception of Taca Airlines. Although not offering the lowest ticket prices, Taca does have top-notch service and does not charge for the first two pieces of luggage.

Virtually all airlines also have a “reservation by phone” fee ranging from $10 to $25. Need to change your flight plans? That will be a $150 change fee on most airlines. Not only that, but Spirit in particular has some vicious hidden fees, such as a $40 fee for a carry-on bag that doesn’t fit beneath your seat. To avoid luggage charges on Spirit, you would basically have to fit your personal effects for overseas travel into a small backpack.

Another option for travel may be signing up for airline-branded credit cards. You frequently receive enough miles with your first purchase for a domestic round-trip. But be careful, ask questions and be prepared to follow up to get your miles. As we left Portland for Chicago last summer on Delta, we signed up for Delta-branded American Express cards on the guarantee of 25,000 miles each after our first purchase, enough for a free trip. But seven months later and after numerous phone calls to Delta SkyMiles and American Express, we are yet to receive all the miles we were promised. Still, we’re hopeful. The last agent I spoke with assured me that she would pursue the matter and offered us each 3000 bonus miles for our trouble. We’ll see if even those show up on our account. On the other hand, by using our Southwest Airlines Visa card plus credit from a few flights, Layne and I managed to earn two free round-trips in the States for our return travels this summer.

And let’s take a closer look at those airline mileage programs. Today, I noticed that I have accumulated enough miles in my Continental account for a one-way trip to Houston, where I could rent a car and drive to West Texas to see my mom, visiting a couple of friends along the way. Naturally, I expected the one-way return trip to Costa Rica to be about half-price.

Silly me. When I called Continental — waiting some 20 minutes for an agent, by the way — she informed me that miles cannot be used for one-way tickets and if Layne transferred his miles to me, giving me enough for the round-trip, that would cost… get ready… $15 per 1000 miles! Since I would need 17,500 of his miles, you can do the math. Might as well buy a ticket and keep the miles.

On the other hand, we have some friends here in Costa Rica who claim not to care about visiting family back home. They figure, if those folks want to see us, they can come here for a visit. If that description fits you, then you can relax and enjoy life in the tropics. But if, like me, you long to see that precious grandchild, adult son or daughter or elderly parents, then be sure to add into your calculations for retirement the cost of those trips back home. You can get there from here, but at today’s travel prices you may wish you could just hitchhike!Kat Sunlove, TheCostaRicaNews.com

As regular readers of this column know, I tend to be bullish on Costa Rica. Although there are commentators who focus on the negatives — bad roads, sluggish bureaucracy, crazy traffic, lax law enforcement — I generally highlight the many wonderful aspects of living here as an expat retiree. The glorious weather, exotic flora and fauna, friendly and helpful Ticos and low-priced fresh fruits and veggies are all good reasons to consider this beautiful tropical land for retirement.

But moving to another country for a tranquilo post-work lifestyle in most cases means moving away from friends and family. This raises an issue that I am currently struggling with myself, and one that you certainly will face if you make the transition to live overseas. That issue is the cost of travel for return trips to your home country.

In the initial planning for our move to Costa Rica, my husband Layne and I factored in the costs of annual two- or three-month trips home in our “what-if” financial spreadsheets. But our estimates did not anticipate the recent upheaval in the Middle East, which has caused instability in the oil markets, pushing up the cost of jet fuel, which in turn has prompted several dramatic increases in airline ticket prices. Just last summer, for example, Layne and I scored a $300 cheap flight round-trip ticket on Continental Airlines out of Chicago to San Jose, Costa Rica. With friends to visit in Chicago, it seemed like a great deal for us, and with our residency application moving along nicely last fall, we even felt that we could afford to just blow-off the return flight if our residency was completed by then. (Some airlines will not sell a one-way ticket into Costa Rica for a passenger holding only a tourist visa, which allows only a 90-day stay; you must be a legal resident in order to travel one-way.) The same trip to Chicago this year on that same airline is approximately $550, plus taxes – more than double. For us to visit loved ones in other parts of the country — Oregon, Washington, California, Texas, the East Coast — ticket costs range upward of $750 each. Once we get to one of those locales, we still have the typical costs of travel, such as eating out, a hotel room now and then and travel between states by ground transportation or air. As you can see, the expense can quickly add up to several thousand dollars.

Some low-cost airlines, such as Spirit Airlines and JetBlue, offer what seem like attractive fares into their hub cities. For instance, on Spirit, a trip into Fort Lauderdale from Costa Rica can be as cheap as $250 round-trip. But you’re in Fort Lauderdale, not where you necessarily want to be. Plus, those bargain flights tend to be “red-eyes,” leaving at 1:00 a.m. and arriving before dawn. If you can face such a schedule — my darling Layne can sleep anywhere! — such creative options may be available to you.

Besides the ticket price, another thing to watch out for are the hidden costs of air travel these days. Most airlines, except for that lovable renegade Southwest, have substantial fees for checked bags and additional fees for overweight bags. There are “priority seating” and “extra legroom” fees. On one recent flight, I learned that there was an extra charge to be in the Emergency Exit row because of more legroom, despite the fact that sitting there carries a responsibility to assist in an emergency. On many flights no food is available, or if it is, it may be a dry sandwich for $10 or a bag of pretzels. Drinks, of course, have always cost extra, with the notable exception of Taca Airlines. Although not offering the lowest ticket prices, Taca does have top-notch service and does not charge for the first two pieces of luggage.

Virtually all airlines also have a “reservation by phone” fee ranging from $10 to $25. Need to change your flight plans? That will be a $150 change fee on most airlines. Not only that, but Spirit in particular has some vicious hidden fees, such as a $40 fee for a carry-on bag that doesn’t fit beneath your seat. To avoid luggage charges on Spirit, you would basically have to fit your personal effects for overseas travel into a small backpack.

Another option for travel may be signing up for airline-branded credit cards. You frequently receive enough miles with your first purchase for a domestic round-trip. But be careful, ask questions and be prepared to follow up to get your miles. As we left Portland for Chicago last summer on Delta, we signed up for Delta-branded American Express cards on the guarantee of 25,000 miles each after our first purchase, enough for a free trip. But seven months later and after numerous phone calls to Delta SkyMiles and American Express, we are yet to receive all the miles we were promised. Still, we’re hopeful. The last agent I spoke with assured me that she would pursue the matter and offered us each 3000 bonus miles for our trouble. We’ll see if even those show up on our account. On the other hand, by using our Southwest Airlines Visa card plus credit from a few flights, Layne and I managed to earn two free round-trips in the States for our return travels this summer.

And let’s take a closer look at those airline mileage programs. Today, I noticed that I have accumulated enough miles in my Continental account for a one-way trip to Houston, where I could rent a car and drive to West Texas to see my mom, visiting a couple of friends along the way. Naturally, I expected the one-way return trip to Costa Rica to be about half-price.

Silly me. When I called Continental — waiting some 20 minutes for an agent, by the way — she informed me that miles cannot be used for one-way tickets and if Layne transferred his miles to me, giving me enough for the round-trip, that would cost… get ready… $15 per 1000 miles! Since I would need 17,500 of his miles, you can do the math. Might as well buy a ticket and keep the miles.

On the other hand, we have some friends here in Costa Rica who claim not to care about visiting family back home. They figure, if those folks want to see us, they can come here for a visit. If that description fits you, then you can relax and enjoy life in the tropics. But if, like me, you long to see that precious grandchild, adult son or daughter or elderly parents, then be sure to add into your calculations for retirement the cost of those trips back home. You can get there from here, but at today’s travel prices you may wish you could just hitchhike!