If your perfect vacation includes hiking through a rain forest, sunbathing on the beach or snorkeling along a coral reef teeming with multi-hued fish, then the Caribbean is calling your name. But paradise does have its price. The cost of living may be relatively low on most Caribbean islands, but by the time you add up your expenses for activities, lodging, meals, transportation and (of course!) a few fruity drinks, a Caribbean vacation could cost more than you might expect.
On a tight budget? Don’t put away your beach bag just yet. We’ve brainstormed 25 ways to save money on Caribbean travel, covering every aspect of your trip from choosing an island to diving and dining.
1. Choose your island wisely. Airfare is one of the key expenses of any Caribbean trip, and some islands are much easier — and cheaper — to get to than others. For the lowest fares from the U.S., look for destinations served by low-cost carriers such as JetBlue (Nassau, Montego Bay, Barbados) and Spirit (Aruba, San Juan). Keep in mind that more competition usually leads to lower fares; you’ll pay less to fly to Jamaica, which is served by dozens of airlines, than you will to fly to an island like Dominica, which only has a handful of connecting flights on American and JetBlue.
2. Check the cost of living. Don’t just look at the cost of airfare; dig deeper to see which islands are less expensive once you’re there. The Dominican Republic has some of the region’s lowest hotel and resort rates, while a place like St. Barth’s, known for upscale tourism, will be harder on your wallet. Keep in mind that some less developed islands that are a little harder to get to may make up for the higher airfare with lower costs for lodging and food.
3. Evaluate the exchange rate. The exchange rate can also play a role in how much you pay for your Caribbean vacation. For U.S. travelers, choosing an island where the local currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a fixed rate (rather than an island that uses a variable currency such as the euro) can help you better estimate your costs and avoid being penalized when the U.S. dollar weakens against other world currencies.
4. Consider a cruise. If you’re interested in visiting more than one island, a cruise can offer excellent bang for your buck by bundling accommodations, transportation and meals into one affordable rate. These days you can find Caribbean cruise fares for less than $100 per person, per night. If you live on the East Coast, you may even be able to drive to a nearby homeport, such as Baltimore, New York, Miami or Charleston, and cruise all the way down to the Caribbean without even having to fly. Visit our sister site, Cruise Critic, for a list of cruise deals and discounts.
Note: Keep in mind that most cruises are not all-inclusive. Things like shore excursions, specialty restaurant fees, gratuities, drinks and other extras are generally not accounted for in your base rate.
5. Look for package deals. You can often save by booking your airfare and hotel together at sites like CheapCaribbean.com or Funjet.com. It’s also worth going directly to the airlines — nearly any carrier that flies to the Caribbean will offer hotel-inclusive packages.
6. Look for freebies. One of the most common promotions among Caribbean resorts is a free night with a required minimum stay — such as “stay six nights and get the seventh night free.” Keep an eye out for these sales when booking your trip.
7. Choose the right time of year. The busiest and most expensive times to travel to the Caribbean are the winter (particularly over the holidays) and the spring break season. You’ll generally get better deals by traveling over the summer or fall — if you’re willing to live with a little risk. (Hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30.) Hotel rates are almost always lower during this wetter time of year. If you’re worried about hurricanes, consider staying on one of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao), which are outside the main hurricane belt.
8. Haggle. In many parts of the Caribbean, bargaining for a better deal is an essential part of everyday life. While you may not be able to negotiate much in a big duty-free store or a supermarket, where prices are generally fixed, there are plenty of open-air markets where you can try your haggling skills — and often pick up a great souvenir for a song. (See Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide for haggling tips.)
9. Bring plenty of U.S. dollars. In many Caribbean countries, U.S. dollars are accepted as readily as local currency, and the exchange rate is fixed at a set amount. For example, in Barbados, roughly $2 Barbadian dollars are always equal to $1 US; the East Caribbean dollar, which is used in a number of countries including St. Kitts, Antigua and Grenada, is fixed at $2.70 EC = $1 US. The more U.S. dollars you bring from home, the less money you’ll have to take out of local ATMs (and the more you’ll save in pesky international ATM fees). Of course, you shouldn’t bring more money than you feel comfortable carrying at one time, and you’ll want to keep it in a money belt under your clothing (or another secure place) for safety. See Money Safety for more tips.
10. Skip the exchange counter. When you do need local currency, get your money from an ATM rather than using traveler’s checks or changing money at an exchange counter. When you get money at an ATM, you’re taking advantage of the interbank exchange rate, which is more favorable than the rates you’ll get when changing traveler’s checks or using an exchange counter. Similarly, credit card purchases are also subject to the interbank exchange rate. But keep in mind that fees will apply for most ATM withdrawals and credit card purchases; see The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas for more information.
11. Don’t overtip. In some restaurants, a service charge will automatically be added to your bill; if so, you don’t need to leave an additional tip (unless you wish to further reward an exemplary waiter or waitress). Some resorts and hotels also add a service charge onto your bill to cover tips for various members of the staff. Call ahead to find out before you leave money in your room for your housekeeper or other service people. Finally, check a guidebook to see what tips are expected on the island you’re visiting; while Americans are used to tipping 15 – 20 percent, on some islands a smaller tip of 10 percent is customary for cab drivers, restaurant staff and other service people. (See our Tips for Tipping Abroad.)
12. Use public transportation. Many Caribbean islands have local public bus systems — usually small, colorful vans that serve the major routes and towns across the island. Fares on these vans tend to be extremely inexpensive. Because they’re predominantly used by locals, they’re most useful if you’re traveling between towns or villages; they may not serve off-the-beaten-path attractions visited only by tourists. A few islands with particularly strong local bus systems include Aruba, Puerto Rico and Curacao.
Note: Keep in mind that there may be no fixed schedule — many buses simply leave when they’re full. Service may be limited or unavailable on Sundays or in the evenings. And don’t expect climate control; many buses have open windows, not air conditioning.
13. Share the expenses. One common way to see a Caribbean island is to hire a local cab driver to give you a tour. The price of the tour is often charged per car, not per person — so if you can find other travelers from your hotel or cruise ship who want a tour too, you can split the expense. (Be sure to confirm the total price before you get in the cab.) The same goes for rental cars, particularly if you’re only using the car for a single day or afternoon.
14. Check the local rental companies. When renting a car, don’t restrict your search to the big providers like Hertz, Avis and Budget. You can often get a better deal from local rental car companies based on the island you’re visiting. These smaller operators may not always have easy online booking, but a quick call or email could save you money on your rental.
15. Watch your inter-island expenses. If you’re traveling between islands, a local ferry may be a cheaper option than flying — check the rates on both.
16. Evaluate your meal plan. Many Caribbean resorts and hotels offer a choice of meal plans. Common offerings include the European Plan, or EP, which includes no meals; the Continental Plan (CP), which includes only breakfast; the American Plan (AP), which includes all three meals; and the Modified American Plan (MAP), which includes breakfast and dinner. When choosing a meal plan, consider how you plan to structure your trip. If you’re going to spend most days sightseeing around the island away from your hotel, the AP will likely be a waste of money. Travelers looking to sample local restaurants for lunch and dinner may find that the CP is all they need.
17. Eat where the locals do. You’ll almost always find cheaper, more genuine local meals away from the hotels and touristy restaurants. Look for fish fry-ups on the beach or little roadside snackettes. If you’re concerned about food safety, ask your hotel front desk or cab driver to point you in the direction of the more popular and reputable places.
18. Go to the grocery store. There are little markets and grocery stores across the Caribbean where you can stock up on bread, fruit, crackers and other provisions — perfect for an inexpensive breakfast, snack or picnic lunch.
19. Be water-wise. While you’re at the grocery store, pick up a gallon-size or larger jug of water and use that to refill your smaller bottles — it’s a lot more cost-efficient (and eco-friendly) than paying two bucks for a new bottle a couple of times a day.
20. Know what’s included. Despite the name, rates at all-inclusive resorts rarely include every single expense you’ll have to pay. Check before booking to see what might cost you extra — it may be more than you think. (Spa treatments, water sports, island tours, airport transfers, tips and resort fees are just a few items that you may have to shell out a little more money for.) That said, all-inclusives can save you money if the activities you’re looking to do match up well with the offerings at the resort.
21. Skip the resort. If you don’t need a lot of amenities and are looking to explore the island rather than sit on the beach, an all-inclusive resort probably isn’t your best bet. Look instead for smaller locally owned hotels and guesthouses — these properties tend to be more intimate and less expensive than the big resorts.
22. Try a vacation rental. Renting a house or villa can provide excellent value for groups, families or travelers looking to save money by cooking for themselves. Renting a villa with two or more bedrooms and splitting the cost between several couples is an excellent way to get away with friends and keep costs low. See Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide for more information.
23. Be flexible with your location. Choose a hotel or resort that’s near but not right on the beach — the price difference can be substantial. Alternatively, if you are staying at a beachfront property, choose a room on the opposite side of the hotel; forgoing the sea view will save you a few bucks, and how much time will you really be spending in your room anyway?
24. Choose a specialty resort. If your trip is centered on a special interest, such as scuba diving or golf, you can often save money by staying at a resort dedicated to that activity. Dive resorts typically have their own boats and gear, and offer packages that include accommodations, meals and a set number of dives. Golf resorts have courses right on the premises, saving you time and transportation costs, and hotel guests often pay lower fees to play than outsiders. Another good option for divers is “liveaboards” — boats that offer lodging, meals and daily dives, often at very reasonable cost.
25. Go camping. While this isn’t an option everywhere in the Caribbean, certain islands — such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands — offer wonderful opportunities for camping. We particularly like the Virgin Islands Campground on Water Island.
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–written by Sarah Schlichter