How to visit the Caribbean on a budget
When traveling in the Caribbean, your choices are as diverse as the islands. But you don't need to fall for the cliché of pricey beach resorts or isolated boutique getaways costing hundreds of dollars a night.
You can enjoy the same beautiful beaches and lusciously warm blue waters as the big spenders, and you can do so on a budget – without settling for overhyped all-inclusive mega-hotels with hundreds of tiny rooms and buffets piled high with fast-food fare. Cool, interesting and affordable accommodation can be found on islands scattered across these achingly alluring waters, and with smart planning in advance and keeping costs in mind while there, you can easily travel around the Caribbean on a budget.
Know when to go
During the low season, June to August, rates plummet everywhere. In high season from December to March, airfares and rates soar in inverse proportion to the temperatures in northern climates. If beating the cold is vitally important, you might look for the first two weeks of December, after US Thanksgiving, and again in the second half of January. Don’t expect dramatic savings, but there’s usually a slight lull in the winter crowds during these periods.
Shop around for flights
There’s no secret cheap way to reach the Caribbean – almost everyone not bobbing around the islands on a cruise ship arrives by air. The more popular islands are served by multiple airlines from the US, Canada and Europe. Work the internet comparing airfares. In high season, the sooner you buy your tickets the better as prices won’t go down near your departure date.
Within the Caribbean, flights can be expensive, so it's rarely worth it to fly to an island with cheap airfares and then hop over to your intended destination rather than paying for a flight straight there.
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Book your room
Just like airfares, accommodation prices don’t go down the closer you get to your travel date in high season.
Smaller hotels and guesthouses often have rate cards that don't change based on demand, but large hotels and resorts do run all manner of specials that can mean big savings for those willing to commit many months before they plan to travel. Here again, the time you spend shopping online booking sites will pay off in savings. Look for deals that include free meals, excursions, room upgrades and more.
Large resorts and online booking sites may also offer package deals that include airfare to the island. These can offer great savings overall, but not always. Check the cost of flying separately so you can smartly evaluate package deals.
Find a budget island
You can discover deals on many Caribbean islands, especially the large and popular ones such as Jamaica. The following are worth considering as they offer budget-friendly options and are great places to visit.
Yes, the west coast of beautiful Barbados is renowned for snooty old clubs and resorts, but elsewhere you can find bargains. In the south, Dover Beach has the requisite beckoning sands, a string of budget hotels and access to fabulous windsurfing. There are even cheap and efficient local buses for car-free odysseys island-wide.
The star of the string of islands called the Grenadines (of St Vincent and the Grenadines' fame), Bequia is a dream of sand and palm trees around a perfect little harbor that might prove impossible to leave. With barely 5000 residents, Bequia isn't big, but it has lot of little guesthouses and cute apartments around the main town of Port Elizabeth. Gorgeous and laid-back beaches are short walks away.
Divers like bargains, and for them, reef-ringed Bonaire is paradise. Even if you don't dive, however, this small island offers pink-hued beaches, pink-hued flamingos and a rich well-preserved history easily sampled by bike. The main town of Kralendijk is a walkable charmer with plenty of popularly priced bars and cafes. You can easily find simple rooms, and competition means that divers can find deals on gear rental and lessons.
The ultimate budget destination in the Caribbean? Cuba offers endless possibilities for adventure, and the more you live like a local, the less you'll spend. Even Havana is incredibly cheap, especially given that the number one thing to do – exploring myriad streets lined with crumbling colonial and art deco architecture, all while savoring the pulsing local life – is free. Across the island, casa particulares offer stays in private homes (often quite nice) for under US$60 a night.
The Caribbean’s most popular island offers plenty of budget choices. Get away from the all-inclusive resort center of Punta Cana and settle into a lounger on the seemingly endless white-sand beaches elsewhere on the island. You'll pay a fraction of the cost of a resort vacation.
San Juan is a fascinating city with a cultural history spanning centuries. Its long beaches between Isla Verde and Condado are some of the nicest in Puerto Rico and are lined with modest hotels and scores of condo buildings with budget-friendly short-term rentals. And you can easily walk to all manner of great places to eat, with prices and menus aimed at residents instead of tourists.
Where? That's the common response you get when you say you're going to Saba – obviously music to the ears of anyone looking for a total Caribbean escape. It’s a quick fifteen-minute hop from St-Martin & Sint Maarten. Cute little guesthouses perch in the pretty main town of Windwardside, and there are homestyle eateries for savory and spicy dinners. What Saba doesn't have is a beach, except one little cove of sand that comes and goes with the tides, but it does have great hiking through Eden-like rainforests.
Walk and ride
Save on the cost of a rental car by simply not renting one! The hassle of having a car is only increased by the cost. On most islands you can have a fabulous stay by going car-free and only renting one, at most, for a day or two of exploring.
Many beach areas are completely walkable. Strolling along the sand to check out a new snorkeling site or beach bar is part of a great day. Larger islands such as Puerto Rico have decent bus service. And if you only use a taxi once in a while for going out to dinner, you’ll still save a lot over renting a car – and by not driving, you can have another rum-filled drink.
Like almost anyplace in the world, if you eat with local residents, you’ll often pay much less and have much better food – and it will certainly more authentically reflect local tastes. Just don’t expect a table on the sand with a view of the surf. One thing to note – across the Caribbean, people eat dinner fairly early, say 6pm.
Be strategic with resorts
Even if you found a great deal on resort accommodations, it doesn’t mean you have to do everything through the resort. Think of the resort like your printer at home – it was sold cheap because the printer company makes its money selling you extras like ink cartridges. The same applies to resorts – once they have you in the room, they plan to make their profit by selling you pricey services and extras.
The resort activities desk is one big profit center. Use an independent-activities vendor out on the beach instead. For tours, look for online reviews of local residents offering trips that are more fun and more personable than the resort offerings.
Drink and eat independently. That inviting beach bar or cafe is probably using the same rum in its drinks as the resort but charging much less. The same goes for that seafood platter or oozing cheeseburger.
Planning a special event like a wedding? The resort can arrange a memorable event that you’ll never forget, at least as long as you’re still paying it off. Instead, find out online what you need to do to get a marriage license and then exchange vows at the beach of your choice.
Hostel room: $30–70
Basic room for two: $60–200 or more
Self-catering apartment: $100–350 or more
Public transport ticket: $1–2
Coffee or tea: $1–2
Dinner for two: $40–120 or more
Beer at the bar: $2–6
Beach lounger rental: $10
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