How to Afford the Ultimate Caribbean Vacation
Spring Break season is coming. For most parts of the US, it has been a pretty mild winter, so perhaps the cabin fever isn’t as serious this year as it was last year when the entire country was buried under feet of snow. Still, February is the month when people in more-northern latitudes start dreaming about warmth and sandy beaches and maybe even secretly craving one of those rum-based cocktails that are served inside coconut shells.
Of course, February can also be a month for a budget crunch. Your 1099s and W-2s have started to roll in, and that means tax bills are around the corner. So any hopes of a Caribbean getaway hinge on how good of a deal you can get on airfare and hotels.
You’ve seen all those package offers online: airfare plus hotel, with transportation from the airport and meals often thrown in. These deals seem good, but they may not work out like you expect. Sure, you saved a lot of money on your trip, but pick the wrong hotel or resort and you may have to spend your weekend poolside, sipping daiquiris with the AARP crowd or watching parents try to squeeze in a little relaxation while their kids climb all over your lounge chair.
Packages can be risky. When it comes to going cheap in the Caribbean, you’re usually better off on your own.
You just have to choose your destination wisely.
Not all islands are created equal. If you go package-less to Aruba or Martinique, chances are you’ll go broke pretty quickly. However, plenty of islands, both big and small, offer reasonable airfares and cheap accommodations. The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico can be reached with relative ease from the US, and both offer a wide range of accommodations and food that is available at local prices, not resort prices. Smaller islands like Grenada and Dominica have cheaper guesthouses, which can make up for the fact that you’ll need to take an extra flight from a hub like San Juan, Kingston or Port of Spain in order to reach them. Going small has other advantages. Smaller islands are generally safer, so you can wander more freely. Also, the beaches are just as idyllic as more-popular islands, but there are, generally, fewer over-crowded stretches of sand.
You can save a lot of money by going local.
Partying like a local might not be feasible in some places, but eating at local restaurants, often located inland instead of in the coastal resort areas of an island, and stocking up on other necessities at non-tourist shops will usually be cheaper. Likewise for getting around. Local mass transit might consist of out-of-date buses that are grossly overcrowded and perpetually behind schedule (they run on the proverbial “island time”), but you’ll be able to get virtually anywhere for a few dollars. Thar’s maybe a tenth of what it costs to go by taxi or to rent a car. This approach has worked for me. I’ve spent time on a couple of smaller West Indies islands, including Grenada, staying in a locally-owned guesthouse and eating at shops that cater to neighborhood residents, not tourists. The result: I’ve been able to afford to stretch a weekend getaway into a weeklong vacation.
Of course, being frugal isn’t always the best approach. You have to do what you want, to some extent, otherwise taking a trip isn’t worthwhile.
For some people, a spring trip, even if it is not a stereotypical Spring Break vacation, is about letting loose and partying. For others, quiet beaches for swimming or surfing are the ultimate vacation landscapes. And for some, a Caribbean vacation could be about experiencing island culture and maybe rolling in the hay with a few island girls. Whatever your ideal vacation is, you have to ask yourself: why would you save a few hundred fewer dollars if it means that you have to have the type of vacation that you don’t really want? Figuring out what you want to do first, and then seeking out financially reasonable ways to do it, will almost always lead to better results (and better memories) than simply choosing a destination or a package based solely on price.
I’ve written about taking advantage of introductory airline credit card offers on TSB before, but it is worth mentioning again because these deals can be a great help in this situation. The JetBlue TrueBlue awards program, and even some major legacy carrier programs like those offered by Delta and United, have credit card deals that award bonus miles to new customers who reach a certain spending threshold in the first month or three that they own the card. This can usually be enough for free or deeply discounted flights or other perks that can make up the cost difference between a package vacation and the ultimate do-what-you-want Caribbean adventure. Even without any credit card offers, JetBlue is worth looking into because it offers cheap almost unbelievably flights, especially from the East Coast to places like Puerto Rico and the DR.
February and March are when the Caribbean islands are at their best. It might take a bit of financial savvy, but you can be there to experience the sun, sand, and sin, if you put your mind to it.
About Josh Lew Josh Lew lives in the Midwestern US when he is not traveling. He is a columnist for Gadling and has contributed to Hackwriters and Skive Magazine.