With sands of varying hues of white, pink, brown and black, lush green forests, and tantalizing clear turquoise waters, the Caribbean is the first choice of many to escape the bustle of life and soak in soothing nature.
However, this collection of over 700 islands has much more to offer than some R&R. The visual feast across the archipelago is layered upon the region’s rich history that will have you dancing in the streets to pulsating soca and reggae, licking your fingers from freshly caught fish fried to perfection by street vendors and knocking back rum cocktails at all-night bars.
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When it comes to the Caribbean, there is something for everyone. The region’s diversity sets it apart from other destinations and despite their historical and cultural similarities, each island offers you a unique experience.
You could soak in a hot spring in the untouched natural beauty of Dominica, marvel at the preserved history of revolutionary Cuba, transform into a costumed goddess at Trinidad Carnival or bask on the white sands of the famous Grace Bay Beach in sleepy Turks and Caicos.
As well as experiences, the islands also differ in cost. Traveling to the Caribbean can be an expensive venture with its all-inclusive resorts, especially during the high season when the region is in great demand. Many islands cater to luxury travel but if you are a budget-conscious traveler, you too can enjoy everything the Caribbean has to offer. It just calls for some careful planning, lots of research and a sense of adventure.
From swimming at public beaches to choosing the right time of year to visit, here are some tips to help you unlock an enriching Caribbean experience for less.
Though Barbados is renowned for its snooty old clubs and resorts, there are bargains to be had if you know where to look © Getty Images / Tetra images RF
Know when to travel
Avoid traveling to the Caribbean during the high season (November to April) as flight prices and accommodation are more expensive. Prices are lower in both the low and shoulder seasons (May/June and September/October) when hotels may have discounts and added incentives to lure travelers, such as an extra night free or group specials.
Keep in mind that the fall months, September and October, tend to see heightened activity during the hurricane season that can pose tremendous danger to lives and infrastructure. However, islands such as Trinidad and Tobago and Curaçao lie just outside of the hurricane belt and are good options to visit at this time.
Shop around for flights
There are a number of airlines that service routes between the Caribbean, the United States, Canada and Europe but the most important consideration when it comes to your budget is knowing when to book. If there is a high-demand event like Carnival taking place, flights are more expensive and you need to book your ticket months in advance. Carnivals happen year-round on different islands so do your research on your chosen destination.
If you are flying from the US, you can score cheap flights to destinations in close proximity such as The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico. You can fly from many UK airports to the Caribbean – some airlines only fly seasonally but British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly year-round, adding and changing routes as necessary.
KLM and Condor fly from the Netherlands and Germany directly to islands such as Tobago and Barbados. Check price comparison websites or work with a travel agent to get the best prices for your needs.
Ditch the fancy restaurants
Eating in the Caribbean does not have to be expensive. From street food to fresh fruits and vegetables at markets, cheap choices abound. For less than US$10, you can enjoy anything from “hot doubles” in Trinidad (a spicy flatbread filled with chickpeas) and delicious fried fish in the popular Oistins area in Barbados, to a plate full of root crops such as cassava, yam and dasheen with fish in Dominica, and authentic “oil down” in Grenada, a delicious dish made with breadfruit and pigtails.
Attend free weekly fish fry events, popular in Turks and Caicos, where you can enjoy live music and an array of street-food vendors, or take a walking culinary tour in Puerto Rico where you can learn about the country’s history while enjoying several meals along the way.
Local festivals and carnivals are a wonderful way to experience an island’s culture © isitsharp / iStockphoto / Getty Images
Immerse yourself in the local culture
There are Carnivals taking place in the Caribbean almost every month of the year. If you want to experience the distinct culture of an island, planning a trip during one of those festivals is highly recommended. The summer period – low season in the Caribbean – has a string of back-to-back Carnivals in St Vincent, Grenada, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, and St Lucia.
Once on the ground, you can enjoy the activities without having to fork out a lot of money. From the cost-free spectacle of a costumed street parade or a visit to a pan yard to enjoy steel band orchestras rehearsing for their competitions, to attending calypso and cultural shows for under US$20 per person, there are a wealth of low-cost cultural delights to enjoy.
Use local ferries to island-hop on a budget
Island hopping across the Caribbean is expensive and challenging due to a lack of daily flights. However, you can enjoy a relatively affordable island-hopping vacation if you stick to particular areas. There are ferries and airlines that operate bargain routes around island clusters, mainly those in the northern Caribbean. Express de îles, for instance, operates a ferry between four islands – St Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica. A round trip between any two of these islands can cost around US$100.
If you go to Trinidad, you can hop over to Tobago via Caribbean Airlines for around US$70 for a round trip or on the inter-island ferry for under US$20 for a return sailing. In St Kitts, you can jump on one of the hourly sailings across to Nevis on either the ferry or the faster water taxi for under US$20. From Sint Maarten you can take the Makana Ferry to Saba, Sint Eustatius or St Kitts for around USD$85 return or book a Winair flight from Sint Maarten to a number of destinations in the vicinity. If you go to St Vincent and the Grenadines, you can easily hop around its smaller islands including Bequia or the picturesque Union island.
Cuba is the Caribbean’s ultimate budget destination © julianpetersphotography / Shutterstock
Look around for special offers on accommodation
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.
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.
On most islands you can have a fabulous stay by going car-free © Dennis van de Water / Shutterstock
Look for alternative transportation
There aren’t a lot of islands with ride-shares so when it comes to transportation, moving around could be expensive if you depend on private taxis. Renting a car is an option but the price of gas can be prohibitive. Cut costs by using public transportation but always put your safety first and don’t wear expensive or flashy jewelry and carry minimum cash.
If you love cycling, there are islands such as Curacao, Jamaica and Guadeloupe where you can rent bikes or go on cycling tours for under US$70. In Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, you can rent an electric scooter and tour the city for around US$20. Walking is also a great way to get to know a new city – take a stroll around downtown Havana and soak up its history.
Make the most of the great outdoors
In the Caribbean, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to nature’s bounty. While there are some beaches and spaces that you have to pay to access, there are many others that are free.
Many islands have public beaches that cost nothing to access and you don’t even need to spend money on a lounge chair – just spread your blanket on the sand and soak up the sun. If you love hiking, look for easy trails that won’t require a guide or look for cheap group tours that will take you to some scenic spots.
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