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. Got a suggestion of your own? Post it on our message boards!
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 AirTran (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, where the only major carrier from the U.S. is American Airlines.
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. See our discount cruise deals for a sample of the bargains available, and visit our sister site, Cruise Critic, for a list of cruises under $75 a night.
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 Money Matters on the Road 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 customary 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.)