You may have to mortgage the house to afford a trip to Asia or Europe thanks to the weak dollar, and astronomical airfares have made budgeting for vacation a challenge. But the Caribbean remains a great option for budget travel: most islands are close to the U.S., low labor costs keep prices low in many destinations, the region is well-served by pay-one-price cruise lines and all-inclusive hotels, and there are some low-cost lodging options that can put the Caribbean within reach of even the most frugal travelers.
If you're looking for a budget vacation in the Caribbean, heed this advice.
Travel During the Off-Season
It makes sense that Caribbean resorts would offer their best prices during the summer when the weather is warm across the U.S. and Canada and a tropical vacation has less appeal. But did you know that you can often get offseason rates in the Caribbean from mid-April to mid-December? Well past the point that it gets chilly up north it's still "summer" in the Caribbean as far as rates go with destinations anxious to attract those who can still travel after the kids go back to school in the fall. If you travel during the peak of hurricane season (August through October), you can find even greater deals. There's also a traditionally slow travel season right after New Year's in January where good rates can be had on Caribbean travel.
Some Caribbean destinations are simply less expensive than others, largely because of lower labor costs that allow hotels, restaurants and attractions to keep prices down. Jamaica is one example, but the Caribbean's best bargain destination is unquestionably the Dominican Republic. Despite the recent arrival of some upscale resorts, the Dominican Republic is famous for its low- to moderate-priced all-inclusive hotels. Stiff competition also keeps prices down, both among resorts and airlines.
All-inclusive resorts have grown up from the days of crowded buffets, no-name drinks, and poolside trivia contests. Yes, you can still find each of these at Caribbean all inclusives, but today these pay-one-price resorts tend to offer a better quality of dining, drinking and activities. Plus, there are now all-inclusives for all budgets from low-frills to luxury. Even if you are going cheap, you can still typically expect to get a decent meal, brand-name beer and local liquors, and free water sports, at a minimum. And if your budget's a little bigger, you still benefit from knowing up front what your trip will cost: many all-inclusives even ban tipping.
Cruising remains the most cost-effective way to see more than one Caribbean island, since you pay one price for your food, lodging, and transportation! Carnival is probably the best-known cruise line catering to budget-conscious travelers, and three- or four-night cruises to Nassau, Key West, Grand Cayman, and/or Jamaica can be an enjoyable way to get a taste of the Caribbean without breaking the bank. Balaeria Bahamas Express also makes daily runs between Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Grand Bahama Island—a quick, affordable getaway.
Most vacationers think hotels and resorts when planning a Caribbean trip, but budget travelers also should consider B&Bs, guest houses, and villas or even a hostel. For singles and couples, locally owned guesthouses can be a very affordable way to meet the local people, and get more exposure to real island life than you would at a big, gated resort. Many guesthouses and hostels are located in town—always a big day-tripping destination on most Caribbean islands—or walking or biking distance to a beach. If you are traveling with a group, consider renting a villa: depending on how many people you are with, the nightly cost can work out to less than a hotel room, and group meals you prepare yourself can keep costs down, too.
Get Off the Beach
Everyone goes to the Caribbean for the beach, so naturally, the beachfront hotels tend to be the most desirable—and expensive. On the other hand, even a hotel located one block off the beach can be far less expensive, and since many Caribbean islands keep their beaches open to the public, the sand and shore are still yours for the taking for the price of a two-minute walk. On bigger Caribbean islands, like Puerto Rico, you also may find familiar budget hotel chains away from the shoreline that cater not to tourists but business travelers and locals.
You don't want to be wolfing down the mystery meat being sold at every roadside BBQ stand you see, but island residents and hotel staff can steer you away from the bad spots and toward the great "lolos" and other informal eateries serving fresh chicken, goat, seafood and other favorite street food at prices the locals can afford. Likewise, try the great locally brewed and inexpensive beers like Carib, Red Stripe, and Kalik, or pick up a bottle of local rum and mix your own drinks for a fraction of what you'll pay at a hotel bar. If you're planning an extended stay, consider lodging that includes a kitchen: staples on most islands are expensive, but you'll still come out ahead by cooking for yourself compared to eating out every night.
Use Public Transportation
Aruba and Curacao are among the Caribbean islands with reliable and affordable bus lines serving resort areas; public and private ferries and water taxis also can be a fun and reasonably priced way to get around. Quality of service and safety vary widely from island to island, however, so be sure to check first before jumping on the local jitney.