How to Enjoy a Luxe Caribbean Vacay on the Cheap
“Affordable Caribbean” isn’t an oxymoron. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.
While the Caribbean remains one of the world’s priciest destinations, with some clever know-how, you can enjoy a vacation there for a price that won’t give you heart palpitations.
Here are some pro tips to help you enjoy gloriously balmy waters, posh amenities and exciting adventures, all while saving hundreds (upon hundreds) of dollars.
When people think of the Caribbean, they usually think of its most famous — and famously indulgent — islands, like St. Barts, Anguilla and Saint Martin.
The problem? These fantastic islands come with fantastic price tags (those three mentioned are the most expensive in the Caribbean). That’s why the single most important thing you can do is to select a destination that won’t drain your bank account.
The following are some of the cheapest places in the Caribbean to book a stay, without sacrificing comfort or luxury.
Many people forget that there’s a lush, tropical peninsula in Mexico that’s also part of the Caribbean. And it's every bit as enjoyable for tourists, while costing far less.
In the Mexican Caribbean, the most well-known tourism city, Cancun, is shedding its hedonistic “spring break” image by promoting its cultural attractions — including Mayan ruins and the MUSA underwater sculpture museum — and offering incentives for families, like complimentary or low-cost kids clubs and babysitting services at hotels.
Cancun also touts a wonderful array of four-star hotels that are comfortable, contemporary, luxurious and shockingly affordable. All they lack are some of the frivolous additions you’ll find at five-star resorts, such as personal butlers and pillow menus (which you probably can live without, let’s be real).
Pro tip to save: Go the all-inclusive route to really keep costs in line. To take just one example, for $328 per night at the four-star, all-inclusive Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun, you'll enjoy unlimited food and drinks, a minibar, a kids club/teens club, cultural activities and recreational activities such as volleyball, scuba diving and deep sea fishing.
In other parts of the Caribbean, just a scuba-diving excursion from a hotel could cost over $100; dinner for two, $200; and afternoon cocktails, $50 — and then there’s the cost of your room to add to the equation!
Mexican Riviera Towns
South of Cancun (on the Mayan Riviera), Playa del Carmen, Playacar and Tulum are also affordable options, with their own distinct, rustic-luxe vibe.
You can snap up a beautiful room in a sparkling new boutique hotel in these towns for $100 per night, or a beachfront cabin with a pool for just $70 per night.
Pro tip to save: A day pass to enjoy adventure parks in the area — where you can zip-line, river raft, enjoy watersports and rappel into caves that are millions of years old — can cost $100. Instead, book a stay at the Hotel Mexico Xcaret to take advantage of the “All-Fun All-Inclusive” plan that gives you free unlimited access to many activity parks in the area.
Cozumel & Isla Mujeres
With its excellent snorkeling sites, stunning Chankanaab National Park and sterling beaches, the Mexican island of Cozumel is well worth visiting. And according to Kayak, its hotels are often 30 to 50 percent cheaper than those on other Caribbean islands.
Less well-known than its bigger sister of Cozumel, but equally as beautiful and budget-friendly, the island of Isla Mujeres is another excellent choice, boasting an enticing laidback vibe and slow pace of life. On the first piece of land in Mexico that the sun kisses each morning, highlights include white-sand beaches, superb snorkeling sites and the ruins of a Mayan temple dedicated to the goddess Ixchel.
Here, you can grab a luxury beachfront condo with a pool for less than $170 a night, spend just $50 per night for a room in a villa or drop just $11 on a hostel — leaving you plenty of change to live it up on the island.
Pro tips to save: Getting to Cozumel can seem prohibitively costly, but there’s a loophole: Flying into Cancun instead of Cozumel’s island airport can be hundreds of dollars cheaper, and it’s an affordable 45-drive and 35-minute catamaran ride from there to the island. (A Cozumel Express shuttle plus ferry ticket with Ultramar costs just $39.)
On Isla Mujeres, ditch the rental car and get around via golf cart, as many visitors do. The cost? $30 a day.
Not all of the affordable Caribbean options are in Mexico. Guadeloupe, an island group in the southern Caribbean sea, is a stunning location you can enjoy on the cheap.
Mirva Lempiainen, author of “The Quick Gwada Guide,” who has lived and worked on the archipelago for several years, says, “You can find big beautiful apartments with jacuzzis near white-sand beaches or rainforest for a fraction of the price they cost on the better known Caribbean islands.”
Meals, too, are very affordable. “Local restaurants have pretty standard prices, no matter where you eat,” Lempiainen says. “As it’s a French overseas territory, fixed price menus are common. For 35 Euros, you can get a nice three-course lobster dinner.”
Pro tip to save: While admittedly this sounds like a controversial concept, Lempiainen points out that it’s perfectly normal — and not at all rude — to not tip in Guadeloupe, which can save a significant amount over the course of several days. (This is only true at restaurants, though; you are expected to tip hotel staff and tour companies.)
Once you’ve selected which Caribbean destination you want to head to, you can save a lot by cutting corners on hotel stays. These sneaky tips will keep you from shelling out hundreds on luxurious resorts.
Get a Day Pass to a Bling Hotel
You don’t need to stay at an opulent hotel to live it up in the Caribbean. Instead, why not stay somewhere affordable and splash out on a few day passes, meals or spa treatments at the swankiest resorts in the area?
Jessica Wilson, a travel, poetry and fiction writer based in Jamaica and London, says in Jamaica, for example, you can pick up a day pass to a hotel for as little as $70. That price will grant you temporary access to resort facilities like swimming pools and restaurants.
Throughout the Caribbean, you can enjoy a meal or cocktails at a posh hotel, indulge in a treatment at a resort spa or, if you’re a golfer, book a day at a golf club — all without spending thousands to stay at the hotels themselves.
Try a Homestay
Homestays are a great money-saving option in the Caribbean, especially if you're staying in Cuba. Here, Casa Particulares are family-run lodgings (permitted by the government via a special license) where you can pay as little as $75 per night for a room in a luxury penthouse villa with chef service and uniformed staff.
Savvy traveler and former travel-agency owner Terri Price Luera, who lives in the Caribbean and has just returned from Cuba, says Cuba is “ridiculously expensive in truth,” but notes that a lot can be saved by going the Casa Particular route. Plus, she notes, “It gives a better flavor of the Cuban people and is a better place to eat than the restaurants.”
The closest thing to a “Casa Particular” in other parts of the Caribbean is a private room in an Airbnb where the host specifies on their profile that they will interact with the guests. Or you can Google “homestays” and the country of your choice.
But Cuba’s “Casa Particular” model is quite unique.
Being smart about what you spend on food and drinks can save you more than you might think.
Ditch Your Wine Habit (Temporarily)
The hot, humid climate in the Caribbean isn’t great for growing grapes, and although a handful of producers have managed to create local wines, most wine is imported from California, South America and Europe. Transporting it all that way (and paying import duties) isn’t cheap, and on top of that, resorts often inflate prices further.
Because of this, local tipple usually works out to be much cheaper throughout the Caribbean. For example, a margarita in Mexico costs an average of $5, while in Jamaica a rum drink is typically about $4.
Or try the cheapest of all drinks across the Caribbean: beer.
Sanne Wesselman, founder of the travel blog “Spend Life Traveling,” has lived in St Maarten and Aruba and traveled extensively around many other Caribbean islands. Her advice? “Save the wine for a trip to the Napa Valley and enjoy a beer or two while watching the sun set on a beautiful Caribbean beach.” (Sounds good to us!)
Corona is made in Mexico and Red Stripe in Jamaica, and it doesn’t cost much to send either to other islands in the region. There are also numerous less well-known Caribbean beer brands to choose from that are super affordable.
As Wesselman points out, “I've seen happy hour deals where the beer was cheaper than water!”
Buy Your Water by the Barrel
Speaking of water, go to a supermarket and find the biggest, fattest barrel of water you can find. Often in the Caribbean, these are 5 liters or sometimes even 20 liters in size. Take it back to your vacation rental or hotel room, and decant however much you need into a reusable water bottle as required.
You’ll need a lot of water in the Caribbean heat, which means unless water is included in your room/villa price, you’ll end up spending handsomely just to stay hydrated. Single-use water bottles of 500 ml sold at hotels, bars and in grocery stores can cost far more than a very large water barrel purchased at a supermarket.
Plus, this way you’re doing your bit for the environment by limiting the amount of plastic water bottles you use.
Oh, and don’t consider saving money by using tap water — it’s often contaminated with parasites (and worse) so it isn’t worth the risk, even just for brushing your teeth.
It’s easy to rack up a hefty bill on transit in the Caribbean; flights between islands can be exorbitantly expensive, and just getting around the island you’re on doesn't typically come cheap.
Cutting corners on transport can make a world of difference in what you pay.
Take a Luxury Coach From the Airport
They’re good enough for rock stars on tour, so why not use a luxury “coach” bus instead of a private transfer?
Not every Caribbean destination offers coach services, but many do, including Jamaica and the Mexican Caribbean. And these vehicles are more sophisticated than you might think, decked out with air-conditioning, new upholstery, tinted windows and on-board movies.
An example of the savings you could enjoy? Using ADO coach service to travel between the airport in Cancun, downtown Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum costs just $15, whereas a transfer with a reliable local company could cost you up to $187 round trip. The coach service also operates between towns in the region, making it ideal for affordable sightseeing trips as well.
Moreover, going the coach route will protect you from being taken advantage of, as grifters often target private-transfer customers for overcharging scams.
Go Local on Your Rental Car
In some parts of the Caribbean, such as on St Maarten and Aruba, you will need a car to travel between attractions. And while you may think hiring a car from a big international brand like Hertz would be cheaper, Wesselman notes that it actually costs far less if you book via a local car-rental company, requesting prices from a few different options to compare.
Going this route, she’s found car rentals for as little as $25 a day or, if booked for a month, $15 a day.
Bike Around on a Beachcruiser
Even better than renting a car? Cycling to get around. (Bonus: This will help burn off those pina colada calories too!)
Of course, this tip varies from destination to destination, but, for example, if you hire a bicycle in a city such as Playa del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras or Tulum, you’ll find cycle lanes, pedestrianized streets and flat terrain ideally suited to cycling.
You can rent a beach-cruiser or modern bicycle for as little as $13 a day via companies like Playa Bike Rentals (the price drops to $5 if you rent the bike for eight to 14 days). The same rule applies to many other Caribbean locales too. For example, on St Maarten, you can rent a hybrid bike from Tri-Sport SXM for as little as $20 per day.
Ferry, Don't Fly, Between Islands
Depending on where you’re going, flying between international islands can cost more than your flight to the Caribbean! Instead of taking to the air, travel by sea in a public ferry.
In the Mexican Caribbean, the most luxurious option, Ultramar, runs between Playa del Carmen and Cancun to Isla Mujures and Cozumel, and features live music, a bar, a kids play area, and indoor or outdoor seating. The price tag for a “Premium Plus” ticket to get from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel? A dirt-cheap $15. (Pro tip: Make sure to ask for this ticket type specifically, or you’ll automatically get a First Class ticket for $20.) As a point of comparison, a flight between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel can easily cost over $100.
Another excellent choice is L'Express des Iles, offering service between St Lucia, Martinique, Dominica and Guadeloupe. While a round-trip flight between St Lucia and Martinique can cost hundreds, for example, a ferry ride between the two is less than $90. (Travel on Thursdays or Saturdays to get the cheapest deals; if you’re staying for a longer period, the more tickets you buy, the cheaper it gets.)
Granted, these ferries aren’t flashy, but they get you from point A to B, and who cares anyway when you’re cruising the Caribbean waters and admiring emerald-green islands from a new vantage point?
Use the Local Lingo When Ordering a Taxi
In many locations across the Caribbean, if you are able to order a taxi in the local language, you’ll typically pay half the price for it. For example, a taxi from the ferry terminal in Cozumel to a hotel a 15-minute drive away costs $10. But if you ask in Spanish, it’s just $5. Just remember to ask the price and agree on it before you hop in.
The same rule is true in many other Caribbean destinations, and you can also apply it to other things such as bartering in markets.
If you studied Spanish or French at high school, you probably can handle this. But even if you didn’t, it’s very simple to learn basic phrases (depending which island you’re on). Use Spanish in Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and French in Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, St Barthelemy, French Guiana and St Martin.
Here are a couple of handy, very simple phrases in Spanish and French you can use when ordering a taxi in these destinations:
“Hola! [Insert destination/hotel name], por favor.” (Hello! [Destination], please.)
“Cuánto cuesta?” (How much is it?) Pronounced “kwanto kwesta.”
“Vale, gracias!” (OK, thanks!) Pronounced “valley, grah-zee-as.”
“Bonjour! [Insert destination/hotel name], s’il vous plait.” (Hello! [Destination], please.) Pronounced “si-vou pleh.”
“C’est combien?” (How much is it.) Pronounced “say com-be-an.”
“Bien, merci.” (That’s fine, thanks.)