Dreaming of a Caribbean vacation that's not on a cruise ship, but afraid to even start thinking about the costs? Here are some money-saving tips.
• Monitor airfare sales. Fierce competition has lowered fares to some hot spots. When fare wars to a particular destination erupt, try to be the first to know. Sign up for deal alerts with travel sites, such as Travelocity's Fare Watcher, and with individual airlines. Also sign up to get emails from sites like Smarterliving.com, Cheapair.com and Travelzoo.com, which monitor travel deals.
• Shop last-minute deals. It's best to plan ahead, especially if you have your heart set on a particular week or place. But procrastination can sometimes pay off. Numerous travel agencies offer last-minute deals. At Site59.com, for example, we found a five-night stay plus airfare to Jamaica (from Washington), one week in advance, for $672 per person, based on two traveling.
• Stay cheap, live high. There are several ways to ethically enjoy the facilities of an outstanding resort even though you're sleeping cheaply elsewhere. First, some resorts sell day passes. For example, for $4 a day you can use the outstanding beach and comfy chairs at the Buccaneer in St. Croix — by far the nicest property on the island. And the all-inclusive Jolly Roger in Antigua lets you eat two meals and use the facilities, water toys and towels for $48 a day, $24 for children.
• Go off-peak. Even among individual properties on one island, dates for high season can vary. But the peak time generally runs from Christmas week through April 16. Seasonal differences can be big. You'll pay $185 per night at the Wyndham Aruba Resort, Spa and Casino Dec. 16-22. The next week, the price more than doubles, to $400.
• Find out where the locals eat. Three of the best meals we've had in the Caribbean came from small, locally owned joints. A hotel clerk on Grand Cayman Island turned us on to Lorna's Jerk Shop, where awesome grilled pork, chicken and fish stuffed with cabbage are grilled along the road and served with heaping side dishes for less than $10. Local taxi drivers are good sources too.
• Exploit tourism bureau resources. Information is like money, and the tourism bureaus of individual islands are fonts of information. The Caribbean Tourism Organization's website (doitcaribbean.com) links to the sites of its individual member islands, has a link to help you find a travel agent and posts deals. For example, the home page last week noted that the luxury resort Riu Ocho Rios in Jamaica was offering grand opening rates from $94.
• Use frequent-stay points. Some people blow hard-earned frequent-stay points in places they could easily find an inexpensive room. Instead, save the points for places like pricey resorts in the Caribbean.
• Consider the cheapest islands. If you get lucky with airfare and don't demand first-rate resort accommodations, you can work out a reasonably priced vacation anywhere in the Caribbean. But chances are you'll find the best bang for your buck in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic for a variety of reasons, including airfare competition. You can find great airfares to the Bahamas, too, although swimming can be chilly in winter.
• Consider a package. Travel agencies and tour operators negotiate deals with hotels and airlines, and the results are sometimes impossible to beat, no matter how many hours you spend researching.
• Consider an all-inclusive resort. Ninety percent of travelers exceed their planned budgets on trips, and more than half the time the overspending is for food and drink, according to a survey conducted by Expedia.com. You can avoid that pitfall at an all-inclusive resort.
• Veer off the beaten path. Beautiful beaches and lovely places to stay sometimes sit unheralded an hour or two away from major resort areas. They may be just as nice as, or nicer, than the places you've heard about, but they are unknown because they're too small to have publicity budgets.
Find them by locating a famous resort area on a map, then running your finger along the coastline. Once you identify a town, search for it at the website of that country.