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Caribbean

Caribbean Regions

Aruba

Bahamas

Barbados

Bermuda

Bonaire

Cuba

Curacao

Grand Bahama Island

Grenada Travel Guide

Jamaica Travel Guide

Nassau

Out Islands

Puerto Rico

St Lucia

Caribbean

Update: The Caribbean islands after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria

Our hearts go out to victims of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, which swept through the Caribbean and Atlantic in September 2017. They caused severe damage to some islands, but not all. According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, about70% of the Caribbean region escaped damage and vacationers have more than 30 Caribbean islands to choose from for a fall escape. Many of the resorts and tour operators are offering better-than-usual promotions during this shoulder season that runs until mid-December to entice travelers to the islands. 

For specific details, click here. 

Still, many islands and islanders need our help. They are beginning a massive reconstruction effort that will take weeks or months. Please consider giving through the hurricane relief fund set up by the Caribbean Tourism Organization through Go Fund Me. Some of our Caribbean authors have also given through Mercy Corps’s Irma fund and via Public Good. For more suggestions on relief agencies with proven records, visit Consumer Reports and NYTimes

As travel writers, we have a special connection with these islands — their culture, people, cuisine, spirit. And we believe that economic development through tourism dollars is a worthy cause. Please check in when it’s time to make your travel plans; the devastated islands will welcome you with open arms as soon as they can receive guests. 


Overview of the Caribbean Islands

Thousands of islands stretch through the eastern Caribbean Sea from the southern tip of Florida to the northern coast of South America. Outliers, such as Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos, sit decidedly in the Atlantic Ocean. However, they are included in a conversation about the Caribbean simply because they are orphan relatives without a home to call their own.

Collectively, the islands are a delightful mix of cultures and offer surprising geographical diversity. All the islands have warm weather year round; most have pristine beaches fronting turquoise waters filled with thriving coral reefs and multicolored sea creatures. Many also have tropical rainforests, picturesque mountains, and rare wildlife. But each island and island group has a unique personality, with particular traditions and distinct topography, and an assortment of attractions, activities, cuisines, and accommodations.


So, how do you decide which Caribbean island is the best fit for your tropical vacation?

Our team of experts has explored all the principal islands and laid out an honest account of each destination. Just match your must-haves and preferences with the offerings of each island, and consider your finances and time limitations. This formula should narrow the field to a few possibilities.

Get inspired with the following overview. Then, follow links to individual destinations for detailed descriptions and practical tips to jump start your vacation planning. Each destination page also has several itineraries geared to specific budgets, interests, and the length of time you’ll need to get the most from your visit.


Large Northern Caribbean Islands

Take a look at the Greater Antilles, a group of large islands and island groups located in the northern part of the Caribbean Sea, nearest to the United States. They are a magnificent and diverse collection with a mix of languages, cultures, landscapes, and attractions.

Investigate Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico if you’re interested in a combination of history, architecture, nightlife, lush countryside, and magnificent beaches. These three islands also offer some of the least expensive vacation packages in the Caribbean. Jamaica, another large north Caribbean island, is all about reggae and Bob Marley, mountains and golden-sand beaches, waterfalls and historic plantations.

Nearby, the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos and the Caymans are island groups with less diversity, but abundant white-sand beaches, excellent water sports, and lovely resorts. Since you can catch a short, direct flight from US gateways and get to the beach quickly, these islands are ideal for weekend getaways and short family vacations.

Bermuda, while quite a long distance from the Caribbean Sea, is an excellent vacation option. A two-hour flight from the US puts you on the balmy island located 665 m/1,070 km off the coast of North Carolina. It is best known for pink-sand beaches, a strong British vibe, and good sailing. January through March can be quite cool, but prices are lower and the crowds are thinner during these months. The limited diving season prevents Bermuda from being a favorite with scuba fans, but hundreds of wrecks sit on its reefs and invite exploration. Check your finances before you finalize your decision; the island is on the pricey side.


Smaller Caribbean Islands — Huge Variety

The Lesser Antilles, also called the Leeward Islands, take in the numerous US and British Virgin Islands, including St Thomas, St John, St Croix and Tortola. Tiny Anguilla, Antigua, St Kitts, Nevis, and St Barts circle the larger two-nation island of St Martin. To the south, Guadeloupe and Martinique make up the French Antilles.

Throughout the region, you will find unusual geographical and cultural diversity to match the mix of lodging, dining, and activity choices. Over-the-top luxury resorts and quaint hideaways are tucked among the palm trees. The principal towns bustle with shops and restaurants. Villages offer charming vendor huts and snack shacks. You’ll want to try the whole lot, whether you’re going upscale or frugal. Sailors often charter a boat to sail from one port to another, and regional airlines make it possible to hop among the islands.

You frequently can find airfare bargains into St Martin, St Thomas, and St Croix, but in general room rates in the Lesser Antilles are higher than you’ll find for similar hotels elsewhere in the Caribbean.


South into the Caribbean Trade Winds

Dominica is an often overlooked Windward Island sitting oddly between the French Overseas Departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Europeans almost forgot to colonize it during the 1600s, which may explain why the last remaining group of indigenous people lives there. Branded The Nature Isle, Dominica is a wild, mountainous, deeply forested place with a rocky shoreline and gray-sand beaches.

St Lucia, just south of Martinique, is a something-for-everyone island. Its iconic twin peaks, the Pitons, are the most photographed landmark in the Caribbean. The beaches are stunning, and offer plenty of water sports. The interior rainforest is easy to explore on foot or by aerial tram and zipline. Accommodations range from over-the-top luxurious to quite affordable, and nightlife includes a variety of late-night dining spots and after-hour bars featuring local bands.

Nearby, Barbados is a popular stop for cruise ships, and Bridgetown, the capital, is filled with duty-free shops and colonial buildings. British traditions continue to be a focal point for both residents and visitors; think afternoon tea, cricket matches, and designer golf courses. Bajans are a friendly lot who welcome visitors to enjoy their cultural events, as well as their island’s abundant beauty. While getting to the island is somewhat more costly than it would be to islands closer to the U.S., you often can find great rates on 3-star beachfront resorts. Underwater explorers will find good deals on scuba and snorkeling trips.

The tiny Grenadines separate St Vincent from Grenada. An active volcano dominates St Vincent and lures hikers to its top. Black-sand beaches, waterfalls, and thick forests attract nature buffs. Grenada is The Spice Isle, a lush paradise of waterfalls, mountains, freshwater streams, and both white- and black-sand beaches. Bequia and Mustique are perhaps the best known of the Grenadines, which are admired, as a group, for ideal sailing conditions. You’re likely to get good rates on mid-range resort rooms, and airfare into Grenada can be quite reasonable.


Caribbean Islands Off the South American Coast

Farther south, Trinidad and Tobago, Bonaire, Curacao, and Aruba stretch east to west off the north coast of Venezuela, safely outside the Atlantic hurricane belt. Each island has unique attractions, and the residents have an innate love of art, music, and euphoric festivals.

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a twin-island nation, but the siblings are separated by 19 miles/30 km and far from identical. The larger twin is Trinidad, the country’s industrial center, known for producing natural gas and petroleum. Its remote countryside attracts ecotourists, and the capital, Port of Spain, is famous for its spectacular pre-Lent carnival. Most international flights land in Trinidad and passengers go on to Tobago by ferry, water taxi, or quick and frequent flights on Caribbean Airlines.

Tobago is known for its white-sand beaches and underwater reefs, which makes the island popular with tourists. The island has a collection of eco awards and its Main Ridge Forest Reserve is the oldest protected rainforest in the Western Hemisphere. Nature trails take birdwatchers and hikers deep into the forest filled with an abundance of plants and wildlife. Look for direct flights from the US on Caribbean Airlines during peak season.

Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao often are called the ABC Islands, but other than being part of the former island country known as The Netherlands Antilles and benefiting from perfect weather, they have little in common.

Aruba is the best-known of the ABC Islands. Upscale resorts line its stunning beaches and encourage non-stop activity. Off the beach, nature lovers find a national park, bizarre rock formations jutting out of the flat countryside, and an abundance of birds. Explorers discover natural pools and limestone caves when they tour the wild northeastern coast on all-terrain vehicles. The international airport is busy with inexpensive flights landing from the US, Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands. Most resorts are luxury class, but you can find a good three-star hotel in the $100 range.

The more mellow tone of Bonaire suits scuba divers and snorkelers who enjoy the healthy reefs and clear waters sheltered by an extensive marine park that lies just offshore. If you’re not an underwater person, you may be disappointed by the small, rocky beaches and the island’s lack of nightlife. But, if you’re looking for relaxation, you’ll enjoy the tranquility and the company of easy-going locals. Expect flights to be expensive, but you will find accommodations are in the low to mid range. Look for package deals that include scuba diving or other water sports.

Curacao’s historic capital, Willemstad, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with Dutch colonial buildings. You may be put off by the oil refinery at the edge of town, which sometimes billows smoke and acrid odors. But, most visitors are too focused on the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge that spans St. Anna Bay and connects the two sides of the city. Lovely beaches line the island’s coast, and the countryside offers opportunities to bike and hike in the national park, and explore caves once used as a hideout by escaped slaves. Frequent, moderately-priced flights from Europe and North America and little chance of hurricanes makes Curacao an ideal destination year round. Accommodations range from inexpensive vacation villages to pricey luxury resorts.


When To Go

High season in the Caribbean runs from mid-December to mid-April, with hotels and airlines posting the highest prices during major holidays. Outside the peak season, expect to spend less money and have fewer crowds. Hurricane season extends from late summer to early fall, which is also the rainiest period on most islands.

You may find the greatest bargains and best weather right after hurricane season in late October and before the December holiday season kicks in. Another favorable season is between Easter and the end of the North American school year.

How Much Time To Spend

Most visitors spend one or two weeks in the Caribbean. Europeans and Canadians often check into an all-inclusive resort or charter a boat for several weeks or months during the coldest days of winter. Many islands have excellent airlift from the US, which makes them a practical destination for long weekends.

In general, a week on a single island or within an island group will allow you time to see most of the best attractions.

High and Low Season

High season in the Caribbean runs from mid-December to mid-April, with hotels and airlines posting the highest prices during major holidays. Outside the peak season, expect to spend less money and have fewer crowds. Hurricane season extends from late summer to early fall, which is also the rainiest period on most islands.

You may find the greatest bargains and best weather right after hurricane season in late October and before the December holiday season kicks in. Another favorable season is between Easter and the end of the school year in North America.

Weather and Climate

Caribbean islands are year-round destinations, but travelers from North America and Europe enjoy visiting during the winter months to escape cold weather at home.

Traditionally, mid-December through mid-April is high season, but newlyweds often honeymoon on the islands during the summer, and families with children tend to visit during holiday breaks.

Count on mid-April through mid-December being less busy, with fewer crowds, lower room rates, and cheaper airfares. Violent tropical storms can be a concern in late summer and early fall, and if you want to avoid the possibility, choose one of the far-southern islands that lie outside the hurricane belt.

Rainfall varies greatly from island to island and from one part of each island to another. Aruba gets just 16 inches of rain each year, while the annual rainfall on Dominica is more than 100 inches. The mountains of Jamaica get rain most days, about 200 inches annually, but the coast is often dry and averages about 30 inches a year. If you want to escape hurricanes and most rainy days, go to Aruba, Bonaire, Barbados, or Curacao. Vegetation is less lush on these islands, but the beaches guarantee sun most days.

Events and Holidays

Almost every Caribbean island observes the following public holidays:

New Year’s Day, January 1
Good Friday Friday before Easter, late March/early April
Easter Monday Monday after Easter, late March/early April
Whit Monday, Eighth Monday after Easter
Christmas Day, December 25
Boxing Day, December 26

Check Caribbean Public Holidays for specific dates on each island.

In addition, islands host annual festivals to celebrate either the days just before the Christian Lenten Season or the yearly harvest. In some cases, the mass merrymaking is about the growing season, or jazz, or freedom, or life in general.

Most celebrations run for a few days, but some go on for weeks. These carnivals or street parties are a frenzied blowout with music, parades, and dancing. If you’re looking for a non-stop good time, and don’t mind traffic jams, crowds, and disrupted routines, check the event calendar for islands that interest you.

Time Zone

Caribbean Islands stretch over two time zones, with the two-nation island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) dividing the region between Eastern Standard Time and Atlantic Standard Time.

Most of the islands observe Daylight Savings Time, but the change-over dates vary.

To check the current local time on each island, click here and type the destination into the search box.

What To Pack and Wear

A small roll-aboard bag should be large enough to carry everything you need for a Caribbean vacation.

Wear your heaviest clothes (windbreaker,  sweater, or casual jacket) and shoes (hiking boots or sturdy sneakers) on the airplane. Stuff only three ounces of the basic liquids, creams, or gels, into one zip-lock clear plastic bag. Remember to carry prescription medication in a safe place, such as a handbag, zipped pocket, or small backpack; carry-on suitcases sometimes must be checked at the gate because of space limitations. Don’t forget sunglasses, a sunhat, and a small tube of sunscreen that will get you through a couple of days. Plan to buy additional necessities, such as toothpaste and extra sunscreen, on the island.

Pack lightweight pants, shorts, sundresses, and sandals. Bring quick-dry tops, swimsuits, and underwear that can be washed in the hotel sink and dried on the patio or shower rod. Women will want to buy colorful sarongs from beach vendors to pop over swimsuits or wrap stylishly into a dress for a casual night out. Men can pick up a ball cap or t-shirt to wear on the island and take home as a souvenir.

If you’re on a cruise or staying in an upscale resort with a dress code, women will need a long sundress or dressy pants for evenings. Use scarves, light wraps, and jewelry to dress up one outfit rather than pack a wardrobe of evening wear. Men will need a couple of collared shirts, and perhaps a sports coat and tie as well.

What it Costs

Cruises and all-inclusive resorts may be a less expensive way to visit the Caribbean. Both allow you to know in advance more or less what your vacation will cost. First timers and those on a budget, whether luxury or bare-bones, often consider this a less stressful way to go.

Cruising limits your time on each island, and usually, you will be docked in the center of the largest town, which typically isn’t the most interesting part of the island. Shoppers, travelers with mobility limitations, and anyone who simply wants to escape winter will be satisfied with a well-chosen cruise.

All-inclusive resorts are best if you’re looking for a no-hassle, laid-back vacation. The drawback is that you’ll spend all of your time at the resort and won’t venture out to explore the island and try a variety of restaurants. If you can live with the restrictions, choose your resort carefully to be sure that it has everything you expect at no additional charge.

If cruising and all-inclusive resorts aren’t for you, look into accommodations in one of the economical hotels on one of the less expensive islands.

You can book a three-star hotel on some islands for around $100 per night during high season. Be sure to add airfare into the vacation budget, and expect to spend about $350 per person for a flight from New York during high season. Package deals and low-season prices will be less.

Budget  travelers should consider a three-star hotel on these islands:
Dominican Republic
Jamaica
Aruba
Bonaire
Curacao
Grenada
St Lucia
Barbados

Mid-range budgets will stretch farther in a three-star hotel on these islands:
Bahamas
Martinique
Guadeloupe
St Thomas
St Croix

St Kitts and Nevis
St Martin
Antigua 
Trinidad and Tobago
St Vincent and the Grenadines

Splurge on these islands:
St Barts
Tortola
Anguilla
Turks and Caicos

Bermuda
Cayman Islands
Cuba

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, season, and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $25 per person
$$ => Tickets $25-50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $50-100 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $100-250 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $250 for a double

Eat
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $15-30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $50 per person
$$ => Tickets $50-100 per person
$$$ => Tickets $100 per person

Currency Converter

Some islands prefer their own currency for most cash transactions, including tips, or small purchases.

Quickly find current conversion rates at  The Money Converter.

The XE Currency Converter can be downloaded to most devices.

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Fly the Friendly Skies

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.

But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts.

So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.

Have Car, Will Travel

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill.

There are some great deals here if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.

Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save on a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)

Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day.

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Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the Caribbean goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall into this category.

Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.

Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.

Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework; check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).

If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.

For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Most islands accept U.S.dollars and major credit cards. It’s smart to carry a small amount of cash for tips and purchases at small establishments in off-the-beaten-path locations.

Some islands prefer their own currency for most cash transactions, and you can quickly find current conversion rates at  The Money Converter.

The XE Currency Converter can be downloaded to most devices

Find the currencies and central bank name of all the Caribbean islands online.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

ATMs

If you get money from an ATM machine, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, Caribbean banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge.

Credit Cards

Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the Caribbean. Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card, which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access. Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any travel experience.

Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but gratuities for other services also should be considered part of your trip expense.

General guidelines for Caribbean islands

Restaurants

For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. Some restaurants include a service fee in the price of the meal or automatically include it on the bill. Be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.

Hotels

Most hotels in the Caribbean add a government room tax plus a service charge of around 10 to 15 percent. Upscale hotels and resorts often add a resort fee. Some all-inclusive resorts forbid or discourage tipping. Check with the front desk if you are uncertain about additional fees and the gratuity policy. Tipping is expected if the hotel doesn’t add service charges to your bill.

Most bell staff receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5-$10. Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2-$3 per day and about $5 per day in higher end properties.

At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help.

Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car.

Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually expect 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.

Tip taxi drivers a dollar or two for short trips and about 10% of the fare for longer rides. Consider adding a bit extra on Sundays, holidays, and after midnight.

Transportation

All of the major islands have airports with regional or international flights. Cruise ships stop at several islands, but only a few have ferry service to nearby islands.  Check the transportation details for each destination you plan to visit. Island hopping is a popular way to explore the region, and you can charter a boat with or without a captain on most islands.

Public transportation options vary among the islands. The most developed islands often have bus service between the main towns, but often the schedule is unreliable, and the vehicles are actually overcrowded vans. Taxis are available at the airport, cruise ship terminals, and hotels on all but the smallest islands.

A rental car is by far the best way to get around. Look for well-known rental companies on most islands. While driving can be a challenge along the narrow, poorly maintained roads on some islands, you get the benefit of setting your own schedule and going to out-of-the-way spots. Be sure to investigate the driving conditions at your destination before you rent a car.  Many islanders drive on the left, animals frequently wander the roadways, and signage and lighting can be iffy at best.

Getting There

Fly the Friendly Skies

Major airlines provide scheduled flights to almost every island in the Caribbean. Residents on the US East Coast enjoy the most choices, but new service is added during peak travel season from additional gateways in Canada, Europe, and South America. Inter-island flights connect most of the smaller islands, usually through San Juan, Puerto Rico or St Thomas, USVI. You can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.

Getting Around

Have Car, Will Travel

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.

There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill.

There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.

Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)

Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day.

Transportation Hubs

The top three busiest international airports in the eastern Caribbean are:

Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport (SJU) in  San Juan, Puerto Rico

Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) in  Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

José Martí International Airport (HAV) in Havana, Cuba

Discounts and Passes

Do a bit of research to find the best airfare. A good travel agent who specializes in the Caribbean often can find a good deal for you, especially if you book well in advance.

Do the math on package deals. Frequently, booking the flight, hotel, and rental car together is cheaper than booking each separately.  If you have a specific interest, such as sailing or diving, look for companies that cater to like-minded vacationers.

Background

Every island and island group has a distinctive character that developed over the years as Europeans colonized and intermingled with the native inhabitants. African traditions were thrown into the mix when slaves were brought to the islands to work the land.

Today, most of the islands are independent nations, and others are self-governing dependencies of larger countries. Languages, religions, art,   and music vary and depend on each islands’ past. Annual celebrations and holidays recount the region’s history and commemorate the heritage of the islands.

History

The indigenous people of the eastern Caribbean islands were called Arawaks, Caribs, and Tainos; all offshoots of the Arauquinoid tribes that lived in the Orinoco River Valley of South America.

Europeans arrived in the late 1400s and began colonizing the islands in hopes of discovering gold. For centuries, Spain, Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands fought each other and the native residents for the rights to the land and its treasures.

Europeans began bringing African slaves to the islands in the 16th century, and the population soon became a mix of native Amerindians, Europeans, and Africans. Today, most of the islands are independent countries, but they hang on to their colonial past and take great pride in their unique culture.

Today, visitors to the Caribbean find that each island has its own character, traditions, and style. The diversity is amazing. Food, celebrations, music and art are a blend and variation of time-honored recipes, rhythms and customs.

Culture

The Atlantic slave trade brought African slaves to the Caribbean from the 16th century to the 19th century, and a majority of the islands’ residents have a mix of African, European, and Amerindian blood. This diversity is a vital part of the Caribbean culture. Everything, from art and crafts to music and dance, to everyday life and celebrations, pulses with a unique Caribbean vibe honed to each islands’ specifications.

Etiquette

Use the same good manners you use at home.

Do say hello when you pass someone on the street, and be respectful when you ask for directions or help.
Don’t try an accent, and skip the street slang. You’ll just sound silly.

Do wear a cover-up over your swimsuit everywhere except on the beach or at a pool.
Don’t go topless or nude. Some islands have designated resorts or beaches for that sort of thing. Otherwise, it’s illegal.

Do put a towel down before you get into a taxi wearing a wet swimsuit.
Don’t snap a photo of anyone without asking permission. Ask someone on staff before taking a picture of merchandise in a shop or outdoor stall.

Do tip appropriately, even generously. Most service providers count on tips as a major part of their salary.
Don’t complain about things that cannot be fixed: the weather, the price of food and other imported products, slow internet speed.

Do accept “island time.”  Relax. Breathe. Forget schedules. Expect delays.

Religion

Christianity, predominantly protestant, is the major religion on the Caribbean islands. However, African slaves brought a variety of beliefs with them from their native countries, and over the centuries, Christian and African faiths have mixed. Gospel music sung to a Caribbean beat pours from the churches on Sundays, and most islanders get dressed in their fanciest clothes to attend services.

Language

The people of the Caribbean are multilingual. Most speak at least basic English in addition to the island’s official language, which may be Spanish, French or Dutch. All languages are spoken with a lovely island cadence that may confuse visitors, Islanders may also speak a patois or Creole language at home or when speaking with friends.

Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao have a exceptional official language called Papiamento. It is neither patois nor Creole, but an authentic language crafted from Spanish and Portuguese, with a bit of Dutch and English thrown in. To facilitate international dealings, Dutch is the official second language.

Recommended Reading

Beach reads include:

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

Caribbean: A Novel by James A. Michener

Art

Caribbean art is an explosion of color. The best artists combine Asian, African, and Middle Eastern themes and ideas to create a Caribbean hybrid. Art galleries, craft shops, and sidewalk vendors sell remarkable paintings, prints, crafts and sculptures that make ideal souvenirs.

Be sure to spend time browsing through the stores, and don’t neglect the various museums and art galleries. Each island has its own resident artists, so search them out. Sometimes, you must visit their studio or home to see their works and this gives you an opportunity to interact with a local talent and see how he lives and works.

If you’re in the neighborhood, take a break from the beach and visit these best-of-the-best galleries:

TidesBarbados

ObraPuerto Rico

Gallery St ThomasSt Thomas, USVI

Bajo el Sol St John, USVI

Gallery of West Indian Art – Jamaica

Gallery of Caribbean ArtJamaica

Avistamientos Art GalleryCuba

Serena’s Art FactoryCuracao

Eudovic’s Art StudioSt Lucia

 

See some amazing art by Caribbean artists by clicking on the websites for:

Kate Spencer – St Kitts and Nevis

Heleen Cornet – Saba

Sally Stryker – St. Barts

Wendy CollinsSt Eustacia

Vincent Joseph Eudovic St Lucia

Roland Richardson – St Martin

Movies

The popular Disney movie trilogy Pirates of the Caribbean was set in the Caribbean. Production took place on St Vincent; the film’s harbor of Port Royal was constructed at Wallilabou Bay and the fictional village was set up at Chateaubelair.  Unfortunately, The Brig Unicorn, the sailing ship used in the films, sunk to the bottom of the sea, after filming ended, in a freak accident while it was sailing from St Lucia to St Vincent. Nearly all of the second movie in the trilogy takes place on the island of Dominica.

Other islands that played a part in well-known movies include:

St Croix, USVI — The Shawshank Redemption

Jamaica — Dr. No

The Bahamas — Thunderball, Never Say Never Again, and Casino Royale

Puerto Rico — Contact and Goldeneye

Music

Every major island in the Caribbean puts on a music festival every year.  International performers play a jumble of musical styles from calypso to zouk, and the entire island turns out to dance to the beat.

Walking down any street in the town, you will hear music pouring from radios in private homes and from sound systems in bars and restaurants.  Jamaican reggae is everywhere, but each island also has developed its own unique beat and style.

Check the tourism website for the islands you plan to visit to find an up-to-date listing of music festivals and events. Robert Curley posts a listing of Caribbean events by month on his website Trip Savvy.

Websites and Maps

Click to see a Google map of the Caribbean.

Find general information about Caribbean islands by clicking here.

Hints, Tips and FAQs

FAQs

Use a meta-search engine, such as Kayak, Momondo, or  Skyscanner, to look for the best prices on flights, hotels, and car rentals.  These sites don’t sell anything directly, but they lead you to the company that provides the travel services you need
to plan your vacation.

Find great restaurants by asking shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and bartenders where the locals like to eat.

Travel during the shoulder season. In the Caribbean, May and November are smart travel months, with good weather, lower prices, and fewer visitors.

Consider booking a vacation rental or private villa. Rates for the entire house or apartment may be less than the price of a
hotel room, and you’ll have more room, usually a living area and kitchen as well as a separate bedroom. This is especially valuable for families and groups.

Every island has an official tourism board with a website that provides information and maps. The Caribbean Tourism Organization represents the entire region.

Click through to the individual islands you plan to visit for information on local time, electric plugs, and voltage, and the type of currency used.

Don’t buy anything made from endangered species. Turtle shells, coral, reptile skins are all on the international endangered species list. If in doubt, skip it or check the list at CITES.

Buy craft items from vendors as souvenirs. Take a look at the wood carvings, jewelry, sarongs and straw baskets made on most islands.

Let your bank and credit card companies know that you will be away on vacation to avoid a being denied access to your accounts.

Check with your government’s website before you leave home for the limits and exemptions on duty-free goods that you can bring home.
US government
UK government