Want to travel in the Caribbean independently and on a budget? Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? True, some Caribbean islands can be VERY expensive. But there are plenty of affordable islands, and you don’t have to join a cruise to island-hop around the Caribbean.
Intrigued? We share with you all you need to know about exploring the Caribbean as an independent traveller on a budget. How would we know? We island-hopped around the Caribbean with our travel packs for three months, and we can’t wait to go back and do it all again.
Looking for some inspiration first? Well, why not check out our post on the Best and Worst of the Caribbean, and then come back here to find out how to make it happen?
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When best to visit the Caribbean
With the extreme destruction seen during hurricane season (Harvey, Irma and Maria will be etched into many people’s memories just like Katrina), paying attention to your time of travel might not be a bad idea.
The (Atlantic) hurricane season runs from 1 June to 30 November. You may encounter the occasional tropical storm outside of that time frame. By the same token, the greatest likelihood to encounter a hurricane in the region is between mid-August and mid-October.
Unless you are a storm chaser, we recommend avoiding those periods. We left the area in early July (to continue our travels in Central America), and we are glad we did. Though be aware that hurricanes can and do hit the Central American mainland as well, especially the Caribbean coast of Mexico and Belize.
Which island/s to choose
There are 30 island territories in the Caribbean (not including the continent’s Caribbean coastline), so there is plenty to choose from. Every island offers something different, and the Caribbean is home to some of the friendliest, most welcoming and most resilient people we’ve met.
To make choosing your destination/s easier, we have put together a table of the destinations we have visited so far, comparing the different destinations based on (our actual) travel costs and their respective attractions (in alphabetical order). The stars are based on our experience (4 stars meaning this is a place to experience XYZ, 2 stars meaning there is some XYZ but it may not be your first choice for it).
We also include a map to give you visual help as to where the different islands are.
|Travel costs (USD per person per day)||Currency||Language/s spoken||Beaches||Geothermal activity||Hiking||History||Movie locations||Music||Underwater||Waterfalls|
|Barbados (Apr 2017)||67||BBD||English||****||**||**|
|Cuba (Jul 2017)||47||CUC and CUP||Spanish||**||****||**||****||**|
|Curacao (Mar 2017)||62||ANG||Various (including English, Spanish)||***||**||***||***|
|Dominica (Jun 2017)||50||XCD||English||****||****||***||***||***|
|Dominican Republic |
|Grenada (Apr 2017)||48||XCD||English||***||**||***||**||**|
|Jamaica (Jun 2017)||52||JMD||English||**||**||***||****||****|
|St Lucia (May 2017)||47||XCD||English||**||***||***||**||**|
|St Vincent and the Grenadines (May 2017)||65||XCD||English||****||**||***||***||***|
|Trinidad and Tobago |
2. XCD is pegged to USD: 1 USD = 2.70 XCD
How to island hop (without joining a cruise)
Given we are talking about the Caribbean, you would think that there are regular ferry services between the islands. But to our surprise, ferry services are rather the exception than the norm. It seems that running a ferry service is not financially viable in many instances (partially due to the havoc wreaked by hurricanes), and many companies have tried and failed.
We used ferries wherever possible and flew when there were none. We found the Howder Family’s Caribbean Ferry Map was a good starting point to determine where ferries exist. But we would always do further research and (if in doubt) contact the actual company to make sure they were still running.
We used LIAT (jointly owned by Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines) for almost all our flights. Unfortunately, the airline went into liquidation in 2020, after COVID-19 exacerbated existing financial troubles. The airline may be resurrected in the future, but for now, you’ll have to use other airlines to fly between the Caribbean islands.
Clockwise or anti-clockwise?
Most private boats travel clockwise to seek safe harbour in the Eastern Caribbean before the hurricane season hits. We travelled anti-clockwise, for no particular reason other than that we found the transfer into/out of the Caribbean and between the islands to be easiest this way:
How to save money on transportation
Being flexible is what really pays when it comes to transportation and air travel in particular. Travel outside of peak season if you can. If you can't, fares might still be cheaper during certain times of the week and even hours of the day, so check websites like Skyscanner, and Google Travel that allows you to see a whole month and all the options on any given date.
If you have several airports in the vicinity of your home (or in the vicinity of your destination) compare the prices between the different options. For example, flying to Mykonos and taking the ferry to Santorini might still end up being way cheaper than flying from your home airport straight to Santorini.
We use and recommend the following online travel agents and service providers for all our travel needs:
To find good flight deals, we use one-stop travel sites or travel aggregators. Each shows the cheapest airfares on any given day, so you can choose to fly a day/week/month earlier or later, pending your flexibility.
If you find a good deal, book it there and then as prices change constantly. Ideally do your research with your browser in incognito mode, as cookies will show booking sites how keen you are to do a certain trip, which may affect the price quoted – that goes for all online travel bookings.
We tend to not actually go through the flight aggregators, but then book with the airline/s directly. The price is the same (sometimes cheaper), and we have a direct contract with the airline (rather than with the middleman) in case something goes wrong.
The best fares generally go first, so planning is important when it comes to transport. The same is true if you want to use air points/ miles, as there is only a very limited number of seats available for any given flight.
When we started our journey in October 2016, Paul and I took advantage of a special Qantas offer, paying only 25,000 frequent flyer points each from Auckland to San Francisco (one way). All we had to pay was the (unavoidable) taxes.
If you plan to travel through multiple continents, you may want to compare passes that offer several destinations as a package (such as around-the-world fares offered by One World or Star Alliance members) vs booking each leg of your trip individually.
If you are travelling during peak season those multi-destination packages may be a better deal than booking each leg individually. You can do overland sections on around-the-world tickets too, which means you could supplement your around-the-world ticket with cheap flights, bus and train rides in between destinations.
Vehicle rental (including relocations)
Unless your trip takes you across oceans, another way to save on transport is to look for vehicle/motorhome relocations. There are websites in many countries offering massively discounted rates (often including fuel and/or insurance) to those driving a vehicle/motorhome from A to B within a certain period. These deals are fairly last minute, and A and B are usually bigger transport hubs, but if that’s an option just search for vehicle/motorhome relocation at your destination.
Speaking of vehicles: If you are planning to hire a vehicle at your destination, it also pays to shop around. We use and recommend Discover Cars, an aggregator website that allows you to search across major car rental companies at once. And you don’t have to pay for the hire until you pick up the car.
A final option to save on transport costs is… to hitch a ride. While Paul and I did it safely in Dominica on a public holiday (when there was no other option), and we have taken plenty of people along in our campervan in New Zealand, there are many countries we wouldn’t feel safe hitchhiking. Judge for yourself where and when you can and can’t do it.
How to get around on the islands
While you can hire a vehicle almost anywhere in the Caribbean, using local transport is a way more affordable option, and a fun and safe one (in most instances).
Cuba and Jamaica
These two neighbours have excellent intercity bus services:
Both use comfortable, air-conditioned buses. Viazul’s air-conditioning, however, is usually freezing, so make sure you have access to a jumper. While Viazul’s online booking facility seems to have improved, we always buy tickets in person at the Viazul Bus Terminals (usually on the day we arrive for our next destination).
Interested in learning about the countries we explore through entertainment? These inspirational travel movies will allow you to go on your own virtual tour around the world.
Barbados and Curacao
Barbados and Curacao have very efficient, scheduled (mini)bus services. These services may not be as frequent as you may be used to at home (especially if you’re European) but they do get you to most corners of the islands.
Most buses in Curacao start in Willemstad at one of two bus stations:
- Buses servicing the west of the island start at Otrobanda bus station (look for the ABC Bus Info Center on Google Maps) – including bus line 4B to/from the airport.
- Buses to the east of the island start from the bus station in Punda (next to the Ronde Market) – including bus lines 2A/C to/from the airport.
It’s an easy 15-minute walk between the two bus stations via the Queen Emma Bridge. Bus line 1B is the only bus connection between both bus stations: it circumnavigates the Schottegat (the inland harbour around which Willemstad is built).
Grenada and St Lucia
Grenada (including Carriacou) and St Lucia are serviced by shared minibuses. These services are not scheduled but leave from their respective endpoint when they are full. The minibuses, however, have fixed routes (with numbers displayed on the vehicle), and prices are regulated. Nevertheless, we found that especially in Grenada drivers tried to charge a higher price.
Shared minibus services also exist on all other islands we visited. In Tobago, minibuses are replaced by sedans, and in Jamaica, you will find both minibuses and sedans. Prices are generally regulated, but drivers often try to overcharge. We found the worst offenders in Tobago. Ask your host what charge is reasonable, make sure you have roughly that amount on you (no big bills), confirm the charge and negotiate (hard if need be) before you jump in.
A few more tips
- Never let a private taxi driver know that you are unfamiliar with the island. We experienced a few times the tactics used to check out whether we were an easy target to scam off a higher price.
- Be aware that a shared service generally means you share the vehicle with as many people as can fit into the vehicle (figuratively rather than legally). If you are travelling with luggage you may need to ‘buy an extra seat’ for your luggage.
- We hitchhiked in Dominica on a public holiday as there are generally no minibuses on those days. While we felt safe and met some very cool people, we wouldn’t recommend it on all Caribbean islands.
- Always keep your luggage within reach (for example, on your lap) or at least in sight, and never travel at dusk or during darkness. Be extra vigilant in crowded places. For more travel safety tips check out our Essential Travel Safety Tips for the Independent Traveler.
How to save money on accommodation
For accommodation, as with any other travel expenses, it’s worth shopping around. When we book accommodation somewhere, we tend to look across a number of booking platforms to find the best value-for-money option. Wherever you book, make sure you read the fine print to make sure you compare apples with apples. For example, your stay may incur extra charges (like local tourist taxes or cleaning fees). Some booking platforms include them, while with others, you have to pay them to your host upon arrival.
Nightly rates are generally cheaper outside of peak season. If you can only travel in peak season, look for accommodation options that are a little further away from the main tourist attractions, yet have good connections by public transport. Always double-check the cancellation policy and payment terms before you book.
We use and recommend the following online travel agents and service providers for all our accommodation needs:
What to expect in terms of food
One of the great advantages of travelling around the Caribbean is the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables on offer. We always went to local markets to stock up on fruit for our breakfasts and snacks, and on veggies for our cooked meals.
More tricky to come by (and more expensive) were the typical groceries we are used to in Western countries: cereal, milk, yoghurt, bread, peanut butter, cheese, (cold) meats… you name it. Given the climate, fresh milk is pretty much uncommon. This means swapping over to long-life milk (or milk powder on some of the smaller islands). Ever-present bananas plus surprisingly common muesli bars and salty crackers became great energy boosters on hikes.
Similar to many countries in Central and South America, we often had lunch at small local eateries serving yummy, hardy, inexpensive meals with local ingredients. The portions were usually big enough for the two of us to share one. Our costs for dining and groceries averaged USD15 per person per day.
How to save money on experiences
Free activities or experiences
Many activities (and some of our most treasured experiences) are free or cost very little. On our journeys, we have
- Visited many museums free of charge (including the Colosseum and Forum in Rome, Italy which is free on the first Sunday of the month)
- Joined Al Green’s Baptist Church Service in Memphis to experience local community life (rather than pay the exorbitant entry fees at nearby Graceland)
- Attended free guided walking tours through Buenos Aires and Merida (you pay a tip at the end based on your budget and how much you liked the tour) and a free guided walking tour as part of Auckland Heritage Festival (which even included coffee and scones afterwards)
- Did countless self-guided walks and used public transport to get to know a city
- Hiked in the Andes in Ecuador and climbed volcanoes in the Caribbean
- Swam and snorkelled at countless beaches, using tree shade rather than paying for parasols; and
- Attended free performances and danced with locals in Cuba.
Just search for free activities for your destination and chances are someone has made a nice list for you already. Here are some examples
Paying for experiences or activities can add up quickly, especially if you're travelling as a family. Make use of family passes (if available). Look out for special deals and discount coupons. If you travel in a group, you may also pay to book a private tour and share the cost. Definitely shop around.
We use and recommend the following service providers for all our paid experiences and activity needs:
How to save money on dining and groceries
Dining out all the time can quickly get expensive. We always book accommodation where we have access to a kitchen - either our own little kitchenette or the kitchen of our host. That way, we can store food in the fridge and make our own meals. We usually have breakfast and one other meal at our accommodation, and one meal when we're out and about.
Restaurants (even in tourist hotspots) often have special lunch offers (for example, a three-course meal for EUR10). Portion sizes in many parts of the world are usually quite substantial, so we often share a three-course meal. The same applies if you go out for dinner: Order a starter or salad and a main, and that's usually enough for two people. An added benefit: there is less food waste.
As for groceries: every country has more expensive and cheaper supermarkets. Ask your host what the cheaper options are (for example, Aldi or Lidl in many European countries) and avoid 7/11-type convenience stores as much as possible.
When my mum turned 50, she didn’t want a huge party but instead asked to have a family holiday one last time. Both my brother and I had left home, and I was already engaged at the time. The five of us ended up booking a farmhouse overlooking Lake Garda in Northern Italy. When my parents arrived (they had driven from East Germany), their vehicle was full of groceries. To save money, my mum had decided that we would have every. meal at home. While she got her wish (mostly), my brother, partner and I snuck out one day to have a nice meal at a local trattoria.
Experiencing local cuisine is often one of the reasons why we travel… whether it be daring to taste grilled insects at a hawker stall in Asia, indulging in some funky vegan food truck dishes in Portland, or munching on a pizza in Italy. You don’t have to eat out three times a day though.
Paul and I tend to only eat out once a day (sometimes only once a week), usually at lunchtime. This allows us to experience local cuisine while taking advantage of awesome lunch deals. It also means we don’t have to roam around unknown parts of town every night in search of a restaurant.
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