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 traveler on a budget. How would we know? We island hopped around the Caribbean with our carry-on backpacks 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.
When best to visit the Caribbean
With the extreme destruction seen during the 2017 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 a visual help as to where the different islands are.
Still not sure? Head on over to our post on the Best and Worst of the Caribbean for a download on the good, the bad and the ugly. Or check our individual country posts:
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.
UPDATE AUGUST 2020: We used LIAT (jointly owned by Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines) for almost all our flights in 2017. Unfortunately, the airline went into liquidation in June 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 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).
Barbados and Curaçao
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.
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 on 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 10 Essential Travel Safety Tips for the Independent Traveler.
Where best to stay to experience Caribbean hospitality
Our accommodation costs in the Caribbean averaged USD23 per person per day. You can book all your accommodation through the following websites:
We mostly stayed in locally owned, self-catered accommodation, (usually) with our own bathroom and kitchen, or in homestays or guesthouses. All our accommodation (except in Western Curaçao) was centrally located or within walking distance of public transport.
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.
Feature image by pinasmall from Pixabay