Be calculating and a Caribbean trip can happen
A common misconception is that traveling to the Caribbean has to be expensive. Not so. The good news is you can escape the cold without going broke.
Recently my husband and I chose a low-key vacation in Puerto Rico. We set a lean budget for high-season January: $2,500 for 10 days (three on the big island, and seven on offshore Culebra).
I am happy to report that we came in under goal, at around $2,255. Here's what we did to keep costs down.
Book flights early. Planning a winter getaway starts around Labor Day when I begin checking the Internet for Caribbean fares. Being flexible in terms of islands and dates helps. In October, I snagged a $300 round-trip flight on www.cheaptickets.com, Boston to San Juan in January.
Cost: $600 for two round-trip tickets on US Airways and
Typical cost: $880 (if the same flight were booked in November); $1,644 (if booked a week in advance).
Pack light. We packed one bag to check and two each to carry on, bringing enough but not too many clothes. One carry-on was a small cooler, packed with vacuum sealed meats, fish, cheeses, and spreads.
Cost: $15 to check one bag on the way down; the return flight allowed us to check one bag for free.
Typical cost: $120, if we had each checked two bags.
Rein in lodging. I almost reserved a room in a boutique hotel in San Juan for $900 for three nights. It looked sweet on the Internet. Instead we rented a compact car and three nights in a rustic country inn, or parador, on the southeast coast, 90 minutes from San Juan and an hour from Fajardo, where we would catch the ferry to Culebra. At the Parador Palmas de Lucía in Yabucoa (www.gotoparadores.com), we paid $360 for a double room for four days and three nights with great views of a beach, a hearty breakfast, an outdoor pool, basketball court, exercise room, Wi-Fi, and cable TV. On Culebra, we rented a 225-square-foot studio (with an equal amount of outdoor deck space), with a galley kitchen, outdoor furnishings, and a grill. Our pied-à-terre was colorful, clean, and near the beach, a bargain at $80 a night. I found the property on www.homeaway.com, where you can rent vacation properties directly from their owners.
Cost: $360 for three nights at the parador; $560 for seven nights on Culebra, or $920 total accommodations.
Typical cost: An average double in San Juan is $250 a night; on Culebra, around $140, for a total of $1,730.
Plan to prepare meals. Just as bringing your lunch to work saves money, so does stocking up on basics and preparing some of your meals while traveling. If you do eat out, go for breakfast or lunch, when meals are often half the price. Buying your own wine, or the ingredients of your favorite cocktails also saves money. One of our best meals on Culebra was the three-pound lobster bought for $12 from a local fisherman and grilled on our deck.
Cost: Between the food we brought and the food and spirits we bought on the islands, we spent around $220, plus another $100 eating out, or $320.
Typical cost: Conservatively, $100 a day.
Forgo guides. A private guide at El Yunque rain forest on the mainland will set you back $75, while a self-guided tour, with maps picked up at the information center, costs $5. On Culebra, you can pay a guide $75 to show you how to snorkel at an off-shore cay, or you can trek to Melones Beach or Playa Flamenco and snorkel for free, like the locals do. On Culebra, you can rent a beach chair and umbrella for $20 a day, or do what we did and bring the canvas chairs from your rental.
Typical cost: $175.
Use public transportation. We took the ferry to Culebra for $2.25 each versus $60 each for a one-way flight, although we did fly back to the mainland after our week on the small island. On the big island, we rented a compact car, not an SUV. On Culebra, we walked, took taxis or publicos ($3 a person from downtown to the beach) instead of renting a Jeep at $65 a day.
Cost: $100 for a three-day car rental; $175 for taxis and publicos; $120 for two one-way flights from Culebra, or $395 total (with gas).
Typical cost: $500-$1,000.
Savings: At least $105.
OK, it's your turn to do the math. How much will you save the next time? Especially in 2009, it's better to travel on a budget than not to travel at all.
Marie C. Franklin can be reached at email@example.com.