Watch Out for Those Extras! -- Nearly all islands charge a government tax on hotel rooms, usually 7 1/2% to 9%, but those rates vary from island to island. When booking a room, make sure you understand whether the price you've been quoted includes the tax. That will avoid an unpleasant surprise when it comes time to pay the bill. Sometimes the room tax depends on the quality of the hotel -- it might be relatively low for a guesthouse but steeper for a first-class resort.
Furthermore, most hotels routinely add 10% to 12% for "service," even if you didn't see much evidence of it. That means that with tax and service, some bills are 17% or even 25% higher than the price that was originally quoted to you! Naturally, you need to determine just how much the hotel, guesthouse, or inn plans to add to your bill at the end of your stay, and whether it's included in the initial price.
That's not all. Some hotels slip in little hidden extras that mount quickly. For example, it's common for many places to quote rates that include a continental breakfast. Should you prefer ham and eggs, you will pay extra charges. If you request special privileges, like extra towels for the beach or laundry done in a hurry, surcharges may mount. It pays to watch those extras and to ask questions before you commit.
What the Abbreviations Mean -- Rate sheets often have these classifications:
- MAP (Modified American Plan) usually means room, breakfast, and dinner, unless the room rate has been quoted separately, and then it means only breakfast and dinner.
- CP (Continental Plan) includes room and a light breakfast.
- EP (European Plan) means room only.
- AP (American Plan) includes your room plus three meals a day.
Hotels & Resorts -- Many budget travelers assume they can't afford the big hotels and resorts. But there are so many packages out there and so many frequent sales, even in winter, that you might be pleasantly surprised.
Some hotels are often quite flexible about their rates, and many offer discounts and upgrades whenever they have a big block of rooms to fill and few reservations. The smaller hotels and inns are not as likely to be generous with discounts, much less upgrades.
All-Inclusive Resorts -- The promises are persuasive: "Forget your cash, put your plastic away." Presumably, everything's all paid for in advance at an "all-inclusive" resort. But is it?
The all-inclusives have a reputation for being expensive, and many of them are, especially the giant SuperClubs of Jamaica or even the Sandals properties (unless you book in a slow period or the off season).
In the 1990s, so many competitors entered the all-inclusive game that the term now means different things to the various resorts that use this marketing strategy. The ideal all-inclusive is just that -- a place where everything, even drinks and watersports, is included. But in the narrowest sense, it means a room and three meals a day, with extra charges for drinks, sports, whatever. When you book, it's important to ask and to understand exactly what's included in your so-called all-inclusive. Watersports programs vary greatly at the various resorts. Extras might include horseback riding or sightseeing.
The all-inclusive market is geared to the active traveler who likes organized entertainment, a lot of sports and workouts at fitness centers, and a lot of food and drink.
If you have children, stay away from Hedonism II in Negril, Jamaica, which lives up to its name. Some Club Meds are targeted more for singles and couples; others aggressively pursue the family market. Some Club Meds have Mini Clubs, Baby Clubs, and Teen Clubs at some of their properties, at least during holiday and summer seasons.
The trick is to look for that special deal and to travel in off-peak periods, which doesn't always mean just from mid-April to mid-December. Discounts are often granted for hotels during certain slow periods, called "windows," most often after the New Year's holiday. If you want a winter vacation at an all-inclusive, choose the month of January -- not February or the Christmas holidays, when prices are at their all-year high.
Guesthouses -- An entirely different type of accommodation is the guesthouse, where most of the Antilleans themselves stay when they travel. In the Caribbean, the term guesthouse can mean anything. Sometimes so-called guesthouses are really like simple motels built around swimming pools. Others are small individual cottages, with their own kitchenettes, constructed around a main building in which you'll often find a bar and a restaurant that serves local food. Some are surprisingly comfortable, often with private baths and swimming pools. You may or may not have air-conditioning.
For value, the guesthouse can't be topped. You can always journey over to a big beach resort and use its seaside facilities for only a small charge, perhaps no more than $5. Although they don't have any frills, the guesthouses we've recommended are clean and safe for families or single women. The cheapest ones are not places where you'd want to spend a lot of time, because of their simple, modest furnishings.
Renting a Condo, Villa or Cottage -- Particularly if you're a family or a group of friends, a "housekeeping holiday" can be one of the least expensive ways to vacation in the Caribbean, and if you like privacy and independence, it's a good way to go. Accommodations with kitchens are now available on nearly all the islands. Some are individual cottages, others are condo complexes with swimming pools, and some are private homes that owners rent out while they're away. Many (though not all) places include maid service, and you're given fresh linens as well.
In the simpler rentals, doing your own cooking and laundry or even your own maid service may not be your idea of a good time in the sun, but it saves money -- a lot of money. The savings, especially for a family of three to six people, or two or three couples, can range from 50% to 60% of what a hotel would cost. Groceries are sometimes priced 35% to 60% higher than on the U.S. mainland, as nearly all foodstuffs have to be imported, but even so, preparing your own food will be a lot cheaper than dining at restaurants.
There are also quite lavish homes for rent, where you can spend a lot and stay in the lap of luxury in a prime beachfront setting.
Many villas have a staff, or at least a maid who comes in a few days a week, and they also provide the essentials for home life, including linens and housewares. Condos usually come with a reception desk and are often comparable to a suite in a big resort hotel. Nearly all condo complexes have pools (some more than one). Like condos, villas range widely in price and may begin at $700 per week for a modest one and go over $50,000 a week for a luxurious one. More likely, the prices will be somewhere in between.
You'll have to approach these rental properties with a certain sense of independence. There may or may not be a front desk to answer your questions, and you'll have to plan your own watersports.
You can also ask each island's tourist office for good suggestions. Make your reservations well in advance.
Here are a few agencies renting throughout the Caribbean:
- Villas of Distinction (tel. 800/289-0900 in the U.S.; www.villasofdistinction.com) offers upscale private villas with one to six bedrooms and a pool. Domestic help is often included. They have offerings on St. Martin, Anguilla, Mustique, Barbados, the U.S. and British Virgins, the Cayman Islands, St. Lucia, Nevis, Turks and Caicos, St. Barts, and Jamaica. Descriptions, rates, and photos are available online.
- At Home Abroad (tel. 212/421-9165; fax 212/228-4860; www.athomeabroadinc.com) has private upscale homes for rent on Barbados, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mustique, St. John, St. Croix, St. Thomas, Tortola, and Virgin Gorda, most with maid service included.
- Hideaways Aficionado (tel. 800/843-4433 in the U.S., or 603/430-4433; www.hideaways.com) publishes Hideaways Guide, a pictorial directory of home rentals throughout the world, including the Caribbean -- especially the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and St. Lucia, with full descriptions so you know what you're renting. Rentals range from cottages to staffed villas to whole islands! Other services include yacht charters, cruises, airline ticketing, car rentals, and hotel reservations. Annual membership is $195. Membership information, listings, and photos are available online.
- Heart of the Caribbean Ltd. (tel. 800/231-5303 or 262/783-5303; www.hotcarib.com) is a villa wholesale company offering travelers a wide range of private villas and condos on several islands, including St. Maarten/St. Martin, Barbados, U.S.V.I., B.V.I., and St. Lucia. Accommodations range from one to six bedrooms, and from modest villas and condos to palatial estates. Homes have complete kitchens and maid service. Catering and car rentals can also be provided. Rates, listings, and photos are available online.
Landing the Best Room
Somebody has to get the best room in the house. It might as well be you. You can start by joining the hotel's frequent-guest program, which may make you eligible for upgrades. A hotel-branded credit card usually gives its owner "silver" or "gold" status in frequent-guest programs for free. Always ask about a corner room: They're often larger and quieter, with more windows and light, and they often cost the same as standard rooms. When you make your reservation, ask if the hotel is renovating; if it is, request a room away from the construction. Ask about nonsmoking rooms and rooms with views. Be sure to request your choice of twin, queen-, or king-size beds. If you're a light sleeper, ask for a quiet room away from vending or ice machines, elevators, restaurants, bars, and discos. Ask for a room that has been recently renovated or refurbished.
If you aren't happy with your room when you arrive, ask for another one. Most lodgings will be willing to accommodate you.
In resort areas, particularly in warm climates, ask the following questions before you book a room:
- What's the view like? Cost-conscious travelers may be willing to pay less for a back room facing the parking lot, especially if they don't plan to spend much time in their room.
- Does the room have air-conditioning or ceiling fans? Do the windows open? If they do, and the nighttime entertainment takes place alfresco, you may want to find out when showtime is over.
- What's included in the price? Your room may be moderately priced, but if you're charged for beach chairs, towels, sports equipment, and other amenities, you could end up spending more than you bargained for.
- How far is the room from the beach and other amenities? If it's far, is there transportation to and from the beach, and is it free?
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.