Have you always dreamed of exploring the Caribbean islands but still haven’t done it because of the high travel costs of the area? Many will tell you you cannot go backpacking around the Caribbean on a budget, but I can tell you that’s not true, I did it. I spent 7 weeks traveling around the West Indies. Aside from the costs of transport between islands, I managed to keep my costs under 25 USD per day. This article explains how I did it.
When to Go?
Traveling during the low season makes everything cheaper. There are less tourists so hostels are not crowded and that’s when you can find the best deals. The low season in the Caribbean is from May to October but keep in mind that June to October is also the hurricane season. If you are going south of Dominica, you are very unlikely to be hit by a hurricane. However, if you are going north from there, keep an eye on the weather reports. Showers are normally late in the afternoon with clear skies the rest of the day.
Which Islands to Visit?
This is the decision that will affect your budget the most. There are no cheap islands but there are a few where it’s much easier to stay on budget than others. The French Antilles, US and Bristish Virgin Islands, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Antigua & Barbuda and Barbados sit among the most expensive islands, while Grenada, St Vincent & The Grenadines, Dominica and St Lucia are more budget friendly. For specific budget breakdowns per country, follow these links below:
Which Route to Follow?
This will depend on the islands you want to visit and the mode of transportation between the islands. Keep in mind that most of travellers travel north to south, which makes the transportation (in particular flights) going north a bit cheaper.
How do I Travel from One Island to Another?
There are several options depending on the islands, from cargo boats, ferries, sailboats to flying. Let’s discuss them separately.
Cargo boats are one of the cheapest options but they are infrequent and don’t go to every island. Also, it’s very difficult to find departure dates or any kind of schedule if you are not on the island already and go to the port in person. There is a cargo boat traveling from Puerto Rico to Trinidad once a month stopping at some islands along the way, but keeping track of it if you are not in the area is almost impossible.
Local boats tend to be cheap but they are only available on short crossings. It’s a great option to travel through Grenada and The Grenadines group as the islands are close to each other. The quality of the boats varies and they absolutely never run on time, so you will need to be very patient.
Le Express des Iles connects the islands of Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique and St Lucia with several weekly services. These are fast and comfortable but expensive. They cost as much as a flight. Don’t bother trying to book tickets online because you can only check the schedule on their website. Just go to the office in person one or two days before the departure date.
Flights between islands are expensive, starting at about 100 USD (one way) if booked a few months ahead of time, but they are fast and convenient. LIAT has flights connecting most of the islands within the West Indies. They have a bit of bad reputation among travellers (some even say that LIAT stands for “leave the island at any time”) but my experience was very good with them.
This is my favourite option. You can go for free sometimes and the experience is fabulous, although it’s not always easy to find a boat. We’ve already given you some tips to hitch a ride on a sailboat before, but here there are some specific considerations to take into account when travelling in the Caribbean:
- Low season means better deals on accommodation, but it also means less boats sailing. It will be very hard to find boats north from Dominica as the probability of having a hurricane is high. Instead, try southern areas like the ABC islands or the Grenadines group for better chances.
- From November to March-April there are boats going in every direction. Europeans normally cross the Atlantic Ocean reaching Barbados or St Lucia to head north (most of them) or south (some of them) afterwards. Americans tend to leave from Florida and head south.
- At the end of the high season (May-June) boats are starting to go north. Americans return to Florida and Europeans go back to Europe. These normally depart from Antigua or sometimes they take a detour north to Bermuda to cross to The Azores and Portugal from there. This is important because during these months it will be easier to find a sailboat going north than one going south.
Where Can I Sleep Cheap (or Even for Free)?
Most of the Caribbean islands cater to cruise-shippers, sailors and luxury travellers. Backpacking is definitely not an option here. As a consecuence, most of the options for accommodation are high-end resorts. To find cheap accomodation you will need to dig deep. Here you have some ways to sleep in the Caribbean islands without breaking the bank.
Bringing a tent or a Hennessy camping hammock is one of the best decisions you can make to save money. Some islands are better than others for camping. I found campground areas in Martinique, St Lucia and Dominica with all the facilities needed and very affordable camping fees.
Sleeping on the Beach
Some islands may not have campground areas, but they have plenty of beautiful and isolated beaches. Safety might come to your mind when planning to free camp on the beach, but I didn’t have any problems. Just try to find a beach without any town nearby. I really enjoyed free camping on the beaches of Carriacou, the Grenadines and Barbuda. And if you are in the right season, you might even spot leatherback turtles at night!
Sleeping at the Airport
If you are flying in the morning, paying for a room plus a shuttle/taxi to get there early can make a hole in your budget. In this case, sleeping at the airport is a great option. Some airports are better than others to do so. From my experience, those open 24-hours are normally hassle free. However, most of them tend to close from 10PM-5AM. In these cases, a bit of perseverance when talking to the security guys is needed to convince them to let you stay overnight.
Easy Airports to sleep at: Grenada, Barbados, Antigua.
Not-so-Easy Airports to sleep at: St Vincent, Dominica, St Kitts.
Couchsurfing is an internet-based network where locals offer to host travellers. The aim is a cultural exchange where both parties learn from each other. I was quite successful in finding couches around the Caribbean, making new friends along the way. I couchsurfed in Grenada, Barbados, Martinique and Antigua.
There are not many cheap hostels around and the ones that exist tend to be hard to find. Check our list of Budget Hostels under 20 USD/night in the Caribbean.
Where Can I Eat Cheap?
Food around the Caribbean tends to be pricey as the islands don’t produce much and most of the goods need to be imported. Also, there are restaurants catering exclusively to tourists where the prices are 2 to 3 times higher than where the locals eat. Here there are some suggestions to help you save some money when eating.
Eat Local Products
Whatever it’s produced on the islands is cheap. The options are not very diverse and rice and beans are always on the menu. Fruit is a great option. Mangoes, bananas, papayas and other tropical fruit are plentiful and delicious. And don’t forget about drinks. Beer and rum are surprisingly cheap.
Visit the Local Markets
Whenever you are in a big town, visit the local market. There are normally plenty of stands around them where you can get cheap meals and have a chat with the locals. It’s my favourite option.
Cook Your Own Meals
Tired of rice and beans and local fruit? Hit one of the main supermarkets and prepare your own meals. In general, only the capitals have well stocked supermarkets but it depends on the island.