Known for its all-inclusive resorts and couples looking for a romantic break, the Caribbean is a dream destination with crystal white sand and warm waters.
Although it’s not a region known for being budget-friendly for backpackers, you can still visit the islands cheaper than you may think.
The Caribbean is a mix of Dutch, French, English and Spanish islands and depending on which region you visit, each island offers something different from culture, pirate history and of course plenty of rum.
For backpackers, steer clear of the glitzier islands of St Barts, an island known for attracting celebrities with a very hefty price tag, and the British or US Virgin Islands, also known for their luxurious accommodation.
The Caribbean isn’t known for being full of hostels, but if you stay on the Dutch islands or Puerto Rico, you can find at least one hostel per island. St. Maarten, Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba each have a hostel to stay in too.
Booking Airbnb and staying with a local is a good alternative to paying for a fancy hotel or resort. Countries such as Cuba offer Casa Particulars, where you only pay $25 a night for a bed and breakfast.
You can even find Couchsurfing on some of the more touristy islands although some people are more receptive than others, and the speed of responses can vary. It’s worth planning ahead before you arrive.
If you stay in an apartment or a studio, you’ll often have use of a kitchen to cook food, which reduces the cost of eating out.
Some resorts have supermarkets on site, but with much of the food being imported to the islands (except Dominica), you’ll still find yourself paying more for fruit and vegetables.
Although it’s not as common as you would find in Asia or Latin America, street food can still be found.
Puerto Rico, for example, has fantastic street food with ‘Mofongo’ (a dish made from mashed plantain) for just $5.
Fried chicken and rice and beans are popular in the Caribbean so avoid the fancy restaurants and tourist areas and buy from street vendors or local cafes instead.
Tours in the Caribbean don’t have to be in a large 30-seater bus listening to a guide with a microphone point out the places of interest from the windows.
Tours here are much more interactive and can be on the back of a jeep or ATV’ing across the island.
You can typically see an entire island on a single full-day tour. Half-day tours are even cheaper, but if you’re traveling with one or more people, it may be more cost-effective to hire a car rather than paying for two people on a tour.
In my experience, one of the biggest expenses is the airport transfers. These can cost up to $85 each way and can eat into your budget.
The best way to avoid this is to either look for a local bus (which can be a nuisance when carrying your backpack) or hire a car as soon as you arrive to reduce the cost one-way at least.
If you do book a place through Airbnb, locals tend to offer their services to collect you from the airport for a fraction of the cost that you’ll pay with an airport taxi.
Some islands have a good bus network. Islands such as Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Curacao are all easily accessible by bus.
If you’re limited for time, then waiting until a bus (a mini-van) fills up can be slightly frustrating if you just want to get to your destination, but they are the cheapest way to get around.
For the islands that don’t have good public transport systems, such as Puerto Rico, you may have to hire a car.
Flights in-between the islands can be expensive, so book well ahead to get a cheaper price.
Some are connected by ferry. St. Marteen, Anguilla, and Saba are all easily reached by boat as well as St. Lucia, Dominica, Martinique and Guadeloupe, which makes it easier to island-hop.
Don’t get caught without the East Caribbean dollar. Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Anguilla and Monserrat all use the EC Dollar.
Although items such as souvenirs, and even food in supermarkets, are quoted in EC, they will try and charge you US Dollars instead.
So can you backpack the Caribbean?
You certainly can, if you look for cheaper alternative accommodation, eat street food or cook your meals, and hire a car instead of going on a tour.
Visiting the Caribbean in the low season is also a good idea as accommodation is cheaper than you will find in the high season. The best way to do it is to choose a group of islands and plan how to get around and where to stay before you go.
Just arriving isn’t the best plan for this region so pre-plan as much as you can to make the most of your backpacker budget.
Of course, if you desire just to lay on a postcard-perfect beach and get a tan, the Caribbean will suit you fine, backpack or no backpack.