Don't be intimidated by talk of $600-per-day tariffs. It's normal to gasp over high prices, but wise folks are quietly discovering secure investments--for Caribbean vacations as well as for the rest of life's necessities.
If you head south before mid-December, when hotel rates leap to peak season heights, the room that costs $210 in height-of-season February can be found for about $85. At Jamaica's tony Elegant Resorts group, for example, an all-inclusive week on the "Platinum Plan" is $1,950 for two, with all food and drink, plus transportation between at least two of the member resorts.
On Dec. 16, the rate jumps to $3,400 for the rest of the season. At Drake's Anchorage, a gem on its own islet in the British Virgins, a $215 double room (all meals included) through Dec. 17 is $330 from the 18th through April 17.
Check with your travel agent and read the newspaper ads to find bargain air fares, often with hotel room included in the package rate. Puerto Rico's hub status, and competition among airlines to get a slice of the pie, suggests that there will be a surplus of airplane seats on some flights.
"Yield management" techniques imply that airlines will offer those seats at lower costs on the theory that someone paying something is better than having a flight go empty.
Three tips for capturing a lower air fare:
* Be ready to travel on short notice. When you hear of a lower fare, buy it and go.
* Try to travel at midweek when air fares can be lower.
* Know that "direct" implies a couple of stops between departure point and destination, and flights with a couple of stops are usually offered at lower cost than nonstops.
American Airlines (which connects from the West Coast through Miami and San Juan) has captured top spot for Caribbean flights, not only with numbers but also--from my experience--with quality and business savvy. However, all the oft-touted carriers are safe and will probably indulge in competitive pricing this winter. Look at Eastern (connecting through Miami or Atlanta) and Pan Am (connecting through Miami), both struggling to regain their Caribbean market share, for innovative pricing this winter.
If you must have push-button service (which is hard to find at any price in the Caribbean) and elegant surroundings (available on several islands), you'll be paying top dollar this winter. But if you can be happy with simpler surroundings, perhaps a cottage or apartment, there are dozens of bargains to be found.
On Aruba, La Quinta's studios are $100 for two, daily, while Carib Palm Village, slightly inland, starts at $70. On Antigua, ask about Trafalgar apartments at $110 for two, or Falmouth Beach at $105. On Jamaica, Seawind at Montego Bay has studios with kitchenettes at $95, and on the nature island of Dominica, the Picard Beach Cottages rent for $95 and $110 daily.
Prices will usually be lower on islands with problems. Hotel rooms in Haiti, for example, are a fraction of those on fashionable St. Barts and Anguilla. And in the Dominican Republic, where hotels have been built at astounding speed and the infrastructure hasn't kept pace, you can find reasonable hotel rooms--but the lights may go out or the water supply may be cut off without warning. Both will go on again, however, and you can always go to the beach or to bed when it happens.
On St. Croix, which was badly bashed by Hurricane Hugo and received a worse pummeling by press coverage in the aftermath, indomitable hoteliers initiated a "5 will get you 7" plan, offering a seven-night holiday for the cost of five nights. Originally it was intended to apply only through Dec. 15, but there's talk of extending the plan through the winter.
The sleepy, beach-fringed island of Tobago (sister to Trinidad, where government officials were kidnaped in early July) has some of the Caribbean's loveliest resorts. The new Grafton Beach charges $120 for two at peak season, and less until Dec. 16. Turtle Beach charges $108 for two this winter. Mount Irvine, with a golf course and country-club style, charges $174 for two.
Even the "expensive" islands have properties that offer good value. On Barbados, where hotels and resorts on the once-exclusive west coast charge astounding prices, there are several pleasant, more affordable places tucked into the cluttered southwest coast south of Bridgetown. Ritzy west-coast Sandy Lane charges from $594 to $640 for two (daily with breakfasts and dinners) this winter, while the inn-like Ocean View on the south coast charges $120 for their best double room.
On Grenada, where Spice Island Inn is getting $295 for a room with whirlpool and $420 for two (daily with breakfasts and dinners) in rooms with private pools, the Flamboyant Hotel, at the end of the beach, charges $95 for two to have an apartment with a lovely view.