Best budget Caribbean destination for every kind of trip
Before your first visit, you might even think of “the Caribbean” as one place. While the islands and a few mainland towns do share a similar tropical climate, there are HUGE differences between destinations in many ways. The Caribbean has islands where luxurious all-inclusive resorts seem suspiciously cheap, and other islands where only the rich and famous will feel welcome.
Here at Price of Travel we have been tracking travel costs since 2010 and we update our annual list of the 32 cheapest destinations in the Caribbean.
We also maintain our list of the 13 cheapest Caribbean destinations for all-inclusive resorts because the lists are more different than you'd expect.
Of course, knowing which places are cheapest is only one part of choosing the best destination for your own trip. Cheap places are sometimes cheap for good reasons, while expensive places are sometimes expensive because they are remote rather than because they are so nice.
Find the best budget Caribbean destination for you
Below you'll find our picks in a wide variety of categories, and it's very likely that one of the categories will closely match your main goal. You might also want to look into Caribbean cruises, which combine several of these in one easy trip.
Best Caribbean destination for cheap and high-quality all inclusive resorts: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Simply put, the Dominican Republic is home to pretty much all of the best all-inclusive deals in the Caribbean, and the large Punta Cana area on the island's east coast is by far the island's most popular destination. With an updated and modern airport, plus new highways throughout the area, Punta Cana has become something of a vacation factory for those wanting an all-inclusive experience at an excellent price.
You can be in your gorgeous resort less than an hour after your plane touches down, as everything is built for efficiency on a big scale. That isn't really true almost anywhere else in the Caribbean except for Cancun. Your big choice will be which of the European-based resort chains to spend your entire holiday at, because there is almost nothing interesting outside of the resort compounds.
Two of the largest resort complexes are from the Spanish chains Riu and Bahia Principe, both of which include 5 or 6 hotels within one enormous all-inclusive complex. You can choose the luxury adults-only hotel or one of the family-oriented hotels, and you'll have use of most of the same spotless facilities and amazing beaches.
The all-inclusive resorts all offer various off-site excursions for diving and fishing and zip-lines and whatnot, but aside from those you'll want to stay in your own resort so it's important to choose wisely. In the end, you won't find better all-inclusive deals at well-run resorts anywhere.
Best cheap Caribbean destination for all-inclusives where everyone speaks English: Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, Jamaica
There are a few Caribbean islands where English is the dominant language, but none are in the same price category as Jamaica. Of course you'll have fluent English speakers at front desks of resorts in Dominican Republic or Mexico, though at the more affordable resorts the English-language skills are only required for key positions. In Jamaica, everyone speaks English, which could be important for some guests.
The Montego Bay Airport is almost as large and busy as the Punta Cana Airport, but it's nowhere near as efficient. Still, you can be at your resort about an hour after you land, if you get a bit lucky, and after that it should be smooth sailing.
It's worth noting that the actual towns of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios are pretty disappointing, so this area is really best for those wanting an all-inclusive experience.
There are dozens of large hotels along the beaches of Jamaica's northern coast between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, mostly run by the same large European chains that own the resorts in Punta Cana. Read the reviews carefully and choose the resort that seems to suit you best, because you probably won't be leaving the place except for a visit to the impressive Dunn's River Falls near Ocho Rios.
Best Caribbean destination for the absolute cheapest good all-inclusive resorts: Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic
If you are interested in the all-inclusive Caribbean experience on the lowest possible budget, your first choice should be Puerto Plata on the DR's northern coast. As a whole the area is much smaller than Punta Cana, and the airport has a small fraction of the number of flights, but still this is where the cheapest all-in deals can be found.
We continue to find well-rated all-inclusives here that start at US$80 per night in low season, and only US$135 per night in high season. And to be clear, these are prices for two people sharing a room by the beach, including all taxes and gratuities, and including all the alcohol you can drink to go along with 3 buffet meals each day.
It's amazing that they can offer so much for rates like this, but it's the real deal. Needless to say, carefully read the reviews before booking the cheapest resort, but don't be surprised if the reviews are mostly positive.
Another factor to consider is the cost of the flights. Punta Cana has far more flights from more airports, so many people will still have a better experience going there. But flights into Puerto Plata are often around the same price, so if you can find a good connection then this is probably your best budget all-inclusive choice.
While citizens of the United States still aren't able to book themselves into the all-inclusive resorts of Cuba, in spite of other types of visits now being allowed, this has long been a popular budget destination for Canadians and Europeans. My Canadian friends insist that Varadero Beach resorts are just as cheap as those in the Dominican Republic, so I'll have to trust them because it's difficult to even research prices and packages from the US.
Best Caribbean destination for a great long-weekend trip: Paraside Island/Nassau, Bahamas
When time is of the essence on a trip of only 2 to 4 days, your best bet is probably going to be Paradise Island just over the bridge from Nassau, Bahamas. You may know of Paradise Island as the home to the huge (and quite pricey) Atlantis Resort, but there are about a dozen other hotels here, including many in lower price ranges.
These are NOT all-inclusive resorts, by the way, so you'll be on the hook for all of your drinks and meals. But there are loads of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in various price ranges to choose from, so at least you'll have the exact variety that pleases you. There are about another dozen large hotels on the main island of New Providence, most of which are even closer to the airport, but those don't have the same access to off-site choices as Paradise Island.
By the way, the actual town of Nassau on the main island is a fun collection of souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars, but there are really no hotels in the center and it's often bursting at the seams with cruise ship passengers.
Overall, with many direct flights from major hubs and large cities in North America, you can get to Nassau faster than any other place on this list, saving at least an hour in each direction if not more. The shorter the trip, the more important it is to save time in flight, so this is the first destination to consider.
Best Caribbean destination for big nightlife and spring break: Cancun, Mexico
If you are looking for the biggest party destination in the Caribbean then look no further than Cancun because it has almost a regional monopoly on huge nightclubs with famous DJs and packages that include unlimited alcohol once inside. You can find a Señor Frog's on a few islands, but nothing like the big and pumping nightclubs near the busy point in Cancun.
You'll be paying a cover charge in the US$40 to US$50 neighborhood or even higher, but it will include your drinks so it's not a bad deal for the right crowd. There are many high-rise beach hotels in the same area, and hundreds more in greater Cancun, ranging from incredibly cheap to insanely expensive. So as long as you are willing to pay the club admission, you can go to Cancun on almost any budget.
Another great feature here is the large and busy airport that is even larger than the Punta Cana Airport, with more flights than anywhere else in the Caribbean. So flight deals are usually easy to find, with more nonstops than anywhere else as well.
As expensive as the nightclubs can be, there are many cheap options for food and drinks in the exact same area. You can get a filling quesadilla for under US$1, and an ice-cold Corona for around US$2 if you look around. Or you can pay US$20 for a pasta dish at the restaurant of your hotel next door. Cancun has it all.
Best budget Caribbean destination for a wide variety of restaurants, bars, and activities: Playa del Carmen, Mexico
The Caribbean is an unusual place. The large cities such as Santo Domingo, San Juan, and Kingston tend to be very urban and not very tourist-friendly. So most Caribbean resorts are located in small towns or often completely on their own with no neighbors. As a result, guests often have few or no choices of outside restaurants, bars, and activities. The best exception to this is the very pleasant beach town of Playa del Carmen, about an hour by road south of Cancun, served by the same large and busy airport.
While the main tourist district in Playa del Carmen is no doubt “touristy,” it's also quite charming and pleasant. There are scores of smaller hotels mixed within the town and a close walk from the beach, and all of them are surrounded by small restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops, with almost no chains in sight.
If you are the type who likes to try a different restaurant for lunch and dinner every day, and wash that down with a few cocktails from a fun bar nearby, then Playa del Carmen will be your favorite budget destination in the Caribbean. There are also loads of activities and even some impressive ruins nearby in Tulum (not to mention Chichen Itza a bit farther away). There is also Cozumel Island just a short ferry ride across the straights from Playa del Carmen, with even more choices of restaurants and shops and such.
By the way, the restaurants scene in Playa del Carmen is fairly international, so you needn't worry about having to choose from only Mexican joints. There is sushi and just about anything else you can imagine, so even those who aren't fond of Mexican food will not go hungry. Hotels a bit off the beach are quite cheap as well, so this is a great value destination in general.
Best budget Caribbean destination for an old-school chill-out beach holiday and 420-friendly: Negril, Jamaica
Negril is the classic beach destination in Jamaica, while Montego Bay and Ocho Rios are mostly dominated by large all-inclusive hotels spread along the northern coast. So if you prefer to stay in a smaller beach hotel where you can try different restaurants and bars, and maybe even meet some Jamaican people, then Negril is where you want to go.
If that is you then you specifically want to stay somewhere along the pleasant 7-Mile Beach area, which runs north of the tiny (and disappointing) town of Negril itself. South of the town there are more small hotels and resorts, mostly perched on a cliff instead of on the beach. The cliff area is also where you'll find the very touristy Rick's Cafe, known for cliff diving, and pretty much a must-visit stop on any Negril trip.
There are some large beach resorts and even all-inclusives in Negril, but most of the accommodation are small hotels with fewer than 100 rooms, lined up next to each other right on the beach. There are also some independent restaurants and plenty of beach bars, featuring meals starting around US$5 and ice-cold Red Stripe beers starting around US$1.50 each.
Speaking of a chilled out holiday, if cheap Red Stripes and rum drinks aren't enough to take the edge off, Negril is also a place where marijuana is sold and enjoyed out in the open. As of mid 2015, it has been officially decriminalized in Jamaica, so a US$4 fine is (in theory) the worst outcome. But in reality, the only police you will see are the Tourist Police, who are actually there to keep tourists safe, and they will otherwise ignore you. As always, you have to be aware of your surroundings, but this is the best place for 420 fans, and it's all very cheap and easy.
Best Caribbean destination that is wonderful and everything is very cheap: Cartagena, Colombia
Very few Caribbean destinations can actually be considered “cheap” by global standards, but Cartagena, Colombia is one of them. Considering how very nice almost everything here is, the hotels, restaurants, bars, and even shops feel suspiciously inexpensive. You can get a nice hotel with a great location starting at around US$40 per night, and it's easy to find sit-down restaurant meals for well under US$5, with US$1 beers to wash them down.
Cartagena is a cheapskate's or backpackers dream because even little splurges are within anyone's budget. A normal taxi ride from the airport to the beautiful walled historic city is about US$3, and still under US$5 to get from the airport to the newer beach area of Bocagrande just beyond the colonial area. In other words, the value is amazing, but there are some things to know.
In honesty, the historic city center isn't as posh and photogenic as Old San Juan in Puerto Rico (see below), and the beaches along Bocagrande aren't nearly as white and fluffy as those near San Juan, so it's not like the streets here are lined with gold. However, they are still quite nice and few visitors leave disappointed.
Your main decision will be whether to stay in the walled historic city, where hotels are small and don't have many exterior windows, or along Bocagrande where hotels are large if a bit generic. Whichever you choose, you'll want to spend time in the other place on your trip, and a taxi between them is literally only about US$3 without any haggling needed.
Best affordable Caribbean destination with a gorgeous historic city next to excellent beaches: San Juan, Puerto Rico
As mentioned elsewhere, San Juan and Cartagena have quite a bit in common in that they both have beautiful colonial cities and good tourist beaches nearly within walking distance of them. The two main differences are that Old San Juan is larger and more posh, and the beaches next to Old San Juan are actually among the best in the Caribbean for a populated area.
Another difference is that similar things in San Juan will cost 2 to 3 times as much as in Cartegena, so there is obviously a price to pay for the additional luxury. You can also do a San Juan visit while speaking English the whole time, while in Cartagena knowing some Spanish will be very helpful.
So the San Juan area has a wonderful historic city and excellent beaches, and it's still quite affordable by most standards. A hotel room will start at around US$100 near the beach, and meals will typically cost at least US$10 in those same areas, but that's still much cheaper than Hawaii or most smaller Caribbean islands.
Another benefit here is that the San Juan Airport is another of the busiest in the Caribbean, so flights are frequent and fares tend to be modest. It's also part of the United States, so you can use US dollars and expect most services to be of good standard. And again, this is one of the few Spanish-native places in the Caribbean where most people that you encounter also speak fluent English, as many of them have lived in the mainland US at one time or another.
Best affordable Caribbean destination to stay for more than two weeks: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Speaking of San Juan, Puerto Rico, it's also the best place in the Caribbean for anyone who wants to spend two weeks, a month, or longer just hanging out (probably in the winter months). If you are fluent in Spanish then you can find some cheaper places than San Juan that would also work, but if your Spanish is weak then you can still have a safe stay in San Juan without feeling like you are totally out of place.
Whether you want to stay in historic Old San Juan, or in the nearby beach areas of Condado or Isla Verde, you'll find loads of apartment buildings in between the tall hotels. As a result there is an active market for apartment rentals on AirBnB as well as services that normally only rent by the week or month. Outside of Christmas or New Year's weeks, you should be able to get a pretty good deal on a longer-term apartment rental.
Having a modern apartment with TV (with US channels) air-con, and wi-fi is a good start, but San Juan is also unusually easy because it has large supermarkets filled with recognizable products at reasonable prices. That may not sound like a big deal, until you've rented an apartment in an area where your only grocery choice is a tiny local 7-Eleven equivalent that lacks most of your favorites, as well as any English-speaking staff to help out.
Longer term visitors will also be happy to know that there are movie theaters and a wide variety of international restaurants in the popular areas, so you can lead a pretty normal life while you are enjoying the sunny climate. Rental cars are also famously cheap here, so you can easily get out and see other parts of the island, as long as you are prepared to deal with some of the Caribbean's most unpredictable drivers.
Best Caribbean destination for jewelry shopping: St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
It's hard to imagine anyone selecting a Caribbean destination based on its prominence as a jewelry shopping mecca, but still it's worth mentioning partly for the sake of trivia. St. Thomas is fairly popular as a destination island, and even more popular as a cruise-ship stop.
A short taxi or shuttle ride or a 30-minute walk from the cruise terminal, you'll come to the island's main city called Charlotte Amalie. It was founded in the 1600s so it's quite a handsome town, but at some point in the mid 20th Century nearly every business in town was converted into a jewelry shop. So it's actually a disappointing place for a non-jewelry visitor, while it's an amazing place for those looking for jewelry.
You might suspect that jewelry purchased in a cruise port would all be junky and/or overpriced, but according to many experts the deals on offer here are quite good and much of the merchandise is of high quality. There is even a special duty exemption in St. Thomas where US citizens can each take US$1,600 of duty free goods without declaring and paying tax on it. This is twice the allowance of any other island, giving St. Thomas yet another advantage.
Needless to say, you have to be careful when buying expensive goods when away from home, but most jewelry shoppers here do seem to be happy. Knowing typical prices before you arrive is obviously wise, and you'll want to be prepared to bargain as well.