Best Dominican Republic alternatives: Where to go instead?
The big travel news in the middle of 2019 is that at least 10 Americans have died while on vacations in the Dominican Republic so far this year. Many of them appear to be natural deaths, while at least a few were people who had drinks from their in-room liquor dispeners shortly before passing. This has led to some media hysteria and some people are considering going elsewhere for a holiday until more answers are clear.
The Dominican Republic is especially famous for affordable all-inclusive resorts on gorgeous Caribbean beaches, and the Punta Cana area is by far the top destination on the island for holidays like this. If you are the type who doesn’t want to take any extra chances, we will discuss your best alternatives to the Dominican Republic for all-inclusive Caribbean beach vacations.
First off, is the Dominican Republic really unsafe?
The way the story has played out in the news in the last few months it would be easy to assume that there are serial killers loose or that the DR (as it’s usually called) is a lawless death trap, but it appears to really just be some unlucky timing that has turned it into a big, ongoing story.
There are tens of thousands of visitors in the DR’s big hotels at any given time, and apparently about 10 or 15 of them die each year, usually of pre-existing conditions such as heart failure. So this year isn’t really unusual except that it’s become a news story.
Most visitors to Punta Cana stay in huge beachfront hotels, most of which are actually owned and operated by hotel companies from Spain. Quality is generally very high and it’s all very well organized, which is actually fairly unusual in the Caribbean. Because the hotels are large and plentiful, they can offer room rates that are often shockingly low for a 4-star or 5-star all-inclusive holiday. If you go elsewhere you’ll probably be paying more for a similar experience and it probably won’t be any safer.
Staying safe in the DR
It’s hard to believe until you see it yourself in person the first time, but in many of the all-inclusive resorts in the DR (and Jamaica and all over the Caribbean) they literally have bottles or large dispensers of vodka, rum, and tequila in each guest room.
The bottles are full when you arrive, but they aren’t sealed so it’s clear that hotel employees fill them from other bottles. Several of the recent deaths were of people who reportedly drank from these in-room liquor dispensers the same day, and the Hard Rock Hotel decided to remove them from rooms. To stay safe, it might be wise to avoid drinking that liquor, especially since the good stuff is free at all the bars anyway.
The other easy thing to do that is wise is to avoid drinking tap water in the Dominican Republic, just as you’d do in most other countries. You get free bottled water every day in your room, and free bottled water from the bars all day, so it’s easy to stick with that.
Where else to get the affordable Caribbean all-inclusive experience?
If you’ve seen our annual list of Caribbean islands from cheapest to most expensive for all-inclusive resorts, you know that the DR dominates quite a few spots near the top of the list. The best two places to get similar experiences at a similar price are the Cancun area and Jamaica.
Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Negril, Jamaica
The other Caribbean island that is highly represented on the cheap all-inclusives list is Jamaica. In fact, many of the same resort chains that operate in the DR also have locations in the northwestern area of Jamaica where nearly all of the islands resorts are found. Room rates for similar places in the DR tend to be a bit lower, but not by much.
One advantage of Jamaica over Dominican Republic is that nearly everyone you encounter speaks English as their native language. At resorts in the DR you can usually only communicate in English with specific staff such as hotel desk workers or wait staff at non-buffet restaurants, but in Jamaica you can chat with pretty much everyone.
On the other hand, Jamaica probably has a worse reputation than the DR when it comes to guest safety in the past few years. There have been alleged assaults of guests at even some of the most expensive hotels by hotel staff. Jamaica stuggles with petty crime to the point that nearly all houses in populated areas have bars over their windows.
Here are the main Jamaica choices:
Montego Bay is also home to the airport that most tourists arrive through so the hotels in this area are faster and easier to reach. The town itself is kind of a dud, so it’s better to choose a large hotel that you don’t have to leave until your flight home.
Ocho Rios is about a 90-minute drive along the northern coast from Montego Bay, and you’ll pass many large resorts along the way. The beaches are very nice, but again, the town itself is pretty disappointing so it’s better to book at a large all-inclusive resort so you don’t have to spend time in town.
Negril is about 90 minutes by road south of Montego Bay and many of the better resorts are located along Seven Mile Beach. There is almost no “town” to speak of in Negril, but there are small communities along the beaches where you can find small restaurants, bars, and shops. Not only do you get wonderful sunsets nightly, but Negril feels like old-school Jamaica before the big resorts moved in. There are big all-inclusive resorts here, but there are also many smaller beach hotels that can be even more affordable and memorable.
Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum, Mexico
If you want a Dominican Republic-style experience and you don’t want to go to the DR right now, THIS is where you are best off. Cozumel is the only island of this group, and it’s just a short ferry ride from Playa del Carmen, but the whole Greater Cancun area feels like a Caribbean island. Better still, the large and busy Cancun Airport tends to have shorter and cheaper flights from most places than the DR, so you can afford to pay a bit more for your hotel and still come out ahead.
Cancun itself is dominated by large beach hotels and timeshare buildings along its long penisula, but in the past couple of decades this area has exploded in popularity and now offers many different types of accommodations and experiences for those not wanting a big beach hotel.
The area just south of Cancun is known as the Riviera Maya and it encompasses a large collection of former fishing villages that are now tourist towns. Most of the largest and most luxurious resorts are between the towns and have their own large stretch of beach. These large resorts are most similar to the Dominican Republic experience, and in a similar price range.
As mentioned, Cancun itself is known for a very long peninsula called the Tourist Zone. It’s lined by hotels, but the only thing approaching a “town” is the area at the corner of the south-facing beaches and the east-facing beaches. That central area has many independent restaurants and several huge (and expensive) nightclubs. If you aren’t staying near this lively area you’ll have to take taxis to go anywhere else because it’s all so spread out.
About an hour by road south of Cancun, Playa del Carmen is also very touristy but set in a more traditional town, dominated by the 5th Avenue walking street at its heart. There are dozens of hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops all through the central area so if you don’t want to stay at a stand-alone resort this is your best bet. There are also large all-inclusive resorts not far outside of town, and these give you the option of staying at your resort or taking a short taxi ride into a real Mexican town.
Cozumel is a small island that sits just across the water from Playa del Carmen and is usually reached by frequent ferry service. The area near where the ferries come and go is a quieter town similar to Playa del Carmen, and there are also larger hotels and resorts elsewhere on the island. Cozumel also has a small airport of its own, but fares into Cancun tend to be cheaper from most destinations.
Gaining in popularity in recent years, Tulum has been famous for its beach ruins, and now it’s becoming yet another tourist hot spot in the area. Tulum is smaller than Playa del Carmen and it has a reputation as being more artsy and quirky than the other places on this list. It takes more time to get there, but for most people it’s worth it.
More Dominican Republic alternatives in the Caribbean
The following are smaller islands that will require a longer and more expensive flight for most people. On the other hand, the Caribbean experience on the smaller islands is quite different and most people prefer the atmosphere and smaller crowds.
Perhaps the most beautiful of all Caribbean islands, St. Lucia has almost 10 all-inclusive resorts of its own and the room rates start around US$350 per night for two people including everything. They also have resorts that start over $1,000 per night, which is also true in the Dominican Republic. St. Lucia even has a Sandals resort with overwater bungalows, but those start at a bit over US$2,000 per night for two people.
Not far from St. Lucia and a little bit more up the price scale, Antigua and Barbuda are both gorgeous islands that have almost 20 all-inclusive resorts between them. The cheaper resorts here start at around US$400 per night for two people including everything, and the most expensive resorts start at over US$2,000 per night in high season.
Barbados is the most remote Caribbean island, but it’s extremely popular with well-heeled guests and many Europeans. Flights into Barbados tend to be reasonably priced because the airport can handle larger jets and the island is so popular in high season. The cheaper resorts start a bit over US$500 per night in low season for two people in the all inclusives. Barbados is the best island to mingle with the rich and famous, although they probably won’t be staying at the same resort as you.
The Dutch island of Aruba is our last alternative to the Dominican Republic for all-inclusive resorts. The island has 7 options and while none of them are below US$500 per night, none of them are too much more expensive than that either, so you’ll have quite a few reasonable choices. Aruba gets very little rain and is outside of the common hurricane zone, so it’s a good choice even during the June through November hurricane season.