Q: I’m looking to plan out a 5/6 night Caribbean March break for my family (wife, two kids, 19 & 22) during spring break 2012. We’re looking for a rest — w/swimming, snorkeling, boating, etc. And we’re on your basic kids-in-college budget. We’re open to going to a variety of locations, just don’t have much flexibility in dates. Would you have suggestions on what trustworthy sites to look for the best deals?
A: Spring Break for the whole family – sounds great. Will you adopt me?
But seriously, March is high season for the Caribbean, so finding deals is difficult. If you’re on a budget, your best bet is to find an island that’s cheaper overall, such as Jamaica, the Dominican Republic or Mexico’s Riveria Maya, and maximize your options there.
If price isn’t the main consideration, here’s a rule of thumb when it comes to choosing a Caribbean island. Desert islands, such as Aruba, Turks & Caicos, or the Cayman Islands, will have the best beaches and snorkeling, due to the coral. Mountain islands, such as St. Lucia or Dominica, will have better scenery, and hiking options. Off-the-beaten-track islands can provide wonderful vacations – my personal favorite in the Caribbean are the Grenadines - but they can be expensive to get to and most will have fewer lodging and entertainment options.
One thing to consider for spring break 2012: European travelers are feeling the pinch of the Euro crisis, so bookings to the islands that they frequent, such as Martinique, St. Maarten/St. Martin and Curacao, will probably be down. If you think you’ll enjoy an island with a little cultural flair, this may be the year to consider them.
The best way to save money as a family is to rent a house or condo for the week. That way, you can buy your own groceries and drinks, and save money on at least a few meals. The go-to websites for this are HomeAway.com and VRBO.com. If you go this route, make sure you read the reviews that the owners have received from others, and ask lots of questions.
Things to consider: How far is the house from a town? Will we need a car or are bikes sufficient? Is there off-the-beach snorkeling? Does the house come with any equipment, either snorkeling or bikes? I’d also ask about safety precautions, especially in some of the locations that I mentioned above.
In your situation, I’d look first for a place that’s on the beach because you can always rent a car or taxi for the day for excursions or hire a guide. I usually find my guide recommendations from other travelers posting in the forums on Fodors.com or TripAdvisor.com.
I’d also talk to your kids about what they are expecting from the vacation. Are they planning to hit the bars every night? If so, you should reiterate to them that while the Caribbean looks idyllic, many of the islands – especially the cheaper ones – are poor. They should take proper precautions going out at night.
If you do have your heart set on a resort, then a flash site such as Jetsetter.com often has great deals at fantastic properties (It’s a membership only site but don’t worry, you can sign up for free). For more middle-of-the-road options, look at Expedia.com, which tends to have good package options. Groupon has also gotten into the Flash Sale game; if you go that route, read my tips for getting the most out of coupon sites. I do take TripAdvisor reviews into consideration when I book.
As a foodie, I’m not a huge fan of all-inclusive resorts but for a family, they can be easy on the budget. Just don’t expect fine dining. For some of the bigger chains, such as Sandals, you’ll want to consider a travel agent, as the variety of rooms and price points can be dizzying. Here’s a piece I wrote that has tips on booking all-inclusive trips.
Hope this helps! Enjoy your vacay.