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A Dozen Ways to Skimp in the Sun

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Dreaming of a Caribbean vacation but afraid to even start thinking about the costs? Here are some money-saving tips that may help.

1 Monitor airfare sales . Fierce competition has lowered fares to some hot spots. When fare wars to a particular destination erupt, try to be the first to know.

Sign up for deal alerts with travel sites, such as Travelocity's Fare Watcher, and with individual airlines. (US Airways and United have numerous flights to the Caribbean from D.C., competing on some routes with discount carriers Spirit and Air Tran, and increasingly with Delta, which is expanding its Caribbean routes.) Also sign up to get e-mails from sites like http://www.smarterliving.com/ and http://www.travelzoo.com/ , which monitor travel deals for many products, including flights, hotels and packages.

2 Shop last-minute deals. It's best to plan ahead, especially if you have your heart set on a particular week or place. But procrastination can sometimes pay off. Numerous travel agencies offer last-minute deals. At Site59.com, for example, we found a five-night stay plus airfare to Jamaica, one week in advance, for $672.30 per person, based on two traveling. At Lastminute.com, we found virtually the same trip for 70 cents more.

3 Stay cheap, live high. There are several ways to ethically enjoy the facilities of an outstanding resort even though you're sleeping cheaply elsewhere. First, some resorts sell day passes. For example, for $4 a day you can use the outstanding beach and comfy chairs at the Buccaneer in St. Croix -- by far the nicest property on the island. And the all-inclusive Jolly Roger in Antigua lets you eat two meals, drink and use the facilities, water toys and towels for $48 a day, $24 for children.

Alternately, check out relatively cheap resorts with upscale sister properties. For example, Barcelo Hotels and Resorts in Punta Cana, D.R., has five resorts. You can stay in the cheapest and enjoy the facilities of the most expensive. Other hotel chains, including Westin and Sheraton, have similar sister properties on some islands.

Finally, some hotels have negotiated daily-use deals with upscale properties. A stay at Comfort Suites Paradise Island, for example, includes a pass that allows you to use the facilities of the luxe Atlantis Resort and Casino. Rooms at Grand Bahama's Pelican Bay are just as nice as many of those at the Westin across the street, but Pelican Bay, as the name suggests, is on the bay rather than the ocean. But stay at Pelican Bay for less, and a $5 wristband entitles you to use the beachfront facilities of the Westin.

4 Go off-peak . Even among individual properties on a given island, dates for high season can vary. But the peak time generally runs from Christmas week through April 16. Seasonal differences can be huge. For example, you'll pay $185 per night at the Wyndham Aruba Resort, Spa and Casino Dec. 16-22. The following week, the price more than doubles, to $400.

Travel providers on entire islands conspire to entice travelers on the off-season. Cayman Islands, for example, has a "Summer Splash" program in which rooms, water sports, dive packages and even airfares are discounted as much as 50 percent.

5 Find out where the locals eat. Three of the best meals we've had in the Caribbean came from small, locally owned joints. A hotel clerk on Grand Cayman Island turned us on to Lorna's Jerk Shop, where awesome grilled pork, chicken and fish stuffed with cabbage is grilled along the road and served with heaping side dishes for less than $10, including a soda and a seat at an outdoor picnic table. (There is no address -- get yourself on the main road in Pease Bay and ask a passerby.)

In the Turks & Caicos Islands, a dive boat operator clued us in to the shabby little Poop Deck on Front Street in downtown Grand Turk, where platters of outstanding chicken, yellow rice, beans and plantains go for $6.

On Grand Bahama Island, the atmosphere is as good as the food at Sunset Village at Eight Mile Rock, where local entrepreneurs have erected a series of small, brightly painted buildings for cooking, and decks with picnic tables overlooking the water for eating and dancing. One example: Veronica Bishop's, where chicken, ribs and jerk pork platters go for $7, seafood a dollar or so extra.

In Tobago, follow the locals to one of the many roti, or curry, shops, where a filling wrap costs a couple of dollars.

Families should also be on the lookout for resorts where kids stay and eat free.

6 Exploit tourism bureau

resources . Information is like money, and the tourism bureaus of individual islands are fonts of information. The Caribbean Tourism Organization's Web site ( http://www.doitcaribbean.com/ ) links to the sites of its individual member islands, has a link to help you find a travel agent and posts special deals. For example, the home page last week noted that the luxury resort Riu Ocho Rios in Jamaica was offering grand opening rates from $94.

Some of the Web sites of individual islands also feature special deals. St. Maarten's site, for example, holds a monthly auction. When we last looked, the top bid for a seven-night stay at Divi Little Bay Beach Resort was at $525, with just three bids offered and two days to go in the bidding.

7 Use frequent-stay points . Some people blow hard-earned frequent-stay points in places they could easily find an inexpensive room. Instead, save the points for places like pricey resorts in the Caribbean. If you don't have enough points for a stay, be aware that some chains will take a smaller number of points in exchange for half-price stays.

8 Consider the cheapest islands. If you get lucky with airfare and don't demand first-rate resort accommodations, you can work out a reasonably priced vacation anywhere in the Caribbean. But chances are you'll find the best bang for your buck in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic for a variety of reasons, including airfare competition (and in the case of the latter two, low-priced labor). You can find great airfares to the Bahamas, too, although swimming can be chilly in winter.

9 Consider a package. Travel agencies and tour operators negotiate deals with hotels and airlines, and the results are sometimes impossible to beat, no matter how many hours you spend researching. For example, for arbitrarily chosen dates in high season, we found an Apple Vacations package for two, including airfares, airport transfers and four nights at the all-inclusive Holiday Inn Sunspree in Montego Bay, Jamaica, for $1,863. Using airline and hotel sites to price separately, the vacation came to $2,771-- a difference of $908.

A six-night stay in Montego Bay's luxury Half Moon resort, including airfare, was $3,314 for two through Liberty Travel, and $3,676 if booked separately -- a difference of $362.

Packages are available both online and in brick-and-mortar travel agencies. Although the latter began charging fees for airfares only, because airlines stopped paying them commissions, they typically don't charge a fee for a package. Find a travel agent that specializes in the Caribbean either at the CTO Web site mentioned above, or at the site of the American Society of Travel Agents, http://www.travelsense.org/ .

10 Consider an all-inclusive resort. Ninety percent of travelers exceed their planned budgets on trips, and more than half the time the overspending is for food and drink, according to a survey conducted by Expedia.com. You can avoid that pitfall at an all-inclusive. An epicure should seek out the more expensive resorts for gourmet-quality food, but even mid-level all-inclusives generally provide plentiful, varied and decent food. (Many resorts have several restaurant options, and at least one all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant is standard.) One caution: If you're a teetotaler on a diet, you might feel as if you're buying drinks and food for hundreds of strangers. Do some price comparisons before laying down a deposit for an all-inclusive.

11 Seek out small properties. If you don't need the fitness centers and other frills of big hotels and resorts, you can find on most islands attractive, charming smaller properties at a reasonable price. Grand Cayman, for example, is known for its upscale resorts. But even here, you can book a pleasant room along the water for between $89 and $129 per night (or an apartment from $119 to $199) at the Turtle Nest Inn (345-947-8665, http://www.turtlenestinn.com/ ).

Tourism bureau Web sites are a good place to start researching small properties, since they typically list every property on an island. Some tourism bureaus have made the search easy. The Anguilla Tourist Board, for example, has identified 16 "Charming Escapes," or small properties that offer rates that begin at $90 off-season and $150 in high season -- cheap compared to the island's celebrity getaways. Details: http://www.anguilla-vacation.com/ .

The budget-minded traveler is the target for the Belize Tourism Board's new Web site, http://www.toucantrail.com/ . All hotels at the site cost $60 a night or less, and all have been approved by the tourism board.

12 Veer off the beaten path. Perfectly beautiful beaches and lovely places to stay sometimes sit unheralded an hour or two away from major resort areas. They may be just as nice, or nicer, than the places you've heard about, but they are unknown because they're too small to have publicity budgets.

Find them by locating a famous resort area on a map, then running your finger along the coastline. Once you identify a town, search for it at the Web site of that country. The area immediately south of Cancun, Mexico, was once the perfect example. In recent years, it's become known and now has a name -- the Riviera Maya. Still, areas of it remain less traveled, and the farther south you go, the more true that becomes. Likewise, hit the road just north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and find bargains both in hotels and villas. Sometimes a place less-traveled is just a few miles from the beaten path, such as Cofresi, which is practically in the shadow of the Dominican Republic's well-known Puerto Plata.

Cindy Loose will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com.

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