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Going Our Way: The Caribbean for seven on a budget

By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 2:57 PM

Who: Claire Weaver, 64, of Springfield and her extended family: husband Martin, two grown daughters, one son-in-law and two grandchildren

Where: Caribbean

Why: Family vacation

When: Summer 2011 for seven days

Budget: $7,000"I want a memorable family vacation to celebrate my upcoming 65th birthday. We will be paying for EVERYTHING, so cost matters."

Claire Weaver of Springfield is turning 65 next summer and wants to celebrate by treating her extended family - husband, grown kids and grandkids - to a trip to the Caribbean. Before we get into details, I'd like to point out that the traditional gemstone for a 65th birthday is the blue sapphire - in case anyone in the group is feeling reciprocal.

Weaver's budget of $7,000 has to cover everything, so we'll look for ways to keep costs down. But first, a word about summer in the Caribbean. It's the off-season, yes, so you get to avoid the crowds and higher rates of winter and spring. But keep in mind that the islands in summer are hot, something that the airline ads and tourism offices don't dwell on. More important, June 1 marks the beginning of hurricane season. Although August and September are the most active months for tropical storms, early summer also can be risky, so plan accordingly: Ask your hotelier about refund and evacuation policies, and consider buying hurricane insurance.

The Weavers are open to any Caribbean destination except St. John and the Dominican Republic, which they've visited before (and loved). So, how to choose from the remaining 30 or so islands? Going with the hurricane theme, we could focus on the spots that are least likely to be hit by storms, the so-called ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela. They are lovely, but you'll probably find the cheapest fares to destinations closer to the United States: Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Mexico's Cancun and Maya Riviera, which are served by discount packagers and their ilk. (Gotta watch out for those ilks.) Round-trip fares from Washington to Aruba, for example, are running about $418 per person for next June. Compare that with $288 to San Juan, Puerto Rico; $314 to Nassau, the Bahamas; and $309 to Cancun.

Let's see how four budget-conscious options compare.

The package deal

Air-hotel packages can save you big bucks. Just be sure to do the math yourself, pricing the components separately to make sure you're getting a true deal. Check such discount sites as Liberty Vacations, Apple Vacations and CheapCaribbean.com, and don't forget the legacy booking sites Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz.

For example, Orbitz currently has a 30-percent-off deal on three-bedroom villas at the Blue Water Resort in Nassau. The place gets good marks on TripAdvisor, with a 68 percent approval rating. Each beachfront villa has a full kitchen, a large patio, laundry facilities, two or three cable TVs and Internet. A package that includes round-trip air for all seven of you, plus six nights in two villas (six bedrooms), comes to $861 per person, or $6,029 for six nights, including all taxes.

Bottom line: Doable, but barely: There's only $971 left for food, activities and incidentals. With five adults and two kids, that won't go far.

The all-inclusive

All-inclusive resorts, which provide all food, drinks and activities for one flat rate, mean no ugly surprises at checkout. Liberty Travel agent Sarah Sims quoted a rate of $6,204 at the Gran Porto Real (www.realresorts.com), a three-star resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. That price includes round-trip air for seven from Washington Dulles on American, with a connection in Miami; six nights in two junior suites; and all food and drinks. Upgrade to a four-star - the Dreams Puerto Aventuras (www.dreamsresorts.com), 20 minutes south of Playa del Carmen - and the cost jumps to a still affordable $6,918. Details: 888-271-1584, www.libertytravel.com.

Bottom line: Doable, with almost $800 left for activities and incidentals if you go with the three-star.

Vacation house rentals

Renting a vacation house, a.k.a. a villa, is an excellent option for families. A Web search turns up dozens, nay hundreds, of agencies, but you'll probably find the best rates by dealing directly with owners. Just remember to check references, and stick to listings with lots of photographs.

Here's one sample property on the Vacation Rentals by Owners site, www.vrbo.com: a four-bedroom, 4.5-bath villa in South Akumal, 60 miles south of Cancun. The region gets high marks for its snorkeling and diving, white-sand beaches and archaeological interest. (Tulum, with its Mayan ruins, is nearby.) The villa has air conditioning, a full kitchen, cable TV, Internet and a swimming pool, and fronts the beach. Cost is $3,100 per week for seven people, including all taxes. Round-trip airfare for seven to Cancun would run about $2,160 and round-trip van service for the hour-long drive to Akumal about $150, for a total of $5,410.

Bottom line: Doable, with a healthy $1,590 left for food and fun.

Eco-camping

Weaver might want to rethink excluding St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, because the Maho Bay tent-cottages there offer some of the best lodging deals in the Caribbean. The wood-frame cottages, which sleep six, have canvas walls, screened windows and private decks, all with killer views of the Caribbean. They're tucked away on the island's lush hillsides, connected by wooden walkways and steps - many, many steps. The cabins are rustic, yes, but are tolerable even for non-campers, since they have electricity and are fitted with kitchens, sitting rooms and separate sleeping areas. Some even have private bathrooms (albeit with composting toilets and rainwater showers). Rates next summer start at $80 a night for two people, $160 for loft duplexes with private baths. (Kids younger than 16 are free with an adult. Assuming you spring for the private baths, two studios for six nights will cost $1,920, plus $154 in taxes. Info: 800-392-9004, www.maho.org. Round-trip air to St. Thomas, the nearest airport, is about $330 per person, or $2,310. Round-trip ferry from St. Thomas to St. John is $14 per person, or $98. Air-lodging-ferry total: $4,482.

Bottom line: Way doable, if you don't mind semi-roughing it. Tell the gang it's good for the planet. And you can totally splurge on dinners and activities, with a whopping $2,518 left over.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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