Americans and Europeans travel for different reasons and in different ways. But in this year of the nervous economy, paying heed to the frugal continentals could mean the difference between a moderately priced holiday under a Caribbean sun and none at all.
Americans who vacation in the Caribbean too often are looking for "glitz," says Walter Bridges of Democracy Travel, a Washington travel agency, while Europeans tend to be more interested in good value for their money -- even if it means putting up with a few inconveniences.
The drawback to these budget accommodations, however, is that they probably aren't located directly on a beach -- some may be in a city center -- and they may not have tennis courts or even a swimming pool. Room service usually isn't a priority, and in some otherwise clean and inviting inns you may have to share a bathroom to get the lowest rate.
The Europeans, it seems, are more willing than Americans to put up with these inconveniences for cheaper prices. And so what if their room doesn't have a sea view? Often by walking no more than a block -- and saving maybe $100 or more a day -- they have full use of the very beach where the fancy resorts are located. Budget travel in the Caribbean is a matter of scaling down your expectations in lodgings.
"Most American travelers think if a place doesn't have TV and the glitz of a Hyatt or a Hilton, it's not nice," says Bridges, who specializes in air fare and lodging packages in the Caribbean.
This year, the word from the Caribbean is that hotel bookings have been relatively slow so far, and already special deals are in the works to attract hesitant vacationers. The St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association announced last week that the island's hotels are launching a seven-for-five program, offering seven nights' lodging for the price of five from now through Dec. 15. Look for more specials as the season progresses.
Glitz costs money, and if price rather than full amenities is more important this season, consider these less-expensive accommodations:
King Christian Hotel, St. Croix: In appearance, this small 38-room hotel in the U.S. Virgin Islands looks like a modest motel, but it is a friendly place with a convenient location. It fronts the busy yacht harbor of downtown Christiansted, only a stroll from shops and restaurants. There is a pool but no beach. However, a quick ferry ride ($2 round trip) takes you to the beach on a small island in the harbor. A room for two with a harbor view is $120 a night; a room without a view is $85 a night. In addition, you can stay seven nights for the price of five.
Admiral's Inn, Antigua: Occupying a 17th-century stone structure, the 13-room Admiral's Inn is attractively situated on English Harbour, where it is a favorite of the yachting crowd. Again, there is no pool, but Antigua claims to have 365 beaches, and it isn't hard to find an agreeable one not far away. A room for two ranges from $92 to $110 a night, depending on the room.
Frangipani, Bequia: Off the well-trod tourist paths, Bequia is a quiet but sophisticated island in the lovely St. Vincent Grenadines. It has become a popular port for yachters, and to get there you must take the ferry from St. Vincent, an hour's ride. The modest 11-room Frangipani, a former residence, overlooks the bay in the village of Port Elizabeth. A room for two with private bath is $80 or $100 a night, depending on the room. A room sharing a toilet and cold-water shower with two other rooms is $50 a night.
Islander Inn, St. Lucia: The nicely landscaped 44-room Islander, which rings a handsome pool, could be mistaken for a Best Western motel. But it is excellently located. It sits on a quiet street about two blocks from Reduit Beach, a long stretch of sand that is one of St. Lucia's finest. Restaurants, ranging from modest to gourmet, also are within an easy walk, as is the lively disco at the St. Lucian Hotel. A room for two is $95 a night.
Tom Beach Hotel, St. Barthelemy: Tiny St. Barts in the French West Indies is one of the Caribbean's priciest getaways, but even here you can find moderately priced accommodations. One of them is the nine-room Tom Beach Hotel on St. Jean Beach, close to good restaurants. A room for two is about $132 a night, depending on the exchange rate of the French franc.
Bambou, Martinique: For more French atmosphere, the beach-front Bambou is a casual, 120-room complex of cottages. It is located on Anse Mitan, a ferry ride across the bay from the capital of Fort-de-France. A room for two is about $128 a night, which includes a continental breakfast.
Hevea, St. Martin: The little eight-room Hevea is a tidy guest house in Grand Case, St. Martin's "restaurant row" on the main road around the island. It is a fine place for travelers in pursuit of the island's dual French-Dutch culture rather than its beaches. A room for two ranges from about $96 to $160 a night, depending on the room and the exchange rate.
When booking moderately priced lodgings such as these, you want to know exactly what you are getting to avoid disappointment. Ask plenty of questions, such as how distant the beach is. Caribbean tourism offices, many of which are located in New York, can provide lists of less-expensive lodgings, and you may want to consult a travel agent. "Fielding's Caribbean," by Margaret Zellers, the best guide to accommodations in the Caribbean, reviews low-cost lodgings on all the islands.
Among other ways to save in the Caribbean:
Go off-season. If you can postpone your week in the sun until about mid-April, lodging prices drop by up to 50 percent and sometimes even more. On St. Lucia, I paid $85 a night for a room during the off-season last fall, and a full buffet breakfast was included. Until April 5, the cost for the same room currently is $186 a night and breakfast is $12 more.
Pick a package. Often a tour operator can put together a package that includes air fare, lodging and transportation to the hotel for a price that is cheaper than if you did it for yourself. Packages are sold by travel agents. Walter Bridges of Democracy Travel, which puts together many of its own packages, estimates he can save clients $100 to $150 on a three-day trip to Jamaica.
Democracy currently is offering some low-cost packages that make use of small hotels and guest houses. One such package features the 28-room Caribic House at Doctor's Cave Beach on Montego Bay. "It's very basic," he says, "and it doesn't have a TV. But you can walk right out to the beach." A three-night package is $354 per person (based on double occupancy), and it includes round-trip air fare, airport transfers and hotel tax and service charges. The seven-night rate is $470 per person (double).
Consider a condo. Renting a condominium can save you money if you shop around, says Clinton Burr of the Resort Property Owners Association, an organization representing condo owners. Condos can provide families more space for the same price as a single hotel room in the same location. And couples traveling together usually can save substantially by renting a two-bedroom condo instead of two hotel rooms.
Burr and his wife, Ellen, have just published "Resort Condominiums: Exotic Destinations," a 258-page guide to condos in Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean. About 300 properties in the Caribbean are reviewed in sometimes sharply critical detail and rated on a scale of 1 to 10. Copies of the guide are available for $15.95 from Resort Property Owners Association, 950 Skolie Blvd., Suite 304, Northbrook, Ill. 60062, 708-291-0710. The association can provide a list of condo reservation services and travel agents who specialize in condo vacations.
Condolink, a Omaha rental service for 2,000 resort properties in the Caribbean, Florida and Mexico, is offering seven-day rentals in Puerto Rico that begin at $650 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to spokesman Don Johnson. On St. Martin, the price begins at about $1,000 for a week. For information: 800-733-4445.
Among the latest bargains:
St. Croix: Last summer, the hotels on St. Croix offered seven nights' lodging for the price of five as a way to announce they were back in business again after the devastating damage inflicted by Hurricane Hugo. Because bookings are slow this winter, they have reinstituted the offer, and it will continue from now until Dec. 15. All the island's major hotels are participating, although some may have occasional blackout periods.
St. Thomas: The Stouffer Grand Beach Resort, the plushest resort on St. Thomas, is offering a "two fly free" promotion in conjunction with American Airlines and GoGo Tours, a major tour operator in the Caribbean. A seven-night package, including air fare from Washington-Baltimore, begins at $895 per person (double). The rate includes airport transfers. Consult a travel agent.
Puerto Rico: If you can afford only a few days, consider a quick getaway to Puerto Rico before Feb. 14. GoGo Tours and American Airlines are offering a three-night mid-week package with air fare from Washington that begins at $349 per person (double). A $50 surcharge is added for travel between Feb. 14 and March 31. The package represents a 20 to 40 percent decrease over last winter's rates, says the Puerto Rican tourism office. Consult a travel agent.