Winter doldrums got you down? I’ve found that the best way to perk up your mood, whether it is the dead of winter, or you’ve just had a stressful few weeks of work, is a vacation to a tropical location. While you may not be able to afford jet setting with celebrities in St. Barths, or heading off to Bermuda, a relaxing, tropical getaway does not have to be expensive.
Here are my top five cheap tropical getaways.
Hop a flight to Fort Lauderdale or Miami, and then fly down to Key West, the most distant island in the Florida Keys. Not only is it tropically warm year-round, but it doesn’t require a passport to travel there.
The great news about Key West is that you don’t need a car to get around. In fact, it’s much more convenient if you don’t have a car, because parking is sparse, and it costs. Many locals and tourists get around on motor scooters, which can be rented for as little as $20 per day, or even cheaper if you will be there for a full week. There is a lot of competition amongst motor scooter rentals on Key West, so don’t be afraid to ask for discounts, or call around to find the best price. Many scooter companies will also do free drop-off and pick-up, so you don’t have to take a cab to pick yours up. If you are staying somewhere convenient, rent a regular bicycle for less than a scooter, and pedal your way around town.
If you would rather drive down to Key West, take your camping equipment with you, or drive down with your RV (or borrow one from a friend.) Tent sites can be had for less than $40 per night in several locations, with full-hookup RV sites not much more.
Camping not your thing? Skip the hotel, especially since they are usually in less-than-convenient locations, and rent a condo. Check out Vacation Rentals By Owner for rates under $100 per night for condos near all the action. Most condos include a kitchen, or, at the least, a kitchenette, so that you don’t have to eat out for every meal – another cost-saver! There are also plenty of bed-and-breakfasts on Key West that offer better service at often a better price than the chain hotels.
My favorite place to stay in Key West is the Alexander Palms Court. In the off-season, for about $130 a night, you can stay in this small condos-turned-hotel location, where there are only nine rooms available for rent, surrounding a swimming pool (reminiscent of the apartments on “Melrose Place.”) The rooms are old-school Key West, but the beds are extremely comfortable, the showerheads are great, and whoever is working the front desk is always happy to help you find a great restaurant or a fun activity for the day. Most of the rooms have a small kitchenette, so if you do decide to eat out, you’ll have somewhere to stash your leftovers, so you’ll have something to munch on while you’re floating in the pool the next day.
The best part about Key West is that there is plenty to do that doesn’t cost anything at all. Visit the beaches, go fishing, wander around Duval Street, peek in some galleries, and the sunset entertainment at Mallory Square is a must-see – and all of it is free.
I know what you are thinking. When you look at the price tag of a cruise, you may immediately decide that it’s expensive. But take it from this cruise fanatic, cruising does not have to be expensive, and in fact, sometimes cruising is actually cheaper than getting on a plane and checking into a hotel. Most cruises to the Bahamas are less than five days, and can sometimes be found for as cheap as $40 per person per night!
The price of a cruise covers your room, your travel, your entertainment, and a ton of food – 24 hour room service, along with dining room and buffet service. Money-saving tip #1: don’t eat at the specialty restaurants on a cruise ship that charge an extra fee. The food in the other restaurants is absolutely delicious, and there’s no need to pay extra to eat somewhere else, when you’ve already paid to eat.
Your entertainment on board the ship is also, for the most part, free. Some ships charge extras for some shows, and of course, you’ll need money to play in the casinos or play bingo, but there are plenty of shows, music, games, and other things to do and see that are all included in the cost of your cruise.
Want to visit the spa, but having sticker shock? Money-saving tip #2: visit the spa on a day when you’ll be at shore. Most people leave the ship, so the spa ends up empty. Check your daily cruise bulletin to see the specials, and book only when the price is discounted.
Speaking of the cruise bulletin, it’ll also tell you what the drink of the day is. If you are truly on a budget, stick to the free drinks – usually coffee, hot and iced tea, water, and on some ships, sodas are also included with your cruise fare. But if you feel like having something alcoholic, most ships will have a special drink each day that is discounted. Stick to those, and you’ll save yourself some money.
Once you get to your cruise ports, don’t book shore excursions via the cruise line. Either book ahead of time with an independent tour operator (check reviews on Cruise Critic), or wait until you get to the port, and many people will be waiting to tell you about the places you can go for much less cost than the cruise line. It’s best to do your research ahead of time and book with a reputable company; if you don’t get back to the ship on time, and you are not on a cruise line-sponsored shore excursion, the ship will not wait for you, and you will be responsible for finding your way to the next cruise port of call.
Keep in mind, sometimes the best thing to do is just to catch a cab and head to the beach. The cruise line will give you towels to take to the beach with you. Many Caribbean ports have shopping centers right at the pier, so you don’t have to go far. The cheapest thing to do, however, is to park yourself in a lounge chair by the pool on the ship. Few people will be around, and you may have the entire pool to yourself!
The most important thing to do when planning a budget cruise trip is to keep an eye on the specials. To save some time, use a reputable travel agent, tell them which port you’d prefer to travel from, and what your price range is, and ask them to keep an eye on the specials for you. Cruise lines will often run last-minute specials, or have special deals for people living in particular states, or with certain affiliations, and travel agents are the most knowledgeable about these things. Cruise lines pay travel agents a commission based on the volume of travelers that they book, so your agent should not charge you more than you would be able to book on your own, and, in many circumstances, travel agencies can negotiate additional discounts if they book a lot of volume.
Now, wait a second before writing this one off and let me explain. While travel to Hawaii can be expensive, it doesn’t have to be. The flights should be the biggest cost, and if you keep an eye on flights, and set yourself up on several airlines’ websites to contact you when they have specials to Hawaii, you should be able to find a deal. Don’t limit your search to just Honolulu, as many airlines fly direct from the mainland to Maui as well. I’ve flown round-trip to Hawaii from the east coast for less than $500, so it can be done. Wait until your flight is booked, and then look for somewhere to stay.
Here is where we go back to vrbo.com. My favorite place to stay in Maui is the Maui Sands, in Honokowai, which is adjacent to the famous Ka’anapali Beach. A studio there can be had for as low as $100 per night, especially if you are filling in a last-minute vacancy. Every studio that I have stayed in there has had a full kitchen, so you will save some money on food.
Speaking of food, pack your bags full of as many non-perishables that you can, because food in Hawaii, even at the grocery stores, is expensive. Rather than eating out for every meal, make some in the comfort of your condo, and wander around the islands, where locals sometimes set up roadside fruit stands, or visit a shrimp truck.
As far as entertainment, beaches in Hawaii are free, and many condo owners provide beach chairs, umbrellas, and sometimes toys like boogie boards, snorkel gear, and the like, for you to use during your stay. Check out coupon books around town, and never be afraid to ask for a discount. Hawaii survives because of tourists, and many companies would rather charge you less and get your business, than not get your business at all.
Corpus Christi, Texas
If you’re not up for a long flight off the mainland, south Texas has the warm weather you may be looking for, and it’s probably closer to home.
The top rated hotels in Corpus Christi on Tripadvisor.com are all priced at less than $150 per night, and have the amenities many people are looking for. There’s no need to stay at an expensive hotel when you’re just going to spend half of your time lounging by the pool, basking in the warm weather. Many of these hotels also have microwaves and refrigerators, so be sure to stop at the local grocery store to pick up munchies and things like microwave popcorn, to save money on late night pizza deliveries and eating out.
The Padre Island National Seashore is nearby, if you’d prefer to swim in the Gulf of Mexico, as opposed to a chlorinated hotel pool. Because Corpus Christi is on a protected bay, there won’t be large waves here, so this is a great place to hang out with the kids. It’s also a lot of fun to head down to the seawall, and check out the boats and ships anchored there.
If nature is your thing, Corpus Christi is big on birding. Visit the Port Aransas Birding Center to see not only various species of birds, but also crabs, turtles, and the occasional alligator. Best of all, there is no admission fee. Don’t forget your camera!
Vacationing in Mexico can be very expensive. However, if you stay on the Yucatan side, and don’t try to plan a budget vacation to, say, Cabo san Lucas, a trip to tropical Cancun can be done inexpensively. If you think about it, somehow, college students manage to make it down for Spring Break, so it can’t be that expensive.
First things first, don’t plan a trip during Spring Break. Not only will prices go up, but the place will be overrun with college kids on a mission to party. (Unless, of course, you are a college kid on a mission to party, in which case, Cancun during Spring Break is a great place to be.) My favorite place to stay in Cancun is Villas Martin, where a room can be had for $100 U.S. per night. I’ve also stayed at the Omni Cancun, where the pricing is slightly higher, but the hotel is beautiful, right on the beach, and has a gorgeous pool. Flights during the off-season should be cheaper, and the beaches, restaurants, and shops will have a lot less people in them.
Of course, Cancun is famous for it’s beaches. With crystal clear water and deliciously warm temperatures, you’ll have a great time hanging out on the sand or in the water. A trip to the beach shouldn’t cost any more than a taxi cab fare (or nothing, if you’re staying in a hotel on the beach.) Be sure to bring a beach towel with you, as well as sunscreen, as these things will cost once you get to Cancun.
Dining out in Cancun can also be done on the cheap. No trip to Cancun is complete for me until I have at least one meal (but usually more!) at Habaneros. The owner, Mario, will come around and chat with you, and the food is not only delicious, but incredibly inexpensive. It’s not for fine dining, but you will leave full and happy. It is simple, cheap, authentic Mexican street food, and the tostadas are the best I have ever had.
There are Mayan ruins, tons of golfing, swimming with dolphins, and casinos in Cancun, many of which I have done and enjoyed, but the best thing to do there is park yourself on the beach or by the pool. Maybe take a day to hop on the bus to go shopping, but you’ll save money and have a nice relaxing vacation if you just hang out on the beach, reading a good book, and wiggling your toes in the sand.