Island life on a budget in the Caribbean

tropical caribbean island

What do you think of when you imagine the Caribbean islands?

Is it fancy resorts, tropical warmth and massive cruise ships full to the brim of American tourists? Well, in part that’s right, but you don’t have to go down the path of mass tourism to find a bargain.

With 16 countries covering more than 7000 islands, it’s possible to satisfy your tropical island fantasy and do it on a budget.

Here’s our guide to some of the cheapest islands.

Read: Stunning villages to visit in Victoria

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Dominican Republic

Can you spend a lot of money on the Dominican Republic? Of course, but as one of the area’s most popular destinations there are plenty of ways to find a juicy bargain. Look for accommodation options outside the resort centre of Punta Cana and the price plummets quite quickly.

Known for: Stunning beaches, year-round warm weather, rugged interior mountains, mangrove forests and colourful coral.


Not one of the better-known islands, this little dot looks like something out of a movie, as the dormant volcano Mount Scenery dominates this island.

Fun facts: It’s the smallest special municipality of the Netherlands and its capital is called The Bottom.

Its tiny area works in your favour, as it is not big enough for some of the super resorts so popular on other larger islands. Instead, it has small boutique hotels, guesthouses and cottages in the traditional Saba style of white weatherboards with terracotta roofs, all set against a lush tropical background.

It can be reached on a quick 12-minute flight from St Maarten or scheduled ferries throughout the week.

Known for: Some of the best snorkelling and diving in the area as it is surrounded by Saba Marine Park.

Read: Nine cruises you need to book in advance


No, not that nasty cocktail ingredient, this charming island’s main appeal is that it’s outside the hurricane belt, so can be safely visited all year round.

It’s one of the ‘ABC’ islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao that are the three westernmost islands of the Leeward Antilles.

Unlike many other islands, it doesn’t rely solely on tourism, and as such there are plenty of smaller options such as Airbnbs. With a quick Google search you can easily find seven nights’ accommodation for less than $1000.

Known for: A diverse architectural style influenced by various colonising countries, particularly the Netherlands, which built several forts when it was in charge. And beaches, naturally.


It is closer to Mexico both physically and culturally, and is a Mexican municipality. Cozumel also offers the advantage of flights from several large US cities including Dallas and Charlotte. You can save more by flying into Playa del Carmen or Cancun and taking the ferry.

Known for: Excellent diving. It’s on the Mesoamerican reef system, which is the second-largest reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef.


The best way to stay on budget in Cuba is to live like a local. You can stay in private homes for a fraction of the price of a hotel or resort and you will often be treated to a more personal level of service.

Try to eat at the state-run restaurants, they offer better value and ask around where the locals go for entertainment such as sports or music. Often it’s for cents in the dollar compared to the tourism traps.

Known for: Fabulous public art, music, rum and cigars.

Read: Road trip through South Australia’s wine regions

Before you go

Timing is everything

Hurricane season is June to November, but some islands are entirely out of the ‘hurricane belt’ including Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Travelling in the off-season should vastly reduce your costs. For the Caribbean this is June to August. Shoulder seasons are April to May and October to November. You might also be able to squeeze in a bargain for the first two weeks of December after US Thanksgiving when northern Americans tend not to travel.

Money mayhem

While some larger resorts may accept US dollars, most countries naturally expect you to use their own currency. If you are island hopping, be prepared to spend a fair bit of time swapping your currencies over.

And do your research before travelling to Cuba. The exchange rates are confusing, official versus what you can get in your hotel – or on the black market – so have a strategy before you travel.


Accommodation may be cheap, but like islands anywhere, in the Caribbean many ingredients will have to be transported in and the food can be expensive.

Unless your accommodation is self-catering or all-inclusive, expect to pay considerably more than you would on the US mainland.

Have you been to the Caribbean? Did it live up to the hype? Why not share your experience or tips in the comments section below?

Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.

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