The only thing more stressful than forgoing vacation is taking one you can't afford. No one wants to feel money-related guilt pangs while sipping piña coladas poolside.
Most Caribbean destinations — including the economical ones — lay claim to natural luxuries like silky sands and bathwater-warm lagoons, so why spring for a getaway that's outside of your budget? With these four unbelievably cheap Caribbean vacation spots, you can get the fabulous beach break you need and keep your finances in line.
Boca Chica, Dominican Republic
A carefree and convivial town located less than an hour from the pulsating capital of Santo Domingo, Boca Chica should be high on budget travelers' lists. A protected shoreline makes for shallow depths and subtle waves. Kids splash in the clear, pool-like waters while mom and dad stay vigilant and sip cocktails at beachside bars.
Most condos and apartments are centered around the beach or clustered near popular Duarte Avenue, meaning you can skip the rental car (another big money-saver). Once sun sets, the lively beachfront goes into shutdown mode, but nearby Duarte Ave closes to traffic and ramps up for a night of al fresco dining. Seafood spots and Italian cafes are plentiful and offer meals for as low as $10. Pizza and spaghetti aren't hard to find, so chances are good that picky kids will actually eat.
The quality of vacation rentals varies greatly in this town. Aparthotels are plentiful, but be warned that they are a no-frills option and often lack amenities North American travelers are used to. When searching for vacation rentals in Boca Chica, be sure to make use of the advanced filters option. That way, you can view properties with your must-have amenities — beach access, air conditioning and WiFi, for example.
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San Juan, Puerto Rico
A favorite of passport-less American travelers, Puerto Rico has come a long way in its recovery efforts since Hurricane Maria slammed the U.S. territory more than a year ago. In San Juan, the main base for beach vacationers, power has long been restored and the city looks much as it did pre-hurricane.
Die-hard fans of the island love the variety it offers — you can spend the morning ambling through cobblestone streets in Old San Juan, the beautifully preserved colonial section of town, and then rent a car and hit up famed beach spots like Isla Verde Beach and Luquillo Beach.
Though dining in restaurants tends to be pricey ($15 to $20 for an entree), budget travelers will find more economical options at street vendors and familiar chain restaurants. Try El Meson for cheap, delicious sandwiches — vegan options are available too.
Those who like to party should look for a vacation rental near Condado Beach. That's the sector of San Juan home to the vast majority of nightclubs and bars in town. Otherwise, try Ocean Park Beach, an up-and-coming area with easy pedestrian access to a string of hip clubs and cafes lining Loiza Street.
Isla Verde Beach, perhaps the city's most breathtaking beach, is the best of both worlds — relaxing in the day and vibrant by night.
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Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic
Buzz has been building around Puerto Plata, a town hugging the Dominican Republic's mountainous north coast, for some time. It's ideal for independent travelers planning to take a break from the beach to get out and see the sights, such as the San Felipe Fortress, historic Central Park or the cable car to Mount Isabel de Torres (not for the faint of heart!).
Unlike tourist-packed Punta Cana, Puerto Plata provides the chance to see authentic local life and get fully immersed in Dominican culture and rhythms.
In terms of beaches, you can choose from a handful of golden-sand cove beaches and longer stretches bordering the downtown area. Walk along the seaside promenade and stop in at a beachside snack bar for an empanada or a grilled sandwich. In addition to natural juices made from sun-ripened tropical fruits, Presidente, the local beer, flows like water and is ice-cold and cheap to boot.
Playa Costambar, located a bit away from the town's bustle, is the perfect spot for kids to play in the sand and surf. Rustic beachfront eateries make it easy to hunker down for a while and enjoy the views in between dips in the Atlantic.
It's not hard to find condos, apartments and villas in Puerto Plata for under the $200 per night price point. Most options will be clustered around Playa Costambar and Playa Dorada, which attract more tourists than the in-town beaches. Be sure to double-check the walking distance to the beach or check "beachfront" in advanced filters.
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While not technically a Caribbean island, largely undeveloped Cozumel is surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and offers a similar picture-perfect tropical experience. You'll find white sand, palm trees and a generally laid-back approach to life. Plus, it's no secret that things are a bit cheaper in Mexico, making it possible to indulge in local cuisine or down a few cocktails without burning through your budget.
Most accommodations will be sprinkled throughout San Miguel de Cozumel, the downtown area, where the shoreline is rocky and there's not much in the way of sandy beaches. Plan to head a few miles south to Playa Palancar, the island's best known beach stretch, with quintessential white sand and crystal clear water.
And don't miss the chance to go snorkeling or diving — Cozumel is one of the top spots in the world for exploring the underwater world, as a coral reef teeming with life is located not far from the island's western shore.