"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
T. S. Eliot
$453 is all you need for two people to spend five days in the US Virgin Islands. If you count in airfare, you're looking at $679 for two people. But having average car repairs costs the same amount. And I'd definitely rather go to the Virgin Islands than have my car repaired...but then there is being an adult, which sometimes makes us do what we'd rather not do. (Seriously, though, since taking this trip, everything looks different to me on a fiscal level. A mortgage payment is no longer just a mortgage payment, it's just a little less than two weeks in the USVI. I see car repairs in numbers of trips to the USVI, and so forth.) Plus, it's almost as cheap per day as living in an average house in the USA, or one could argue, it's cheaper. But that depends how you do it.
Travel is, for us, a way of knowing the world better. And we're rather addicted to it. We love learning about new people and expanding our horizons. The folks we hitched rides from taught us new things. The people we shared a campground with taught us new things. Every experience highlighted a new way of looking at the world. And I can't get enough of it. Plus, it's pretty dang romantic to watch someone you love in a totally new setting. It's really fun to see what these new things bring out in that person. But I don't need to convince you that travel is worth it. You're reading this because you probably already think so. I would simply caution you that this is not a how-to for having a most relaxing and vacation-ey trip of all time on a dime. I'm sure a lot of people write about that, too, but that's not what I blog about. There are inherent sacrifices involved in the way we travel. And sometimes we set aside a trip and let it be normal. And that's fun, too once in a while. But on a trip like this, sometimes you eat Luna bars for dinner. Sometimes you spend the night as mosquito chow.
And sometimes you wake up to the most breathtaking beach you can imagine and you can't believe you're actually there because you spent less on the day's expenses than everyone else there seems to have spent on sunscreen. Other times, you find out the bay you're staying at is actually bioluminescent and it's like bonus awesomeness on top of something that already rocked. There are all kinds of surprises, some fun and some less fun. This advice is for those who are willing to take the good with the bad and not be a diva about travel. (In other words, not your average honeymoon travel advice, to say the least. Please, if you're planning a honeymoon and this isn't your ideal way to travel, don't follow this advice for your honeymoon.)
Okay, now let's get into the nitty-gritty of how to spend a cheap week in the USVI. For us, our expenses included only five nights because of how our tickets worked out. We spent the night in an airport and had overnight flights. So the way we look at it, we got two nights of the 7 for free. Here is the cheapest route we found through some trial and error:
$185 baresite camping for five days at Cinnamon Bay Campground
$150 food for the entire 5 days
$68 on-island transportation ($28 of which was for the ferry between St. John and St. Thomas, the rest was a learning process, I'll talk more about this later.)
$50 entertainment for 5 days (snorkeling, adventures, etc.)
$226: Airfare through Spirit (we found a 99% off deal for airfare)
Let's break this down a bit further. Full disclosure, we did not, at any time, baresite camp, and it was our single greatest mistake on this trip. We took what we presumed to be a middle of the road choice, and we ended up folding because of it. The tents available are not good. And we received specific advice for baresite camping on this island that would make the experience far more enjoyable than what we experienced. For more info on that, check out our blog post dedicated to that topic. In short, we spent a couple hundred dollars more when it was all said and done because we went to a different place after three nights in what we lovingly called the Tent of Doom. (Don't stay in the provided tents at Cinnamon Bay. Bring your own. Bring a tarp. Don't be like us, even if we are cute and generally happy.)
With all of that said, baresite camping is the way to go, and it's $37 per night. So cheap, right? Check out Cinnamon Bay's website for more info, or for seasonal prices. We ended up being there during off-season for tourism which was also very helpful. Be sure to research the weather ahead of time and bring the correct type of gear. A tarp instead of a rainfly seemed to be the best piece of advice we found. And sleep on cots or inflatable mattresses...just don't sleep on the ground. It's kind of wet sometimes.
Then there's food. This is a really personal choice. The food available at Cinnamon Bay is expensive and only just okay as far as taste goes. We opted for Luna bars and fruit leather pretty often in place of certain meals, and then other times we spent more. We would have one meal per day. Though one day, we avoided a meal altogether and then another day, we had two. But in general, we splurged on food very little. (Little tip: When you do go to a restaurant here, be sure you know the hours it's open. Hours are weird on this island.) And you can also either share or order off the appetizer menu. We did both of those things often and with great success. It wasn't easy to come in this low on food costs, and there was a part of me that thought this particular aspect of the struggle wasn't worth it. Other aspects were super fun like the day we bought rum, pineapple juice, and sweetened coconut milk and enjoyed drinks on the beach for next to nothing. When we left, we gave our leftover rum and so forth to folks we'd met who were staying longer than us.
Food brings you directly to the next line item: Transportation. Getting around is a bit pricey and if you stay in Cinnamon Bay, there's nothing to eat except their overpriced version of camp food. For us, when it comes to transportation, we like to ask what the locals do and then try to do that. The tourist prices for transportation just aren't sustainable. There's no way locals are paying $14 per person to get around. So, we did some research ahead of time and then on-island and learned that there are different taxis that take a little longer (or buses, as on St. John) and are WAY cheaper. The catch is luggage. If you can't make yourself pack light, these aren't an option for you. To protect the tourist industry on the island, these taxis won't transport tourists. We took a bag each and it was fine. More than that and they would have asked us to go catch a tourist taxi. The taxi on St. Thomas that works for locals is $2, compared to about $7 (plus luggage fees) for the tourist option. The bus on St. John was again about $2 to cross the entire island, where the tourist option was at least $20 per person. We walked right past people loading their things onto a taxi as we left our eco tent and we spent a tenth of what they spent per person to get to the port. We were on the same flight. Be sure to research where these routes go. Literally nothing affordable passes by Cinnamon Bay. So we hitchhiked and walked. Which is the other thing the locals do. Just do the local thing and you'll be fine. The one time we found this didn't work was on island-to-island transportation. The locals will just go with someone they know who owns a boat. So either make friends really fast, or pay the $90 per person plus $50 for customs. Just recognize these things as choices. We, sadly, chose to not go see other islands. It was the right call for us, our budget was really tight, but it was also kinda bummery.
Entertainment was the easiest thing to stay in-budget on for us. We looked at kayak trips and other things, but they all have this well-oiled feel to them, and we don't like that. We actually only spent about $10 on entertainment on the entire trip, and it was great (we kept getting unexpected refunds for being nice to the people running the rental booths...so be nice!). But we figure if you budget for $10 per day, that will get you snorkel gear, or you could save up and rent a paddleboard or something. We studied maps and routes for where we could find cool things, and we went on our own for some things, and others we found along the way as we walked and hitchhiked.
And last, but not least, there's airfare. I can't emphasize enough how much we love Spirit Airlines. They're magical. Not comfortable. Not an easy flight. But the destinations at your fingertips are hard to fathom. We pretty much watch Spirit's deals and wait until something killer comes up, then we grab it. This was one of those. (We also use Spirit when we book regular travel because they're basically always cheaper, and less money on airfare means more money on locations and more locations total.) We got 99% off on our airfare. So we paid taxes and fees. I'm not joking. Check out our blog post about Spirit if you want to learn more about our favorite discount airfare company. They're not for everyone. But if you're like us, they're probably right up your alley.
I'll be posting some ideas on packing light and so forth, but this is the main idea of traveling cheap to the Virgin Islands. If you know ways to do better, please let me know and I'll incorporate them into this blog.
Here are a few more numbers and thoughts for your perusal. I find this very interesting. And some days, I just want to throw in the towel and go move to a beach. There's just a small cash flow problem I'm still trying to work out.
Life in a house:
$1250/ month Mortgage=$41.67/day
$80/week in Groceries for two people=$11.42/day
Assuming 2 cars/family and $20 in gas per week, Gasoline=$5.71/day
Assuming $300 in Bills=$10.00/day
I think this is average, though it could be low or high depending on where in the USA you live. But I'm talking about average (or low in our current state economy) for Colorado, which is where I live. Daily cost of living (if you don't factor in savings, car repairs, house repairs, dining out, and so forth) is roughly $68 per day. And that's low compared to what you're really spending because clothes, and fun, and medical costs, and so on... But I digress. That would get you to $412 for the length of time we spent in or en route to the Virgin Islands (6 days). Well, I say we throw in an extra $21 and call it a vacation! (Yeah, and you'll have to grab airfare, too, but that's par for the course on any vacation.)
For full disclosure, our actual expenses factored exactly like this as we learned through trial and error so you don't have to:
$471 places to stay (we learned a lot and learned some things the hard way)