7 Budget-Friendly Islands Perfect for a Winter Escape
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With winter setting throughout most of the United States, you may be starting to daydream about long stretches of white sand and glittering turquoise water.
Well, daydream no more: Here’s a list of island destinations with warm temperatures and solid sunshine that’ll have you relaxing in your beach hammock, cocktail in hand, chic as ever — and with a wallet as comfortably fat as the day you left home.
1. Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic
We have a little secret: Puerta Plata’s sand isn’t as fine white as Punta Cana’s or many other Caribbean destinations. But that’s what makes this spot cheaper than other resort destinations in the Dominican Republic. So if you can suffer through the stress of darker sand, you’ll definitely save cash. Plus, there’s much natural vegetation in and around this resort village, so exploring is a must.
An epic day trip is to check out Los Haitises National Park; there are lush mangroves and hidden caves on secluded beaches, and a dazzling variety of flora and fauna (even dolphins) in San Lorenzo Bay. While there’s not a huge number of offerings in the way of points properties (exception: the Wyndham Tangerine), you can take advantage of the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s offer of 3x points per dollar spent on travel or the Platinum Card® from American Express program for 5x points per dollar spent on hotels and book a boutique hotel or a locally owned resort.
2. Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain
If you’ve already snagged one of the many flight deals from the US to Madrid or Barcelona this winter, you can hop over to Gran Canaria on a cheap Ryanair flight. Once you’ve arrived, if you’re craving sun, it’s best to head south for the sandy shores of Maspalomas or Meloneras. Playa del Inglés is also a popular resort area, but because many Northern Europeans and British travelers flock there in winter and drive up prices, this area is often a little too touristy.
Eating out and sipping wine is a pleasure in all of the Canary Islands (in fact, in all of Spain), as wine, beer and fresh seafood are dirt cheap, especially when you meander away from the tourist epicenters and hit up local spots. For around 10 euros ($12), many local restaurants offer a menu del día, a fixed-price lunch including an appetizer, main course, dessert and drink (wine, beer or soda). Wine and beer prices hover around a few euros per glass, and there’s nothing like sipping a sunset beer on the beach knowing it cost less than a couple dollars.
Make sure to take a day to explore the historic center of Las Palmas, the heart (and capital) of the island, which was founded in 1478. There are lots of duty-free shopping, a variety of historical sites and a long stretch of city beach, Las Canteras.
3. Negril, Jamaica
Home to one of the world’s most beautiful and longest beaches (almost seven miles long), Negril has two sides to it: the sandy coastline and the impressive black cliffs and rocky beaches. Negril is ideal for a more adventurous traveler; cliff jumping is a sport here, and you can expect drops of up to 50 feet.
The fact that Negril still isn’t fully developed is part of the appeal. A cadre of local businesses keeps the island charm intact here, ensuring this area doesn’t become a pricey resort town. You can still head to a reggae bar to enjoy live music or find a quaint, family-run B&B (though you can also find larger, all-inclusive resorts and large villas). Nature lovers should plan to visit the Royal Palm Reserve, a protected wetlands with more than 50 bird species, go fishing or take nature walks.
4. Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad is typically cheaper to fly into from the US than Tobago, but from Trinidad you can take a round-trip boat ride to Tobago for about $100. You can also find reasonably priced flights between the two islands if you book in advance.
Trinidad, where most of the locals reside, has a rich cultural identity, so if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the Caribbean way of life, visit Trinidad during Carnival, the biggest party of the year. You can vibe to the drumbeats of soca music and get in on the costumed fun by “playing mas” — dressing up in costume and dancing along to a live band with fellow partiers.
For a little more serenity, Tobago is where to spend your days barefoot and roaming deserted beaches. The island is also home to one of the oldest protected forests in the world, the UNESCO World Heritage site Main Ridge, perfect for a hike or picnic. Don’t expect fancy hotels in Tobago, though, as it’s all about small, budget island inns and home rentals on secluded beaches.
5. Gili Islands, Indonesia
If you can manage to get over to Southeast Asia on a flight deal or using miles, remote Gili is the island paradise you’ve been dreaming of. The three tiny islands, Gili Meno, Gili Air and Gili Trawangan, are a short boat ride away from the larger Indonesian island of Lombok, or you can arrive from Bali via boat in a few hours.
Thanks to a no-cars-allowed rule, the islands are an unspoiled, unpolluted haven of white sands and clear blue waters — ideal for diving and snorkeling. Even the larger five-star resorts are eco-friendly, and maintain a significant level of island charm — you won’t find cookie-cutter hotels here. Stay on any of the islands for as little as $10 per night for an inland beach hut, while fancier spots may run you closer to $200 to $300 per night.
Keep in mind that each island has its own vibe: Trawangan is the party island, Meno is the most tranquil and Air is somewhere in the middle, so plan accordingly.
6. Phuket, Thailand
While many areas of Phuket are extremely touristy, this is the island to go to if you’re hoping to save hard-earned cash and use your points and miles for hotel stays. Redemptions here run cheap — you can stay at the Westin Siray Bay Resort and Spa for just 7,000 SPG points per night and the Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort for 10,000 SPG points per night. Award nights at the Hyatt Regency Phuket start at 12,000 World of Hyatt points per night.
A word of advice: Stay away from the oversaturated, more expensive spots like Patong and instead head to smaller, calmer beaches on the island, like the local fishing village of Rawai or Phuket Town, where you’ll find quiet beaches, little shops, family-run restaurants and stalls with fantastic Thai food.
7. San Andrés and Providencia, Colombia
Actually located closer to Nicaragua than Colombia, the island of San Andrés is a quick jump from Bogotá, Medellín or Cartagena on low-cost carrier VivaColombia. From there, you can fly or take a ferry to Providencia, which is even more untouched than San Andres. Home stays and small inns are the way to go for budget shelter, and most locals speak English, Spanish and Creole.
Diving in the glass-clear waters can be especially interesting, with underwater shipwrecks, rock formations, tropical fish and even the occasional dolphin or shark to scope out. On land, renting a golf cart or motorcycle is the best way to explore, though rented bicycles are the most cost-effective. The beaches in the middle of island near San Luis are the most beautiful, and you can stop at any of the small, colorful restaurants nearby for fresh seafood or jerk chicken on the cheap.
Featured image of Phuket courtesy of Getty Images.
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