Barbados on points and miles: Shipwreck snorkeling, steam trains and more
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This summer, my family had a reunion.
But it wasn't just any old reunion at a local park or packed into some aunt or uncle's house. Instead, we turned our miles and points into a family reunion on Barbados.
Barbados is not the easiest Caribbean island to reach using miles, depending on where you're coming from, and there aren't a ton of resorts bookable with traditional hotel points. But if you're willing to dig a bit deeper and use your points in more creative ways, the island is worth the extra effort -- even when you're bringing the whole family.
Located in the Lesser Antilles, and outside the stretch of ocean known as Hurricane Alley, Barbados may be a safer island choice than those found in the hurricane path. The weather was fantastic throughout our July vacation: low temperatures around 75 and highs just cracking 85. The temperatures in January are just a few degrees cooler. Rain showers are usually quick and refreshing.
What's special about Barbados
Barbados isn't just an island with gorgeous beaches and fantastic sunsets. You have far more options here than just sunbathing and enjoying the sea. The island is large enough (169 square miles) and with enough of a population (277,821 as of the 2010 census) to have a distinct vibe and rich culture.
The island's original inhabitants were Amerindians and Kalinago peoples. Then came the Spanish and Portuguese, before the British claimed Barbados as a colony in 1625. Settlers arrived and ushered in a dark time when the island developed its sugar plantations and became a pivotal piece of the African slave trade, which was not abolished until the early 1800s.
Because of its history, the island is home to both native and British-influenced cultural and historic sights. Plenty of Britons still live on and visit the island. You'll find fine dining here as well as beachside shacks selling "cutters" (i.e., fish sandwiches). Enjoy an afternoon tea experience at a hotel like Sandy Lane or Fairmont Royal Pavilion, and book any of the many active pastimes beyond the beach, from horseback riding to Jeep safaris.
But what you'll really love about Barbados are the people. Nearly everyone you'll encounter is friendly and truly appreciates tourism. People are interested in talking with visitors and sharing what it's like to live on the island.
The Barbados dollar is pegged against the U.S. dollar at two to one. So, when you see prices on a restaurant menu in Bajan dollars, divide that by two to get the equivalent in U.S. dollars.
How to get to Barbados on points and miles
You won't have a slew of options when booking your flights to Barbados on miles and points. In fact, only two airlines fly nonstop to Barbados' Grantley Adams International Airport (BGI) from U.S. gateways:
- From Boston (BOS): JetBlue
- From Charlotte (CLT): American Airlines
- From Fort Lauderdale (FLL): JetBlue
- From Miami (MIA): American Airlines
- From New York-JFK: JetBlue
- From New York-EWR: JetBlue
That means you're looking at using JetBlue TrueBlue points, American AAdvantage miles or points that transfer to either program (which I'll talk about in a minute).
When I planned our family reunion on Barbados, my husband and I both applied for the JetBlue Plus Card for the 40,000-point welcome bonus awarded after we spent $1,000 on the card in the first 90 days (and paid the $99 annual fee). With those points in our accounts, we waited for a fare sale. Since the cost of JetBlue award flights is dynamic and depends on the cash price of the ticket, waiting for a sale can be a good strategy to stretch your TrueBlue points.
You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1) and American Express Membership Rewards points (250 for 200 TrueBlue points) to JetBlue. Or, you could purchase your flights through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal or American Express Travel and pay with all points, or a combination of points and cash.
You can also transfer Citi ThankYou points to JetBlue, usually at a 1:1 ratio. But, right now, there's the best transfer rate yet from Citi ThankYou to JetBlue. For every 1,000 ThankYou points you transfer, you get 1,250 JetBlue TrueBlue points.
Visiting Barbados could also be a good time to use your British Airways Avios points for award seats on American Airlines flights. You'll spend fewer Avios points than if you were to pay for the flights with your American AAdvantage miles. Here's what you need to know about booking American Airlines flights with Avios.
And, here's an example of two people flying to Barbados in March from Miami. Round-trip flights for both passengers cost 44,000 Avios points and a total of $249.06.
When you search for the same flights on American Airlines' website, you'll see you'd need to shell out more miles for the exact same trip: 60,000 AAdvantage miles versus 44,000 Avios points. The taxes and fees are the same at $249.06.
I found it relatively easy to get the economy class awards I needed, though business class was a little tougher, which isn't surprising.
All airlines will collect a passenger service fee in the amount of $27.50 per person. Here's how the taxes and fees break down on a British Airways award to BGI:
Where to stay in Barbados
I'll be frank: Barbados is a bit lackluster when it comes to resort options that can be booked with hotel loyalty program points. There are just a handful, and some aren't that great. Instead, pick lodging that works best for your family -- even if it doesn't participate in a hotel loyalty program -- and then do any of the following:
- Book a paid hotel room, vacation rental or villa and earn points. For example, book through the Hotels.com Venture portal and use your Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card to earn 10x miles per dollar through Jan. 31, 2020 (and if you take advantage of the Hotels.com Rewards program to earn one free night for every 10 paid nights, you'll effectively boost your return to 20% when you pay with the Venture card). Or, you can book through the Chase travel portal or American Express Travel.
- Book the resort or vacation rental of your choice and then use an "eraser" card, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card (card no longer available to new applicants), to wipe out the purchase -- as long as it coded as travel on your credit card statement.
- Use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book your resort of choice, including some all-inclusive options, through the Chase travel portal.
Where to stay using hotel points
If you do want to book a Barbados stay with traditional hotel points, here are some options:
Hilton Grand Vacations at The Crane: The Crane is a popular Bajan resort in St. Philip parish and, as of January 2019, is bookable with Hilton Honors points through Hilton Grand Vacations. I could only find Premium awards on the many dates I checked. I found a 609-square-foot Studio Garden View King room going for 79,000 points per night and a 688-square-foot one-bedroom Garden View King Suite with Rooftop Pool for 109,000 points per night in October. If you have plenty of points, this is the far superior choice over Hilton's other property.
Reportedly Barbados' first resort, built in 1887, management says the Hilton Grand Vacations at The Crane is the oldest continually-operating resort in all of the Caribbean. The hotel itself is perched on 40 acres of cliff-top real estate, and the pool complex looks out over Crane Bay. There's also a 3,000-square-foot fitness center, kids' activities and a spa, as well as restaurants and bars.
Hilton Barbados Resort: We cruise out of Bridgetown, Barbados, often -- it's a popular embarkation port -- so we've stayed at many island properties in the past, including the Hilton. To be charitable, it's "meh" and seems very overpriced -- both in terms of cash and award rates. But let's focus on the good stuff first. Located on Needham's Point, with a small beach that flanks the back and side of the property, the 350-room Hilton is about 20 minutes from the airport. Each room has an ocean view and balcony. There's a pool and other amenities like tennis courts and hot tubs.
Now for the not-so-great: The building itself is uninspired — all boxy concrete, no style. Dining choices are limited, but where the hotel falls down the most is customer service. For example, during a recent visit, there was a long line at check-in but elites were not being helped first. We had to call down to the reception desk to get a room service menu, after not being able to get a good answer to our question, "What's the menu at tonight's poolside barbecue?" While this could be fine for a one- or two-night pre-cruise stay, I would not pick the Hilton Barbados as home base for a full-length island vacation.
According to Hilton's Points Explorer tool, the cost for award nights ranges from 54,000 to 70,000 Hilton Honors points per night.
Radisson Aquatica Resort: Situated between Needham's Point and Brownes Beach, the Radisson is a Category 6 property that goes for 50,000 points per night for a Standard award and 70,000 points for a Premium award. But cash rates are often quite low here; I've seen rooms sell for under $100 per night during the offseason, so check the cash rate before you burn points.
Courtyard Bridgetown, Barbados: If you're not looking for a full-service resort, the 118-room Courtyard -- which is popular for business conferences since it's close to downtown and the airport -- may be a good choice. Located in The Garrison District, it's a Category 4 property, starting at 25,000 points per night. The hotel has a modern look and is right across the street from the Coconut Court Beach Hotel, which has a wonderful beach fronting it. You can walk to the Barbados Boardwalk from here, and though the pool is rather small, it should suffice if you're just here for a pre- or post-cruise stay.
What to see and do on Barbados
If you're not a beach bum, there's actually still quite a lot to do on Barbados in addition to sunbathing.
Take an island tour
Hands-down the best decision we made when visiting Barbados was booking an island tour with Terrvette Tours & Taxi Service. Owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team, the company has nice new-model passenger vans. We booked a customized tour since we had specific ideas of where we wanted to go and when. The owners made some great suggestions that really made the trip exceptional. We booked two vans so our group could spread out: teens and college-age kids in one and adults in the other. Terrvette customized the narratives in both vans and everyone loved the experience.
The cost of a private tour is around $50 per hour for the first four people and then $10 for each additional person. You can also book one of Terrvette's set tours, like the five-hour Pride of Barbados Plantation & Scenic Tour, for $125 per person (including entrance fees, lunch and a drink). An outing to Oistin's Fish Fry is $25 per person and $15 for kids under 12.
We also used Terrvette Tours for all of our transportation on the island, including airport transfers, outings to restaurants and other sightseeing adventures.
Visit the beaches
Barbados has some beautiful beaches but, like other Caribbean islands, has been dealing with an intermittent brown sargassum seaweed problem. Before you book any resort, read recent online reviews to find out if seaweed has been an issue. Most resorts do their best to remove the seaweed daily, but it can have a negative effect on how much time you spend in the water. If you take an island tour, ask your guide or driver for recommendations on the beaches he or she recommends during your stay.
Some popular stretches of sand include Accra Beach, Crane Beach, Brownes, Bath Beach, Gibbes Beach and Mullins.
Also, while you won't swim at this beach (the waves are almost always rough here), don't miss Bathsheba, famous for its incredible boulder sculptures that have been carved over the centuries by the ocean.
And if you're staying at a hotel that doesn't have a terrific beach, you can spend a day at The Boatyard beach club on Carlyle Bay. Admission is $30 per person ($20 for cruise ship passengers) and includes access to the changing room, a lounge chair, umbrellas (while they last) and drinks. You’ll find a bevy of water toys just offshore, like a floating island, trampoline and rope swing. Boat captains stake out this beach and will take you out to see the sea turtles for an extra fee. There's an on-site restaurant and bar.
Book a catamaran snorkel trip
There are two outfitters on the island offering luxury catamaran trips that include snorkeling, sightseeing and refreshments. No matter which vendor you select, you'll have the chance to swim with giant hawksbill and leatherback turtles in the Caribbean Sea. Depending on the itinerary, you may also snorkel above a 19th-century shipwreck.
Calabaza Sailing Cruises Barbados offers a five-hour lunch tour that includes passage along the West Coast of Barbados to the snorkel site; use of fins, snorkels and masks; snacks including banana bread and a Bajan-style lunch. Of course, the rum punch (and other cocktails) flow easily throughout the voyage. The catamaran’s capacity is just 12 people, so you’re assured personalized service and plenty of space at the snorkel site.
Silver Moon, with similar 12-passenger catamarans, offers the same sort of snorkeling trips. Pick a morning departure or one in the afternoon to see the sunset. Expect to pay about $130 for adults and between $90 and $100 for kids. Infants ages 0 to 2 are often free.
Board a party cruise
When in Barbados, you may see a masted ship with a red sail hugging the coast. This is the Jolly Rancher 1, and visitors board the ship to act like a pirate for a day. Party cruises are offered by Black Pearl Party Cruises. Join a fun-loving crowd for a lunch cruise where the order of the day includes sunbathing on deck, launching yourself into the sea from an onboard rope swing, walking the plank, snorkeling with sea turtles and visiting a sunken ship. The barbecue buffet and free drinks are a nice touch. A lunch cruise is $87.50 for adults and $45 for kids.
Visit the boardwalk
If you're trying to get your steps in but want a view, head to the Barbados Boardwalk, a one-mile path that connects the Accra Beach Hotel and St. Matthias Road on the island’s South Coast. You’ll enjoy ocean scenery on one side and homes, restaurants and bars on the other.
Tour a rum distillery
Rum has been important business here for the last 350 years and you can tour distilleries that craft this spirit. We like St. Nicholas Abbey, near the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, in St. Peter parish. Here, you can tour the old plantation grounds, orchards, rum distillery, take a ride on an old steam-engine train and explore the great house to view antiques dating back hundreds of years. You can purchase rum at the abbey as well as brown sugar, molasses, chutney, jam and jelly made from ingredients sourced on and nearby the plantation. Admission is $23 for adults and $10 for kids. A trip on the Heritage Railway costs extra: $15 for adults and $5 for kids ages 3 to 11.
If you'd rather visit a distillery in Bridgetown, go to the Mount Gay Visitor Centre in Bridgetown. Rum tastings are $20 per person.
Explore the Sunbury Plantation House
For a glimpse of what life was like living in one of Barbados’ great plantation homes, tour Sunbury Plantation House in St. Philip’s countryside. The home was built in 1660, and various additions and improvements were made through 1788. There is an extensive collection of antiques as well as horse-drawn carriages. You can even stop for a meal at the Courtyard Restaurant.
Go horseback riding
If you’ve ever wanted to ride a horse along a gold sand beach, you can do it on Barbados. Companies like Ocean Echo Stables offer one- to three-hour tours for both beginner and expert equestrians. Newbies trek through lush foliage on the way to Bath Beach while more advanced riders tackle Hackelton’s Cliff and Conset Bay. Riders must be at least 10 years old and groups are limited to six people. Each tour begins with some instruction in the paddock and cart roads before hitting the trails. A one-hour tour costs $70 per person.
Watch green monkeys
For something decidedly different from a beach day, visit Welchman Hall Gully at the center of the island, where you can enjoy the forest canopy that is home to two troops of green monkeys. You can spy them as they sit in banana trees or check out the feeding platform right near the entrance of the gully. Morning is the best time to see the monkeys. There is a manmade path through the three-quarter-mile gully, making it quite easy for anyone to enjoy the tropical plants and trees, including nutmeg, palms, clove and bamboo. Admission is $14 for adults and $7 for kids ages 5 to 12. Kids under 5 are free.
Visit the botanical gardens
If Welchman Hall Gully whetted your appetite for tropical foliage, you can also explore the six acres that comprise Andromeda Botanical Gardens in St. Joseph. Discover a variety of tropical beauties such as orchids and hibiscus, palms and cacti, bougainvillea and begonias. A stream gurgles through the gardens, and as you wander the grounds you’ll come across pools and waterfalls. Before you leave, visit the on-site art gallery or have a bite to eat in the Garden Cafe. Admission is $15 for adults and free for kids with a paying parent.
Make a plan to explore Harrison’s Cave. Located at the center of the island in St. Thomas parish, this crystallized limestone cavern is mesmerizing. The cave is classified as “living,” which means it’s constantly changing with new columns, stalactites and stalagmites forming along with deep pools of clear water. You can take the bus to get here (Route 4, Shorey Village) or hire a taxi. The tram tour is $30 for adults and $15 for kids.
Order the fish fry
Every Friday night, residents and visitors alike head to Oistins Fish Fry for dinner. The open-air marketplace showcases dozens of stalls that cook up the best locally-caught fish like swordfish, tuna, marlin, mahi mahi and flying fish. You'll also find lobster and chicken on the menu. Outdoor seating is casual at picnic tables, and a meal with a beer will cost you about $15 to $20. You can take a taxi or book the fish fry as part of a tour that includes transportation to and from your hotel.
If you don't want to pay cash for any of these outings, check to see if they are bookable using your Chase Ultimate Rewards points on the Chase travel portal.