No passport required: Tips for visiting Puerto Rico on a family vacation
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Puerto Rico is the best of many worlds — it has its own culture, beautiful beaches, isn’t too far from the U.S. mainland and doesn’t require a passport for U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico has a lot in common with some of its Caribbean neighbors, but it makes for an easier family trip from the Lower 48 since you don’t need to get passports for the whole family, deal with customs and pay a bunch of international taxes just to visit.
How to get to Puerto Rico
Plenty of airlines fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from U.S. gateways, including
- Atlanta (ATL) — Delta and Frontier
- Baltimore (BWI) — Southwest and Spirit (Region 2)
- Boston (BOS) — JetBlue
- Charlotte (CLT) — American
- Chicago (MDW) — Southwest
- Chicago (ORD) — American and United
- Dallas (DFW) — American
- Detroit (DTW) — Delta (route starts 12/21/19)
- Durham (RDU) — Frontier
- Fort Lauderdale (FLL) — JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit (Region 1)
- Houston (HOU) — Southwest
- Houston (IAH) — United
- Miami (MIA) — American and Frontier (route starting 11/4/19)
- Minneapolis (MSP) — Delta and Sun Country
- New Jersey (EWR) — Frontier (route starting 11/14/19), JetBlue and United
- New York (JFK) — Delta and JetBlue
- Orlando (MCO) — Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit (Region 1)
- Orlando – Sanford (SFB) — Allegiant Air
- Philadelphia (PHL) — American, Frontier and Spirit (Region 2)
- Tampa (TPA) — Frontier (route starting 11/15/19), JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit (Region 1)
- Washington, D.C. (DCA) — JetBlue
- Washington, D.C. (IAD) — United
- Windsor Locks, CT (BDL) — JetBlue
2-for-1 flights to Puerto Rico
If you hold or can earn Southwest’s popular Companion Pass, you can bring along a companion of your choosing for just the cost of taxes and fees. Sadly, most other BOGO flight opportunities exclude Puerto Rico. This includes the Frontier Discount Den, Delta Companion Certificates, etc.
Low-point redemptions to San Juan
Since British Airways uses a distance-based award chart, you can use your British Airways Avios points on American Airlines flights if you live in the Southeastern part of the United States to score a great deal to Puerto Rico. A one-way flight to Puerto Rico from Miami cost $5.60 plus 9,000 Avios for economy and 16,500 Avios for business class.
If you love flying Spirit Airlines and have its cobranded Spirit Mastercard, you can fly anywhere in its first zone level — Region 1 — for 2,500 miles each way on off-peak dates. That includes from FLL, MCO and TPA. If you don’t have the credit card, the same award flights cost 10,000 miles. For flights from Region 2, like the gateways of BWI and PHL, cardholders can access 5,000-mile one-way awards while non-cardholders pay 12,500 miles. Right now Spirit award prices are actually coming in as low as 1,250 miles each way for cardmembers, so Puerto Rico may be closer than you think.
Look for cash sales
Where to stay in San Juan
There are a ton of points hotels in San Juan, Old San Juan and beyond. If you’ve got a Marriott up to 35k annual free night certificate from a card like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card or Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card, you can choose between the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino (Category 5) or Category 4 properties like the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel, Aloft San Juan or the AC Hotel San Juan Condado.
If you have a Marriott up to 50k free night certificate at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program (certain hotels have resort fees) from the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, you can stay at a Category 6 property during Standard or Off-Peak Dates or at Category 7 during Off-Peak dates. (See Marriott’s new award chart that includes off-peak, standard and peak rates.) In San Juan, there are two Category 6 hotels: La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort and the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. If you can travel on off-peak dates, book the Category 7 Ritz-Carlton, San Juan.
World of Hyatt points can be used at the Hyatt House San Juan or Hyatt Place San Juan/City Center from 12,000 points per night or the Hyatt Place San Juan/Bayamon from 8,000 points. At all three properties, you can use your Category 1–4 free night certificate that arrives on the card anniversary of your World of Hyatt Credit Card.
Wyndham also has properties in and around San Juan, including TRYP by Wyndham Isla Verde (30k points) and Howard Johnson by Wyndham San Juan Centro Cardiovascular (15k points). However, check cash prices, which are usually quite affordable at these hotels.
Hilton loyalists have a range of options, from the Caribe Hilton and Condado Plaza Hilton (both from 50k Hilton Honors points per night) to the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel San Juan (from 47k to 60k points), Embassy Suites by Hilton San Juan Hotel & Casino (from 52k to 60k points), El San Juan Hotel Curio Collection (from 62k to 70k points) and the Hampton Inn & Suites San Juan (from 40k to 60k).
If you’ve got IHG Rewards Club points, look at the InterContinental San Juan from 50k points or the Holiday Inn Express San Juan Condado for 35,000 points. Remember that you get your fourth award night free if you hold the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card.
What to see in San Juan
If you do make the trip, San Juan has plenty of attractions to keep a family busy for days. Here are some ideas:
Explore Old San Juan
The forts, including Castillo San Felipe del Morro and other historical structures of Old San Juan, are a UNESCO World Heritage site and are especially popular with active families. My wife and I spent most of a day exploring these sights.
If you have younger tots, the green lawn fronting the Castillo is a great spot for a picnic and some kite flying. (You can buy a chiringa (kite) as well as your picnic foods from local vendors.) Or, you can just let the kids run around — that’ll work too. Tropical-flavored piraguas (shaved ice) or paletas (ice pops) will refuel both children and adults.
The neighborhood also has plenty of (pretty touristy) shopping areas. We aren’t big shoppers, but we did enjoy a stop at Casa Cortes Chocolate bar in Old San Juan that would be a hit with the little ones.
There are also two free trolley routes that you can take around Old San Juan. They make various stops throughout the old part of San Juan and are a good way to get around. Note that they are just trolleys — there are no guides or any kind of explanatory audio or text offered. The “red” City Hall route takes you along Old San Juan’s shopping areas while the “blue” El Morro route reprises some of the shopping stops along with visits to Fort San Cristobal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro.
Visit a San Juan beach
A Caribbean vacation wouldn’t be complete without at least a day at the beach, and there are plenty to choose from in Puerto Rico — almost 300 beaches! If you’re staying in properties like the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort (in Rio Grande, just 30 miles to San Juan) and Dorado Beach-Ritz-Carlton (in Dorado, roughly 20 miles to San Juan), you don’t have to go far for some fun in the sun. Just walk out to the hotel’s own beach and you’re all set.
If the property you’re staying in doesn’t have its own beach, don’t fret. Scattered all over the island are beaches that the public are free to access and enjoy.
Not to be confused with Condado Beach, Playita del Condado (Small Beach of Condado) in San Juan is a small beach just east of the Ashford Avenue bridge. It’s popular with families for its clear, calm aquamarine waters. A coral rock formation breaks the waves and creates a shallow and natural “kiddie pool” where the little ones can swim and play. (Never leave them unattended, however, especially when no lifeguard is around.)
Adults can lounge in a rented beach chair under the shade of an umbrella, with views of the old Fortin San Geronimo and the modern Plaza Caribe Hilton. Food choices are plentiful, from vendors on the beach to restaurants along Ashford Avenue and at the Condado Plaza Hilton.
Like Playita del Condado, El Escambron, too, is sheltered from strong currents by coral reefs. A Blue Flag beach, it’s one of the best places to go for a swim in San Juan. The beach has lifeguard service, public restrooms and showers, and food kiosks. Come here in May and sample the many flavors of Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine during Saborea, a popular food festival.
Visit the Condado neighborhood
If you’re staying in Condado, where many of the points hotels are located, it’s about a $20 taxi ride to Old San Juan. My wife and I stayed at the Hyatt House San Juan, which is in the Miramar neighborhood between Condado and Old San Juan. We walked from our hotel to Old San Juan, which was about 45 minutes one-way.
The Hyatt House San Juan is 12,000 Hyatt points per night and is a great place for families. Not only does it offer free breakfast, but rooms also feature a full kitchen and there is a grocery store nearby. Condado is the main “touristy” area of San Juan and almost all of the chains have beachfront properties there. There are also many restaurants that serve Puerto Rican and other Caribbean food. When Carolyn and I were there, we ate twice at the Hacienda Don Jose, which had a great view of the ocean from our table.
Spots to check out beyond San Juan
While most people will fly into San Juan, you can rent a car and explore more of the island. While still recovering from the effects of 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the island has come a long way toward getting back on its feet. There are a variety of places that make good day trips from San Juan. Here are a few:
Of the five bioluminescent bays in the world, three are in Puerto Rico. Mosquito Bay in Vieques, 65 miles from San Juan, is a Guinness World Records holder for the brightest bio bay in the world, with the dinoflagellate population now averaging 1 to 2.1 million per gallon of water. Located roughly 40 miles from San Juan, Laguna Grande in Fajardo is the most visited of the three, though it’s not technically a bay — more of a lagoon. In La Parguera in Lajas, about 110 miles from San Juan, you can see the glowing microorganisms through glass-bottom or motor boats, or even dive in and swim with them.
While other bio bays are seasonal, the ones in Puerto Rico can be viewed year-round. However, timing is important. The best time to view the amazing glow-in-the-dark spectacle is on a darker night (think new moon or no moon). Most tours are done on kayaks and can cost from $48 to $76 per person, including taxes. Depending on the tour operator, the minimum age is usually 6 or 7 years old. It’s important to wear comfortable clothing and avoid using any lotions, hand creams or bug repellent that can harm the dinoflagellates.
La Monserrate in Luquillo, just 30 miles from San Juan and just a 15-minute drive to El Yunque National Forest (which we’ll talk about below), has clear, calm waters that are perfect for little ones to play in. This Blue Flag beach also has camping and picnic areas, gazebos, food kiosks, handicap-accessible areas, bathrooms and showers, plus lifeguards and police and medical emergency services.
Another family-friendly beach is Playa Boqueron in Cabo Rojo, about 120 miles from San Juan. Along with its calm, shallow and warm waters, kids will love the statue of pirate Roberto Cofresi and the local legend that comes along with it. Beach cabanas and villas are available, along with restrooms, picnic tables, a playground, basketball and beach volleyball courts, and gazebos. Lifeguards and security officers are on duty to keep you safe, while office personnel are on hand to assist you.
El Yunque National Forest
Travel about 45 minutes from San Juan to the northeastern part of the island and you’ll arrive at the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Although it’s one of the smallest forests in America, at almost 29,000 acres, it’s one of the most biologically diverse. Hundreds of animal and plant species live here, with some — like the coqui frog — endemic to the area.
Families can enjoy a handful of activities such as hiking and nature viewing. There are 24 miles of recreational trails scattered throughout the park. However, due to hurricane recovery efforts, some trails, along with camping and picnic areas, are temporarily unavailable. Nevertheless, wear your sturdy hiking boots and start walking the relatively short Caimitillo Trail, easily accessible from the Sierra Palm Visitor Center. Those up for a more adventurous trek or with older children or teens can dare to follow the El Yunque Trail to the Dwarf Forest or the Mt. Britton Trail to the tower, where, if you’re lucky, you’ll see views of the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean and surrounding landscape.
With an average rainfall of 120 inches annually, expect brief but intense daily showers. So, don’t forget to bring extra clothes, ponchos and umbrellas. You should also expect to see repairs being done to forest roads, trails and recreational facilities.
El Yunque forest is open daily, except Christmas, and closes at 6 p.m. The forest itself has no entrance fee, but access to the visitors center costs $4 for adults and $2 for seniors (free for children under 16 years).
Carabali Rainforest Adventure Park
Sitting on the east coast of Puerto Rico, Carabali Rainforest Adventure Park is a multi-adventure ranch covering more than 600 acres of farmland at the foothills of the El Yunque. Families can pick their thrill here: from go-karts ($7) and hayrides ($10) to horseback riding (starts at $39 for ages 3 and up) to ATV and UTV rides (starts at $55). No matter what you pick, you’re sure to appreciate the lush landscape and Instagram-worthy views.
Puerto Rico is a no-brainer family vacation destination. It’s a quick trip from points south and it’s nearly always bright and sunny. It’s a U.S. territory so there’s no need to worry about money conversions, passports, international data plans or language barriers (many locals speak both English and Spanish).
Featured image by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.
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