Ten tips for finding flights to the Caribbean

Written by James Avery on Sunday, 04 March 2012. Posted in News from 2012, James's blog

Finding good value flights to the Caribbean is very difficult, so here are a few pointers

Having family live and work in the Caribbean for the best part of 15 years, I've visited this wonderful region more than any other since launching Flightmapping back in 2002.

Unfortunately there really is no such thing as a cheap flight to the Caribbean these days, as increasing fuel prices and the astronomically high Air Passenger Duty (APD) tax make Caribbean destinations even more expensive than they traditionally have been. As there is also generally very little competition on scheduled flights to the Caribbean beyond the illusion of rivalry between British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, finding a bargain is harder than it is on flights to many other long-haul destinations.

Until relatively recently, passengers had the choice of long-haul flights operated by BWIA, who then became Caribbean Airlines, together with flights to Jamaica operated by Air Jamaica. Neither of these airlines operate long-haul flights any more, leaving the Cuban national airline Cubana as the only Caribbean-based carrier to offer flights to the Caribbean from the UK.

However, some Caribbean destinations, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Montego Bay in Jamaica and Barbados do have a reasonable offering of holiday charter flights, and on these routes, prices can sometimes be more reasonable.

Paradise Island Bahamas

Top tips for finding flights to the Caribbean:

1. Be as flexible as possible with dates.

This means avoiding peak travel periods during school holidays, and it also means being prepared to travel during the hurricane season (roughly June to November). Don't be put off by this - hurricane reports in the news always focus on the places that are unlucky enough to get hit, and these will always stay at the forefront of people's memories. Remember that although the hurricane season lasts for several months, the statistical chance of your resort being hit during the time you are out there is actually very small.

2. Look for flights to destinations served by leisure airlines.

Holiday airlines like Thomson and Monarch offer flights to the Caribbean as well as traditional carriers British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Flights to destinations served by the big leisure companies tend to be more competitively priced. Examples include Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Barbados.

3. Forget regional airports and fly from London

Generally, the cheapest flights to the Caribbean operate from London, although you can sometimes find good deals from Manchester or other regional airports.

Be prepared to shop around between different departure airports, especially as the only option for flight connections from many regional departure points is to go via New York or another other airport in the USA. This is a very long way round, and really isn't worth the hassle as you will have to go through US immigration in each direction. Unless you either want to add in a US city break or you are flying to a destination which is relatively close to the USA, such as the Bahamas or Jamaica, then I really would avoid these routings.

Note that Caribbean flights from London tend to depart quite early in the morning, so it isn't always easy to find a feeder flight from other regional departure points. Be prepared to budget for a night in a Gatwick airport hotel on the outbound leg, or to get up at an ungodly hour to drive or take a coach to the airport. Note – all flights to the Caribbean depart from Gatwick, except for British Airways flights to Nassau (Bahamas), Providenciales (Turks & Caicos) and Grand Cayman, which depart from London Heathrow.

Some Caribbean flights operate with a stop en-route, and you can usually (but not always) expect to pay more if you are travelling to the final destination.

4. The exorbitant cost of Air Passenger Duty (APD) on direct flights from the UK to the Caribbean can be avoided if you are stubborn enough.

The way to do this is to take Eurostar or a low-cost flight to Paris or Amsterdam and then to book a long-haul flight to the French or Dutch Caribbean. Flights to islands such as St Martin, Martinique or Guadeloupe are usually considerably cheaper than flights to their English speaking equivalents anyway.

However, this is a false economy if you then try and book a local Caribbean island hopper flight on to a destination like St Kitts or Antigua, as these connections can sometimes cost over $300 for a 30 minute flight!

You also might find cheap flights to former Spanish colonies like Puerto Rico or Cuba from Madrid. Note that you are always taking a risk if you make your own connections, as neither airline will accept responsibility if one flight is delayed.

5. Consider one of the Indian Ocean destinations instead.

If you can't find a suitable deal to the Caribbean, why not consider flights to the Seychelles, Mauritius or the Maldives instead? These destinations can sometimes be more competitive as the option is available for taking flights via Arabian Gulf hubs such as Dubai and Doha.

In addition to this extra competition, you can combine a paradise island getaway with a shopping extravaganza on the way out or back. Alternatively, Mexico has an extensive Caribbean coast, and flights to Cancun are readily available from many UK departure airports.

6. Book a package trip.

As a general rule, packages are much better value than booking flights and accommodation separately, especially if you are travelling with a leisure airline. You also might find a much better value by booking a cruise package and sampling a host of Caribbean islands rather than staying in one place.

7. Consider how much you will spend when you get there

Bear in mind that the cost of getting around and of eating and drinking out can vary considerably from one Caribbean island to another.

As a general rule, islands that have larger hotels and a wider range of holiday flights are usually cheaper, with Cuba and the Dominican Republic being at the lower end and islands like St Kitts and Grenada being considerably more expensive. In the middle, you will still find plenty of variation – for example it is usually much cheaper to buy a round of rum punch in Barbados than it is in Antigua.

The best value packages are usually all inclusive flight and hotel deals, although this kind of deal can leave you boxed in to the hotel you are staying at, so you don't always get the full Caribbean experience.

8. Watch out for Caribbean car hire pitfalls!

Before setting off, consider how you will get around the island you visit. Car hire in the Caribbean can be astonishingly expensive (£300+ per week), especially as you may have to pay around £40 for a temporary local driving licence before you can rent a car.

Caribbean islands can also be deceptively slow to travel around -- distances might not be that far, but the roads can be poor quality and very winding. St Lucia is particularly bad -- don't expect to drive at any more than 30 miles an hour there.

Many tour operators will provide both transfers between your hotel and the airport and a range of island tours. Another great way to explore many Caribbean islands without the hassles of getting a hire car is to rent a bicycle – and you can even take a tour around St Kitts in an open air sugar train.

9. Caribbean island hopping

You will find a plethora of beautiful islands in the Caribbean, but many people will only visit one on each trip. Unfortunately, inter-island flights within the Caribbean are often ridiculously expensive, as there is virtually no competition, and you are usually clobbered still further by extra local handling taxes.

Many routes between the smaller islands only operate once each day, and some are even less frequent than this.

Major hub airports in the eastern Caribbean include Antigua, Barbados and St Martin. The busiest airport in the Caribbean is in San Juan, Puerto Rico, although I would avoid travelling through it unless you absolutely have to because it means you will have to endure the hassle of going through US immigration.

If you are staying on St Kitts, you can easily make a day trip by boat to neighbouring Nevis, and this is a highly recommended excursion.

Another possibility is to take a helicopter tour, which might give you views over several islands. Although these don't come cheap, they are often good value compared with Caribbean passenger flights! If you ever want to experience the true power of nature, take a helicopter tour from Antigua around neighbouring Montserrat's active volcano:

Montserrat beach during volcanic eruption

10. Heart-stopping flights

If you fancy setting your heart pounding with an aerial rollercoaster ride, then the Caribbean is blessed with some of the most dramatic take off and landing experiences in the world.

St Martin is a mecca for plane spotters due to the way hulking passenger jets pass only a few metres over a popular beach just before landing at the island's airport.

another tight landing over Maho beach on St Martin

From St Martin you can fly across to nearby Saba, home to the shortest commercially active runway in the world, with sheer cliffs at each end just for good measure.

Landing on Saba - cockpit view

Alternatively, the approach into neighbouring St Barths is equally dramatic as planes have to fly over a steep hill before lining up on the airport's tiny runway.

About the Author

James Avery

James Avery

James Avery founded flightmapping.com in 2002 and has gone on to become one of the leading experts on the UK's aviation industry. James is just a tad opinionated - his proudest moment being the time he seriously riled Tony Blair during a particulartly heated 'Newsnight' debate.

Comments (7)

  • Hazza

    Hazza

    04 March 2012 at 01:24 |
    I’m not sure why you even mentioned Cubana. I followed your link to their website in English, and it gave no options for flights or timetables.

    Most price comparison sites don’t even list Havana as a destination. When I found one that did (Opodo), it only featured Cubana as an option in one direction, and this was at a ridiculous £1800+ return!
  • Pippa

    Pippa

    06 March 2012 at 21:15 |
    Those are some interesting suggestions. Why do you say Barbados is so much cheaper than Antigua?
  • James Avery

    James Avery

    09 March 2012 at 02:07 |
    Since writing this article, it looks like Caribbean Airlines are going to re-start their flights to Port ot Spain, Trinidad, with possible additional routings involving a stop in another Caribbean island on the way.
  • James Avery

    James Avery

    09 March 2012 at 02:07 |
    Please see our Cuba flights pages for more on that.
  • James Avery

    James Avery

    09 March 2012 at 02:09 |
    Based on personal experience from visiting both islands, Barbados has many more cheaper drinking outlets, especially around St Lawrence Gap, not to mention the legendary Harbour Lights on the edge of Bridgetown, where the drinks are unlimited.

    Antigua is much more geared towards the couples market, so it has far fewer opportunities for cheaper drinking.
  • Mandy

    Mandy

    08 May 2012 at 03:08 |
    Interesting suggestions, any particular tips for finding cheap flights to Antigua in November for 2?

    Preferably departing from Manchester, but having read the above, Gatwick would do just fine.
  • James Avery

    James Avery

    08 May 2012 at 22:44 |
    Sorry, if you have checked out the options above, and then looked at prices with BA & Virgin, there really isn't much more that I can suggest - you are going to have to fly long haul from London anyway, there isn't a short cut to Antigua.

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