Traveling the Caribbean and Mexico
When I was a little girl growing up in Cleveland, I thought all bodies of water looked like Lake Erie; brown and muddy. The brochures we saw for places like Hawaii and the Caribbean must have been fake … blue-green water? Really? No way. Although I had been to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, those bodies of water certainly did not resemble the colored photographs in magazines or travel catalogs. So, it took years … years … to convince me that these tropical paradise waters actually did exist.
The first time I recognized the truth in those advertised brochures was when my husband and I traveled to Australia on our honeymoon. We spent two weeks traveling around the country “down under;” including visits to the desert and Great Barrier Reef. Upon determining that beautiful blue waters do exist, I began my quest to find more affordable vacations.
Our Travels and the “B” Vacation
Beginning with our honeymoon in Australia (visiting Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback desert/Alice Springs and Sydney), our travels have taken us to cities in the United States and Canada, as well as the Caribbean Sea, Pacific and Atlantic oceans and Mexico. Our most recent trip was to the Caribbean island of Curaçao but we've vacationed in Cozumel, Cabo San Lucas, Cancun (2) and Isla Mujeres, Grand Cayman and the Bahamas (2). We hope to take a “B” vacation every few years in order to “recharge the batteries.” Hit the Beach. Read a Book. Drink some Beer. Grow out his Beard. Check out the Babes in Bikinis. Float a Boat. Buy a Bauble. Basically, Be a Bum.
Caribbean Hotels and Beaches
Depending on location, most Caribbean beaches -- such as those in the Bahamas and in Mexico -- are owned by the government. Private resort hotels cannot keep vendors off beaches in front of their properties. So, you can be half-asleep and drowsing in the sun when someone comes up to you for the 15th time to sell you a t-shirt. (Beach vendors are generally forbidden from entering hotel areas). Similarly, local people may wish to rent (unlicensed) jet skis or boats to you -- not recommended because of the possibility of faulty or poorly-maintained equipment and if you get hurt, there is no legal recourse. Resort hotels have dive shops; you can rent gear or arrange for a boating or parasailing trip with professionally-trained employees. (I went parasailing in Cozumel when beautiful blue skies turned into a thunderstorm! But I figured these guys could get me down safely).
Places to See, Things to Do
After a few days on the beach -- and perhaps a snorkeling trip -- it is time to visit downtown for sightseeing and shopping. Although Caribbean downtown areas all have their unique charm, the tourist stores that sell t-shirts, souvenirs, knickknacks and the like … well, they are different but all the same. Be ready to haggle over the price of something and walk away if the asking price is too high. Chances are that the shopkeeper will offer you a better deal or perhaps another store will have what you want.
You are on vacation -- do something different! Plan your budget to include tours and special experiences. Travel agents can help with this, or you can find information online beforehand. Hotels also offer excursions and day trips. If possible, rent a car and drive around the island to see beaches, mountains, rain-forests and other areas -- you’re bound to see some beautiful scenery. (One thing I really wanted to do when we were in Curaçao was to swim with dolphins ... it was incredible!) These are lifetime experiences; do not let the opportunities pass you by.
Caribbean/Mexican Beaches Vacation Tips
A few things to keep in mind as you plan for your “B” vacation!
- Allow Extra Space -- for souvenirs! What you take with you in your luggage will probably be less than what you bring home.
- Bring a Backpack or Beach Bag -- for using at the pool, beach or on excursion.
- Bring Bug Spray -- it is very expensive to purchase in gift shops. Because of the water, heat and humidity, some locations do have a lot of mosquitoes. And mosquitoes bite hard.
- Bring a Change of Clothes -- in a carry-on bag. Although your freezing hometown has you dressed in sweats and sweaters, you’ll want to change into “summer” clothes as soon as you get to tropical climates.
- Bring a Small First Aid Kit -- of antacids, bandages, insect bite relief lotion, aspirin -- that kind of stuff. You can probably get that at the (pricey) gift shop or from the hotel but if you need these items, I think you’ll find the convenience of having your own easy-to-access “dispensary” to be invaluable. Ditto for a Sewing Kit.
- Bring Some “Nice” Clothes -- to wear in the hotel’s nicer restaurants where beachwear is not allowed.
- Bring a Sun Hat -- because the bright, hot sunshine can be hard on even the hardest head. Don’t forget your sunglasses!
- Bring Sunscreen -- it is expensive to purchase in the gift shops. You may not think you need it but in Caribbean and Mediterranean countries -- and especially as you get closer to the equator -- the hot sun can cause serious damage. Sunburn can ruin a vacation! Typically, I prefer 15 SPF but always take 30 or 45 SPF on beach vacations.
- Don’t Bring Expensive “Toys” -- yes, we all want our phones, tablets, laptops, etc. But bringing all this stuff on your vacation is done at your own risk because thefts do occur in hotel rooms, regardless if items are locked in safes. Cameras, phones, computers, music players and cash are at risk. Hotel management may be receptive to your complaints, but often, not. Bring only what you can afford to lose.
- Keep Travel Documents in an Accessible Place -- so you can get to them easily. A carry-on bag with a separate pocket is helpful.
- Review Airport Security Requirements -- to determine what you may and may not bring on the airplane.
The Internet allows us to check out facilities and traveler opinions before we book our Caribbean vacations. No matter where you choose to go or what kind of accommodations you prefer, it is best to remember a few basic things:
- Airports -- Airports in Caribbean countries vary and so do their rules; some will allow you to easily pass through “customs” but others will search your belongings. Have your passport ready to present upon request. Be pleasant in your conversation with airport personnel, but, just like in the United States, do not make any off-colored remarks; what could seem like a harmless joke to you could be misconstrued as a serious threat, especially if there are language barriers.
- Airport Transports -- Watch out for people who say they are from the hotel to pick you up because not everyone tells the truth about that. Be sure you have the right service before handing over your luggage.
- Timeshare Salespeople -- When you get to the airport and perhaps to your hotel, watch out for the Timeshare people, who want to sell you properties or introduce you to “Vacation Clubs.” Remember, you will pay a price for anything “free” they may give you (if they actually do come through with the gifts) -- even if it is just a few hours of your precious vacation time. (What promises to be 90 minutes or less may turn out to be several hours of “hot-boxing” in order to get you to buy). Sales people often request to see your credit cards -- never show your identification or credit cards to anyone unless you are planning to make a purchase. Timeshare opportunities or Vacation Clubs are expensive expenditures; you will be prompted to make a down-payment by credit card. If you’re interested, check it out! But otherwise, a simple “no thank you” may not be enough; you may have to get forceful and rude. (Hotels often have rules for how their Timeshare/Vacation Club people behave, however, these rules are often broken).
My advice about Timeshare purchases: Don’t buy the hard-sell. If you want to invest in Timeshare or Vacation Clubs, do your homework beforehand about the property, assets and perks. Note the resale market and whether your purchase can retain its value. Decide on your budget and vacation preferences. Timeshare or Vacation Club purchases made under duress are not easy to get out of, especially in a foreign country.
Accommodations, Amenities & Activities
- Alcohol -- This may not be true at all locations but in our experience, resort hotels -- especially All-Inclusives -- water down drinks or use lesser brands of alcohol. Hotel bars serve drinks in small cups on the beach or at the pool -- if they have the wait staff to do so (many resorts don’t offer table service). If you don’t want to get up constantly for a refill, bring your own travel cup. Some locations will not serve you more than one or two drinks at a time.
- “All-Inclusive” -- Not everything is actually “all-inclusive,” so beware of unexpected charges. Read your contract carefully.
- Beaches -- vary from place to place in the Caribbean and Mexico. Some beaches are enclosed in a lagoon or may have a breakwall to keep seaweed away from the swimming area. These kinds of beaches usually don’t have the hard surf coming into the shore but the water is clearer and easier to swim in. If “beach” is part of the lure for your vacation, visit Internet travel sites (such as TripAdvisor) to see resort beach photos and learn what previous travelers have said about them.
- Beach Vendors -- You’ll find locals selling all types of things on public beaches. Usually, a “no thank you” is sufficient if you don’t want to buy anything but sometimes we well-mannered folks have to be a little more persistent when vendors don’t want to take “no” for an answer ….
- Beds -- They’re hard; just about everywhere, it seems. I can understand that because hotels serve a lot of people and the beds must be sturdy. Hard beds are not always the most comfortable but you can ask Housekeeping to bring extra pillows and blankets to give the mattress a little more cushion.
- Birds -- Outdoor restaurants and buffets attract our feathered friends for their share of the loot. Birds come with the territory (we are not bothered by them), so don’t be surprised or alarmed if they visit the restaurant … staff members do shoo them away but birds can be rather persistent. Food is mostly kept covered but you do see some flies here and there, too -- it is outdoors.
- Check-In Time -- The hotel will store your luggage if you arrive before check-in time. Usually, All-Inclusives provide an identification wristband so you can start enjoying the facility while waiting to get into your room. (Do not remove the wristband -- it must be worn for the length of your stay).
- Check-Out Time -- Review your bill carefully to determine the validity of all charges.
- Children -- Many vacation packages (such as cruise ship excursions) are especially meant for children. Some resort hotels are geared for children; they have “Kids Clubs,” baby pools and activities to entertain children of various ages. Hotel rooms may be equipped for handling young children but this varies by resort property. If you are planning a family vacation with small children, do your homework -- find a property suitable for your needs and be sure to communicate those needs with hotel staff. Although many hotels can accommodate young children, preteens and teenagers, they may not have sufficient activities to keep kids entertained. Some hotels have babysitting services; many do not. If a resort is marketed for adults, do not assume that your young children will be treated like royalty (from neither the hotel nor other guests).
Hotels & Restaurants
- Elevators -- some hotels have them, some do not. Three flights or so may not seem like a long climb but for some folks … it definitely is.
- Food -- Especially for All-Inclusive plans, no matter what you like or don’t like, the hotel has to cater to a variety of people, cultures and taste. Let’s face it; pleasing everyone is impossible. Buffets offer “staples” and other variety choices but it cannot be all things to all people. “Theme” dinners are always fun and after-dinner entertainment is what it is…. not Broadway, New York but nice enough to spend an hour or so after dinner. Even if I think the shows are “cheesy,” I certainly give the staff an “A” for effort.
- Hotel Lobbies -- In general, they are not air-conditioned but may be “open-air” (not completely enclosed from outdoor elements). When you arrive at the hotel, hot and tired from your journey, don’t expect that blast of AC. But rooms are air-conditioned or have separate AC units. Also, be prepared to wait to get into your hotel room because sometimes (especially during the busy season), rooms are not ready for new guests as promptly as management would like.
- Hotel Floors -- are usually made of marble or other solid material. Because of the heat, humidity and nearby ocean or sea, carpeting becomes moldy and full of sand. Moldy, sandy carpet is difficult to maintain and clean. You won’t see much carpet in beach resort hotels. Solid floors do get slippery when wet, so be careful!
- Hotel Room Air Conditioning -- Hotels depend on it for the comfort of their guests but sometimes the units are weak and lack in efficiency. If your room doesn’t cool off, tell management about the problem. Keeping rooms sufficiently cool can be a challenge when equipment is used constantly and when doors and windows are open.
- Hotel Restaurants -- All-Inclusive resorts offer choices in their specialty restaurants but you cannot usually walk up to the location on the spur of the moment. On the day you arrive, consult the hotel’s concierge about reservations -- when they must be made and for which restaurant. Various restaurants may not always open daily, especially if the hotel is not fully booked. You may have to make a reservation for a hotel restaurant two or three days in advance! Or make your reservations at 8:00 a.m. to eat in the restaurant of choice that evening.
Restaurant-booking is probably one of the biggest problems these resorts have because they want to know who’s eating where and when. We travelers don’t like to be so stringent but that’s another thing you just have to deal with, if you want to lessen the stress for your vacation holiday. While you can usually don beachwear for the buffets (especially during the day), you must dress appropriately for the restaurants … resort casual (most/some places won’t admit patrons in shorts and flip-flops). If you eat in the restaurants, be patient and prepared for slow service or being seated past your reservation time.
- Hotel Safes -- Well, my advice is to use them at your own risk. Key-accessible safes may have been compromised at some point by hotel employees or outside contractors. Digital safes requiring a password are not always trustworthy because anyone who enters your room can attempt a variety of combinations -- especially if you use a set of numbers associated with your identification. If something is stolen from a safe, you would have a difficult time proving what you had and who you think took it. Hotel management will not accuse employees without proof. If you have particular concerns about the safe in your room, discuss your options with Management. Document everything (with photos, especially).
Speaking of thefts … they do happen. Yes, you've heard it before but again, leave your expensive jewelry at home and take only the most essential of “tourist” items. We all want to have our cameras, tablets, iPods, phones and such. But these items are targeted especially -- no matter where you travel -- and if you’re out of the country, you’re not likely to get much help from Hotel Security or local authorities. Take only what you can afford to lose. Money is different; we all need some ready cash but you can carry pre-paid debit cards for major purchases. The most important items to protect -- credit cards and identification. Secure your passport!
What to Expect ...
- Insects -- do get in beach hotels, especially when rooms are on or nearby the sand! Tiny ants and other sand critters are not unusual. Hotels do have insect extermination programs but if you see a few bugs, don’t sweat it. However, if your room or bed is covered with insects, call the manager! And take pictures.
- Linens -- In order to save water and cut down on cleaning costs, hotels do not automatically provide clean linens every day. If you would like fresh towels and for the sheets to be changed daily, contact the housekeeping management.
- Luggage Service -- Some resort hotels do not have employees to carry your bags; especially if you arrive or depart during “off hours.” If you are not physically able to carry your suitcases, contact the hotel (prior to booking) to determine whether it provides luggage service. Once you’ve made your travel arrangements and know the approximate time of arrival, follow up on any guarantees made by hotel staff or management.
- Medical Facilities -- Resorts mostly have onsite nurses or doctors, or medical professionals may be contracted to service the hotel. Medical facilities onsite can help with problems such as sunburn, rashes and insect bites, but may not be suitable for serious illness or injuries. Hospitals and medical clinics often require payment upfront (through credit cards), and they can be very expensive. (Your travel agent may offer medical insurance when you book your trip outside of the USA; check out these options to determine whether they’d be worth purchasing).
Document all accidents and injuries on hotel properties with photos and notes; answer the questions of “where,” “when,” “how” and “why.” Be patient -- the hotel may not act quickly on your claim -- but do keep inquiring about it to managment so that the incident isn’t forgotten. If you do not have a resolution by the end of your stay, follow up with hotel management or the parent company upon arriving home.
- Mini Bars -- Some resort hotels include snacks and water in the pre-packed refrigerators as part of the package but some do not. Be sure to ask if these items are included in your “all-inclusive” price, especially bottled beer and alcohol. By the way, depending on the age and condition of the resort, hotel rooms may not have refrigerators or coffee-makers.
- Noise -- If you hope to find a “quiet” resort hotel for a “quiet” rest, you may be disappointed. Although some resorts promote themselves for couples only, many hotels cater to adventurous families. You may enjoy some quiet-time down by the beach -- if it’s not too crowded or there aren’t any beach vendors -- but poolside, the hotel’s entertainment team usually plays loud music and games throughout the day. If the resort has a dance club on its property or caters to weddings, you may hear the party-goers into the night. Maintenance repairs and construction on the property and nearby hotels may also be loud (especially in the early morning through thin hotel walls!) Resort hotels are geared to provide entertainment and fun activities to their guests so if you wish to hear nothing but the sound of the ocean, you may want to consider private accommodations for your vacation.
- Ocean View -- Only if you pay extra for it or are lucky enough to get a complimentary upgrade, TRUE “ocean view” only applies to great, vast beach-ocean scenery if the balcony door faces the ocean directly. “Ocean View” might mean that if you twist your body this way and your head that way, you can see some of the blue water. If having the vast ocean view from your room is important, choose a hotel that stretches lengthwise on the beach. Garden View may indicate some pretty flowers outside your door or window which faces the parking lots, tennis courts, employee areas and the like. If room view is important to you, investigate your choices before you book your trip. Discuss options with your travel agent, if applicable.
- Pools -- Sand and other debris get into swimming pools, especially when so many people are using them. Although keeping swimming pools sparkling every moment of every day is a challenge, resort hotel employees do attend them often -- cleanliness is very important. My advice on this; if you see a pool that looks particularly dirty, contact the hotel management. Dirty swimming pools are a health hazard. By the way, pools are not usually heated in tropical climate resort hotels.
- Poolside Activities -- vary from day to day at most resort hotels but one thing you can count on … loud (and sometimes obnoxious) music blaring from sound speakers. “Adult” pools almost always have children in them; especially at swim-up bars.
- Pool/Beach Chairs -- go fast, especially under shade and during the hotel’s Busy Season. Many people “reserve” their spot by getting up early and throwing a towel on a chair (risky, because if your towel is removed, you may have to pay a fee at the end of your stay). Personally, I find that practice to be “shady.”
- Room Furniture -- Similar to carpeting and for the same reason, beach resort hotels and upholstery do not mix well. The smell is moldy and musty … that’s pretty much a “given.”
- Service -- A beach resort hotel is only as good as its employees but “service” can mean different things to different people. Some resorts that tout great service by wait-staff, managers, concierges, housekeeping and maintenance, entertainment agents and the like can only back that up if employees are willing to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Some employees absolutely do care about customer service. Some do not care -- they just want a paycheck and your (undeserved) tips. There’s nothing more frustrating than having poor service -- it can ruin a vacation. You may have heard of “Caribbean” time (slow!) and in my experience, this is often the case. Be prepared to wait for something you ask for and don’t expect to be waited on like royalty, even in a five-star hotel! Don’t be surprised if what you ask for doesn’t seem to materialize, but do talk to management about it. Basically, poor service can be an issue but ... don’t let it ruin your vacation.
Beach resort hotels service countless numbers of vacationers per year, week after week. Americans differ from Europeans, Asians and the rest of the world when it comes to expectations and requirements for basic needs.
Unless buildings are only a few years old (especially those built by the sea), there are going to be structural problems. In addition to maintenance issues, hotels are bound to have challenges with reservations, housekeeping, food and about a million other things. When a guest’s situation is unacceptable, however, management’s immediate response is imperative. For example, if rooms are in sore need of maintenance, management has options for moving patrons into a higher quality room … if rooms are available. During the Busy Season, options are more limited.
Hotels, for some inexplicable reason, tend to overbook their accommodations. Managers who truly try to work with their customers toward a reasonable outcome are commendable (but, sadly, there are often/many times when that does not happen).
Bang for the Buck ...
- Shopping -- Hotel gift shop items are expensive; you are partly paying for the convenience of having what you want (or need) close by. When you go shopping in town, be prepared to “haggle” the price of items, especially in outdoor markets and malls. When a salesperson gives you a price, divide the price in half and offer a lower amount. If you really want the item, you may have to “give in” to the asking price but otherwise, be prepared to walk away. You may find the sales person running after you in an attempt to close the sale, especially if you’re walking into another store. Sales people are typically very aggressive; they will try to get you to visit their store. Depending on the country, some stores only deal with local currency (especially small-town markets) but others do post prices in USD -- United States Dollars.
Preloaded debit cards help to protect your traveling money, but not all places will accept them -- especially the smaller shops. Still, it’s advisable to carry the bulk of your vacation money on a debit card (now used instead of traveler’s checks). Purchase excursions and souvenirs with a credit card if you trust the merchant to have security measures in place.
- Tipping -- Well, you know, a little “palm greasing” goes a long way … sometimes. Although All-Inclusives include the tips in their packages, employees appreciate a little something extra, of course. If your attendants give you excellent service or if the maids do an exceptional job, consider giving them a few extra tip dollars to show your gratitude. Good service is important for a good vacation … we all want to be treated well. Conversely, if service is severely lacking, contact the manager.
- Towels -- Pool and beach areas tend to run out of towels, especially during the hotel’s Busy Season (and at other times too, as I’ve noted). Some hotels require the use of a “towel card” to ensure you’ll return it … if you don’t present the towel card at checkout, you may find a charge on your final bill.
- “Vacation Clubs” -- Basically, another gimmick, similar to Timeshare, where hotel resort employees give you a hard sell for a number of things that may include offers of excursions or premium rooms and services. These salespeople are usually very pushy. Determine what your pre-paid vacation already includes before agreeing to purchase an "upgrade." See “Timeshare People” in the section above.
- Water Temperature and Force -- Hotels vary but some, especially older ones, may have rooms with insufficient showers … maybe they don’t stream hard enough or the water is too hot, too cold or changes temperature. If you feel a problem with your shower is unacceptable, contact the manager to see what options may be available. (We’ve dealt with the lukewarm-shower issue on more than one occasion. There’s no guarantee a new room will have a better shower so I’ve learned to chalk it up to the “pick your battles” philosophy). Also, showers that have high “walls” (to protect the floor from getting too wet) may be difficult for some people to maneuver.
- Wi-Fi -- It is sometimes free, but not usually. This is an area where hotels make money, knowing patrons must have their Internet! If you choose a hotel that advertises “free” Wi-Fi, be sure to learn what charges may be attached to that offer. Some restaurants and areas outside of the resort, (like in a mall, for instance), may offer free Wi-Fi for your tablet, phone or notebook, however, public connections may not be secure. If computer use is essential and Wi-Fi isn’t part of the deal, ask the hotel management (or your travel agent) about available wireless packages. Keep in mind, some devices may not work in all areas of the hotel or the area may have a service problem.
Traveling Outside of the U.S.
Expand your own comfort zone. We Americans are rather spoiled; we expect hotels and food service workers and taxicab drivers and the like to perform their duties in a particular way that we’ve become used to, here in the United States. Be flexible and don’t sweat the small stuff, especially if you choose an all-inclusive resort hotel. Drop the “I want it and I want it now” attitude. That’s not to say that these hotels and their employees won’t go out of their way to serve you, but they deal with a lot of rude guests or unusual and perhaps improper requests. Be courteous to service industry workers and they will react in kind.
Don’t be afraid to talk to people; you can meet some interesting people from different countries who are all doing the same thing … vacationing. What a great way to learn about other areas of the world!
And Thus ...
When you plan your trip to the Caribbean, Mexico or anywhere else, do your homework. Learn about the country, people, currency, history and culture. The more you know, the more comfortable you will be when traveling outside of the U.S., whether your destination is a Caribbean nation, Mexico, Australia or any country in the world. Have a Ball!