Getting married is an expensive proposition. It’s all too easy for “I do” to turn into “I did?” when your mother reminds you that you promised to invite your second cousins — all 14 of them — to your wedding the last time you were at their house, which was when you were 10. And that she’ll never hear the end of it if you don’t.
The afterparty — aka, honeymoon — isn’t cheap either. Various sources peg the average cost of a honeymoon at between $4,000 and $5,000, with some lovestruck couples spending upwards of $10,000. Those averages include couples who drive to a domestic destination and are doubtless higher for those who head for the Caribbean. But smart shoppers can find ways to get the honeymoon of their dreams without breaking the bank.
Travel off-season: The high (read, “most expensive”) season for Caribbean destinations is winter (roughly November through March). That’s when availability is lowest and prices are highest. If you travel off season, especially during the summer and especially in the month of September, you’ll find great discounts on even the priciest destinations and resorts.
Try an all-inclusive: The reason all-inclusive resorts that bundle rooms and meals (and sometimes airfare and excursions) into one price are so popular is that they deliver more experience per dollar than most a la carte resorts. Look for an all-inclusive package that includes airfare; the resorts are often able to get discounts that the airlines don’t offer individual travelers.
Pick your destination: Some destinations are just more expensive than others. In general, the farther it is from the U.S. mainland and the less agriculture it has, the more you’ll pay for airfare, rooms and meals. There are established high-value destinations where your dollar can go further: Jamaica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico are among them.
Look for packages: Especially in the low season, you’ll find resorts offering many kinds of deals: seven nights for the price of five, some dinners or other services (spa, excursions) included, resort credits that you can spend at the property’s restaurants or bars. Check with the resort for its honeymoon package; sometimes the rates are a real deal, other times, it’s just a way to sell you extra services you don’t want (couples massage, dinner on the beach) at a slight discount.
Prepay: If you work through a travel agent or directly with a resort, offering to prepay part or all of your honeymoon can save you from 10 to as much as 20%. The downside is that, if something happens and you can’t go, you could lose all of your payment. Hedge your bet by buying travel insurance that will reimburse you if you have to cancel.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate: Here’s where working with a travel agent or the resort directly can pay off. You’ve already been through the negotiations with the caterer and the florist and the band and the venue — so why not use your new-found negotiating chutzpah to get the best honeymoon you can? Be respectful, play the newlywed card and ask, politely, what they might be willing to offer. If you’re planning to prepay, that’s a powerful incentive for the resort to offer it’s best deal.
Think about a cruise: Think of a ship as an all-inclusive at sea. The same logic applies, and, since most leave from U.S. ports, your airfare will likely cost less too. You’ll be celebrating with several thousand of your new closest friends, of course, but given the value, that may be a trade-off you’re willing to make.
Here are some suggestions that should price out under the averages while delivering a memorable experience.
ST. THOMAS: Bolongo Bay
The U.S. Virgin Islands are among the prettiest in the region. Formed by volcanic ash that drifted over from Puerto Rico, they’re hilly, lushly green and surrounded by clear blue water and healthy coral reefs. They’re also served by direct flights and discount air carriers and, since they’re a U.S. possession, you don’t need a passport.
Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on the southeast side of St. Thomas has been hosting happy honeymooners for 40 years. It’s a family resort, owned and operated by the second generation of the Doumeng clan, noted pioneers in Caribbean tourism. The resort sits on its own beach on Bolongo Bay, a scallop in the island’s undulating south shore. Bolongo offers both a la carte and all-inclusive packages for its beachfront rooms and condominium units. The rooms are airy, tropical and well-kept, as is the entire property. There are plenty of beach toys and kayaks and snorkeling right out in front of the property, plus Bolongo owns a 53-foot catamaran that makes snorkeling and sunset cruises around the area. There’s a dive shop on-site (lessons available) and catamarans and windsurfers as well.
There are two very good restaurants on property: the Lobster Grille and Iggies Beach Bar & Grill, which has live music almost every night. There are even more entertainment options close by: it’s a short hop into Charlotte Amalie, the commonwealth’s capital, with scores of restaurants and bars. Mahogany Run golf course is nearby, too, as is Coral World. Take a ferry over to the national park on St. John one day or just hang at Iggies in between stints in the sun.
Bolongo has discounted full wedding packages as well as honeymoon rates, and summer and September are on sale. bolongobay.com
JAMAICA: Good Hope Plantation
How about spending your honeymoon high in the hills overlooking the Caribbean on an 18th-century sugar plantation? Good Hope is near Falmouth, about a half-hour east of Montego Bay. Built in 1755, the great house is built of stone (most are wooden) and it has its own beach, which is very unusual in the region. The great house is a showcase for period Georgian architecture and antiques. The owners have lovingly restored the home with its wild orangewood floors and heavy carved mahogany furnishings.
Accommodations are in the Tree House, a freestanding cottage secluded on the 1,000-acre grounds. You won’t mistake this for a cookie-cutter modern resort: the Treehouse has a tin roof, coral stone walls with arched openings, a pool overlooking the mountains, an actual treehouse suspended up in the branches of a huge tree. Down below, the beach is deserted most days, though the great house itself is open to tours by cruise passengers from ships docked at MoBay. The plantation is also used as a base of operations by Chukka Tours, one of the largest land-excursion operators on the island, so there are plenty of activities: zip-lining, four-wheeling, rafting on the Martha Brae River, which borders the property.
The Treehouse comes with a housekeeper and a cook who will prepare whatever food you want; you can even go with her to the local market to shop. They hold a High Tea in the great house so you can be social if you like, or you can just hole up in your mountain redoubt and wish the world away.
Montego Bay is easily reached via direct flights from major U.S. hubs, and airfare is reasonable. Rates for the Treehouse are lowest in summer, higher in the winter and vary depending on whether you rent all the rooms or just a few. The Great House has been used for photo shoots, so it’s extremely scenic, and it is available for weddings. Your best bet is to contact the owners with details of your plans. goodhopejamaica.com.
THE BAHAMAS: Sandals Royal Bahamian
This isn’t the least expensive of the Sandals properties but it’s in Nassau, so there are many direct flights and fares are lower than to some other destinations.
That said, it’s a beautiful resort. It’s on the site of the former Balmoral Club, which was an elegant and exclusive resort that hosted the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and The Beatles back in the day. Sandals has completely redeveloped the property, pouring millions into remaking every corner of it over the past 20 years.
Like all Sandals, Royal Bahamian is all-inclusive so once you arrive, everything is “on the house.” It’s on Cable Beach, about a half-hour west of downtown Nassau, and in an area that’s about to be explored with the winter 2014 opening of the mega BahaMar development.
HIGH-END HONEYMOONS: The time of your life
You can pay a hefty price — way above the averages listed at the top — for the best rooms at the Royal Bahamian. Those are the villas that include a full-time butler. But if you’re flexible as to which rooms you pick and don’t need a butler, you can score a nice room at a true luxury resort for less than those averages. With the advantageous airfare from East Coast cities, the Royal Bahamian becomes an attractive choice.
The resort has a huge pool, a wide, white-sand beach and all of the expected amenities — fitness room, water toys, seven pools, nine restaurants — plus a few you don’t expect, like a private offshore island for beaching and snorkeling.
If having to foot the bill for cousin Mory’s gluten-free meal and an extra hour of DJ time has you stressed, check out the Sandals Carlyle in Montego Bay, Jamaica. It’s the smallest — and often the least expensive — of the chain’s 15 resorts. It has fewer amenities than the other properties but it’s only a few minutes away from two larger and posher Sandals resorts and if you stay at the Carlyle, you can use the facilities at its sister properties.
Cruise the Sandals website for specials and packages. The offerings change frequently and they offer an email alert system if you want to be in the loop. sandals.com
The least expensive way to see the Caribbean is by cruise ship. There are departures to the Caribbean from port cities on the Eastern and Gulf Coasts including New York, Norfolk, Cape Canaveral (Orlando), Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Tampa and Galveston among others. That means no airfare involved if you drive to the port. You will need some extra cash for shore excursions in the ports of call and some dinners off the ship, but overall, a cruise honeymoon will cost you well under the average. It just won’t be very private. Of course, the farther south you start, the farther into the Caribbean your cruise can travel. New York departures frequent Bermuda and the Bahamas, while cruises that leave from southern ports can call as far south as Barbados on a week-long itinerary. And since ships are all-inclusive, once you’re on board, meals and entertainment are free. For example, a 7-day cruise from Miami aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship, the Norwegian Getaway, can get the two of you to St Thomas and St. Martin for under $2,000. A 7-day cruise to the Western Caribbean (Mexico, Belize) from New Orleans aboard the Carnival Conquest can be had for less than $1,000 for two. Choose a smaller cabin and a shorter itinerary and you can just about name your own price. There are many travel agents and cruise-only consolidators, so shop around for the price, dates and itinerary that work best for you. www.ncl.com, www.carnival.com
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Sanctuary at Cap Cana
If you shop well, you can find a deal on a top-flight luxury resort, especially in the Dominican Republic. The Sanctuary at Cap Cana is a good place to start. It’s an all-inclusive, though you can book it as room-only and pay for your meals separately. Even with meals included, you should be able to do 7 nights with airfare from New York for less than the averages listed at the top.
The Sanctuary is a real luxury resort with all of the amenities: five pools, five signature restaurants, a high-end spa, fitness room and lounges sprawled along a strip of powder-white sand. The Sanctuary is also home to Punta Espada, the Jack Nicklaus golf course that rivals Pete Dye’s Teeth of the Dog and Jamaica’s Tryall for top course in the Caribbean. A second Nicklaus course is on tap, too.
You can spend a lot more than the averages here if you choose to — all the way up and beyond the luxury averages if you pick a penthouse in the Castle section. But you can enjoy the same great experience from a lower floor and you’ll have something left in the bank when you get home. www.sanctuarycapcana.com