You can find cheap tickets to go off-season to the Virgin Islands, but they are not really known for being a cheap place to visit once you’re there. So how can you spend a week in the US Virgin Islands without breaking the bank?
Earlier this year (in 2021), I was feeling very stuck in NYC after almost two years enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, which had honestly been terrible for my productivity as a scientist. I was looking into escaping to somewhere that would be very different from where I live and give me a change of scenery. I was fully vaccinated, ran into super cheap tickets to the US Virgin Islands and decided that that was it: I was going to go to the USVI. A friend of mine from grad school has family there and had shown me pictures from the place, so I thought it would be great! Besides, the USVI require everyone to get tested for COVID-19 before hopping on a plane to go there, and most of our activities in the islands would be outdoors, so that gave me an extra peace of mind.
Ivan (whose name you’ll be reading below) went with me and, despite SEVERAL hiccups, we had a blast! Plus, I got to reset my erratic pandemic sleep schedule, so what else could I ask for?
Main things I would change in my itinerary: I highly recommend that you go to the islands in a sequence (we had some planning issues because of personal reasons, so we had to hop around) to save yourself some headache and money. Start either in St. Croix and fly out of St. Thomas or vice-versa. If you really enjoy being in nature like myself, schedule more time to spend in St. John. If you can, avoid the car barge from St. Thomas to St. John because it’s stressful; take the ferry and rent a 4×4 vehicle in St. John itself.
Ready to spend a week in the US Virgin Islands? Check out the tips below!
If you’re traveling during COVID-19, remember to make sure you’re vaccinated and tested, wear a mask, sanitize and wash your hands often, keep a distance from other people, avoid crowds, and respect/follow CDC and local guidelines. Check beforehand if the place you’re going to is safe and taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Overall, make sure you’re keeping yourself and other people around you safe.
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Week in the US Virgin Islands
“[…] just assume you might run into something unexpected and will take the first day to get settled.”
Day 1: get settled in St. Thomas
We got a flight that landed around lunchtime in St. Thomas and thought we would have the entire day to explore. Silly me, we ran into multiple problems with our rental car, had difficulty finding our AirBnb, took a while to get used to the roads there and had to go grocery shopping to get water, food, snacks, supplies, etc in the evening. So just assume you might run into something unexpected and will take the first day to get settled. If you have extra time to explore, take it as a bonus.
day 2: Kayaking and swimming with turtles in St. John
We took our first actual exploration day to go to St. John on the car barge (huge mistake; we should’ve taken the ferry and rented a car in St. John and it would have been less stressful and more flexible for our schedule).
We parked in Cruz Bay, and you can get free parking permits at the National Park visitor center.
We hopped on a VI Ecotours tour to kayak from honeymoon beach to Caneel Bay and swim with sea turtles. They also offer the same tour with the Lind Point Trail hike to the beach, but we hiked by ourselves and saved 30 bucks. The kayaking and swimming part of it was worth it though. Make sure you bring sunscreen in your kayak though and reapply it once you’re done swimming. Ivan and I got massive sunburns on our way back because we didn’t (mineral sunscreen usually only lasts 80 min and the tour is longer than that).
We hiked on the other part of the Lind Point loop trail to get back to Cruz Bay, had late lunch and went on a mission to find diving gear for Ivan the rest of the day.
“We hopped on a VI Ecotours tour to kayak from honeymoon beach to Caneel Bay and swim with sea turtles. They also offer the same tour with the Lind Point Trail hike to the beach, but we hiked by ourselves and saved 30 bucks.”
“We […] went on a Sea-Thru Kayak tour in St. Croix’s bioluminescent bay. It was the best part of our time in St. Croix and just straight-up awesome!”
Day 3: St. croix and its bioluminescent bay
Well, this wasn’t actually day 3, but Ivan went free diving on our actual day 3 and I stayed at the AirBnb trying to recover from my massive sunburns, so I’ll consider our 4th day as my actual day 3.
We took the 8 pm Native Son ferry to St. Croix, got a Jeep from Centerline Auto Rental. The UV index was super high that day, so we skipped the beach to avoid more sunburns and further heat complications, and went to visit historical sites.
Sadly, St. Croix’s history is deeply intertwined with slavery and colonialism. The island also served as an strategic military spot in the 18th century, and was also where Alexander Hamilton worked as a young man. In 2017, St. Croix was severely hit by hurricane Irma, and you can tell that it’s still recovering. The island clearly has learned how to overcome adversity to survive.
We dropped our stuff off at our AirBnb, changed our clothes and went on a Sea-Thru Kayak tour in St. Croix’s bioluminescent bay. It was the best part of our time in St. Croix and just straight-up awesome! Well, a flying fish jumped into our kayak, and the smell was not great, but the tour was super fun otherwise.
day 4: Coral World, Coki and Magens Bays in St. Thomas
The next day, we took an early Cape Air 15 min flight from St. Croix back to St. Thomas, which honestly was an awesome way to see the islands from above without paying premium private flying tour prices. I had personally never flown in a plane that fit under 10 people. If you’re only flying once between St. Croix and St. Thomas instead of having to go back to one of them, taking a flight is more fun and faster than the ferry, but it’s also a little more expensive.
We got a cab to our St. Thomas AirBnb, where we had left our stuff the day before, changed our clothes and went straight to Coral World Ocean Park. Parking there is really hard to find, and we were lucky, but I suggest you get there early if you don’t want to run into parking issues like we did. Coral World has limited parking, but it gives you a free permit at the front desk if you find a spot in their lot.
After geeking out learning about dolphins at Coral World, we snorkeled in Coki Bay Beach, where the pretty fish come really close to the shore. We spent the early evening in Magens Bay before the insects started taking over at sunset.
“After geeking out learning about dolphins at Coral World, we snorkeled in Coki Bay, where the pretty fish come really close to the shore. We spent the early evening in Magens Bay […]”
“We parked our car close to the ferry in St. Thomas, crossed in the ferry to St. John, and took taxis around the island. “
Day 5: Plantation Ruins, Maho Bay and Trunk Bay in St. John
Day 5 was actually my favorite! Perhaps that was because I drove very little through the scary roads of the USVI that day. We parked our car close to the ferry in St. Thomas, crossed in the ferry to St. John, and took taxis around the island.
We started going to the Annaberg Plantation Ruins to learn about the history of the island and how rum was made there. The only downside of taking a cab there was that Annaberg is on the part of St. John where it starts to get a little hard to find taxis to go back, if that is something you want to consider.
After that, we went to Maho Bay, and I did some paddle boarding for the very first time there. You’ll find some amazing wildlife there, among birds, fish, turtles and stingrays.
We ended the day going to Trunk Bay, where we had lunch and snorkeled around their underwater snorkeling trail. Then we got some dinner and headed back to St. Thomas.
day 6: Water Island
We decided to take it easy on our last day of actual exploration, and took the ferry from St. Thomas to Water Island. You can find free parking close to the ferry or at a walkable distance from it.
Once you get the island, you can rent a golf cart to explore around or take a complimentary shuttle offered by Dinghy’s to Honeymoon Beach. We just wanted to go to Honeymoon Beach, so that’s what we opted for. Having lunch at Dinghy’s was a bit overpriced, so you can also consider bringing your own packed lunch or snack.
We found a big sea turtle swimming around the shore close to some sea grass and it was pretty fun to follow it from a distance (remember that touching sea turtles is a crime in the USVI).
“Once you get the island, you can rent a golf cart to explore around or take a complimentary shuttle offered by Dinghy’s to Honeymoon Beach.”
“Make sure you arrive early at the airport. Even though the USVI are a US territory, you still have to go through immigration and customs. Also, you have to come into customs with your own checked bags for inspection before you dispatch them and go through TSA. “
Day 7: Fly Back
Day 7 was the time to leave the turquoise waters and white sand of the USVI behind and go back home. That was the end of our week in the US Virgin Islands.
Make sure you arrive early at the airport. Even though the USVI are a US territory, you still have to go through immigration and customs. Also, you have to come into customs with your own checked bags for inspection before you dispatch them and go through TSA. We came only with a carry-on so it wasn’t an issue for us.
If you’re an F1-visa student like myself, all they’ll care about when you go through customs is that you’re in legal status with a valid I-94 and I-20, so you might get stopped to check that, but it only takes a few extra minutes (make sure you bring your paperwork though).
The terminal only has one big restaurant, and the line was pretty long when we were there. So if you’re planning on having lunch or dinner there before embarking, make sure to allot some time for it.
tips to save money in the USVI
So, now that you know what to do in week in the US Virgin Islands, how do you make that happen?
watch out for flight deals right before hurricane season
It’s scary to think that you’ll be going to the Caribbean during hurricane season, but it’s their off-season and tickets are much, much cheaper for a reason (sometimes even under US$ 100 round trip from NYC). So if you can, try getting the option in which you have flexibility to change flights later just in case a last-minute storm or hurricane is hitting the islands. Other than that, get the tickets and go have fun!
Opt for an AirBnb
Resort prices are insane in the USVI, but you can find decently priced AirBnbs, especially if you’re splitting the space with someone else. In our last day in St. Thomas, we moved to a local inn after extending our trip by a day, and I’ll tell you, it wasn’t great even though we were paying the same as we were paying at the first AirBnb daily. Also, remember that you’ll probably be getting all your clothes wet and sandy at the beach, so having a washer and dryer, or at the very least a hair dryer you can use to dry stuff, is very helpful. Parking close to narrow streets in St. Thomas can also be hell, so make sure you check where the parking spot is at the AirBnb in the pictures if you’re renting your own car.
Visit Islands in a sequence instead of going back and forth like we did
Forget Island hopping. The cheapest way to explore these islands is exploring them in a sequence, staying there and renting a Jeep locally. You might want to fly into St. Thomas and return from St. Croix or vice-versa to avoid paying about an extra US$ 100 commuting back. If you love nature like me, you might want to make more time to explore St. John instead of the other islands.
rent your own Jeep to explore from local companies and be prepared for scary drives, but consider taxis too
Driving in the USVI can be really dangerous depending on your comfort level. The roads are windy, steep, super narrow even though they are both ways, unkept and sometimes unpaved. There is no Uber or Lyft in the USVI. Getting a cab is actually not expensive, because their prices are regulated, but if you’re going to the remote parts of St. John or exploring St. Croix, they might a little harder to hail. So, if you’re comfortable driving there, rent a 4×4 car. Local companies are generally cheaper than big name rental agencies, but make sure to check their reputation online and book early, because they run out of Jeeps very quickly. Also, if you’re going from St. Thomas to St. John or vice-versa, I suggest you take the ferry instead of the car barge and rent a car locally (the ferry runs later and more often, and is much less stressful than the car barge).
Tell your cell provider you’ll be within the US or add a pay-per-day international plan in case you pick up signal for the BVI
In the Eastern-most parts of St. John, you might pick up phone service from the BVI, meaning that your phone provider will understand that you’re abroad, so it might charge you hefty data, texting and calling fees. If you want to avoid that, you have two options: pay for a pay-per-day international plan from your provider or something similar, then you’ll be able to still use your phone mostly everywhere or call your provider and say you’re going to the USVI and you don’t want to pick up international signal so you don’t pay international fees.
bring your own gear if you’ll do a lot of water sports and swimming
You always have the option to rent it out (and I suggest you do so for big things like kayaks and paddle boards), but there are certain things like snorkels, masks, fins and even vests that you can bring yourself in case you’ll do a lot of snorkeling like we did, because rental fees can add up. You’ll have the added benefit of having a gear that fits you well. Actually, with COVID-19 around, using your own snorkel is a good idea. You can find more things that you might want to bring and that will probably be cheaper to buy beforehand in the list below. We also bought a sun umbrella for 10 bucks, snacks and other things at a local KMart when we got there, and saved some money doing so.
don’t forget to bring
In the USVI, there’s almost as much to see underwater as there is above ground. you really don’t want to miss on the memories you’ll make there. I got a GoPro before going to the USVI in a promotional bundle and expect to bring it on every trip I have now.
I brought a phone waterproof case, a dry pouch and a dry bag. Ultimately, I used the dry pouch (one that look like fanny pack) for phone, documents, money and keys the whole time. It was only ~US$10 and worth the purchase for the peace of mind I had in the water not worrying about my belongings.
The USVI really care about protecting their marine life. As such, most sunscreens are banned and you can be fined if found with them. You should find a sunscreen based on zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that works for you.
rash guard and bathing suit
The USVI are really close to the equator, so the UV index is high there all year round. I got massive sunburns on my legs on day 1; they were no joke. My rash guard protected my arms and back and I’m so glad I had one. Bring a rash guard and swimming leggings if you’re super pale like I am. But I mean, also bring bathing suits to wear underneath.
The USVI are really warm. Also, in the event that you get a sunburn, loose clothing that will protect your skin and not hurt you is must.
hat and sunglasses
As I said, the UV index in the USVI are no joke. So do yourself a favor and bring a hat to protect your head and face and sunglasses to protect your eyes.
A lot of places in the USVI don’t accept credit card. Bring some cash on you if you want to avoid ATM fees.
There’s so much to see underwater and snorkeling is a must, especially if you’re visiting St. John! Bring a snorkel, mask, vest and fins that fit and don’t hurt you, so you only have to worry about having fun
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