Do This… Don’t Do That (in the U.S. Virgin Islands)
We talk about saving money on this blog (and in person… hi family!) a lot.
And it may get annoying.
Okay, it probably for sure gets annoying. But we keep doing it. We keep doing it because although everyone has different situations, many people cannot even begin to think about traveling without some kind of money-saving ideas.
While we visit more “vacation-y” National Parks in the next couple months (Dry Tortugas, Virgin Islands, Hawaiian Volcanoes, Haleakala, American Samoa) we’re trying to be more aware of providing content that is relevant to people aiming to visit these parks.
And let’s face it, if you are flying somewhere for vacation, you are likely looking for ways to save money in other areas of your trip.
When we visited Virgin Islands National Park (by staying on St. Thomas and ferrying to St. John, specifically) we approached it how we approach the rest of our trips, with equal focuses on maximum experience and minimum budget. Cole’s parents and sister were joining us, and providing the condo we stayed in as our Christmas present, so that made things a lot easier. We did a lot of Googling to determine options for the experiences we wanted to have (snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, happy hours) and came up with a pretty solid plan.
Here’s what we learned.
DO grocery shop and make most of your meals… But DON’T miss out on the local cuisine.
Food is expensive on St. Thomas and St. John, in the grocery stores or out at restaurants. Save money by eating in most of the time, but don’t be like one of the millions of hermit crabs you’ll see on St. John… there are plenty of amazing restaurant choices as well. For more casual options, Cole and I loved Woody’s on St. John (greasy delicious seafood and cheap happy hour deals) and Tap & Still on St. Thomas (huge servings of burgers and fries). Cole’s parents also went solo and enjoyed the more upscale options of Lobster Grille on St. Thomas and Virgin Fire Bar and Grill on St. John.
DO rent a car… DON’T rely on public transportation (unless you have loads of time and patience)
Especially if you are a two or more people, renting a car just makes sense. If your flight arrives early enough before 5 p.m., you’ll save something like $100 by renting a car not from the airport. Taxis throughout the islands are anywhere from $6-$15 per person one way, and the $1 buses are notoriously unreliable. Cole and I took the “Safari bus” (which looks similar to a taxi but has a set route and is only $1-$2 per person one way) on our final ride to the airport, but were relieved we hadn’t had to travel like that for our whole stay.
DO ferry over to St. John a few times… but DON’T forget to bring your car.
St. John, which is where the Virgin Islands National Park is located, was our highlight of the trip. The 20-minute ferry is reasonably priced ($14 round trip per person, or $50 round trip per car + all the people in it), the vibe is much more relaxed, and the best activities — hiking, snorkeling, beaching, $1 happy hours — are located there. Next time we visit the U.S. Virgin Islands (and we will be back!) we’ll focus all our attention on St. John. That’s where it’s at! When you visit, bring your car. Some of our favorites are on the far end of the island.
Our Favorite St. John activities:
- Hiking & History: Reef Bay Trail (5 miles round trip. Petroglyphs, sugar mill ruins, Reef Bay), Salt Pondand Ram’s Head Trails (2.4 miles round trip. 360-degree ocean views), Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins (ranger programs, views of the British Virgin Islands)
- Snorkeling: See above.
- Happy Hours: $1 beers, $5 specialty drinks, and fun vibes at Woody’s
- Beaching: Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay
DO fun things like snorkeling and kayaking… But DON’T book a guided tour
This tip is mostly a matter of personal preference, so take it with a grain of salt. Snorkeling in St. Thomas and especially St. John was by far the best I’d ever experienced. If you are at all interested, it’s worth a try. There are several ways to go about this activity, and many people make it easy and just book a guided tour. We advise bringing or renting snorkels ($5-$10 per day) instead. This allows much more freedom and time (and helloooo, money!)
We snorkeled nearly every day, and here were our favorites and what we personally saw:
- Maho Bay (St. John): a dozen or so sea turtles, giant sting rays, remora, parrotfish, beautiful coral
- Trunk Bay (St. John): an underwater trail, sea turtles, parrotfish, beautiful coral
- Cinnamon Bay (St. John): schools of fish, trumpet fish, parrotfish, beautiful coral
- Secret Harbor (St. Thomas): squid, beautiful coral
We also wanted to experience some of the kayaking on the islands, and after a bit of Googling, decided on the self-guided 1.5-hour tour through St. Thomas Adventure Tours ($19 per person) rather than a guided tour (about $49 per person for a 1.5-hour tour). We loved this! We were given a map, specific directions, and a safety lesson, and we were off to explore Lindbergh Bay. Not being a part of a guided tour was more easy-going and the price eased the pressure (the forecast called for rain, and it started drizzling right after we finished) of having a perfect excursion.
DO tour Charlotte Amalie… But DON’T pay for it.
The history and architecture of downtown Charlotte Amalie is worth paying a visit. We enjoyed walking the colorful streets, climbing the steep streets, and gazing down on the cruise ships in the bay. Cole and I joined his family in touring Blackbeard’s Castle and its adjoining historic buildings for $12.50 per person, but we probably wouldn’t have done it on our own. Unless you are super interested in the history and culture of the town, you can get similar views of town on your own.
We used an online historic walking tour (Frommer’s) to guide us through the rest of Charlotte Amalie, and this was sufficient for getting the lay of the land.
We had an amazing time at Virgin Islands National Park. We hope that if & when you visit this national gem, America’s Caribbean as the license plates say, you find ways to enjoy it in a low-budget, high-adventure sort of way.
Converse with the locals. Learn a bit of history. Turn your brain to Island Time. Find yourself in one of the most unique National Parks in the system.