Bahamas on a Budget / by Heather Martin

 

Traveling is physically hard work. 

No, really, it is. 

No, really, it is. 

It generally involves miles of walking to see all the sights, then more miles of walking once you’ve become lost and have to retrace your steps a few times. So I decided I wanted to take a few days off from work where I could just completely relax, lay on a beach and not have to feel obligated to see anything or walk anywhere. Like a real resort vacation...but without the resort. 

So I checked out where Southwest Airlines flew, as I had a handful of miles I earned through their Rapid Rewards credit card. Most people only associate Southwest with US domestic destinations, but they do fly to a number of cities in the Caribbean. The cheapest of which from Boston was Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. 

The Bahamas are one of the idyllic spots in the world where people imagine beautiful, clear waters, limitless pina colodas, and warm sunshine every day. And though there is fascinating culture and history in the Bahamas (especially with colonialism and slave trade), New Providence Island, where Nassau is located, is only 7 miles long and the list of cultural tourist attractions is short. The perfect place to lazily lay on a beach, sight-seeing obligations absolved.

The Bahamas are also known as a major cruise pit stop and a bit of a tourist trap with mega-resorts like Atlantis keeping wealthy tourists in a bubble of Westernized luxury. Now of course, there’s a type of travel for everybody, but being firmly in the budget backpacker category, this part of it did not appeal to me. But I was convinced that a brief trip there to unwind from the everyday grind could still be done inexpensively. So my partner, David, and I researched and put together a loose plan of how to do the Bahamas on a budget.

 

In the end, 5 days/4 nights in the Bahamas cost me $370, everything included (flight too).

 

Airfare:  

I used my Southwest Rapid Rewards Points to get a round trip flight from Boston to Nassua. The sign up bonus for the Rapid Rewards card gives you 50,000 points to use on Southwest. With Wanna Get Away fares, my Nassau flight totaled 11,130 points. That’s only half of what a normal domestic round trip flight in the US might cost in points. Being flexible about where I wanted to go worked to my advantage because I was able to shop around for the cheapest destination. 

Using airline points will still cost you a few dollars in processing fees….usually less than $20. But many countries in the Caribbean have extra airport fees, exit taxes, etc. Southwest included this in my ticket fee and so this was actually a more expensive part of the trip, with Bahama exit fees totaling $100.

*Non-disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Southwest and make no money off the card link. In fact, I sort of hate their first-come, first-served seating, but that's neither here nor there. The Rapid Rewards bonus is a great deal though and everyone should take advantage of it. 

 

Accommodations: 

Going through Airbnb, we found a very reasonable studio attached to a local's house, in a quiet, safe neighborhood a little past downtown. Our host, Anthony, was exceptionally welcoming and friendly and even gave us a couple lifts to various spots on the island. When I booked the studio, I mentioned in passing that David and I were celebrating our anniversary and he had a bottle of wine for us in our room, and later brought us flowers that his wife picked out. The total cost for 4 nights? $336...about the price of one night in Atlantis' cheapest room. We split this cost, so per person, accommodation was $168.

On the street leading to our Airbnb.

On the street leading to our Airbnb.

 

Transportation:

 In my opinion, the best way to get around New Providence Island is by the local jitneys. These small buses meander all over the island, are the main mode of transportation for locals, and only cost $1.25. They are often packed to the brim, but the seats are soft, the people are beyond friendly, and music blares out of the sound system, making it more of a party bus than your average ride home. While waiting at bus stops, we would have locals come up to us and ask us where we were headed, so they could properly advise us on which bus to take (whether we already knew or not). Jitneys would pull up and people would hang out the windows...."Where are you going, honey? Next bus is coming up, you take that!"

It was also really lovely to feel the community that makes up the Bahamas. People would get in, pass up their money to other passengers who gave it to the driver, who in turn would pass the change back down the bus again. As full as the bus got, it seemed there was always room for one more person. Everyone found a way to make space and no one ever seemed to mind squeezing in tighter. There was also a front seat next to the driver and whoever was there seemed to take on the role of co-pilot. At one point, we had a bus driver get out and...maybe take a bathroom break? Not sure, he just wandered off for a few minutes....but the man sitting in the front seat hopped out, got in the driver's seat, and moved around the bus so it was parked straighter.

One tip for saving money on transportation: Most guides recommend taking a taxi from the Nassau airport to downtown. You can do this, but it will set you back at least $20-$30, depending on where you are on the island. A much more economical option is to grab a jitney. This is a little tricky as there is not actually one that goes to the airport. However, there are a couple lines that go near the airport and you can usually catch the 12a or 10 if you walk 5 minutes outside the airport to the Shell gas station on the corner. Going from the city to the airport is a little easier, as you can find a 10 or 12 bus at one of their downtown stops. You can politely ask the driver to take you to the airport and often, they'll change up their route for you (for $2.50). If you find one won't take you, try asking another. Rules and time are loose in the Bahamas and people are happy to oblige. Just give yourself extra time to make it to the airport, as they'll probably pick up extra people on their elongated route. 

 

Food and Drink: 

Many of Nassau's port restaurants are tourist traps, boasting very expensive fruity drinks and Americanized fare. A better way to save money and eat like a local is to try one of the many food stands that are scattered along the public beaches. The food (chicken dominates a lot of Bahamian cuisine) is good, cheap, and the locals friendly, as always. That being said, we weren't especially frugal in this category....studies* have shown that standing in beautiful, crystal clear ocean is improved by 43% when you're also holding a $16 margarita. 

*Field research being conducted

*Field research being conducted

We had a lot of fun trying local drinks (doing sample flights at the island's rum distillery, getting the obligatory coconut drinks) and this was worth the money to us. The best source of affordable drinks in a fun atmosphere was the Tiki Bikini Hut, a small open air bar right on Junkanoo Beach that had specials like 6 beers for $10, an in-hut DJ (who also sang along to a lot of songs), and locals dancing all around on the beach.

Coconuts at the Tiki Bikini Hut

Coconuts at the Tiki Bikini Hut

To supplement our eating out, we also stopped by the local grocery store the first day and bought sandwich supplies and fruit, which we snacked on for the whole trip. To be honest though, the rest of our diet MAINLY consisted of conch fritters, which were truly divine.

 

Souvenirs: 

Nassau's most famous tourist trap is the Straw Market, right next to port. All the stalls sell very similar items of figurines, handmade toys, and of course, straw goods like baskets and weavings (complete with straw Elsas from Frozen, of course). Haggling should absolutely be a part of anything you buy. The best time to go shopping is in the afternoon, after the cruise ship hordes have made their way back onto the boats. This is when vendors are more likely to agree to lower prices, as they aren't holding out for the crowds of the day. Almost every vendor, eatery, etc have schedules of what ships are coming on which day for the week. If you can sneak a peek at one of those schedules (often hung up by stalls), you can plan your shopping accordingly, especially for days with less ships and less customers. I got a great deal on a polished conch shell because, as the vendor told me, 'it's a one-boat day.'

 

Recreation: 

The biggest draw in the Bahamas is the beautiful beaches and crystal-clear aqua waters that surround the islands. There are public and private beaches in Nassua, but a lot of the so-called 'private' beaches are legally allowed for public use, and they just happen to have a very fancy, exclusive resort built in front of them. The hotels ideally would like to restrict public access to the beaches they sit on, but it’s no problem to just walk through the lobby like you belong there and enjoy the beaches to your heart’s content. Cable Beach is one of the most popular beaches that line the coast west of downtown, with many hotels peppered along it. We walked through one resort called Melia Nassua Beach to get to the waterfront and no one bothered us (it’s also extra convenient as there is a bus stop right out front). But the big granddaddy of Bahamas hotels is the formidable Atlantis, which sits on Paradise Island, a short $6 ferry ride from downtown.

 

The Secret to Infiltrating Atlantis

Atlantis is the ritzy mega-resort that has its own water park, aquarium, and casino. You can briefly walk through some of its expansive hallways and malls to get to Cabbage Beach, the beautiful public beach on Paradise Island. Spending hours on the beach is a great use of your day, but for us low-level plebs, we also wanted to know what mysterious luxuries lie within the coral walls of Atlantis.

The day before, while lounging at the Tiki Bikini Hut, we met a leathery-skinned expat who introduced himself as Bahama Pete. Bahama Pete took an unexpected liking to us, and after buying us a few shots and plates of pineapple, he also divulged one of his island secrets. He said the trick to sneaking inside Atlantis is walking down the public part of Cabbage Beach towards the resort, until you reach the waterfront that is generally reserved for guests. You can tell when you reach it because everyone is using green and white striped towels, the official Atlantis beach towels. Many resort tourists, pampered and lazy, will leave their towels behind on the beach once they return to their room. These sad, abandoned towels are the ticket for sneaking into the resort. Grab one, throw it over your shoulder, and walk in through the open-air beachfront entrance like you belong there.

We followed Bahama Pete’s directions and sure enough, it was no problem to grab a towel and head towards the entrance. There is a walkway that leads over a bridge and then into the fantasy land that is Atlantis. Our only hitch came when we saw an employee, positioned at the entrance of this walkway, checking wristbands that every guest was wearing. But soon, a large group of boisterous guys came through and we slipped into their group. With their wristbands mostly visible and our precious towels slung over our arms, the group looked legit and the employee didn’t bother checking anyone as we walked through.

Once inside, the real draw is just wandering around and enjoying the opulence and glamour of the place. Pools full of stingrays and sea turtles, giant 30-foot tall aquariums, beautiful architecture and design, fabulous art. It’s an air-conditioned wonderland.

 

But it was also a relief to leave and rejoin the real Bahamas. Instead of uniformed employees, there are friendly locals trying to help you get home. No piped classical music, but the chosen playlists of the jitney drivers that everyone inside the bus sways and sings along to. The air is hot but everyone is chill and that small town feel makes strangers act like old friends. Children are playing on the beach and neighborhood crowds gather around barbecues, everyone laughing, waving, and dancing. The real secret of the Bahamas is its soul and the less you spend, the closer you get to it.