Caribbean 101

Travel Tips For Your Next Island Vacation

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As you dream about picture-postcard scenes of sand and sea, don’t forget that travel to the Caribbean requires a bit more than a passport, a string bikini and a good book. The islands are generally safe as long as you’re prepared and take a few sensible precautions.

General Travel Information
The US State Department is a good resource for planning international travel. The website publishes a consular information sheet for all countries, which includes a broad overview and information about subjects like entry requirements, crime and road conditions. Travel Alerts are issued when such short-term conditions as a natural disaster or disease outbreak poses possible risks for US citizens. .


General Health
The Centers for Disease Control publishes travel health information sheets for every country in the Caribbean. Along with information about current disease concerns and vaccination requirements, each page offers general health guidelines for travel to that region. If you plan to travel off resort property or are heading to an off-the-beaten path destination, visit a travel medicine specialist 4 to 6 weeks before departure to ensure immunizations and vaccinations are up to date.


Food and Water
Diseases caused by food and water are the leading cause of illness in travelers according to the State Department. Reduce the risk of contracting an illness that causes vomiting and diarrhea by drinking bottled water or carbonated drinks in cans or bottles. Avoid tap water, fountain drinks and ice cubes. Cook food thoroughly and don’t eat food purchased from street vendors. Resorts often provide bottled water and use treated water in food preparation. Ask if you’re unsure.


Sun
A tan is temporary, but skin damage from the sun can last forever in the form of cancers and wrinkles. Bring waterproof sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and reapply throughout the day, even on cloudy days.


Insects
Many diseases found in the Caribbean, like dengue fever, are spread through insect bites. The State Department recommends using bug spray with at least 30-50 percent DEET as well as wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants and a hat outdoors in areas where insects congregate.


Crime
Some Islands, especially those with poverty and drug trafficking, are more prone to crime than others. Check the State Department website for specifics on each country and use common sense. Leave valuables at home, use hotel safes, don’t bring valuables to the beach or out at night and never leave valuables in a rental car.

It may seem like a no-brainer, but we’ll remind you: don't buy drugs. Drugs are illegal on every island, including Jamaica. The majority of crime and murder in the Caribbean is associated with the drug trade.


Swimming
If you plan to swim in the sea, a few basic guidelines will keep you safe. Don't float where you can't swim. If weather is kicking up the surf, make sure you’re comfortable in the rough water. Don’t swim alone, swim sober and never dive off a rock or cliff headfirst.

If you get caught in a rip current, don’t fight it. Instead, swim parallel to the shoreline until you break out of the current. Then swim at an angle, away from the current toward shore.

The ocean contains a few mildly dangerous plants and animals. Coral can cause painful cuts. Stingrays and jellyfish will sting when touched or stepped on. Generally, if you leave them alone they will return the favor.


Driving
Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of medical problems among tourists. Use common sense, follow local traffic laws, wear a seatbelt and don't drink and drive.


Cultural Sensitivity
Each Caribbean island has a unique cultural heritage and norms. Women interested in topless sunbathing should head to an island with a continental European history. If hooking up is in your plan, bring condoms and beware of scams in which potential “boyfriends” are more interested in a women’s pocketbook.

Jamaica, Barbados and the Cayman Islands have earned a reputation for being averse to homosexuals and lesbians while French, Dutch and American islands, especially St. Barts, welcome gay couples and singles.


Travel writer Trisha Creekmore has been to more than a dozen Caribbean islands. She has never been robbed, stung by a jellyfish or contracted a serious disease. She has, however, failed at sun protection once or twice.