How to Island-Hop the Virgin Islands on a budget
Island hopping in the Virgin Islands may sound like something only celebrities can do. After all, the average person usually has a small travel budget and a limited amount of vacation days. “Island hopping” may seem out of the question. But after some research, I realized it’s not! The hubs and I traveled to the Virgin Islands in June to celebrate our 15 year “dating” anniversary. My goal for this trip was to explore as many of the Virgin Islands (U.S. and British) as I could in 4 days, on, you guessed it, a budget. Below are each of the islands we visited, how to ‘hop’ there, and things to do on each island.
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St. Thomas, US Virgin Island
The Virgin Islands are a cluster of 112 islands. The majority of these islands are uninhabited. The largest inhabited islands include the US Virgin Islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, Water Island, and the British Virgin Islands: Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Tortola, and Anegada. Typically, the best way to explore the Virgin Islands on a budget is by ferry. We stayed in St. Thomas. It provided the cheapest and quickest way to explore the maximum amount of islands in 4 days.
Now here’s the KEY! I booked our VRBO/Homeaway in Red Hook, St. Thomas for two reasons. First, the Red Hook ferry is the fastest way to get to St. John (from St. Thomas) as well as several of the British Virgin islands. The ferry port was just a 5 minute walk from our condo. Second, the Breakaway is docked at the Sapphire Marina in Red Hook. The Breakaway is a powerboat that took us to 3 of the 5 islands we visited all in one day. (More on this later.) Our VRBO was a studio condo at Sapphire Village in Red Hook. It had stunning views right from our balcony. Here’s the link for the condo. You cannot beat it’s location for island-hopping.
What to do in St. Thomas
We mostly explored the East end of St. Thomas. I recommend checking out Lindquist Beach (voted best beach in St. Thomas). It’s really close to Red Hook. Also, Magens Bay is the most famous/visited beach in St Thomas. And you might also check out Sapphire Beach steps away from the condo. My favorite night was when we had dinner at Mim’s Seaside Bistro in Bolongo Bay, St. Thomas. Try the coconut curry lobster. Unbelievable! To get around, taxis are abundant on the island and the fares are reasonable.
St. John, US Virgin Island
Over half of St. John consists of the Virgin Island National Park, which makes it the most pristine, tranquil, and less crowded of all of the islands. Because of that, I chose to use 2 of our 4 days exploring St. John. St. John does not have an airport. Travelers can only arrive by boat. (Or swim…probably not recommended.) From St. Thomas, you will take the Red hook ferry. It runs hourly, takes approximately 20 minutes, and the trip costs $6 pp each way. Depending on the time of year, the last ferry can return as late as midnight. Click here for ferry schedules.
St. John Transportation:
We took the 8am ferry and arrived in Cruz Bay, St. John at 8:20am. On Day 1, we used the public bus system to get around. We went to Trunk Bay and Maho Bay. The buses run frequently and cost $1 per person. You can’t get more budget-ier than that. This first day in St. John was all about relaxation.
Trunk Bay: considered to be the most photographed and most beautiful beach on St. John. However, because of that, it is also more crowded. It also has a pretty neat underwater snorkel trail.
Looking super cool before embarking on the underwater snorkel trail
Maho Bay: my favorite beach on the entire trip. It was much less crowded. Seemed great for families. Also is the #1 recommended beach to sight sea turtles.
On our second day exploring St. John, we rented a jeep. Again, we took the morning ferry from St. Thomas and picked up our jeep rental just a few blocks from the Cruz Bay port in St. John. This was my favorite day of the whole trip. The jeep allowed us to explore on our own time and soak in as much of St. John as we could. We hit up Francis Bay, Leinster Bay, Haulover Bay, Cinnamon Bay, & Hawsknest Beach.
The Baths at Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Island
Virgin Gorda is the 3rd largest British Virgin Island and it is particularly known for The Baths. The baths are small pools of water hidden under and between the bolder rock caves that cover the beaches.
There are non-stop ferries between St. Thomas and Virgin Gorda. But they don’t run every day. More importantly, you will need to clear customs and pay a border tax. I realized that traveling to more than one British Virgin Island from St. Thomas was going to be expensive via ferry because of this tax. It was also going to take more than one day. So I found another option. The Breakaway, is a powerboat that takes you to 3 of the British Virgin Islands plus stops at Diamonds Reef for snorkeling, all in one day. It leaves from the Sapphire Beach Resort and Marina (just steps from the VRBO mentioned above) in Red Hook at 7:30am. The reservation is pricey, but you get 3 islands, plus snorkeling (gear included), breakfast, snacks, and drinks (alcohol included). Plus they take care of the customs/tax for you as well. For us, with our timing and budget limitations, this option worked better than individual ferries to the individual islands.
Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Island
Aboard the Breakaway, you will also visit Jost Van Dyke. This island is known for its world famous Soggy Dollar Bar, party atmosphere and the Painkiller cocktail. There is no boat dock in Jost Van Dyke. The Soggy Dollar bar gets its name from passengers jumping from their boat, swimming ashore, and paying for their drinks with their soggy dollars.
If you decide to forgo booking a reservation on the Breakaway, you can catch one of the daily ferries from St. Thomas to Jost Van Dyke. Just remember, you will need to clear customs and pay the border tax.
Tortola, British Virgin Island
We weren’t able to squeeze this island in our alloted time, but I wanted to share with you what I had researched before our trip. My husband had been to this island before and in his opinion, it was the most beautiful of all of the islands (U.S. and British). There is a direct ferry from Red Hook, St. Thomas to Tortola. It leaves once a day at the same time and costs $60 roundtrip per adult. Click here for the ferry schedules and prices from Red Hook, and here for Charlotte Amalie, the other ferry port in St. Thomas. I had wanted to visit Tortola’s famous Bomba’s Surfside Shack. They host a “Full Moon” party in June with live music, good food and drinks and a huge party scene. Maybe next time!
A few important things to note:
1. Get to the ferry at least 15 minutes before departure!
They do leave on time. You don’t want to be stuck on a foreign island with no where to sleep and none of your things. And you never know if the line to buy a ticket will be long. Every terminal had a bar or snack shop, so if you get there early and end up waiting around, just grab a drink.
2. Bring your own snorkel gear.
I went back and forth on this, but am so glad we decided to pack our own. Click here for the travel set that my husband and I used on our trip. These didn’t take up much space in our luggage are great quality. You can rent gear when you are down there, but there are usually limitations (i.e. an hour or two and then you have to bring it back). It was great having our own with us. Not only was it fitted for our own face, but there are so many places in the Virgin Islands that you will want to stop and snorkel. We used our gear several times daily. There are hidden coves and beaches everywhere. Most of these coves won’t have rental shops near by.
3. Adjust to island time.
There is a significant difference between the pace of the big city and the islands. You might be thinking, “that’s the whole reason I am going!” But you might still be expecting your food at restaurants to come out promptly & workers at jeep rental shops to get your car to you on time….Don’t. Everything and everyone is slower. For someone, like me, who was trying to go, see, and do as much as possible in a few short days, it was frustrating at first. I had to remind myself to stop and appreciate this island culture. Embrace the slow pace and you have a wonderful time!
Have you been to any of the other Virgin Islands not mentioned here? I would love to hear about them. Particularly, St. Croix! Let us know in the comments below!
Our hope is to travel as a family as often as we can (at least as often as our work schedules allow us). Click HERE to learn how we use points and miles to expand our travel budget. A step by step guide is included for you.
Happy and safe travels!