Planning a Trip to Puerto Rico

Flags at Castillo San Cristobal, San Juan National Historic Site
Flags at Castillo San Cristobal, San Juan National Historic Site

First in a series on Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is a US territory that tends to fly under the radar for people planning Caribbean getaways despite its accessibility to American tourists without a passport.  At one point the linchpin in Spain’s New World empire, its role had largely diminished by the time the United States seized it as a prize during the Spanish-American War in 1898.  It has a population that as of 2014 is estimated at over 3.5 million.  That’s greater than 21 states, the other US territories, and Washington DC.  In fact, its population is greater than South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming combined.  Despite some economic gains over the past three decades credited largely to now phased out tax advantages, Puerto Rico remains highly impoverished.  Over 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, more than any US state.  A good summary of Puerto Rico’s economic woes by James Surowiecki was recently published in The New Yorker entitled The Puerto Rican Problem.

Regardless of its economic woes, Puerto Rico has much to offer.  The history and culture in San Juan, El Yunque (the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest system), and the Bioluminescent Bay on the island of Vieques were all very attractive to us.  My fiancée Rachel is a professor with a school that has an early Spring Break.  It seemed a perfect time to visit Puerto Rico, with its consistent March temperatures in the low 80s°F (around 27°C).  She also speaks Spanish very well, which is useful; although many citizens and waitstaff speak English fluently or very well, some do not.  All signage is in Spanish, though usually intelligible without speaking the language.  Oddly, the island uses metric system with the exception of speed limits in miles per hour.  So when you drive, you find gas prices are listed in liters, distances in kilometers, but speeds in miles per hour!

Although US Airways flies nonstop to San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) from our main local airport, Philadelphia International (PHL), I found the fares were about $150/person higher than nonstops out of Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) on Southwest Airlines ($367.60/person RT, $0.12/mile).  I booked the outbound and return flights separately.  On Southwest, roundtrip flights are no cheaper than booking two one-way flights.  Although Southwest’s change and cancellation policies are the most liberal among major American airlines, in the unlikely event that you miss the outbound flight and don’t manage to cancel 10 minutes before departure, your entire itinerary will be voided and you will lose the value of your return flight as well.  I used 10,920 Southwest points to book one of Rachel’s flights.  Southwest points are currently worth about 1.6 cents/point for Want to Get Away fares.  That’s less than a lot of airlines but Southwest’s advantage is that the cost in points is directly pegged to the cash cost of the fare.  As a result, every available seat can be booked with points and the number of points needed is based on how expensive the cash fare is.  Thus unlike other frequent flier programs, you don’t have to worry about blackout dates, limited award seat availability, or availability at “saver” levels only on insane routings with two stops and close connections when a nonstop with available seats flies the same route!  Unfortunately it appears Southwest is finding they’ve made it too easy to book award tickets and they’ve announced as yet unspecified changes to their Rapid Rewards program will take effect April 17, 2015.

Vieques Air Link BN-2 Islander at VQS
Vieques Air Link BN-2 Islander at VQS

I put a lot of thought into the best way to get to Vieques.  It’s not particularly far from San Juan and a ferry runs from Fajardo on the mainland.  It’s possible to do a one way car rental with companies that have facilities in both San Juan and Fajardo, or take a cab.  The ferry itself is only $2/person.  The real problem is that the ferry has a reputation for being unreliable.  I heard that they run the service with fewer vessels than they used to; as a result there are reportedly occasions when travelers have to wait hours because the ferry was sold out.  Apparently locals also have priority and tourists may be booted from line.  With that in mind I followed Casa de Amistad’s recommendation and decided to fly instead.  Several airlines fly to Antonio Rivera Rodríguez Airport on Vieques (VQS).  Flights go from both Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU, aka Isla Verde—San Juan’s main airport) as well as the smaller Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport (SIG, aka Isla Grande).  Flights from the latter are considerably cheaper.  A half dozen companies fly to VQS from one or both airports; Cape Air was the only airline I’d previously heard of.  I decided to book flights with the local company Vieques Air Link (VAL) from Isla Grande.  SIG to VQS was $144/person RT.  At $1.56/mile (92 miles roundtrip), I don’t expect to see VAL gracing the pages of The Flight Deal anytime soon!  VAL does have a rudimentary frequent flier program but most people in the points game would be disappointed to learn that it has neither partners nor elite status.

Casa de Amistad Gueshouse, Isabel II
Casa de Amistad Gueshouse, Isabel II

In an effort to both save money and add some local flavor to our journey, I eschewed chain hotels for a pair of guest houses—Coqui del Mar ($95.25/night including taxes, three nights) in San Juan and Casa de Amistad ($114.33/night after taxes, three nights) on Vieques.  Coqui del Mar is a nice guesthouse with a friendly staff, but unit G “El Coqui” really didn’t meet our needs.  It was too small, with a combined toilet-shower in poor condition.  Conversely, we were very pleased with our stay at Casa de Amistad, a sun-colored oasis in the town of Isabel II.

We rented a car for one day from Charlie Rental Car in San Juan in order to visit El Yunque and another car from Avis on Vieques.  Charlie is a local company with several facilities including one in the Condado area just east of Old San Juan.  Their price of $47/day was reasonable and they provide shuttle service on pickup and drop-off for local hotels as well as the cruise and Isla Grande Airport (the smaller airport near Old San Juan).  Unfortunately it was a small operation; with one ornery lady handling all the paperwork and the phones in a tiny office, it took about 20-30 minutes to get checked out and back in.  Although I had called to make a reservation, the lady claimed that I did not have a reservation since I wasn’t given a reservation number.  I asked why the man on the phone had taken down my name and phone number and quoted me a price if that was the case.  Fortunately there were still cars available.  There’s also a $10 fee for the use of their toll decal.

Avis on Vieques was a much more pleasant experience with the friendly employee Ricky picking us up and dropping us off at Vieques Airport (VQS).  Prices on Vieques are a bit higher.  Even with a discount code from American Airlines, the rental came out to $96.25/day.  It seems rental cars are at a premium on Vieques, especially since they can’t be transported from the mainland by ferry.  All the rental companies seem to issue tourists Jeep Wranglers, probably because the roads are very poor in many parts of Vieques.

I’d heard horror stories about maniac drivers in Puerto Rico so insurance was a must.  Rental car companies’ own insurance policies are expensive, potentially doubling the cost of renting the car.  I’d heard about rental car insurance from external companies in a Chris Elliott column, Is car rental insurance a rip-off?  Using Insure My Rental, for a mere $41 I got five days of rental car coverage.  It even included limited coverage for burglary from hotel rooms.  The only downside is that if the rental car company had made a claim against me, I’d have to pay it and then hope that the third party insurance wouldn’t find some loophole to avoid paying.  This is one agreement that it behooves you to read the fine print on.  As a precaution I also photographed the rental cars from all angles including the roof and under the bumper at checkout and when returning it.  Avis seemed pretty chill about scratches on their vehicles as it is pretty much impossible to drive anywhere on Vieques beside Route 997 without the brush inflicting some damage.

Series about Puerto Rico


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