I am not a professional travel agent, but I’ve been to Jamaica 17 times (with the 18th trip already booked for January). I consider Jamaica to be my second home. So much so, that the last few times we’ve visited, we started looking at houses. When we retire in a few years, we plan on living at least part of the year in Jamaica.
I’ve collected a lot of tips about Jamaica over the years, and I want to share those with you. I hope you are able to use this as a road map to help you get ready for your trip.
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There are a lot of “tropical” vacation destinations out there. You can pick from Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, or one of the other Caribbean Islands. In my mind, Jamaica is a great option for most people. It’s a quick flight from almost anywhere on the east coast. Jamaicans speak English, so it’s also no problem communicating. The weather is almost always beautiful, and the ocean is clear and warm.
Tip #1: Unfortunately, like a lot of other places in the world, Jamaica has a reputation with some people that it’s not safe. Yes, there are places in Jamaica that you should avoid. But there are also places in most cities that you should not go to. As with any place you visit, be aware of your surroundings. Don’t wander off somewhere on your own. I have been all over the island and never had a problem.
However, the main reason I return to Jamaica year after year, are the people. Everyone we’ve met in Jamaica is warm and friendly. They are also almost always happy. Jamaicans often say “no problem”, and they really mean it. They don’t let things bother them. They are relaxed and go with the flow.
Once you’ve decided Jamaica is your destination, you need to determine what kind of vacation you want and where you want to stay. The three main choices are a hotel, an all-inclusive resort, or a rental house. Check out my article to help you figure out the right option for you.
You will also need to decide which area of the island you want to visit. The three main tourist cities are Negril, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.
Negril: Located on the western coast of the island, Negril is most famous for its beautiful beaches and sunsets. I have never been to Negril, but have heard good things about it. The downside of Negril is that it’s a bit of a drive from the airport, and isolated from a lot of the tourist attractions on the island.
Montego Bay: Montego Bay is located on the northwestern coast of the island. For the first 5 years we went to Jamaica, we stayed in Montego Bay exclusively. The big advantage to Mo Bay is that it’s where the airport is located, so you avoid the long drive to your house/resort/hotel. The town also has a lot of restaurants and shopping. The negative of Montego Bay is that it’s literally on a bay and pushed back a little off the coast. This means it doesn’t get the trade winds like some other parts of the island, which makes it very hot and humid – even at night.
Ocho Rios: Located on the northern coast about halfway across the island, Ocho Rios is about a 90-120-minute drive from the Montego Bay airport. A lot of people avoid staying in Ocho Rios because of the drive from the airport, but don’t let that stop you. As opposed to Montego Bay, the trade winds regularly blow across Ochi, so there is always a nice breeze, which keeps things less humid and very comfortable in the evening. There are also a lot of tourist attractions in the area.
Tip #2: There are a few resorts that have been built on the southern coast of the island. However, that area is much less developed. If you are looking for a relaxing trip and just hanging out at the resort, the southern coast could be a good option. But be aware that you won’t have much to do off the resort.
Tip #3: Most flights go into Sangster International Airport, which is located in Montego Bay. There is also an airport in Kingston. For most of the vacation spots, the assumption is that you will be flying into Sangster. So, if you do fly into Kingston, make sure you have your hotel/resort transfer arranged properly.
Tip #4: While it’s very convenient to stay in Montego Bay because of it being so close to the airport, be aware that your resort could be VERY close to the airport. We used to stay at the Sandals in Montego Bay, which is next door to the airport. Planes fly overhead all the time. While the resort makes a game of it, and has everyone wave as the planes take off, it can be disturbing. I can tell you that the first flight out of Sangster in the morning is right around 6 a.m., because it would wake me up every morning.
I’M GOING TO JAMAICA! WHAT DO I DO NEXT?
Preparing for the Trip
There are a few things that you want to make sure you do in preparation for your trip.
- Make sure your passport is up to date. Some countries require your passport to be valid for 3-6 months past the date of your travel. Jamaica does not have that restriction. So long as your passport is valid upon entry and exit, you are fine. You can see the travel requirements for Jamaica here.
- Notify your credit card company and/or bank that you will be traveling. It is standard practice for a hotel/resort to ask for a credit card at check-in to cover any incidentals, so you will minimally use your card at check-in.
- Make sure you understand your cell phone coverage and plan. International roaming charges can be expensive. Unless you have an international plan on your phone, you may want to shut off data when you arrive. Most resorts and hotels have wifi, so you can connect to that when you get to your final destination.
- Make sure you understand whether transportation to and from your hotel/resort/house is included in your trip. If it’s not included, you will want to pre-arrange transportation. There are several transportation companies that you can make arrangements with.
- Understand what is and is not included in your trip. If you are going all-inclusive, do you need to tip? Is everything included, or should you have cash/credit available for extras? If you are renting a house, what’s included?
- Plan your excursions. If you are staying at a hotel or resort, they will likely have a tour desk where you can book your excursions. However, you may be paying a bit of a mark-up by booking it through the resort. If you can book the excursion in advance on your own, that may be a cheaper option.
My Jamaica Packing List
So, what should you pack? I actually love packing for Jamaica, because I’ve done it so many times I don’t have to think about it. Here’s a list of things to remember – some of which you might not have thought of. Where the items have links, those links will take you directly to Amazon to purchase if you are interested.
- Passport and other travel documents.
- Bathing suits. Pack every bathing suit you own, because you will spend most of your time in your bathing suit.
- Cover-ups/shorts/t-shirts. At most resorts, you need to have a cover-up/shorts/t-shirt on to eat at the restaurants at lunch and breakfast.
- Flip flops. The tile around the pools can be hot and slippery, so always have flip flops handy.
- Evening wear. I tend to just pack a bunch of sun dresses. My husband packs lightweight linen shirts and khaki shorts.
- Sunscreen. Lots and lots of sunscreen. I have seen so many people get sunburn on day #1 and be miserable the rest of the trip. It’s a good idea to take a range of SPF coverage with you. I start with SPF 30, and use that most of the time. The sprays are nice, because you can apply them easily multiple times per day. If you don’t burn easily, you can work your way down to SPF 15 or SPF 8. I would also suggest packing some aloe vera lotion in case you do get sunburn.
- Bug spray. If you are a mosquito magnet like I am, bring bug spray. The mosquitos are particularly bad in Montego Bay. I forgot to spray one evening, and woke up the next morning looking like I had a horrible rash on my legs. I like the natural insect repellent, which does the job, but doesn’t get chemicals on your hands, etc.
- Toiletries. Check to see what toiletries the hotel or resort provides. I always try and pack the minimum. Most hotels/resorts also have hair dryers in the rooms, but check to see if yours does before you go.
- Insulated mugs. If you are staying in an all-inclusive resort, you will thank me for this one. Bring a mug and use that at the bar during the day. Not only will it keep your drinks colder for longer, it will save you trips up to the bar, as the cups the resorts use are typically small. If you want to go high end, get a YETI insulated tumbler, which will keep your drinks cold for a long time in the hot Jamaican sun. Or, for about half the price, you can try these 30 oz tumblers, which also come in a bunch of fun colors.
- Waterproof phone case. You will be spending a lot of time near the water – either by the pool or on the beach. If you plan on having your phone with you, a waterproof case is a small investment that will keep your phone dry. For a less than $10 investment, this universal waterproof case will work with any phone. Or, spend a few extra bucks to get the same case in colors.
- Luggage scale. This is another one of those things that is invaluable. One year, I was checking in for my flight home at Sangster, and we had to open our suitcases and transfer dirty and wet clothes between them because one suitcase was overweight. I’ll never go through that again on any trip. A luggage scale is another investment that is less than $10, and will pay for itself in a couple of uses.
- Water shoes. If you plan on visiting Dunn’s River Falls or the Blue Hole (see below for suggested excursions), you will want a pair of water shoes. You can rent or buy them at the stand right outside the falls as well. I’m not too keen on wearing rental water shoes. If you buy them at home before you go, you will save money.
- Beach towels. While most resorts and hotels provide you with beach towels, I like to bring a couple of my own as well. First, I like to have my Detroit Lions beach towel on my chair to represent my team. Second, beach towels work great for wrapping bottles of rum or other breakables you might have bought and need to pack in your suitcase to go home.
- Snorkeling gear. If you plan on doing any snorkeling, I recommend you bring your own snorkel gear. Most resorts/excursions will have gear that you can use. However, the sanitary requirements in Jamaica are a bit different. I can speak from first hand experience that you risk getting sick from using snorkel gear that hasn’t been cleaned properly. Don’t take a chance. Invest the $20 or $30 and bring your own.
- Soft back cooler and bottle opener (see Tip #9). I like this California Innovations TableTop Cooler because it is collapsible and fits in your suitcase easily. It’s also very light, so it won’t make your suitcase overweight.
- Gifts for the staff. I’m not talking about anything expensive. I’m talking about some little things you can buy and give to the staff at the hotel/resort. These things go a long way and can be used instead of, or supplementing, tips. Some things we have taken in the past and are popular:
- Chocolate. Little bite sized candy bars are great. A big bag of assorted chocolate is great to have with you, and pass out throughout the week.
- School supplies. We usually go the Dollar Store and stock up on things like paper, coloring books, crayons, etc. The housekeeping staff particularly love to take this stuff home to their kids.
- Crazy socks. The entertainment staff at our resort loves crazy socks. These Super Man socks are always popular. Don’t ask me why. Just go with it!
Tip #5: Be sure to check with your resort to see what the dress code is for the restaurants. The resort we go to has a formal restaurant that requires men to wear long pants, collared shirts and close-toed shoes. Some resorts also have “theme nights”.
Tip #6: Jamaica uses the same outlets and voltage as we do in the U.S. and Canada, so no need to pack an electrical converter.
I’VE ARRIVED! NOW WHAT?
Arriving at the Airport
Arriving in Jamaica is easy. Here’s a step by step guide.
When you are on the flight over, the flight attendants will pass out customs forms. You must fill out a form for each person. You’ll need your passport information, address of where you are staying in Jamaica, and flight information.
Tip #7: Make sure you fill the form out COMPLETELY before you get off the plane. There will be someone checking the forms when you arrive, and they will make you go to the side to fill the form out if it isn’t complete.
Once you land, you will de-board the plane and head straight to immigration. Have your passport out and ready, along with the form you filled out on the plane.
Tip #8: Saturday is the busiest arrival day in Jamaica. The lines at the airport will be long. If you can avoid flying in on a Saturday, try to. If not, consider getting Club Mobay passes.
After you’ve gone through immigration, you’ll proceed to the baggage claim area.
Tip #9: If you have a long ride to your house/hotel/resort, you may want some cold Red Stripes to take with you. There is a duty free shop before you get to baggage claim. Buy your Red Stripes there. It won’t be cold, but you can get ice at the Margaritaville bar. We take a soft back cooler and bottle opener and pack it in our luggage. You can buy Red Stripes at the Margaritaville bar near the exit of the airport too, but the beers will be more expensive there.
Once you get any checked bags, you’ll go through one more check point. Go to the lines that say “Nothing to Declare”. You’ll hand the agent your customs form, and be on your way.
Tip #10: Do not convert any money into Jamaican dollars. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere (and actually preferred).
After you get through customs, exit out the doors to the left to the airport lobby. If you have a transfer included to your resort, or have pre-arranged travel, you will find someone just inside the lobby holding a sign for that resort/company. They will escort you to where you need to check in for transportation.
For the resort we go to, when we check in for transportation we need to give our name and the date of our departing flight. Once you are checked in, they will take you out to the shuttle bus or car that you will be taking to your final destination.
Tip #11: Have some cash on you for tips. There will be someone that loads your luggage on the bus, and they’ll expect a couple of bucks.
Tip #12: Be patient once you’re on the bus. They will wait until the bus is completely full, so if you are one of the first ones on, you may have to wait a bit. The Jamaicans operate on “Jamaica time”. While you may be in a hurry to get to the resort, the Jamaicans work on their own speed!
If you have a longer drive to the resort/hotel/house, sit back and enjoy the ride. Drink some of those Red Stripes you bought and take in the beautiful coastline.
Settling Into Your Resort/Hotel
Now that you’ve arrived at your destination, the hard part is over! Here are a few quick tips to make the most of your stay.
- Familiarize yourself with the property. Most resorts do a daily orientation to give new guests a tour of the property. It’s worth doing, particularly if you are staying at a bigger resort.
- Get unpacked and settled in. I’m the type of person that can’t relax until I unpack, so I do it as soon as we arrive.
- Make sure you understand the procedure for checking out and catching the shuttle to leave. I know you just arrived and don’t want to think about leaving, but at the resort we go to, you need to fill out a card upon arrival with your departure information.
- If you didn’t book excursions before you left, visit the excursion/tour desk. See what’s available and decide what you want to do and get it booked.
- Find out the weekly schedule. Many resorts have certain theme nights – beach parties, dinner on the pier, etc. The resort we go to has a daily newsletter that is delivered to your room each night. It tells you all the activities going on the next day.
- Get to know the staff. We have made some lifelong friends of staff members at the resort we go to. Staff typically works 6 days a week and 10 hour shifts, so you will see the same people all week. If you take the time to get to the know the staff, your experience will be much more enjoyable.
- Relax! You are in Jamaica and on vacation. Don’t stress out about getting a lounge chair in the same spot every day. Don’t worry about what time you are going to dinner every day. Just go with the flow!
My Favorite Excursions
Jamaica offers a lot of different places for you to see and visit. If I had to narrow it down to the top three, I would do the following excursions.
Appleton Rum Estate: Visiting the estate takes a bit of effort, but it’s worth it when you get there. The estate is located up in the mountains, and is a pretty long drive from any of the major cities. However, if you are a lover of rum, this is the place to visit. When you visit the estate, you will get a guided tour of the facilities and learn all about the rum making process. At the end of the tour, you will have the opportunity to taste all of the rums produced at Appleton. Plan on this excursion taking a full day.
Dunn’s River Falls or the Blue Hole: A lot of people that visit Jamaica visit Dunn’s River Falls. It’s a lot of fun and almost anyone can climb the falls. It is also one of the biggest tourist attractions in Jamaica, so be prepared for crowds. If you want something a little less crowded, try the Blue Hole. It is definitely more physically demanding. You will be jumping off cliffs into water, and rappelling down a waterfall. I am not athletic or a good swimmer, but I wore a life jacket and did most of the falls. It’s a really beautiful area, so, if you have a few daredevils in your group, go along with them just for the view.
Tip #13: If you do either of these excursions, be sure to bring water shoes and a sturdy bathing suit.
Yaaman Adventures Cooking Class: One of the more unique excursions we’ve done is a cooking class. You can find more information and book in advance on their website. The bus picks you up at your resort and takes you to the Yaaman Adventure Park, which is an 18th century estate formerly known as Prospect Plantation. You’ll ride a jitney through the property to get up to the main house. Once you arrive, you’ll find a cooking class set up on the outside veranda of the house.
The view is breathtaking! A chef will walk you through cooking your own authentic Jamaican meal.
Tip #14: This excursion is a great option for people that aren’t as active (or don’t want to be active).
Tip #15: Don’t feel as if you must do an excursion. We have done a few trips where we barely leave our lounge chair, not to mention leaving the property. It’s ok to just stay at the resort and relax!
So there you have it – a step by step guide to visiting Jamaica! Our next visit is in January, so stay tuned for a full report after our visit.
Have questions about visiting Jamaica? Need more information? Comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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