6 Things You Need to Know Before You Visit the U.S. Virgin Islands

By Jamie Beckman
March 5, 2015
St. John
Courtesy skindt/myBudgetTravel

A nearby tropical paradise, no passport required? Point us to the closest airport and we'll be on our way. If your passport has expired and you need a quickie getaway now, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI for short) has all the trappings of an exotic island jaunt, minus the red tape.

1. You don't need a passport to enter the USVI.

Located just to the right of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands have been a United States territory since 1917, so U.S. citizens don't need a passport to get in. With that little inconvenience out of the way, if you're feeling spontaneous and want to maximize your beach time, you can even hop a direct flight to the St. Thomas airport from U.S. cities including Atlanta, Boston, New York, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale. Spirit Airlines often offers short, less-than-three-hour direct flights Fort Lauderdale for less than $300. Bonus: Once you arrive, currency is the U.S. dollar, and there are ATMs on the islands.

2. Fifty islands make up the USVI—but St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix are the three most prominent ones.

Discovered by Christopher Columbus himself in 1493, these three islands have unique identities. Remember them like this:

Cultural St. Croix is known for its historic towns (Christiansted and Frederiksted in particular), shops, and pastel buildings. TRY: Touring the 18th-century slave quarters, sugar factory, and windmill of the 12-acre Estate Whim Museum, the only sugar plantation museum in the Virgin Islands ($10, stcroixlandmarks.com).

Natural St. John is almost all protected U.S. national park: Two-thirds of it is verdant hills and underwater reserve, plus the striking beaches of Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, and Maho Bay. TRY: Packing a lunch and setting out on the guided three-mile downhill Reef Bay Hike through tropical forests, past sugar mill ruins, and alongside ancient petroglyphs. The $30 fee covers the hike, transportation to the trail head, and a boat ride back to the Visitors Center (nps.gov).

Cosmopolitan St. Thomas, on the other hand, is known for its shopping and dining. TRY: Lounging on the well-maintained white sands of Magens Bay, which is staffed with Red Cross-certified lifeguards and snack and drink bars, and has been called one of the world's most beautiful beaches ($4).

3. There's an underwater national park. (Really!)

The 225-yard-long underwater snorkeling trail in St. John's Trunk Bay even has underwater signs to guide you among the coral and sea creatures. Bring the kids—it's an easy swim, and you can rent snorkel gear once you're there (nps.gov).

4. You can casually board a seaplane to island-hop.

Sure, a ferry is always an option, but why not summon a seaplane shuttle as your chariot when you're exploring the USVI? Travel the 44 miles between St. Thomas and St. Croix in about 25 minutes on an airline like Seaborne Airlines or Cape Air, which have multiple daily flights (from $60 one way).

5. Three islands means three festivals, held throughout the year.

Mark your calendar if you like parties, food, and fanciful costumes: St. Croix's Christmas festival is in December (naturally), St. Thomas holds its carnival the last week in April, and St. John celebrates June through early July. You'll be "limin'" (hanging out) with the locals in no time.

6. They drive on the left side of the road there...in American cars.

Yep, you can rent a car in the USVI just like you can everywhere else (from familiar companies like Hertz, Avis, Thrifty, Budget, etc., to boot), but remember to channel your inner James Bond and motor like a Brit—even though the steering wheel is counterintuitively on the left side too. (Awkward.)

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Travel Tips

Airlines With the Best Wi-Fi

Courtesy of Fox News Travel If in-flight Internet access is important to you, there's some good news.  According to a new survey by airline industry data firm Routehappy, on-board Wi-Fi is now offered on about a quarter of flights worldwide. In the U.S., 66 percent of domestic flights offering some form of Wi-Fi access-three times the number just 18 months ago. So which airline is the best? Routehappy analyzed all international commercial flights on a typical mid-week travel day that "met their criteria for having at least some chance of Wi-Fi by subfleet scheduled to fly on a flight." They found that while connectivity quality and speed are improving across the board, United has had the biggest Wi-Fi growth domestically over the past 18 months, but just over 20 percent of their flights over inflight Internet service. Routehappy CEO Robert Albert told CNN that Wi-Fi is one of the "most sought-after new amenities" fliers are looking for when booking travel and airlines are continuing to experiment with different ways their guests can gain access to  the web with set pricing structures or gratis. Nordic Airlines Icelandair and Norwegian lead the charge for international carriers with the greatest web connectivity, offering Wi-Fi on more than 80 percent of their flights. Routehappy does not provide specific numbers in their study. Check out Routehappy for the full list international carriers with great Wi-If.  For those flying in the U.S., the carriers below offer the highest percentage of flight miles with Wi-Fi connectivity. 1. Virgin America 2. Southwest 3. JetBlue 4. Delta 5. Alaska 6. American/US 7. United Check out additional stories from Fox News Travel: 6 interesting facts about the Eiffel Tower Seattle now shaming residents for not composting food waste Outrageous luxury Super Bowl packages and getaways

Travel Tips

Best-Kept Booking Secrets of Hotwire

Ah, the sweet victory of scoring an amazing Hotwire travel deal: In your face, widely advertised prices! With "opaque" deals, however, not knowing where you're going to end up for the night—or the details about how you'll get there—isn't exactly reassuring when you're springing for a big trip. No one wants an unexpected three-hour layover or a dated hotel room, but if you play it too safe, you could miss out on potential savings. Even though Priceline's rates are reputedly cheaper by around 5 to 20 percent, Hotwire's opaque Hot Deal and Hot Fare prices are already listed, so you won't accidentally bid way too high—and there are other perks too. "Hotwire is much better than Priceline for families," says Randy Greencorn, founder of HotelDealsRevealed.com and ResortFeeChecker.com. "You can't book a room on Priceline that is guaranteed to accommodate more than two guests. Plus, you know what amenities you're going to get. For example, a swimming pool is a must-have when I travel with my kids." With a little fancy keyboard work before you click "book now" on Hotwire, you can prevent both overpaying and that sinking feeling when you get stuck with a hotel room, car rental company, or flight schedule that is so not what you had in mind. Let BT be your guide: 1. First, make a beeline for non-Hotwire-affiliated data-collecting sites to see what everyone else has been booking. You can't completely eliminate any doubt about what opaque offers you're scrolling through, but you can form a general idea of what other people are paying—and for what—by scouring crowd-sourced websites and message boards like BetterBidding.com and BiddingTraveler.com. Those sites help predict what hotel you'll get and share specifics about recent Hotwire deals, including hotel names and prices, car rental company and rate information, and flight details (layovers, stops, airlines, etc.). Know, however, that they're not gospel: Geographic boundaries are often redrawn, and offerings change. Even Hotwire itself is telling users up front what hotels previous Hot Deal takers have nabbed: For example, we searched for a three-star hotel in Reykjavík, Iceland, for five nights in March, found one for $72 per night, clicked on it, and a blue flag popped up, saying, "Book soon! The last person got the Hótel Leifur Eiríksson." The Leifur Eiríksson is a small, basic boutique hotel smack in the middle of the city, with views of Hallgrímskirkja church. Booked through the hotel's site, the daily rate would have been $126; Hotels.com showed $114. That's almost a 37 percent discount for a well-rated, centrally located crash pad, assuming that's the hotel you do end up with. The takeaway: Don't feel guilty about DIY-ing your own research; everyone is doing it. 2. Google the amenities to guess opaque hotel choices. "Although Hotwire does not reveal the name of a hotel before booking, it does provide a lot of information about a hotel, such as vicinity, hotel amenities, resort fee (if applicable), hotel class, and TripAdvisor rating," Greencorn says. "This information acts like a fingerprint, describing unique characteristics of a hotel. It is fairly simple to use other sources—Google Maps, TripAdvisor, Resort Fee Checker, etc.—to find hotels that fit this description. It's not perfect, but I can usually narrow it down to two or three likely hotels before pulling the trigger on a purchase." 3. Download the mobile app! The last-minute hotel deals are the best ones. Above all, Hotwire considers its last-minute hotel savings—including day-of arrival—to be significantly better than Priceline's. Hotwire's in-house experts say that of the people who book their travel on Hotwire’s free mobile app, two-thirds of them book on the same day. It's completely worth a shot to download the app and scan the inventory, even—or especially!—if you happen to be idling in the parking lot, deciding which nearby hotel to choose. Plus, Hotwire just updated its iPad and iPhone app to include car rentals and launched car rental bookings for Android too. 4. Create your own Hotwire vs. Priceline cage match. This might not be the nicest thing to do, but it's one strategy: "Many travelers use Hotwire to find out opaque pricing, then see if they can get a better deal on Priceline's Name Your Own Price system," Greencorn says. "For example, say I see a five-star Las Vegas Strip hotel for $100 on Hotwire. Why not bid on Priceline and see if you can do better?" In that same vein, he says, you can use Hotwire in conjunction with Priceline Express Deals to get the best price. Glance at that section of Priceline before you buy on Hotwire, since Priceline Express Deals follows the same transaction model. 5. Take advantage of a little-known Hotwire tool to plan your trip around the best rates and weather. Not everyone knows about the site's TripStarter feature, but if you type in your destination and the airport you're flying from, it quickly tells you when flights and hotel rates have historically been the cheapest, based on Hotwire searches, along with average temps and rainfall. For example: We found that flights from Chicago to Orlando usually hit rock bottom (around $200 or less) in late April, early September, and early December, and average hotel rates dip to around $85 in early September as well. The beginning of the school year might not be an ideal time to take the kids, but for an adult getaway that will more or less let you have the theme parks to yourself, you can't beat the prices and the weather—the high is 90 degrees, cooler than June, July, and August. 6. Be realistic about what your hotel needs are, then book accordingly. Are you traveling to a major metro area on a solo work trip that will leave you with little free time? Then you probably don't need a leisure hotel famous for its package spa treatments and activities for children. In cases like these, a typical four-star hotel in the city center will do, which is where sites like Hotwire excel, says Tim Leffel, author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. "Unless you're racking up lots of loyalty points, does it really matter if you're in a Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, or Sheraton?" he says. "If you're going to catch eight hours of sleep at an airport hotel before a flight, does it really matter which three-star airport hotel with a shuttle you're in? You're just going to sleep, shower, and leave anyway." That said, even if you're craving a true vacation, you can still make out like a bandit, provided you manage expectations and are specific about what's important to you, Leffel says: "I have used Hotwire for a last-minute all-inclusive vacation in the Bahamas. It was a three-night getaway, and we didn't much care where we stayed as long as it was on the beach." 7. Use Hotwire for car rentals if nothing else. If any degree of hotel or flight uncertainty freaks you out, you can still get a deep discount on auto rentals. Travel expert John DiScala, a.k.a. Johnny Jet, told us that he usually uses Priceline for its across-the-board savings, but recently, he's seen Hotwire's car rental prices plummet to what he calls "really" good rates.

Travel Tips

Genius Tips for Surviving Holiday Travel

What’s your worst holiday travel nightmare? Sitting, delayed, in the airport for hours with only your smartphone and a pretzel to keep you company? Hearing your kids blast the Frozen soundtrack in the backseat for the fifth time while you’re stalled in gridlocked traffic? Or having a complete stress-induced meltdown that freaks out the hotel's front desk clerk, the bellhop, and the elderly couple in line behind you? Don’t panic: BT has your back. We asked 11 of the world’s best-known travel experts—including an award-winning travel journalist, an airline miles and points obsessive, and a certain hotel heiress—for their single best tip for staying sane during the holiday travel crush. Read their advice, and you’ll be ready to glide through the crowds before you can say, “Serenity now!” 1. Fool your airline's touch-tone system into helping you first. "Holiday travel means full flights, and that means that if a storm cancels your flight, you're in a mad race with everyone else to grab what very few seats are available on alternate flights, and you can get stranded for days. Rather than phoning the airline's jammed U.S. customer service line and getting stuck on hold for hours while the few available seats to your destination vaporize, call one of the airline's English-speaking overseas reservations numbers—say, in England, Germany, Australia, or Singapore. (You'll find these numbers on the airline's website. Here are American Airlines', for example, and here are United's.) Use Skype so the call is cheap." —Wendy Perrin, travel expert behind WendyPerrin.com and travel advocate at TripAdvisor 2. Crank up lighthearted music to stay zen. "When I'm at the airport, which is mostly how I travel during this time of year, I carry my iPod filled with Christmas music. Unless I'm face-to-face with someone, I'll be wearing headphones listening to peaceful, relaxing songs of the season to keep me in the spirit and out of the craziness that can be holiday traveling. My smile—and when I choose to sing along—gets me funny looks, but it's well worth the trade-off." —Jack Maxwell, host of the Travel Channel's Booze Traveler 3. Forget Grandma. Do your own thing. "Don't go home for the holidays! Your ability to stretch your dollar during the holidays will be better served going to places that need the tourism. For example, although very cold, upscale hotels for Chicago for New Year's Eve are currently seeing rock-bottom rates. During the holiday season, New York City, which is a mecca for shopping, offers some of the lowest hotel rates of the year. If you avoid the holidays altogether, Las Vegas currently has 4-star hotel rates at under $50 per night. Also, look at international city destinations. Travelzoo has seen deals for 4-star hotels for up to 50 percent off in Paris and Rome over the Christmas season, when many Europeans are headed to warmer destinations or staying home." -—Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo 4. When packing, choose your holiday outfits wisely. (Think wool or stretchy knits, not delicate silk or rayon.) "Try and pack pieces that don't wrinkle. It will save you the headache of sending items to get pressed. Some hotels don't even offer that and have to send it off-site. Plus, it can get expensive." —Nicky Hilton, fashion designer, Hilton Hotels heiress, and author of 365 Style 5. Make like a vampire and attack your road trip at night. "If you're planning a long drive on a big travel day, leave in the middle of the night and hit no traffic. I know it sounds crazy, but my brother's family does it every year on the day before Thanksgiving. This year they left the D.C. area at 1:52 a.m. and made it to my parents' house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at 9:23 a.m. That's about seven and a half hours, without speeding (much). They do it every year, and it always works—just drag the kids out of bed, put them to sleep in the car, and be sure there are lots of snacks and movies for when they wake up. I left New York City around 9 a.m., and it took me five and a half hours, almost two hours more than it should have. The only negative consequence is my brother needs a nap." —Seth Kugel, author of the New York Times Frugal Traveler column. He is currently on hiatus from his column and working on a YouTube series for Brazilian tourists who visit New York, Amigo Gringo.  6. Shut out the holiday cacophony—literally—for less than a dollar. "Cheap foam earplugs. Whether it's at the airport with the 27 gate announcements that I don't need to hear or a mall where each store is in a battle of the bands competition with their piped music, earplugs don't block out all the noise, but they take the edge off and create a more calm place in my head." —Samantha Brown, Travel Channel host and AARP travel ambassador 7. Turn a delay into a mini vacation day.  "When you're traveling during the holidays and winter months, there's always a chance of weather delays or flight cancellations. If it happens to you, try to look at it as a good thing and embrace your newfound free time! Bring along that book you've been wanting to read, or pack your Kindle, iPad, or Nook so you can catch up on your favorite shows...or read the latest digital edition of Budget Travel magazine. I've been snowed in at airports a few times—eight hours in Newark, anyone?—and I even spent the night in the Dallas area during a nasty flight-cancelling blizzard. I used it as an opportunity to cash in my hotel rewards points, explore the area, and have an amazing Texas barbecue dinner in Grapevine! Try to think of it as a travel adventure." —Kaeli Conforti, digital editor at Budget Travel 8. Ship what you can before you leave. (That means you, giant wrapped gifts.) "Travel light. Checking in luggage can add hours to your trip. When I'm traveling for the holidays, I ship my presents and bulky winter clothes a week ahead of time, and do the same thing when I return home. I miss lines at the airport check-in and don't have to wait for my luggage." —Zane Lamprey, host of the National Geographic Channel's Chug and creator of the Drinking Jacket 9. Stick it to the man! Ignore school schedules and travel during a "dead" week. "Everyone will tell you the same advice: Get to the airport early. Allow plenty of time for flight connections. Try to take the first flight of the day to avoid delays. Here's how I survive holiday travel: I get to the airport late...very late. In fact, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two times of the year I don't travel. Instead, I take advantage of two 'dead' weeks each year—the week immediately following Thanksgiving and the week immediately following New Year's. There's a reason they are called dead weeks—no one is traveling! Result: No lines, no delays, better service, and greater discounts on all forms of travel. I know what you're thinking: 'You can't travel those weeks because the kids are in school.' Really? Do what my parents did with me. Talk with your kids' teachers, get them extra-credit assignments that directly relate to your dead-week trip, and then never let school interfere with their education. It's a win-win for all concerned."  —Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News and host of public television's The Travel Detective 10. Raise a glass! It's 5 o'clock somewhere. "Stuck in the airport? Airport bars can be surprisingly fun. Grab a drink and commiserate with fellow delayed travelers. Just don't get too comfortable. Travelers have been known to be so entertained they miss their flights. Happy travels!" —Darley Newman, host and producer of PBS's Equitrekking and AOL's Travels with Darley; contributing editor at Budget Travel 11. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. "My best tip to survive holiday travel is to be kind to everyone, leave plenty of time to get to your destination, and pack your patience." —John DiScala, editor in chief of Johnny Jet

Travel Tips

Best-Kept Secrets of Priceline

We all want to be that person who swoops in at the last minute, bids low, and scores a ridiculously good deal on Priceline—then brags about it for years. Flying blind can be scary, though: You don't know for sure which hotel you'll be staying in, what car rental company you'll be dealing with, or what your flight times will be—and they're often non-refundable. (Type-A planners, we can practically hear you hyperventilating right now.) It's normal to feel uneasy about pulling the trigger immediately—if at all—but the risk could be worth it. "I think everyone knows Priceline is pretty much almost always 5 to 10 to 15 percent cheaper than Hotwire," says travel expert John DiScala, better known as Johnny Jet. If that's the case, think of the potential for savings on widely published rates. So take a deep breath. We've got a strategy. These little-known features and expert tips will help you nudge the odds in your favor when you're bidding on Priceline. 1. Scroll through non-Priceline-affiliated bid-helping sites first.  Are they comprehensive and foolproof? No. Are they helpful as a general guide? Yes. Message boards like BiddingforTravel.com and BetterBidding.com, and sites with simpler interfaces such as BiddingTraveler.com, report recently accepted and rejected bids, along with hotel lists with their best guesses at which properties you could end up with based on star rating and geographic area. DiScala says he always visits BiddingforTravel.com before he bids. Not long ago, he scored a major deal on a rental car in Seattle after finding $80-per-day rates with Hertz on conventional booking sites—higher than he wanted to pay. "I went to Bidding for Travel, and I saw someone was getting a $20 deal around the same dates," he says. "So I went in, and I put a $20 bid in, and sure enough it was accepted, and it was by Hertz." DiScala notes that the site warned him that his bid was too cheap, but it went through in the end. When using these outside sites, bear in mind that the Priceline's offerings, star ratings, and geographic regions can shift without warning, and some info could be outdated. And the boards can be a pain to sift through if patience is not one of your virtues. 2. Beat the system and bid again immediately by making one small tweak. Priceline prevents you from bidding again for 24 hours on the exact geographic preference and rating when you use the Name Your Own Price feature, but you can get around that if you're flexible. "If you change the star category or add a neighborhood, you can bid again right away," says Tim Leffel, author of The World's Cheapest Destinations. Same goes for switching up other itinerary items, like travel dates, car types, and airports. You can get something that Priceline users call a "free rebid" on hotels by adding a geographic area that only offers properties with fewer stars than the rating you selected, making your rebid essentially identical, as Priceline won't "demote" you to a lower-rated hotel. Proceed with caution on this one, especially if the added geographic area is one you emphatically do not want to be in. 3. Pit the Express Deals feature against the Name Your Own Price feature. Priceline offers different types of deals. Let's use hotel rooms as an example: Priceline's "Retail" deals reveal both the hotel name and the price, so you know exactly what you're getting. "Express Deals" shows you the exact price of a hotel in the geographic area and with the star rating that you want, but you won't see the hotel's name—that's called a "semi-opaque" deal. The "Name Your Own Price" feature lets you bid on a hotel price, but you won't see the hotel's name either—that's called an "opaque" deal. Search Express Deals first, then try this strategy that we heard directly from Priceline: "For hotels, travelers should find the lowest Express Deals hotel bid being offered, then take an additional 5 percent off and use that as their Name Your Own Price bid. Chances are you'll get a room," says Brian Ek, Priceline's travel expert. "If not, no harm done, and you can always go back and make a reservation using Express Deals as well. With airline tickets, try going 20 percent below the typical published fares. And with rental cars, go 20 percent below the published rates." 4. Download the Priceline app for last-minute deals that aren't published on the website. For (very) last-minute getaways, install Priceline's free app and scroll through the hotel listings for Tonight Only Mobile Deals—they're highlighted in orange. (Think of it as Priceline's version of Hotel Tonight.) Here's the cool part: There you'll find special deals that aren't listed on the desktop site. "We upload new inventory daily and travelers can save up to 50 percent at more than 800 hotels for day-of reservations," Ek says. 5. Once you arrive at the hotel, never underestimate the power of a friendly attitude and a greased palm. As we've mentioned in past stories, the hotel's front desk clerk wields immense power. Get in good with her, and your discounted stay could take a luxe turn. "A few times in the past I would get a cheap room via Priceline and then would slip a nice tip to the front desk person and get upgraded to a better room," Leffel says. "This is easier to pull off if you're arriving late in the day and the occupancy is set for the night." Offering a bar of chocolate to the desk attendant has also been known to work well in these circumstances. 6. Speak up—loudly—if you believe the staff is giving you the shaft because you bought a Priceline room. Your Priceline hotel is required to treat you the same as it does its guests who have paid full price. It's the law. "Our agreements with hotels stipulate that our customers receive the same treatment as any other customer," Ek says. If you get the sense you're being mistreated or ignored because you're a Priceline guest, contact Priceline immediately either via their customer service email form or at 877-477-5807.