I did it, y'all.
Last year, I finally made it to Trinidad Carnival after what seemed like years of planning. Even with meticulous preparation, my trip still did not go off without a hitch, but with issues comes greater clarity for next year.
The feeling of "people do this every year?!" still hits me as I think about the costs but now that I have experienced it, I can certainly understand why.
2019 Prime Dates: February 27 - March 6
Carnival Monday: March 4th
Carnival Tuesday: March 5th
I haven't cracked the code on how to do Trinidad Carnival on a budget - you can't - but I am thinking of strategies to make it less harmful to my bank account the next time I go. We are just over 7 months away...let's get it!
Strategy 1: Book your flight in advance
If you take a look at flights from your city now, I am sure the prices are out of this world. Don't stick! They will get worse,especially since band launch season is underway. Fare prices may go down in November and December, but not by much.
Another thing you can try is to check out flights that originate from main Caribbean hubs, if you will -- Miami, New York, Washington DC & London - and getting a separate flight/bus/train to those hubs from your city. Sometimes, splitting up the tickets by buying two one-way flights instead of a round trip flight, may end up saving you some money.
Also, keep in mind flights from Trinidad to Tobago, if you are considering hopping over for the Ash Wednesday parties. Flights on March 6th may already be sold out, but Caribbean Airlines is known to add additional flights since it is so popular on that day. There is also a ferry to Tobago.
Strategy 2: Find a place to stay
In your T&T Carnival budget, this is the line item that determines whether you sink or swim. It is typically beyond your control and there's no way around it: you need a place to sleep.Many people utilize the strategy of pre-booking before they leave Port of Spain the previous year. This may be the reason you are having trouble finding a place to stay. That, and the disrespectful spike in rates during prime carnival time.
Popular hotels include: Hyatt Regency; Hilton Hotel; Kapok Hotel; Marriott; Radisson. These go for about $450 - $550 per night with strict rules on double occupancy. There are many bed & breakfasts across Port of Spain of varying star ratings that will cut your costs by half. Make sure you take a look at TripAdvisor for reviews. If you feel comfortable and fancy saving even more, you can venture further out to Valsayn, San Juan, Piarco, Chaguanas and Trincity. I have seen decent places in those areas going for as little as $100/night.
Strategy 3: Finalize Transportation ASAP
Renting a car this year was a godsend for me. We did that because our hotel was out of Port of Spain and we enjoyed the flexibility and independence. Now, I can't say whether I truly recommend this since Trini people drive so carelessly (don't debate me), but I couldn't beat the price with a private driver. On Priceline, car rentals are as low as $250 for a week (without car insurance) so reserve your car soon.
If driving in unfamiliar places is not your thing, there are alternatives. Regular taxis are expensive and Uber is no longer operational in Port of Spain, therefore I recommend hiring a private driver for the duration of your stay.
Strategy 4: Decide on which fetes you want to attend in advance
Trinidad Carnival fetes are not cheap. I try to balance out my fete list with a little bit of everything: all inclusive, cooler, beach party, boat party, j'ouvert, unicorn fete etc. You get it. Your average fete is going to cost at least $100 and that's on the cheap side. Expect to spend $125 per fete.
How much you spend is fully dependent on the type of event you attend and the number of events you attend. To be fully prepared, have the list of fetes you want to attend and your money stashed in advance of ticket sales because they sell out FAST. Check out my reviews from the fetes I attended this year.
Strategy 5: Choose a Carnival Band
Now that I have played with one of the popular Trinidad bands, I do not mind mixing up my experience in the future. There are smaller bands; less popular bands; new bands; options to do one-day mas etc. If you prefer a premium experience, you can definitely get that! There is something for everyone.
For those totally unfamiliar with Carnival: if you want to play mas, you have to join a masquerade band. Some bands have launched already and I am waiting with bated breath on the others.
So you have chosen your band.
Strategy 6: Backline or Frontline?
There will be a separate blog post coming soon about this but if your main point of consideration is cost, then go with a backline option. These range from $600 - $900. Some bands now offer midline options.
If you are all about the glitz, glam and attention and money ain’t a thang, then you are a frontline queen! In Trinidad, frontline costumes typically start at $1200 and beyond.
Men's costumes are typically $600, sometimes more with grand headpieces and other optional embellishments.
Strategy 7: To J'ouvert or Nah?
I love J'ouvert! There is something special and welcoming about throwing paint on a stranger and them not wanting to slap you haha. J'ouvert takes place in the early hours of Carnival Monday and you can expect to get smacked in the face - everywhere really - with paint, powder, mud, chocolate, water, clay...you name it! Separate from mas bands, there are J'ouvert bands that cater specifically to that experience. Their packages typically include a pre-party, drinks to your heart's desire, food, a swag bag and more perks. Popular bands include: Dirty Dozen, Red Ants, Yellow Devilz, and the alternative J'ouvert experience Caesar's Army. As with fete tickets, make sure you know which band you'd like to join in advance of package sales.
I did both Caesar's Army A.M. Bush and Santimanitay J'ouvert (a new j'ouvert band with Bunji Garlin at its helm), and while I love j'ouvert, I will likely only do one next time. Washing off gunk is annoying and time-consuming, time I did not have to waste.
Last but not least...
Strategy 8: Think through your fitness GOALS
It's time to get in the gym! The goal does not necessarily have to do with having a "good body" for your costume. All body types are beautiful! However, stamina is the name of the game when it comes to Trinidad Carnival. All the wining and jumping you're going to do; the hours of sleep you are going to sacrifice, the nearly 100,000 steps you are going to walk throughout the week. Being fit will definitely come in handy.
TENTATIVE BUDGET (PER PERSON; DOUBLE OCCUPANCY)
Accommodations: $400 - $1,700
Flight: $450 - $1200
Transportation: $150 - $600
Fetes: $500 - $1000
Costume: $600 - $1900
J'ouvert band: $100 - $150
Spending Money (Food, Souvenirs & perhaps, a day trip to Tobago): $300 - $600
TOTAL: $2,500 - $7,150
Nah sis, no one is spending $7,150.
*nods in wtf*