Money & costs
The good news is that Puerto Rico on a budget is possible. The bad news is that you’ll need a lot of ingenuity to achieve it. Stay in the big resorts and eat in the better restaurants and prices on the island are comparable to any large US city. But step outside of the standard tourist sector and into a público (shared taxi) or friquitines (roadside kiosk), and you could be laughing all the way to the bank.
Transport is the first big issue. Puerto Rico has swallowed the US car culture hook, line and sinker, meaning that there is no decent countrywide rail or bus system. Thus the only viable means of getting around for those without a car is by the hard-to-fathom público system that links the commonwealth’s main towns via a fleet of 15-seater minibuses. Using públicos requires reams of patience and plenty of street savvy, but if you master the basics you’ll quickly end up saving buckets of money – for example, the San Juan–Fajardo run costs $80 in a taxi but only $5 by público. Fortunately for capital dwellers, San Juan has an excellent public transportation system enabling travelers to cross the city (and dodge the notorious traffic jams) for less than a dollar. Don’t even think about renting a car here.
Food is cheaper if you stick to the shabbier, traditional places that, more often than not, serve up formidable home-style cooking. A small step up (but not extortionate) are the government-sponsored Mesónes Gastronómicos listed in the free tourist magazine Qué Pasa, available from tourist info centers and many hotels. Kiosks are another reliable option and most towns have their ever-ready cluster of mobile street vendors dispatching tasty – though not always healthy – snacks. For a sweet dessert, drop by one of the island’s ubiquitous (and cheap) bakeries. A full blown comida criolla (traditional cuisine) meal in a family restaurant should cost no more than $10. At a Mesón Gastronómico, bank on $10 to $15. If you’re really strapped for cash, hit the fast food franchises that haunt almost every town in the country. Breakfast and lunch will rarely set you back more than $5 if you eat like the locals – in small bakeries, tavernas and at the friquitines, which sell salty, deep-fried snacks. Restaurant dinners can range from $8 to $30 and up.
Some of the best deals on the island come in a glass during happy hour, when mixed drinks can go as low as $2. Even during normal hours drinks rarely jump above $4 (outside of the pricier places in San Juan, of course).
Accommodations are likely to be your biggest investment in Puerto Rico. The best midrange options are in the government-sponsored paradores that lie scattered across the island. Prices range from $75 to $150 per night depending on the season, and facilities, while not luxurious, are invariably quirky and family-friendly. Real budget accommodations are woefully lacking and generally confined to camping, cabins and a few inferior hotels. If you’re sticking around for a week or more you may want to look into renting an apartment. With the right number of people and flexibility with your dates you could cut a deal worth about $60 per person per night.
On the island, tipping is in order in restaurants and better hotels. Taxi drivers, hairdressers and baggage carriers expect tips, and waiters and bartenders rely on tips for their livelihoods. Tip 15% unless the service is terrible (in which case a complaint to the manager is warranted), or about 20% if the service is great. Never tip in fast-food, take-out or buffet-style restaurants where you serve yourself. Baggage carriers in airports and hotels get $2 for the first bag and $1 for each additional bag. In hotels with daily housekeeping staff, leave a few dollars in the room when you check out – ask at the desk regarding the appropriate amount per day. In budget hotels, tips are not expected, but are always appreciated.
Puerto Rico uses US currency. The US dolar or peso (dollar) is divided into 100 cents (¢). Coins come in denominations of 1¢, called the centavo or chavito (penny); 5¢, called the villon or ficha (nickel); 10¢ (dime); 25¢, called the peseta (quarter); and the seldom-seen 50¢ (half-dollar) coin. Quarters are the most commonly used coins in vending machines and parking meters, so it’s handy to have a stash of them. Notes, commonly called bills, come in $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 denominations – $2 bills are rare but perfectly legal. There is also a $1 coin that the government has tried unsuccessfully to bring into mass circulation; you may get them as change from ticket and stamp machines. Be aware that they look similar to quarters.
Called ATHs in Puerto Rico for a todos horas (at all hours), ATMs are a convenient way of obtaining cash from a bank account back home. Even many small-town banks in the middle of nowhere have ATMs. They are common in most shopping areas and are often available 24 hours a day.
There are various ATM networks, and most banks in Puerto Rico are affiliated with several. Exchange, Accel, Plus and Cirrus are the predominant networks. For a nominal service charge, you can withdraw cash from an ATM using a credit card or a charge card. Some American banks take advantage of Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status to charge a hefty $7 dollar fee on each ‘international’ withdrawal you make.
Major credit cards are accepted at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, shops and car rental agencies throughout Puerto Rico. In fact, you’ll find it hard to perform certain transactions, such as renting a car or purchasing tickets to performances, without one.
Even if you loathe credit cards and prefer to rely on traveler’s checks and ATMs, it’s a good idea to carry one for emergencies. If you’re planning to rely primarily upon credit cards, it would be wise to have a Visa or MasterCard in your deck, since other cards aren’t as widely accepted.
If you should lose your credit cards or they are stolen, contact the company immediately. Contact your bank if you lose your ATM card.
Following are toll-free numbers for the main credit-card companies:
American Express (800-528-4800)
Diners Club (800-234-6377)
Most banks on the island will exchange cash or traveler’s checks in major foreign currencies, though banks in outlying areas don’t do so very often, and it may take them some time. It is probably less of a hassle to exchange foreign currency in San Juan.
Banco Popular (787-791-0326; 8am-4pm) has a currency-exchange office in Terminal C at the Luis Muñoz Marín (LMM) airport. You can also exchange currency at just about any Banco Popular office in the capital San Juan.
Though carrying cash is more risky, it’s still a good idea to travel with some for the convenience. Make sure you carry small bills though, as outside of banks, few places can break $50s or $100s – even $20s are sometimes too much. Cash is useful to help pay all those tips, and some smaller, more remote places may not accept credit cards or traveler’s checks.
Carry copies of your traveler’s check numbers and credit card numbers separately.
There is no national sales tax (such as VAT) in the US or Puerto Rico, but almost everything you pay for on the island is taxed. You also won’t see a sales tax or a restaurant tax, but there is a 9% accommodation tax in most guesthouses and motels, and if you stay in a hotel with a casino, expect the amount to jump to 15%. There’s also a 5% tax on jewelry sold on the island.