Getting there & away
Unless you are an American or Canadian citizen, you need a scannable passport to enter Puerto Rico. No passport is automatically denied, but in the high-scrutiny world of airports, you can expect to garner some extra attention or questioning from officials if you have stamps showing recent travel to countries known for drug trafficking.
If you are asked to step aside, the best thing to do is stay calm and answer the questions as best you can.
Carry a photocopy of your passport separately from your passport. Copy the pages with your photo and personal details, passport number and US visa. In the event of loss, call your local consulate or embassy. You can find your consulate’s telephone number by dialing information on the island (411). To reach your embassy, call directory assistance for Washington DC (202-555-1212). See also Visas.
The easiest and cheapest way to book tickets is through the website of any major carrier. Many offer discounted fares online that aren’t available over the phone or through a travel agency. For North Americans, the ‘no-frills’ carriers that don’t offer any meal service or other amenities but get you to your destination expeditiously are usually the best deals. Most of these tickets are nonrefundable but can be held and used again if something keeps you from flying on the appointed day. Other websites known to offer discounted fares:
If you have any particular needs – traveling with children, taking a guide dog, kosher or vegan meal requests – it’s always better to book directly with the company over the phone or through a travel agent.
At holiday times travelers to Puerto Rico will probably find it difficult to get the flights and fares they want unless they plan – and purchase their tickets – well in advance. Holiday times include Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
San Juan is the second-largest port for cruise ships in the Western Hemisphere (after Miami). More than 24 vessels call San Juan their home port or departure port, and every year new cruise ships either originate sailings in San Juan or make San Juan a port of call. More than one million cruise-ship passengers pass through San Juan per year. Their ships dock at the piers along Calle La Marina near the Customs House and the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino, just a short walk from the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.
Per diem prices vary according to the standard of the ship, but you will be lucky to pay less than $1700 for a seven-day cruise out of San Juan. However, this price will probably include your airfare and transfers to the ship, as well as all your meals and entertainment.
The Cruise Line International Association (CLIA; 212-921-0066; www.cruising.org; 500 Fifth Ave, No 1407, New York, NY 10110) provides information on cruising and individual lines. Or you can contact the cruise lines directly:
Carnival Cruise Lines (800-327-9501)
Celebrity Cruise Lines (800-437-3111)
Club Med Cruises (212-997-2100)
First European Cruises (888-893-8767)
Holland American Line (800-628-4855)
Mediterranean Shipping Cruises (800-628-4855)
Norwegian Cruise Line (800-327-7030)
Princess Cruises (800-421-0522)
Radisson Seven Seas (800-285-1835)
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (800-327-6700)
For a true seafaring adventure, consider the ocean-going ferry between Mayagüez, on Puerto Rico’s west coast, and Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Currently the massive rainbow-colored ship sails three or four days a week in each direction.
Transportation Services Virgin Islands (340-776-6282) runs an irregular ferry service between Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, with ferries leaving Fajardo twice a month.
Even if you are continuing immediately to another city, the first airport that you land in is where you must carry out immigration and customs formalities. The customs process can be quick and painless or it can involve a more prolonged exchange between you and officials.
A certain number of passengers are set aside to be searched randomly on just about every flight. You may be tapped, and it may be for no reason other than that your number came up.
Customs officials are mostly focused on excluding those who are likely to work illegally or overstay their welcome in Puerto Rico, so visitors will be asked about their plans and perhaps about whether they have sufficient funds for their stay.
It’s a good idea to be able to list an itinerary that will account for the period for which you ask to be admitted, and to be able to show you have $300 to $400 for every week of your intended stay. These days, a couple of major credit cards will go a long way toward establishing ‘sufficient funds.’
Remember that the list of items that can’t be brought on to airplanes now includes many implements used by divers, campers and hikers. Check the US State Department (www.state.gov) for an updated list, and make sure you check those bags.
Flights, tours and rail tickets can be booked online at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_services.
Airfares to Caribbean destinations such as Puerto Rico vary tremendously depending on the season you travel, the day of the week you fly, the length of your stay and the flexibility the ticket allows for flight changes and refunds. Still, nothing determines fares more than demand, and when things are slow, regardless of the season, airlines will lower their fares to fill empty seats.
San Juan’s recently modernized Aeropuerto Internacional de Luis Muñoz Marín – commonly shortened to LMM – lies just 2 miles beyond the eastern border of the city in the beachfront suburb of Isla Verde. Chances are that you will be arriving and departing from the airport in San Juan, but Aguadilla’s Aeropuerto Rafael Hernández, at the former Ramey Base on the island’s northwest tip, has some scheduled international flights from the US (mainly New York). Ponce and Mayagüez each have a small airport for domestic flights. San Juan’s original airport at Isla Grande, on the Bahía de San Juan in the Miramar district, services private aircraft and the bulk of the commuter flights to the Puerto Rican islands of Culebra and Vieques.
Puerto Rico is the most accessible island in the Caribbean. San Juan is served by a number of North American carriers that fly between Puerto Rico and a score of mainland US cities; Miami has the most frequent flights. British Airways has services from London, Iberia flies from Madrid and Lufthansa’s subsidiary Condor provides travelers with a link from Frankfurt.
Two well-known agents for cheap fares are STA Travel (1300 360 960; www.statravel.com.au), which has offices in major cities and on many university campuses, and Flight Centre (13 16 00; www.flightcentre.com.au), which has dozens of offices throughout Australia.
Qantas flies to Los Angeles from Sydney, Melbourne (via Sydney or Auckland) and Cairns. United flies to San Francisco from Sydney and Auckland (via Sydney), and also flies to Los Angeles. Connector flights are available to San Juan.
Canadian discount air-ticket sellers are also known as consolidators, and their airfares tend to be about 10% higher than those sold in the USA.
Many flights to San Juan from Central and South America are routed through Miami, Houston or New York. A few countries’ international flag carriers, such as Lacsa and Mexicana, fly directly to San Juan from Latin American cities.
Puerto Rico’s link to Antigua, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad is American Airlines and BWIA. ALM Antillean Airlines also has flights to/from Puerto Rico connecting to Aruba, Bonaire, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela and St Maarten.
Though London is the travel-discount capital of Europe, there are several other cities where you will find a range of good deals. Generally, there is not much variation in airfare prices from the main European cities. The major airlines and travel agents usually have a number of deals on offer, so shop around.
France has a network of student travel agencies that can supply discount tickets to travelers of all ages. OTU Voyages (0820 817 817; www.otu.fr) and Voyageurs du Monde (01 42 86 16 40; www.vdm.com) have branches throughout the country and offer some of the best services and deals.
STA Travel (0800 874 773; www.statravel.co.nz) is a good source of information, andFlight Centre (0800 243 544; www.flightcentre.co.nz) also has a lot of options. New Zealanders might also want to look at www.roundtheworldflights.com, which has lists of carriers from all over the place who fly to Puerto Rico via Wellington.
Discount air travel is big business in London. Advertisements for travel agencies appear in the travel pages of the weekend broadsheet newspapers and in Time Out.
For students or travelers under 26 years, a popular travel agency in the UK is STA Travel (0870 160 0599; www.statravel.co.uk), which has branches across the country. STA sells tickets to all travelers, but caters especially to young people and students.
British Airways offers daily connecting flights to San Juan through Miami. Several other airlines feed Miami and Fort Lauderdale from the UK, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic. American Airlines offers a connecting service to San Juan.
The Globetrotters Club (www.globetrotters.co.uk; BCM Roving, London WC1N 3XX) publishes a newsletter called Globe that covers obscure destinations, and can help you find traveling companions. Check the free magazines widely available in London – start by looking outside the main railway stations.
The most popular routes to Puerto Rico from the US are via New York and Miami, but direct flights from about a dozen other cities in the continental US also serve the island. Some carriers now offer continued service through San Juan to Ponce and Aguadilla, or they fly directly into Aguadilla’s airport. Almost all major carriers fly to Puerto Rico; Jet Blue is currently the most popular and economical option.
STA Travel (800-781-4040; www.statravel.com) has offices in all major cities.
In addition to the scores of online ticket vendors, a few ‘old-school’ discount ticket agencies sell reduced-rate tickets to the Caribbean by telephone and by placing small advertisements in newspapers like the New York Times. Sometimes these vendors can come up with fares well below internet fares. Try Pan Express Travel (212-719-9292; www.panexpresstravel.com; 25 W 39th St, New York, NY 10018).