[Note: While this article is focused Aruba, there’s a lot of universal tips that can be used on many vacations.]
Thank you for your patience over the last couple of weeks. Due to the kids’ school vacations, the best week for us to go on vacation is right before Christmas. That leaves us, as Bill Belichick would say, doing our Christmas shopping “In a two-minute drill with no timeouts.”
We spent the week in heavenly bliss in Aruba. It’s my favorite place on earth. There’s zero competition. Aruba has perfect weather, perfect dining, and relatively affordable luxury accommodations (more on those later). Lastly, since a few airlines fly directly from Boston for relatively cheap prices, there’s always a lot of Red Sox and Patriots fans there. That makes it what my wife likes to call, “South South Boston.”
Let’s back up and explain how I discovered Aruba. A college friend invited me down in or around 2000 or 2001 as he got to use his father’s time share. That’s where I learned how awesome Aruba was. Another college friend when down there and ended up buying a Marriott timeshare around 2003. After a few months of dating my wife, a friend had an open room and invited us down to use his timeshare. While down there, my wife-to-be decided to buy a timeshare at the same place for $19,000. (I joke that the timeshare was my dowry.)
Since then, we’ve either used, traded, or sold the week. I’d say that I’ve probably been to Aruba around 8 times now. It was difficult a few years with living on the west coast and pregnancies. Still, my 3 year old can say he’s been to Aruba 3 times, which is an absurd amount of privilege.
Back in 2007, I wrote an article on how to save money in Aruba. I added a few more tips in 2009. Today, I’m going to try to combine both articles with some new thoughts from my most recent trip last week. It’s a journey over 10 years so some things may not be as relevant as they once were. For example, we’ve mostly avoided the casinos as it isn’t a place for young kids. (Random thought: Casinos are really missing the boat in not providing kid care. Even my wife’s gym has that.)
Let’s get started…
Save Money in Aruba
You are going to need a few basic things in Aruba… or any vacation. For example:
I might as well start with the Marriott timeshare because that’s what I know most about. The timeshare can be used to sleep either 8 people for one week or 4 people for two weeks.
I’m on the fence as to whether the Marriott Vacation Club is a scam or not. A number of other people seem to be too as the article generated 110 comments. I’m going to defer to whatever I wrote in that article, but I haven’t reviewed it in a number of years, so I can just say it was my opinion at the time.
To understand how my opinion has changed, in 2007, I wrote:
“Before this trip, I considered the timeshare as an AT BEST a break-even venture. I would have recommended it to anyone. However, the same week now sells for $30,000 meaning that if my wife wanted to sell, she could make money (even though timeshare resales tend to depreciate). I’d say that $30,000 and maintenance fees are too expensive for the average person now.
In 2017, my view is very different. A few years ago, Marriott stopped selling weeks and instead sold “points” that you can use at any of their various properties. The unit we have would cost 3500 points nowadays according to this point chart. We didn’t do the sales presentation this year, so I don’t know how much they are selling weeks for now. However, I did find this information showing that it costs $13.84 to buy a point. Thus, to buy the same “week/value” today, one would have to spend $48,440 (3500 x $13.84).
It would seem like my wife’s $19,000 investment in the timeshare returned around 7.5% compounded interest over the last 13 years. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the case. We can’t sell our week (or points) back to Marriott for $48,000 or close to that (as best I can tell). That same friend who bought and invited us there decided to buy a different timeshare and talked to me about getting rid of it earlier this year.
That may sound crazy, but it’s not. The maintenance fee in 2004 was $811 if my memory serves. Today, my wife says it is north of $1800. That’s around 6.5% compounded annually (by my rough math). The US government’s calculator of inflation seems to show that $811 has the value of $1047.92 today. So there’s a difference of around $800 (maybe less) a year. To make that even worse, we bought the property new – when presumably maintenance costs should be at a minimum.
So while Marriott sold my wife on “vacation ownership”, it feels to me like it was closer to “maintenance fee ownership.” I think that’s why my friend was looking to get rid of it, but I admit to being a little too Lazy to review the email conversations.
This is a long-winded way of suggesting that you should be very careful about timeshares.
Here are my tips to save money staying in Aruba:
- Rent the Timeshare – Redweek.com has great deals on the very same timeshare that we have. You don’t have the upfront costs or the maintenance fee. We usually sell the smaller part of the unit of our timeshare on Redweek. It used to cover the maintenance fee, but it doesn’t come close now (hence the math rant above). If we sold our entire timeshare we might make $1000 a year or “break even” in 19 years. Of course if you bought now, you might need closer to 48 years of selling it.
- The Mill – We had a reason to stay an extra day once and snagged a stay at the windmill property. I think it is called The Mill, but they don’t seem to have a website on a quick Google search. I believe it was around $100 and it included a full fridge and a few other things. It’s a budget place, but a great value for the price.
- Take the Timeshare Pitch – If you are really good at saying no, then take the timeshare sales pitch. If memory serves, you will get gift cards that you can use at various restaurants around the island. However, I think some friends were able to use it to get a couple nights’ stay.
You are going to want to eat on your vacation. Aruba has some of my favorite food. The Argentinian beef is the best I’ve had outside of Wagyu (too pricey for me). The Dutch cheese is simply amazing.
Groceries: Breakfast and Lunches
If you have a timeshare, like we do, you have a full kitchen. On the first day we always go shopping for a week’s worth of food. For many years we’ve been going to the Ling and Sons grocery store, but we had sticker shock this time around. Between prices in Aruban Florins (AWG) and weight in kilograms, it was a little difficult to shop. Fortunately, most items had some prices in US dollars, which made it a lot easier. Still, apples were around a $6 for a small bag. We ended up opting for carrots and oranges, which were closer to $2.
In the past, we’ve been able to get 2-liters of “Basic Soda”, which is a generic cola for around $1 or $1.50. This time they only had real Coke or Pepsi for $3.50.
It was a real exercise to find the items that were priced close to what he had home. Striking the balance between “We are on vacation” and “Wow! This hurts my wallet” was difficult. Still, at the end of our shopping trip, we ended up spending around $225. In the past it was closer to $150 and we got better quality food.
I don’t know if this pricing is everywhere on the island, but we’ll try something else other than Ling and Sons in the future. In any event, $35 a day for our breakfasts, lunches, snacks, drinks, alcohol, etc. is a bargain. Buying a 2-liter of soda at the resorts can be $6, so you really want to avoid that if you can.
It’s interesting to compare with what I wrote in 2007:
“If you have a timeshare rental like I mentioned in hotel section, you’ll have at least a small fridge and a microwave and other things necessary to cook your own breakfast and lunches. You may even have a small stove and some cookware as we did. Take the Arubus to Ling and Sons and stock up for the week. We spent around $60 for breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. We didn’t do any major cooking (it’s vacation after all), but cold cuts and bread is not exactly work – even if you are as Lazy as I am. I saw a lot of people spend $5.50 on a two liter of Diet Coke in the hotel’s shop, but it was only $1.25 at the store in town.”
We haven’t taken the AruBus in years, but I remember it being a very good value and very easy to use. I can’t believe we only bought $60 of groceries back then. I seem to left off the alcohol back then.
You can certainly cook dinner and many people do. However, a sizable part of the Aruba experience is the restaurants. My wife and I agree that the two best places are El Gaucho and Texas de Brazil. We usually try one or two new restaurants during our stay. This particular stay we tried two. One was a tremnedous win. We will go back there every year. The other was tremendous loss. I can’t imagine going back.
This German restaurant was great. We loved everything and the kids loved the big fresh pretzels. There aren’t a lot of German restaurants around Rhode Island, but I’m tempted to try to find some more.
Loser: BLT Steak
My wife was able to get us a reservation which I guess is difficult to come by. I’m not sure why. We made the mistake of going here the first night after a long day of travel. The two kids weren’t on their best behavior which created stress from the start. That’s obviously not BLT Steak’s fault. However, the service was extremely slow. It might have been good for a leisurely date night, but when the kids are crazy 20 minutes before the main meal has arrived, it’s going to be a long night. Additionally, I wasn’t feeling well myself due to the travel. Again, that’s not on BLT Steak.
The pricing of BLT Steak was banana-pants crazy. The kids meal was $21. That consisted of pasta with butter and cheese and french fries. They had a hidden prix fixe sunset menut that my wife had to ask for (she did her research). For around $60 she got 3 courses, which a smaller entree. I decided to just get the $65 steak, which came with no sides. Sides are extra of course. I’ve had better steaks for $25. My 9 ounce local beer was $10 (or was it 10 ounces for $9?) Either way, I remember thinking, “At about a dollar an ounce, even ballpark prices would be cheaper.” I wasn’t particularly interested in the $17 glasses of wine.
The only way I see anyone getting value out of this place is if they wanted to show a date that they had plenty of money.
Where you decide to go for dinner it’s always best to get reservations. You can set many of them up online before you travel.
Because we’ve been to the island so many times we don’t really need to drive around to see all the sights. It’s a desert and there isn’t too much after the first couple of visits.
In the past we’ve been able to rent a car for $40 a day. That’s a very small car. With our family of four and our luggage we need something bigger now. We also need car seats which is more money. One thing we’ve realized is that the cars are always are smaller than you think. Even our mid-size car was like a Honda Civic. My wife spotted a deal on a pick-up truck and we are considering that next time. It’s crazy enough that we might just do it.
On arrival, we always get a rent-a-car from the airport to save on the cab costs. That car is also necessary for getting groceries on the first day. There are a few good places to eat dinner that are far from the main resorts on Palm Beach. We like to schedule one of these dinners while we have a car. My recommendation is El Gaucho.
There are quite a few casinos on the island. We can’t go there anymore due to the kids. Before the kids we’d go quite a bit (and gamble very small amounts of money).
The casinos compete heavily with each other, which means there are usually a lot of “match play” deals in coupon books and such. So for example, if you place a $10 bet with the match play on a roulette wheel (always bet on black), you’ll either win $20 or lose $10. You can do that at a few different casinos that are close together. With those odds we’d typically make $50 from the casinos. It’s not a lot, but it’s fun and essentially free money.
Aruba used to be a lot of cheaper than it is now. I know you can say that about a lot of things, but I’m usually able to limit the effects of the inflation monster. With some smart shopping it’s still possible.
In a few more years, the best way to save to money in Aruba might be to just try to make more money in other areas of your life and say, “Hey, it’s vacation!”
Some parts of this article originally published on Nov 21, 2007