Dos and Don’ts of visiting the Virgin Islands
Got a trip planned to the US Virgin Islands? They’re an amazing, historical, cultural, beautiful set of islands just east of Puerto Rico. Celebrating 100 years as part of the United States this year, it’s America… but not quite (in many great ways).
Having moved here from the US mainland nearly two years ago, a lot of friends and family regularly ask me what to do and not do when they visit, so I put together a list and figured it was worth posting. Here are some of my dos and don’ts for when you visit the USVI. This is mainly applicable to the islands of Saint Thomas and Saint John.
Yes, any other resident will likely offer a different perspective, but this one’s mine. If you’ve got some others, feel free to respond and comment!
And if you’re looking for ideas on where to eat, what activities to do, which beaches to visit, etc., check out my sample itineraries.
Before you arrive
- Call your cell phone provider now to find out what the roaming situation is. For example, with my mainland phone on Verizon, I got texts and data the same as Stateside (no extra charge, surprisingly), but phone calls were $1.99/min. AT&T and Choice are the big service providers; Verizon, T-Mobile, and other mainland services will be roaming.
- Bring your passport. While it’s not required if you limit yourself to the USVI, it’s easier to get through Customs on your way back to the mainland. And it’s required if you plan to visit the British Virgin Islands or other non-American islands.
- Bring some cash. The ATM fees here are usually around $5 and sometimes your bank will hit you with a “foreign transaction fee” in addition to that. It sucks. If you have Bank of America, ATMs run by Scotia Bank are free.
- Request to join the What’s Going On Saint Thomas Facebook group. You can follow this to stay up on events, goings-on, ask questions, etc. Ignore the drama and you’ll find it useful.
- Download TripAdvisor to your phone. Yelp hasn’t caught on much here. Most attractions and restaurants are well-documented on TripAdvisor.
- Limit yourself to a carry-on if you can. Our airport is not the most efficient in the world. You won’t want to tack on another 45 min waiting for a checked bag if you can help it. Sorry Port Authority.
- Bring a book bag/backpack you can use for the beach. Good for bringing your stuff along on a hike. Make sure you’re okay getting sand in it.
- Bring a beach towel if it’ll fit.
- Bring a camera! The views are astounding!
- Bring too much stuff. A few shirts, a few shorts, a couple sundresses, a bathing suit, some flip flops, and toiletries. I guess underwear is a plus.
- Bring drugs. You’ll get caught en-route.
- Worry too much about having room to bring back souvenirs. If you find something you want to purchase, USPS prices are the same here as they are on the mainland. The “if it fits, it ships” boxes can be a godsend.
While You’re Here
- Greet people with “good morning”, “good afternoon”, and “good night” at the appropriate times of day. This will buy you some love from the locals. It makes a difference. Yes, “good night” as the greeting, not “good evening”.
- Adopt the “island time” mentality. Everything is slower here. Don’t let that bother you. You have nowhere special to go, see, or do. If you’re late, who cares?
- Drive on the left!
- Honk (quick double-tap, not long ones) in thanks when someone lets you 1) into traffic or 2) take a right turn (mainland version of a left turn).
- Respond to a thank-you honk with a you’re-welcome honk. It’s tacky to not show your appreciation.
- Carry an island map with you at all times.
- Try to maximize engine braking when going down hills. Brakes are known to fail when used excessively on our steep slopes.
- Speed limits are looked at as suggestions. But be careful: many of the roads are steep, winding curves.
- Look right when crossing the street.
- Stick to bottled water. Our tap and cistern water is clean, but doesn’t taste good in my opinion. Fine to brush your teeth with, shower in, and cook with, but I limit my non-boiled ingestion.
- Turn your phone on airplane mode if/when you go to Saint John. STJ gets regular whiffs of service from the nearby British Virgin Islands, which counts as international roaming and can sometimes leave you with major fees you didn’t even know you were racking up.
- Examine your change when paying with cash; there have been some issues with counterfeit currency here in the recent past. You don’t want to end up as the unlucky sucker who gets a fake $50 bill and can’t spend it without worry of breaking the law.
- Feel free to drink in public. We have no open container laws here. Also, take advantage of the “I’ll get one to go” mentality. It’s amazing. You can even drink in the car. Technically, it’s legal to drink while driving. Drunk driving is, of course, illegal.
- Worry about cell service. The entire island is pretty much covered for all major providers. That said, to limit roaming (if it’s an issue with your plan), take advantage of wireless access (many businesses and restaurants have free wifi), so you can use FaceTime/Google Hangout/Skype for calls/video and WhatsApp/iMessage for texting people on the mainland.
- Worry about credit cards. They’re accepted pretty much everywhere.
- Worry about sales tax. The sticker price is what you pay. We are a fully sales tax-free zone! (At least for now.)
- Worry about language. English is the dominant language.
- Expect mainland prices. Everything is more expensive here, sometimes up to twice as much. Restaurants can cost 50% more. Groceries can be 25% more. Although we have no sales tax, so that’s nice. Gas is usually at least a dollar more per gallon than major east coast cities.
- Succumb to road rage. We drive on the left, people are impatient when red lights turn green, they’re aggressive and will force their way into lanes, and drivers tailgate like they’re being graded on it. It’s the only exception to the island-time mentality. Get used to it.
- Even bother asking for directions. Try your best with a map or Google Maps. Nobody here uses the route numbers; most roads don’t have names; directions are always given in a subjective “take a left at the big tree” way. You’ll go crazy trying to find anything. Respect to everyone who can get around this way, but I definitely can’t.
- Expect Google Maps to work well. It’ll tell you where you are, but can’t always be trusted with directions. Always have a physical map.
- Have high expectations for customer service. It’s not a thing at most establishments here, for whatever reason.
- Expect air conditioning in most establishments. Some places, especially larger, chain places, will have it, but local eateries mostly don’t. The ever-present breeze will keep you generally refreshed while you’re here.
- Expect mainland food chains. We don’t have many. And I avoid fast food chains. They are slower than regular restaurants in many instances. No exaggeration.
On Your Way Out
- Remember to check in online for your flight as early as possible. We recently got added to the airports that can use mobile boarding passes. Woohoo! But TSA Pre-check isn’t 100%. You can leave your shoes on, but you have to remove your laptop and liquids.
- Expect to be at the airport super early if you’re flying American Airlines. This is why. It’s screwed up, I know.
- Have your passport ready at the airport.
- Be ready to talk to Customs. But don’t worry about completing a form. It’s a verbal interaction now. They usually ask where you were born, why you were here, where you might have gone, whether you have any foodstuff, on you, and how much alcohol and tobacco you’re returning to the States with.
- Read this so you know how many goods you’re allowed to bring home. Because we’re in a duty-free zone, you’re limited to how much alcohol, tobacco, and other purchases you’re allowed to bring home tax-free. If you end up on a shopping spree and go over the limited amount, you can always ship your stuff home for pretty cheap.
- Lie to Customs.
- Try to bring back drugs
- Forget to come back. It’s pretty nice here.
Note: All photos are copyright © Matt Wade unless otherwise mentioned.