Our family recently returned from a fun-filled vacation in sunny Puerto Rico. It’s a great place to visit if you want to experience a bit of the exotic, but are hesitant to leave the comforts of the known.
Because it’s a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico has a familiar feel but definitely has its own, unique personality and local culture. Several of our friends asked us about traveling to Puerto Rico, which prompted me to compile the following list of 10 Puerto Rico travel tips to help you plan a visit to this beautiful Caribbean island:
NO PASSPORT OR CHANGE OF CURRENCY NEEDED
Some people may not realize that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States; therefore a passport is not required for American citizens traveling to and from this island. This also means that you will be able to save some time by not having to pass through immigration and customs upon arrival or departure. Other conveniences for U.S. mainland visitors include using U.S. dollars, no foreign transaction fees for credit card charges and no roaming charges for cell phones.
PRACTICE YOUR SPANISH
Both Spanish and English are official languages in Puerto Rico, but Puerto Ricans prefer, not surprisingly, to communicate in Spanish. Outside the capital of San Juan, you are likely to hear Puerto Rican Spanish, a dialect infused with elements of the indigenous Taino people.
Many people do speak English, but I always feel it is a nice courtesy to try and speak some of the local language. You don’t have to be fluent, but I suggest learning or brushing up on a few useful phrases such as common greetings (¡Hola! ¡Buenos Días!), how to order food or drinks (¡Una piña colada, por favor!) or ask for directions (¿Dónde está…?). It’s one of those things that make travel and experience with different cultures special, and the locals always appreciate it!
Puerto Rico is on the Atlantic Standard Time Zone and does not participate in daylight savings. From October to April, Puerto Rico is one hour later than the U.S. mainland’s Eastern Standard Time. The rest of the year, Puerto Rico has the same time as the Eastern Time Zone.
WHEN TO GO?
This is debatable, but keep in mind that the crowds on the island are thickest December through April when North American tourists are looking to escape the cold and low temperatures of winter. Often this also means higher prices, so if you have flexibility, I would advise scheduling your trip outside this window.
However, you should also be aware that summer is the rainy season in the Caribbean. Though rain can occur from late May to early October, August in particular can be a wet month. Additionally, June to October are considered the hurricane season. For this reason, “shoulder season” (late April/May and late October/November) may be an optimal time to visit the Puerto Rico.
DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE OCEAN OR THE SUN
The national anthem of Puerto Rico refers to the island as “being the daughter of sun and the sea,” which are two main reasons this island attracts so many tourists. However, you should exercise some caution with both during your stay.
Many of the ocean areas surrounding Puerto Rico are known for their very strong currents and riptides. During our visit, we were told that many beach areas used to have prominent signs alerting the tourists to such danger, but were subsequently removed as the Puerto Rican government felt they were hurting tourism.
No need to worry, however, as there are also many safe places to swim, particularly in the proximity of the island’s many hotels and resorts. For example, Caribe Hilton, the wonderful family friendly resort where we stayed, has a fantastic lagoon and private beach. Bottom line, exercise caution when it comes to places off the beaten path and closely watch all swimmers, even older kids and teens, that may be traveling with you.
The same caution goes for the sun. If you are thinking to yourself, “Duh,” let me just say that our family has traveled to many tropical places before, and we are all blessed with skin that is not particularly sensitive to the sun. However, we were all sunburned on this vacation faster than we would have expected. Be especially thoughtful as you “just” walk around places like San Juan and make sure you apply a high SPF sunscreen regularly. It’s no fun being uncomfortable or worse, in pain, during your vacation.
THERE IS MUCH MORE TO PUERTO RICO THAN SUN AND BEACHES
You should definitely spend some time simply enjoying the beautiful beaches and warm waters of Puerto Rico. However, take an opportunity to also soak in the island’s rich past and culture, keeping in mind that this island has so much more to offer than the beaches.
For example, picturesque old San Juan is full of charm and history, which will be particularly appreciated by older kids. Our 11 year-old son was fascinated by the city wall and the Fort San Felipe del Morro.
The El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system, is slightly more than a 30 minute drive from the capital and, with its lush vegetation and many beautiful waterfalls, offers a refreshing break from the sun-drenched beaches and heat of San Juan.
Puerto Rico also boasts two bioluminescent bays, one in Fajardo (easier to access from San Juan) and the other one on the island of Vieques. The spectacular display of micro-organisms, which glow neon blue whenever the water is disturbed is best seen at night and left our family in awe of mother nature.
There are countless other opportunities to explore the island, as well as some of its surrounding smaller islands, via one of the many tour companies or at your own pace, by renting a car.
RENTING A CAR
Our family chose to rent a car and if you prefer to do the same, here are some things to keep in mind. First, you should know that you will be asked to show a copy of your proof of insurance. You may be able to pull it up on your smart phone, but it might be a good idea to bring a paper copy just in case.
Also note that all of Puerto Rico’s major highways are toll roads. All rental cars use an electronic toll payment system similar to what you may be used to in your city, but this will result in a separate charge to your credit card, in addition to your rental car charge. We used Hertz and were charged $5.00/day plus tolls. It does not matter whether you are driving your rental car or not, this is a daily charge once activated.
A few more helpful Puerto Rico travel tips as you plan your drive around the island: Distances are posted in kilometers, but the speed limits are in miles (interesting!). Many highways have a maximum speed limit of 50 miles/hour; a few are higher. Lastly, gas is sold on a per liter basis (vs. in gallons on the mainland).
BRING SHOES THAT ARE MADE FOR WALKING
Even though car rentals and taxis are easy to come by, some parts of the island are best experienced by walking or hiking. Two great examples are the charming, but hilly and cobblestone-paved old San Juan and the many beautiful, but at times rocky and slippery trails of the El Yunque rainforest. Make sure you pack some good walking shoes in addition to flips flops.
USE YOUR CREDIT CARDS, BUT HAVE CASH READY FOR TAXIS
I always like to avoid bringing large amounts of cash when traveling, so it was comforting to know that most places on the island take debit and credit cards. ATMs are also fairly easy to find, especially around the capital. (Just like at home, normal out-of-network ATM fees apply.) I should point out that all of the taxis we hired in and around San Juan did not accept credit cards, so make sure to bring cash if you plan on taking taxis.
When it’s time to wrap up your vacation and go home, make sure to go through the U.S. Agricultural Inspection prior to check in for your flight because no bags can be checked unless they have a sticker indicating that they have been scanned and approved. Our terminal did not have clear signs, and we ended up dragging our bags to the check-in line, only to be told we had to turn around, go back outside and put our bags through the scanners.
Also, it is helpful to know in advance that the U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits many fruit and vegetables from being brought back onto the mainland. Therefore, you may not want to purchase fruit as snacks for your flight home as I did, only to have to toss it all out while going through security. Hopefully with this advice, you can avoid any extra hassles.
We hope these Puerto Rico travel tips will help you plan a wonderful trip! Let us know if you have any additional questions; our team would be happy to help.
This article was originally published by Hilton Mom Voyage.