Made up of 700 islands—some busy and bustling, some isolated and inhabited by no one but hermit crabs and seagulls—the Bahamas offers an alluring mix of land and sea activities. From Nassau to Eleuthera, you can play golf on a seaside fairway, dive dramatic wrecks and reefs, and sail in crystal clear water. Accommodations run the gamut from simple inns to sophisticated retreats, from practical fishing lodges to romantic honeymoon hideaways. And for those who look a little closer, there’s a fascinating and diverse culture to be explored.
EXPLORE THE BAHAMAS
Most international flights to the Bahamas connect through airports in Florida, New York, Charlotte, or Atlanta. The busiest airport in the Bahamas is in Nassau, which has the most connections to the more remote Out Islands. If you’re traveling to these more remote islands, you might have to make a connection in both Florida and Nassau—and you still may have to take a ferry or a water taxi to your final destination.
A direct flight from New York City to Nassau takes approximately three hours. The flight from Charlotte to Nassau is two hours, and the flight from Miami to Nassau takes about an hour. Most flights between the islands of the Bahamas take less than an hour. You’ll probably spend more time on the ground waiting than in the air.
The major gateways to the Bahamas include Lynden Pindling International Airport (NAS) on New Providence Island, and Freeport Grand Bahama International Airport (FPO) on Grand Bahama Island. There are no hotels near either airport.
Air service to the Bahamas varies seasonally, with the biggest choice of flights usually available in the Christmas to Easter window.
Local carriers come and go, especially in the Out Islands, which are served mostly by smaller commuter and charter operations. Schedules change frequently. The smallest cays may have scheduled service only a few days a week. In the Out Islands, ask your hotel for flight recommendations, as they are likely to have the most up-to-date information on carriers and schedules; some can even help you book air travel.
If you’re adventurous and have time to spare, take a ferry or one of the traditional mail boats that regularly leave Nassau from Potter’s Cay, under the Paradise Island Bridge. Although fast, modern, air-conditioned boats now make some of the trips, certain remote destinations are still served by slow, old-fashioned craft. Especially if you choose the mail-boat route, you may even find yourself sharing company with goats or chickens, and making your way on deck through piles of lumber and crates of cargo; on these lumbering mail boats, expect to spend 5 to 12 or more hours slowly making your way between island outposts. These boats operate on Bahamian time, which is a casual unpredictable measure, and the schedules can be thrown off by bad weather. Mail boats cannot generally be booked in advance, and services are limited. In Nassau, check details with the dockmaster’s office at Potter’s Cay. One-way trips can cost from $35 to $100.
Within the Bahamas, Bahamas Ferries has the most (and most comfortable) options for island-hopping, with air-conditioned boats that offer food and beverages served by cabin attendants. Schedules do change rather frequently; if you’re planning to ferry back to an island to catch a flight, check and double-check the departure times, and build in extra time in case the weather’s bad or the boat inexplicably doesn’t make the trip you’d planned on. Ferries serve most of the major tourist destinations from Nassau, including Spanish Wells, Governor’s Harbour, Harbour Island, Abaco, Exuma, and Andros. The high-speed ferry that runs between Nassau and Spanish Wells, Governor’s Harbour, and Harbour Island costs $81 one-way, and takes about two hours each way.
Local ferries in the Out Islands transport islanders and visitors from the main island to smaller cays. Usually, these ferries make several round-trips daily, and keep a more punctual schedule than the longer-haul ferry.
It’s possible to get to Grand Bahama by ferry from Florida. Balearia Bahamas Express sails from Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades (Terminal 1) and provides fast ferry service, making a day trip possible, while Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line sails from the Port of Palm Beach in Riviera Beach and is more like a small cruise ship, though hotel packages can include transportation to Grand Bahamas.
If you’re setting sail yourself, note that cruising boats must clear customs at the nearest port of entry before beginning any diving or fishing. The fee is $150 for boats up to 30 feet and $300 for boats longer than 30 feet, which includes fishing permits and departure tax for up to three people. Each additional person above the age of three will be charged the $25 departure tax. Stays of longer than 12 months must be arranged with Bahamas customs and immigration officials.
International rental agencies are generally in Nassau, and you will rent from privately-owned companies on the small islands. Be warned that you might have to settle for a rusty heap that doesn’t have working seat belts. Check it out thoroughly before you leave. And assume that companies won’t have car seats—bring your own.
To rent a car, you must be 21 years of age or older.
It’s common to hire a driver with a van, and prices are negotiable. Most drivers charge by the half-day or full-day, and prices depend on the stops and distance, although half-day tours are generally $50 to $100 for one to four people. Full-day tours are $100 to $200. It’s customary to pay for the driver’s lunch. All tour guides in the Bahamas are required to take a tourism course, pass a test to be a guide, and are required to get a special license to operate a taxi.
The cost of fuel in the Bahamas is usually at least twice that in the United States, and be prepared to pay in cash. Stations may be few and far between on the Out Islands. Keep the tank full. You can ask for a handwritten receipt if printed ones are not available. Gas stations may be closed Sunday.
There are few parking meters in the Bahamas, none in downtown Nassau. Police are lenient with visitors’ rental cars parked illegally and will generally just ask the driver to move it. Parking spaces are hard to find in Nassau, so be prepared to park on a side street and walk. Most hotels offer off-street parking for guests. There are few parking lots not associated with hotels.
In case of a road emergency, stay in your vehicle with your emergency flashers engaged and wait for help, especially after dark. If someone stops to help, relay information through a small opening in the window. If it’s daylight and help does not arrive, walk to the nearest phone and call for help. In the Bahamas, motorists readily stop to help drivers in distress.
Ask for emergency numbers at the rental office when you pick up your car. These numbers vary from island to island. On smaller islands the owner of the company may want you to call him at his home.
Rules of the Road
Remember, like the British, islanders drive on the left side of the road, which can be confusing because most cars are American with the steering wheel on the left. It is illegal, however, to make a left-hand turn on a red light. Many streets in downtown Nassau are one-way. Roundabouts pose further confusion to Americans. Remember to keep left and yield to oncoming traffic as you enter the roundabout and at “Give Way” signs.
There are taxis waiting at every airport and outside all the main hotels and cruise-ship docks. Beware of “hackers”—drivers who don’t display their license (and may not have one). Sometimes you can negotiate a fare, but you must do so before you enter the taxi.
You’ll find that Bahamian taxi drivers are more talkative than their U.S. counterparts. When you take a taxi to dinner or to town, it’s common for the driver to wait and take you back, which doesn’t cost more. A 15% tip is suggested.
Food and Water
The major health risk in the Bahamas is traveler’s diarrhea. This is most often caused by ingesting fruits, shellfish, and drinks to which your body is unaccustomed. Go easy at first on new foods such as mangoes, conch, and rum punch. There are rare cases of contaminated fruit, vegetables, or drinking water.
If you’re susceptible to digestive problems, avoid ice, uncooked food, and unpasteurized milk and milk products, and stick to bottled water, or water that has been boiled for several minutes, even when brushing your teeth.
Drink plenty of purified water or tea; chamomile is a good folk remedy. In severe cases, rehydrate yourself with a salt-sugar solution (½ teaspoon salt and 4 tablespoons sugar per quart of water).
Do not fly within 24 hours of scuba diving. Always know where your nearest decompression chamber is before you embark on a dive expedition, and how you would get there in an emergency. The only chambers in the Bahamas are in Nassau and San Salvador, and emergency cases are often sent to Miami.
Bahamas Hyperbaric Centre. 242/362–5765.
Bahamas Medical Center. Gambier, New Providence Island. 242/302–4610; www.bahamasmedicalcenter.com.
No-see-ums (sand fleas) and mosquitoes can be bothersome. Some travelers have allergies to sand-flea bites, and the itching can be extremely annoying. To prevent the bites, use a recommended bug repellent. To ease the itching, rub alcohol on the bites. Some Out Island hotels provide sprays or repellents but it’s a good idea to bring your own.
Basking in the sun is one of the great pleasures of a Bahamian vacation, but take precautions against sunburn and sunstroke.
On a sunny day, even people who are not normally bothered by strong sun should cover up with a long-sleeve shirt, a hat, and pants or a beach wrap while on a boat or midday at the beach. Carry UVA/UVB sunblock (with an SPF of at least 15) for your face and other sensitive areas. If you’re engaging in water sports, be sure the sunscreen is waterproof.
Wear sunglasses, because eyes are particularly vulnerable to direct sun and reflected rays. Drink enough liquids—water or fruit juice preferably—and avoid coffee, tea, and alcohol. Above all, limit your sun time for the first few days until you become accustomed to the rays. Do not be fooled by an overcast day. The safest hours for sunbathing are 4–6 pm, but even then it’s wise to limit initial exposure.
Medical Insurance and Assistance
The most serious accidents and illnesses may require an airlift to the United States—most likely to a hospital in Florida. The costs of a medical evacuation can quickly run into the thousands of dollars, and your personal health insurance may not cover such costs. If you plan to pursue inherently risky activities, such as scuba diving, or if you have an existing medical condition, check your policy to see what’s covered.
Consider buying trip insurance with medical-only coverage. Neither Medicare nor some private insurers cover medical expenses anywhere outside the United States. Medical-only policies typically reimburse you for medical care (excluding that related to preexisting conditions) and hospitalization abroad, and provide for evacuation. You still have to pay the bills and await reimbursement from the insurer, though.
Another option is to sign up with a medical-evacuation assistance company. A membership in one of these companies gets you doctor referrals, emergency evacuation or repatriation, 24-hour hotlines for medical consultation, and other assistance. International SOS Assistance Emergency and AirMed International provide evacuation services and medical referrals. MedjetAssist offers medical evacuation.
There has been a significant spike in violent crime in Nassau, mostly in off-the-beaten-path locations. Exercise caution in these areas: be aware of your wallet or handbag at all times, and keep your jewelry in the hotel safe. Be especially wary in remote areas, always lock your rental vehicle, and don’t keep any valuables in the car, even in the locked trunk.
Women traveling alone are discouraged from walking unescorted at night in Nassau or in remote areas.
Wireless Internet service is becoming more available throughout the islands, but there are still pockets where service is impossible or difficult to get, and it’s likely to be slower than you may be accustomed to. If Internet is important, ask your hotel representative about service before traveling.
If you’re carrying a laptop into the Bahamas, you should fill out a Declaration of Value form upon arrival, noting make, model, and serial number. The Bahamian electrical current is compatible with U.S. computers.
Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) is the phone company in the Bahamas. Pay phones are fast becoming a thing of the past, as most visitors use their cell phones and Internet when they need to keep in touch. Your best bet is to purchase a BTC VOIP Talk It Up calling card. You can use these cards to call within the country or to the United States.
Check with your calling-card provider before traveling to see if your card will work in the islands (on the smaller cays it almost certainly won’t) and to see about surcharges. Always ask at your hotel desk about what charges will apply when you make card calls from your room as these can be steep. There’s usually a charge for making toll-free calls to the United States. To place a call from a public phone using your own calling card, dial 0 for the operator, who will then place the call using your card number.
When you’re calling the Bahamas, the country code is 242. You can dial any Bahamas number from the United States as you would make an interstate call.
Calling Within the Bahamas
Within the Bahamas, to make a local call from your hotel room, dial 9, then the number. Some 800 and 888 numbers—particularly airline and credit card numbers—can be called from the Bahamas. Others can be reached by substituting an 880 prefix and paying for the call.
Dial 916 for directory information and 0 for operator assistance.
Calling Outside the Bahamas
In big resorts instructions are given by the room phones on how to make international calls and the costs, which differ from resort to resort. In small inns, especially those in the Out Islands, you may not be able to get an AT&T, Sprint, or other operator or international operator, but the hotel front desk can usually do it for you.
The country code is 1 for the United States.
Some U.S. cell phones work in the Bahamas; check with your provider before your trip. The BTC has roaming agreements with many U.S. companies, including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. Roaming rates vary depending on the carrier.
In order to bypass hefty roaming fees, purchase a SIM card for about $15 at any BTC location; this will allow you to use your own cell phone while in the Bahamas. (You’ll also need a BTC prepaid minutes card, but these cards can be purchased for as little as $10.) You can rent GMS cellular phones from companies such as Cellular Abroad, which charges $1.14 to $1.32 a minute on calls to the United States plus the rental of the phone, starting at $69 for a week or less. Service is improving but is still spotty, and on the Out Islands, cell phones may not work at all.
Customs allows you to bring in one liter of wine or liquor and one carton of cigarettes in addition to personal effects, purchases up to $100, and all the money you wish.
Certain types of personal belongings may get a raised eyebrow—an extensive collection of DVDs, for instance—if they suspect you may be planning to sell them while in the country. However, real hassles at immigration are rare, since officials realize tourists are the lifeblood of the economy.
You would be well advised to leave pets at home, unless you’re considering a prolonged stay in the islands. An import permit is required from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries for all animals brought into the Bahamas. The animal must be more than six months old. You’ll also need a veterinary health certificate issued by a licensed vet. The permit is good for one year from the date of issue, costs $10, and the process must be completed immediately before departure.
U.S. residents who have been out of the country for at least 48 hours may bring home $800 worth of foreign goods duty-free, as long as they have not used the $800 allowance or any part of it in the past 30 days.
You’ll find all types of restaurants in the Bahamas, from cosmopolitan to the most casual restaurants, serving all types of cuisine. Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants are open daily for lunch and dinner.
The U.S. dollar is on par with the Bahamian dollar and both currencies are accepted in restaurants. Most credit cards are also accepted in most restaurants. Typically, you will have to ask for your check when you are finished.
Reservations and Dress
Reservations are sometimes necessary in Nassau and on the more remote islands, where restaurants may close early if no one shows up or says they’re coming. We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie. Otherwise, you can assume that dining out is a casual affair.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Kalik and Sands beers are brewed in the Bahamas and are available at most restaurants for lunch and dinner.
Electricity is 120 volts/60 cycles AC, which is compatible with all U.S. appliances.
The emergency telephone number in the Bahamas is 919 or 911. Pharmacies usually close at 6 pm although some in New Providence are always open. Emergency medicine after hours is available only at hospitals, or, on remote Out Islands, at clinics.
The grandest holiday of all is Junkanoo, a carnival that came from slaves who made elaborate costumes and instruments such as goatskin drums. Junkanoo is celebrated on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day (the bands compete in all-night parades that start in the wee hours). Don’t expect to conduct any business the day after the festivities.
During other legal holidays, most offices close, and some may extend the holiday by keeping earlier (or no) hours the day before or after.
In the Bahamas official holidays include New Year’s Day, Majority Rule Day (Jan. 10), Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, Whit Monday (last Mon. in May), Labour Day (1st Mon. in June), Independence Day (July 10), Emancipation Day (1st Mon. in Aug.), National Heroes Day (Oct. 12), Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (Dec. 26).
Banks are generally open Monday–Thursday 9 or 9:30 to 3 or 4 and Friday 9 to 5. However, on the Out Islands banks may keep shorter hours—on the smallest cays, they may be open only a day or two each week. Most Bahamian offices observe bank hours.
Hours for attractions vary. Most open between 9 and 10 and close around 5.
Though most drugstores typically abide by normal store hours, some stay open 24 hours.
Most stores, with the exception of straw markets and malls, close on Sunday.
Generally, prices in the Bahamas are slightly higher than in the United States. Businesses don’t care whether you pay in U.S. dollars or Bahamian dollars, since they’re the same value, but don’t count on them being able to give you U.S. currency change. In the Out Islands you’ll notice that meals and simple goods can be expensive; prices are high due to the remoteness of the islands and the costs of importing.
ATMs are widely available, except on the most remote islands, but often the currency dispensed is Bahamian. If you have any left at the end of your stay, you can exchange it at the airport.
Prices here are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
There are ATMs at banks, malls, resorts, and shops throughout the major islands. For excursions to remote locations, bring plenty of cash; there are few or no ATMs on some small cays, and on weekends or holidays, those that exist may run out of cash.
Banks are generally open Monday–Thursday 9 or 9:30 to 3 or 4 and Friday 9 to 5. However, on the Out Islands, banks may keep shorter hours—on the smallest cays, they may be open only a day or two each week.
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in the Bahamas. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
When you book your hotel accommodations, be sure to ask if credit cards are accepted; some smaller hotels in the islands do not take plastic.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip.
Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Currency and Exchange
The U.S. dollar is on par with the Bahamian dollar and is accepted all over the Bahamas. Bahamian money runs in bills of $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. Since U.S. currency is accepted everywhere, there really is no need to change to Bahamian. Also, you won’t incur any transaction fees for currency exchange, or worry about getting stuck with unspent Bahamian dollars. Carry small bills when bargaining at straw markets.
Aside from your bathing suit, which will be your favorite uniform, take lightweight clothing (short-sleeve shirts, T-shirts, cotton slacks, lightweight jackets for evening wear for men; light dresses, shorts, and T-shirts for women). If you’re going during high season, between mid-December and April, toss in a sweater for the occasional cool evening. Cover up in public places and downtown shopping expeditions, and save that skimpy bathing suit for the beach at your hotel.
Some of the more sophisticated hotels require jackets for men and dresses for women at dinner. The Bahamas’ casinos do not have dress codes.
U.S. citizens need a valid passport when entering and returning from the Bahamas, but do not need a visa.
There’s no sales tax in the Bahamas, but starting January 2015, a 7.5% VAT was added to most goods and services; the $15 departure tax is usually included in the price of commercial airline tickets.
Tax on your hotel room is 6%–12% in addition to VAT, depending on the island visited; at some resorts, a small service charge of up to 5% may be added to cover housekeeping and bellman service.
In the Bahamas, service staff and hotel workers expect to be tipped. The usual tip for service from a taxi driver or waiter is 15% and $1–$2 a bag for porters. Most travelers leave $1 to $3 per day for their hotel maid, usually every morning since the maid may have a day off. Many hotels and restaurants automatically add a 15% gratuity to your bill; if not, a 15% to 20% tip at a restaurant is appropriate (more for a high-end establishment). Bartenders generally get $1 to $2 per drink.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.