A Guide to Turks & Caicos (Without a Resort!)

If you’re itching for a tropical vacation that consists of lazing the days away on white sand beaches, taking dips in turquoise waters, and catching glimpses of amazing marine life, you can’t go wrong with Turks and Caicos, an Overseas British Territory in the Caribbean just southeast of the Bahamas.

Sound like paradise? It is! In fact, Grace Bay Beach in Turks and Caicos is often listed as one of the best beaches in the world.

But, unfortunately, paradise often comes with a not-so-pleasant price tag. The Caribbean is notoriously expensive, and Turks and Caicos is no exception. With swanky oceanfront resorts costing hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars per day per person, expensive excursions, and food costs that make Trader Joe’s look like Costco, a vacation on an island paradise like Turks and Caicos can easily wipe out your travel fund. There’s a reason it’s a popular destination for A-listers like Khloe Kardashian.

But even though a visit to the Caribbean will never be as cheap as, say, a trip to Sri Lanka or Peru, the close proximity to the US and reasonable airfare make it an appealing destination for people who have limited vacation time and don’t want to spend a lot of time in transit or recovering from jet lag.

Sam and I hadn’t visited the Caribbean since our honeymoon five years earlier when we took a cruise to the Bahamas and the USVI (and, to be honest, we hadn’t had much interest in returning, because it doesn’t seem as “exotic” as further flung destinations, as silly as that sounds). But when I saw affordable last-minute award tickets to Providenciales on Southwest Airlines, we decided to end my maternity leave with a bang and take a three-day family trip to Turks and Caicos…with our three-month-old. And we managed to have a great time without completely blowing our budget.

Here is our guide to visiting Turks and Caicos on a budget.

When to Go to Turks and Caicos

As with most destinations, a great way to save money on travel to Turks and Caicos is to avoid traveling during peak season (December to March) or during school holidays (June-July). Also consider avoiding late August and September when the risk for hurricanes is the greatest.

We visited during the shoulder season in late May and were told that we picked one of the best times of year to go, since the weather is typically warm and sunny, and the summer holiday crowds haven’t yet arrived. (That said, we were unlucky and had a lot of rain, so choosing May is certainly not fail proof!)

Where to Stay on Turks and Caicos 

Your trip will likely begin in Providenciales, the capital, which is on the island of Caicos. Most of the big beach resorts are along the northern coastline east of the capital (by the world-famous Grace Bay Beach). Some of the biggest and most popular resorts are Beaches Turks & Caicos (which is basically its own city!) and The Grace Bay Club. If you’re looking for an all-inclusive Caribbean vacation, those might be a good option. But they’re also a major splurge. We’re talking more than $1,000 per night. Just writing that makes me want to pop an Aspirin.

Since I have the misfortune of not being minor royalty or Warren Buffet, we chose instead to rent a cute Airbnb apartment for $100 per night. Though it wasn’t located directly on the beach (and, alas, didn’t include a 24/7 all-you-can-eat buffet or butler service), the price more than made up for the inconvenience. We also liked the freedom of not being crammed into a resort with hundreds of other vacationers.

Choosing to rent a self-catering accommodation (especially an apartment rental) is the number one way to reduce the cost of a trip to Turks and Caicos. We saved more than $2,000, even after factoring in food cost!

How to Get Around Turks and Caicos

There is no public transit system on the island or mainstream ride sharing services like Uber or Lyft. Taxis are available, but they are expensive. Your best option if you’re not staying at a big resort is to rent a car. Not only will you save money, but you will also benefit from the freedom to visit attractions spread throughout the island without incurring a huge tab. We rented an economy car from Hertz and paid $152 for three days. It was compact, but fit Sam, me, Claire’s car seat, and all our luggage.

The car rental desks are actually located off-site, so you will need to take a shuttle from the airport.

Just bear in mind that traffic drives on the left side of the road in Turks and Caicos! Luckily, Sam had already had plenty of practice driving on the left in Ireland, so we didn’t have any trouble. Automatic vehicles are readily available if you prefer not to drive a stick shift,

Best Beaches in Turks and Caicos 

A trip to Turks and Caicos is all about the beach, and there are loads of beautiful public beaches to explore for travelers not staying at a beachfront all-inclusive resort. Here is a rundown of the beaches we visited when we were in Turks and Caicos.

Grace Bay Beach. The most famous beach in Turks and Caicos is Grace Bay Beach, which was voted best beach in the world by TripAdvisor. If you’re looking for a postcard-perfect white sand and brilliant turquoise water, look no further than Grace Bay Beach. That said, it is also the most touristy, overdeveloped beach we visited on our trip. Most of it is lined with resorts boasting row upon row of beach lounge chairs. So, while it might be nice for an evening stroll, it wasn’t somewhere we wanted to spend much of our time.

Bight Beach. The beach we visited the most often was Bight Beach, which was the closest one to our apartment rental. Unlike the beaches in the more commercialized parts of the island, we loved how private and untamed Bight Beach felt (despite the fact that it is just down the coastline from Grace Bay!). Rather than a row of huge resorts lining the beachfront, Bight Beach is lined with sea grass. We only encountered a handful of other people when we were there.

There is ample free parking by Bight Park. There are also several picnic tables available if you fancy a seaside lunch.

Smith’s Reef. The highlight of our trip was visiting Smith’s Reef. Though the beach is lovely, the main attraction is the coral reef located just off the coast. We packed our snorkel equipment and spent a morning spotting loads of tropical fish. It was my first time snorkeling on a coral reef, and I was blown away by the incredible diversity of the marine life! The reef is easily accessible from shore, so no boat is required. Just be careful not to damage the fragile reef by standing or walking on it.

Sapodilla Bay Beach. A nice beach on the south side of the island is Sapodilla Bay Beach. Though it is fairly small, we liked Sapodilla Bay Beach because it was less crowded—at least when we visited—than Grace Bay Beach, and the water was shallow and calm, which is great for swimming (especially for families with young children).

A few shacks on the beach detracted slightly from the ambiance, though there was no one trying to sell anything when we were there.

Public parking is available on the street a short way from the beach, though it might be challenging to find an open spot on busy days.

Where to Eat in Turks and Caicos (on a Budget)

Food on Turks and Caicos is fairly expensive. Many of the restaurants are geared toward wealthy tourists with the price tags to match. That said, it is possible to find some reasonably priced food. Since we were trying to keep our costs down, we hunted out some of the most wallet-friendly eateries on the island.

Here are some places to eat in Turks and Caicos on a budget.

Graceway Gourmet. More upscale grocery store (a la Whole Foods) than restaurant, Graceway Gourmet sells a good variety of ready-to-eat foods ranging from pizza to sandwiches and salads. There is also outdoor seating available if you want to eat on-site.

We picked up food from Graceway Gourmet several times and took it back to our apartment or to the beach for a seaside picnic. Though the food prices at Graceway Gourmet are much higher than what we’re used to in the US, they are cheaper than most restaurants on the island. Expect to pay from $5-10 depending on what you order.

Allegro Rd, Grace Bay TKCA 1ZZ, Turks & Caicos Islands

Sweet T’s. Another good budget option is Sweet T’s, a food stand selling fried chicken and fries. A meal here costs about $5, which is a steal for Turks and Caicos. It’s a take-out place with no seating, so prepare to stand to eat or take it with you to your apartment (or the beach!).

Also note that Sweet T’s is located downtown away from the “touristy” parts of town.

Airport Road | Next to the Texaco Station, TKCA 1ZZ, Providenciales

The Patty Place. Located near Grace Bay Beach in the tourist-heavy part of the island, The Patty Place is a surprisingly budget-friendly lunch option. If you’re not familiar with Jamaican patties (I wasn’t!), they are basically meat baked into a pastry. Th Patty Place also has vegetarian options. It tastes better than it sounds! Patties cost between $3-5. If you’re more interested in something sweet, The Patty Place also serves ice cream.

Grace Bay, Providenciales | La Petit Place, TKCA 1ZZ, Providenciales

Chinson’s Grill Shack. If you’re looking for some “Caribbean” cuisine, Chinson’s Grill Shack serves delicious jerk chicken. This place was recommended to us by our Airbnb host. The food is pricier than the other places on the list, but it’s still reasonable compared to other places on the island. We enjoyed the outdoor seating. The servers were super friendly made a big fuss over Claire (who spent most of the time sleeping in her stroller!).

What to Pack for Turks & Caicos

Packing can be one of the most stressful parts of travel planning, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some packing guidelines for a trip to Turks and Caicos.

Luggage/Organizers for Turks and Caicos

Suitcase. Sam and I almost always travel carry-on only. We spent a whole month traveling with only carry-ons in Sri Lanka, and more recently we traveled carry-on only through Europe for two weeks with a nine-month old. We are big fans of traveling light.

Sam’s go-to bag (and mine too before we had Claire) is the Osprey Porter 46 backpack. It’s a sturdy, well-designed bag that has held up after years of travel from Nicaragua to India to Italy. Read our full review here.

My favorite piece of luggage is my Away carry-on, which is sleek, sturdy, and has nice bonuses like a battery pack and luggage bag.

That said, for this trip we broke our fundamental travel rule ended up checking one suitcase for the three of us, because we were hauling Claire’s travel bed and our snorkel gear. We took one of the Diane von Furstenburg suitcases I received as a high school graduation gift (hmmm…I wonder if my parents were dropping any not-so-subtle hints??)

Packing Cubes. These packing cubes are a lifesaver for travel organization, especially if you’re sharing a suitcase between three people like we were! I use one cube for my clothes, one for my socks/undies/pjs, and one for my swimwear.

Shoes/Clothing for Turks and Caicos

Swimsuit. On a trip to Turks and Caicos, you will end up spending the bulk of your time in your swimsuit! I like to pack two swimsuits on beach trips so I always have a dry one handy. (In my opinion, nothing kills that fun vacation vibe like getting into a cold, soggy swimsuit.)

Casual Sundress. Nothing feels better on a breezy tropical day than a lightweight sundress. They are also perfect for layering over a swimsuit when traveling to and from the beach.

Shorts. Turks and Caicos is a tropical island, so you will be most comfortable in shorts. I packed two pairs for our trip.

Tank Tops. Again, Turks and Caicos is a laid-back island, so tank tops are perfectly acceptable both on and off the beach. I packed two and wore them both.

T-Shirts. Lightweight t-shirts are great for tropical destinations. Sam is a fan of Bluffworks t-shirts, because they are designed for travelers (without looking like they are, if you know what I mean). They are soft, lightweight, and don’t stink even after a long day in the sun. Bluffworks recently came out with a women’s line, so I’m excited to finally get one for myself!

Flip Flops/Sandals. Flip flops are essential for a beach trip. Sam and I both like Sanuks flip flops (his and mine), because they are super comfy and hold up for quite a while.

Sunglasses. We prefer not to travel with expensive sunglasses, since we tend to break or lose them. Sam loves these ones from Flying Fisherman. They are cheap and also look good! I like these ones from Lucky brand.

Floppy Sunhat. Not only do they look cute on Instagram, but they also protect you from the hot Caribbean sun!

Lightweight PJs. My absolute favorite pajamas for travel are my washable silk pajamas from Lunya. Though they are definitely a splurge, they are the most comfortable, sleekest pajamas I have ever owned. They also pack down super small and feel cool even in hot climates.

Toiletries for Turks and Caicos

Toiletries are always my least favorite things to pack, especially when traveling carry-on only! But packing smart can make a huge different on a vacation. These are the best toiletries to pack for a trip to Turks and Caicos.

Clear Toiletry Bag. After several unpleasant experiences at TSA checkpoints in airports, I recently started traveling with clear toiletry bags to avoid having to use cheap zip-lock bags at airport security checkpoints. These ones have worked out really well for me so far. I typically put all my shower-related toiletries in one and everything else in another since they are quite small (even for a minimalist packer like me!).

Reef-Safe Sunscreen. One of the most important things to pack for a trip to Turks and Caicos is sunscreen. Otherwise you will burn to a crisp day one and spend the rest of the trip darting between palm trees while wearing long pants, long-sleeve shirts and a three-inch layer of aloe vera lotion (let’s just say, we learned this the hard way on our honeymoon when we thought reapplying spray-on sunscreen on a windy ship deck was sufficient protection from the fierce Caribbean sun!).

And because Turks and Caicos is home to some incredible coral reefs and marine life, it is recommended to choose reef-safe sunscreen to avoid damaging the fragile marine ecosystem.

Aloe Vera Lotion. So the fact is that you—or someone in your party—will probably do a shoddy job with the sunscreen at some point on your trip and end up with a sunburn. It’s just the way things go. So it’s also a good idea to travel with some aloe lotion just in case.

Wave Spray. On beach trips, I love to pack sea salt spray like this one that I can spritz on my hair and let it dry into loose beachy waves.

Beach Gear to Pack for Turks and Caicos

If you’re going to spend the bulk of your time on the beach (as you should!), it’s important to be sure you have your bases covered. (Note: Many hotels and vacation rentals provide basic beach gear, so check with your accommodation on what is already provided! Ours included beach chairs, beach towels, and an umbrella.)

Beach Tote. You will definitely need a tote bag to carry your essentials to and from the beach each day. I like using canvas tote bags like this one, because they are lightweight and easy to fit into my luggage on travel days.

Beach Towel. Our Airbnb host provided beach towels for this trip. But on other trips (like when we went beach hopping in Sri Lanka and surfing in Peru), we often travel with quick-drying pack towels. They come in various sizes depending on your needs and pack down super small so they don’t waste valuable space in your luggage.

Wet Swimsuit Bag. You may want to sneak in one last ocean or pool dip before catching your return flight (my favorite part of our vacation was snorkeling at Smith’s Reef the morning we flew home). Which means you will likely have the dilemma of packing a sopping wet swimsuit in your suitcase with all your dry clothes. That’s why we like to travel with a wet swimsuit bag (though any dry bag will work).

Snorkel Gear. One of the highlights of a trip to Turks and Caicos is snorkeling, so if you happen to own snorkel gear, it is certainly worth packing it! If you don’t own your own gear, it is possible to rent it on the island.

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A Guide to Turks & Caicos

 

 

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