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What to expect when traveling to the Caribbean this winter

This year’s hurricane season was one for the record books. In September, Hurricane Maria pummeled parts of the Caribbean, causing widespread damage on the islands of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, Haiti, and The Bahamas. It’s estimated that the storm caused $103 billion in damage.

As these islands continue to rebuild, many are questioning their ability to accommodate tourists. After all, December through April is considered the high season, when northerners head down south to escape the cold. While parts of each island are still cleaning up and restoring power grids, much of the Caribbean is open for business, and depending on tourist dollars to help their economies bounce back.

Flights

One might assume that flights to storm ravaged islands are cheaper due to lower demand. This is not the case. According to travel site Hopper, the average cost of a round-trip flight to the Caribbean from the U.S. is up 7% compared to last year, costing $668, compared with $625 in 2016. This, however, is not the norm throughout the region. In Puerto Rico, the average round-trip flight is currently $509, about $8 cheaper than last year.

While airfare won’t be dramatically cheaper, there are some strategies to finding better fares this winter. The first is timing. The reality is that buying a ticket to travel between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is going to be more expensive, no matter what. In fact, data from travel site Kayak suggests that flight prices will continue to increase after Dec. 5.

The trick is to book travel during the first three weeks of January, which is widely considered to be a “dead zone” for the airline industry. Case in point. A round-trip flight from Chicago to San Juan, Puerto Rico costs $582 the week before Christmas. That same ticket will cost about $678 the week of Christmas. However, if you wait until the third week of January, round-trip tickets drop down to $360.

People are seen at the beach in the tourist zone of El Condado in San Juan, Puerto Rico on November 28, 2017

Hotels

When it comes to finding a hotel, it all comes down to location. In Puerto Rico, much of the island is still living without power, but thanks to back-up generators, many of the hotels in San Juan are open and accepting reservations. In some cases, like with the Embassy Suites San Juan Hotel and Casino, hotels are open, but new reservations won’t be made until Dec. 31.

At this time last year, Hotels.com reports that the average nightly hotel rate in Puerto Rico was $171. Statistics haven’t been released for 2017, but after scanning hotel availability, it appears as though travelers will pay a bit more at the end of 2017. If you’re visiting around New Year’s Eve, guests can expect to pay $329 a night at the Courtyard by Marriott and $434 a night at the InterContinental, both in San Juan.

The Red Cross hands out water on the island of Saint Martin.

Once you leave the capital, accommodations are less predictable. The W Retreat & Spa in Vieques, the Wyndham Rio Mar, and the Ritz-Carlton Reserve on Dorado Beach are all still closed and not accepting reservations.

In Turks and Caicos, the average hotel rate was $480 in 2016, but a quick look at Hotels.com mostly brings back rates between $439 and $1,995.

As for the US Virgin islands, a decent number of St. Croix hotels have opened and are accepting new reservations. However, many hotels on St. John and St. Thomas will remain closed through the high season.

Service opportunities

If you’re traveling to Puerto Rico and other islands in the Caribbean it will be important to adjust your expectations. You will still be able to enjoy the beaches and resort experience, but it will also be a great opportunity to give back to local communities.

No matter what island you visit, chatting with the concierge or the front desk at your hotel is the best way to get connected with recovery efforts. If you’ve already planned a visit to one of the islands, ask your hotel if there are any supplies you can bring to give to locals. You should also ask if they can connect you with ways to pitch in and help the nearby communities. According to José Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), several NGOs are partnering with local hotels in San Juan and surrounding cities to provide volunteer opportunities.

If you haven’t booked your stay yet, be sure to ask about special packages designed to help with recovery efforts.

For the most part, many charities are still looking for monetary donations to address immediate health and safety concerns in areas hit by Hurricane Maria. New volunteer opportunities will continue to become available in the coming weeks and months, so it’s important not to self-deploy. Instead, sign up on a database with National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster to get connected to the appropriate agencies and opportunities in your area.

Brittany Jones-Cooper is a reporter at Yahoo Finance.

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