The Dominican Republic has become the most visited destination in the Caribbean thanks to its preponderance of all-inclusive hotels, which make package vacations here far cheaper than elsewhere. The all-inclusives do have their downsides: the food is usually mediocre and you’ll be stuck in a walled-off complex for your entire trip, which can get claustrophobic. Plenty of other options exist for travellers who want to get out and see the country: luxury high-rise resorts along the capital’s Malecón, independently operated beach hotels, rooms for rent in Dominican family homes and an assortment of bearable budget hotels, many with private bath, hot water and air conditioning.
Away from the main tourist spots you can expect to pay around US$20–40/UK£10–20 for the night; in resort towns prices rise to US$40–100/UK£20–50. Reservations are essential for the all-inclusives, where you’ll get up to 75 percent off the price by booking with a travel agent as part of a package before you arrive. If you want to stay in an independent hotel during the high season, you will need to book in advance in the major resort towns, but should be able to wing it elsewhere in the country.
When travelling, most Dominicans stay at the spartan budget hotels that you’ll find dotted throughout the country. If you do likewise you’ll save a lot of money, but beware – you often get what you pay for. That means fairly nondescript, box-like rooms, best avoided except for sleep. Some of them have a shared bath and the majority have cold showers. Keep in mind also that when a budget hotel boasts “hot water” showers, this often means a large plastic nozzle on the showerhead that heats the water on the spot, making for a somewhat tepid temperature. Whatever you do, don’t touch the nozzles when wet, or you’ll risk a painful electric shock. Look to spend about US$20–30 for these establishments, though some, especially in the cities, also offer rooms with a/c and television for around US$5 extra. It’s easy to mistake the many roadside cabañas turísticas for budget traveller hotels; identifiable by their garish decor and the words “Cabañas Turísticas” emblazoned on the outside, these are in fact the type of hotel that charges by the hour and are mainly used by local couples.
Save for one modest option in Santiago, there are no youth hostels in the DR, but a good way to cut expenses is to use the traditional pensiones that you’ll still find in many towns, though over the past two decades they’ve begun to die out. These are rooms within a private Dominican home and so offer an excellent opportunity for contact with local people. Pensiones vary widely in quality, so you should have a good look at your room before deciding. If you want to shop around, don’t feel guilty about seeing the room and then moving on; expect to pay RD$200–300.
Nicer, mid-range hotels are available in areas regularly frequented by foreigners. Ranging between US$35 and US$60, they feature air conditioner, hot water and more pleasant rooms. Hotels at the lower end of this price range are often especially good value; at the higher end you’ll get a few luxuries thrown in, like cable TV or breakfast.
If there’s one around and you can afford it, you might want to consider the independent luxury hotels as well, which accept US dollars (US$80–150). The majority are clustered in Santo Domingo, but you’ll also find one in most other major cities and a couple along the rural coast. They range from well-appointed beach hotels and seaside high-rises to full-service, two-storey apartments and renovated colonial stone mansions furnished with sixteenth-century pieces. You can often get better rates (up to thirty percent off) at these hotels on weekends, as they cater mostly to business travellers.
The Dominican Republic is the archetypal, high-volume all-inclusive destination, where a single price covers your room, all meals and drinks and a variety of activities. If you go all-inclusive, you should do so through a package arranged by a travel agent in your home country, which will cost you substantially less than arriving at the reception desk and asking for a room.
For couples and families on a tight budget, the all-inclusives can be a wonderful opportunity for a peaceful beach vacation in relative luxury – these places are usually stationed right on the country’s prime beachfront. The product offered is usually good and despite a blanket no-tips policy, the staff are generally pleasant and accommodating. It’s remarkable that the hotels – most owned by large foreign chains – can maintain their high level of quality given the dirt-cheap price of their packages.
A longstanding issue, though, is the omnipresent buffet food, which is often below par; at many resorts you’ll have the option of going one or two nights a week to a better restaurant with individual entrees and a few hotels also reserve a few spaces for room-only deals, which will allow you to spend your money at restaurants in town. Nevertheless, the idea of having unlimited access to a resort’s facilities at no additional cost is undeniably attractive and it’s possible to counteract the claustrophobia that often comes with several days spent in the grounds by taking an organized tour or a guagua ride into the beautiful countryside beyond.
There are several campgrounds in the southwest Dominican Republic and along the Pico Duarte trails, though camping is a fairly new concept here. Outside of the Barahona region though, your best bet is to ask permission first – from village residents if you’re on the beach, from a farmer with a large property if you’re in the mountains. If you do camp, make sure to clean up after yourself.