The Caribbean's reputation for high prices can certainly hold true. At this time of year, the cheapest double room at the luxurious Sandy Lane on Barbados sells at about £875 a night. But you can also have a very enjoyable week in the Caribbean, including flights and accommodation, for much less than that. One way to keep costs down is to wait a few months before travelling. Peak season in the Caribbean runs from mid-December through to late April. Go instead between May and mid-December, and your accommodation is likely to cost one-third less or even half as much: book with British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0758; ba.com/barbados) by 31 January, and you have a week at the Butterfly Beach (room only) in Barbados, with flights in September, for just £549 per person.
That's all very well, of course, but it's now that the islands' tropical climate and bath-warm seas are most appealing – the perfect antidote to our cold and dreary weather at home. When the travel industry was more buoyant, good Caribbean deals in the prime winter months were hard to come by. But that is no longer the case. Many hotels in the region are struggling to fill their rooms, and you can find enticing offers with many tour operators.
Gerry Copsey, managing director of the Caribbean specialist Just Grenada (01373 814214; just grenada.co.uk), says: "Times are tough. Many of the Caribbean hoteliers we deal with no longer talk as they used to of the peak season. They now treat January, February and March like any other time of year, and are willing to negotiate deals in these months." As an example, Just Grenada is offering a week's package at the convivial True Blue Bay in south-western Grenada, with flights, transfers and breakfast, on various dates between now and March for just £995 per person – about £200 less than you would normally expect to pay.
"It was once the case that good Caribbean hotels were booked up many months ahead for the winter," says Mags Longstaff, Caribbean commercial director for Tropical Sky (0844 332 9349; tropicalsky.co.uk). But – outside the school holidays – that's not true any more." She says the market now has an element of who-blinks-first. "People are now booking much later," she explains. "Which means hotels feel pressured into offering late deals."
As a case in point, for departures in the next few days (until 31 January), Tropical Sky has a week at the classy, romantic, couples-only Rendezvous on Saint Lucia for £1,399 per person, all-inclusive, with flights and transfers. The usual market price at this time of year for such a trip would be more than £2,000. If you can't get away that quickly but can book by 15 February, the price on some dates in February and March rises to a still reasonable £1,629 per person.
Bear in mind that most Caribbean hotels are bookable through a number of British tour operators. You might imagine that they all charge much the same prices, but in fact rates vary considerably.
Suppose you want an all-inclusive week, departing 4 February, at the Jolly Beach Resort, a good-value, three-star hotel on one of Antigua's best beaches. Earlier this month, Thomson Tailormade (0844 050 2828; thomsonworldwide.com) was quoting £1,116 per person, flying with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick, and including transfers. With the same flights, and with transfers, and quoting on the same day, the price with Kuoni (0844 488 0410; kuoni.co.uk) was £1,084; with Best at Travel (020-3199 0924; bestatcaribbean holidays.co.uk) it was £1,041; and with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3865; virginholidays.co.uk) £964. On this example alone you'll save more than £300 per couple booking with Virgin rather than Thomson.
But how do these prices compare with arranging everything yourself? While it's worth researching the DIY Caribbean holiday, the packages generally work out cheaper. For that 4 February all-inclusive week at the Jolly Beach Resort, a direct accommodation-only booking was quoted at US$2,436 (£1,624), making it £812 per person. Flights on those dates were £530 return. Total: £1,342 a head – 40 per cent more than the Virgin Holidays' package price, and that's without transfers.
Gatwick is the UK's main Caribbean gateway. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) both serve Antigua, Barbados, Grenada (both one-stop), Saint Lucia and Tobago (BA via Barbados). In addition, BA serves Punta Cana (Dominican Republic), St Kitts and San Juan (Puerto Rico), all via Antigua; Trinidad via St Lucia; and Grand Cayman and Providenciales (Turks & Caicos), both from Heathrow via Nassau.
Virgin also flies Manchester-Barbados and Gatwick-Havana. Cubana (020-7538 5933; cubana.cu) serves Havana from Gatwick via Holguín.
At present both carriers serve Montego Bay and Kingston in Jamaica, though Virgin gets a monopoly on "Mo' Bay" from late March, while the island's capital will become the preserve of BA. Fares are rising steadily, with a further hike in air passenger duty to £81 due in April. But Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomson.co.uk) has a wide choice of charter flights: to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Barbados and, from May to October, Aruba. Late-booked seat-only deals are sometimes available for less than £400 return – and the leg room in economy class is more generous than with BA or Virgin.
Caribbean self-catering and dining out
As with hotels, villa prices plummet if you visit out of season. For example, for a week's rental of a property that sleeps seven at The Villas at Stonehaven on Tobago, CV Travel (020-7401 1050; cvtravel.co.uk) quotes £3,753 in February, but £2,335 in May – 38 per cent less.
Fill a large villa, and the per-person price can be pretty affordable. For a week's rental of Belair, on the beachfront at Mullins on Barbados's west coast, Bajan Services (0800 097 1753; bajanservices.com) quotes US$7,231 (£4,821) for a week in May. That sounds a lot, but the property sleeps 12, making the per person price about £400. And, as with many Barbados villas, the rates include the services of a housekeeper and cook.
However, self-catering in the Caribbean doesn't mean having to rent a fancy villa. The website homeaway.co.uk advertises more than 11,000 Caribbean properties, many of which are affordable apartments. (Book one with positive reviews from previous guests.)
You'll also find many hotel rooms in the Caribbean come with kitchenettes, quite adequate for rustling up a DIY breakfast if not a full meal.
And, if you tire of the self-catered option, eating out needn't cost the earth. The Cliff is the best-known restaurant on Barbados, if not in the Caribbean. A three-course meal can cost £100 a head. But fear not. Stalls along from the fish market at Oistins serve freshly cooked snapper, mahi-mahi and swordfish, with rice and vegetables, for under £10. Friday is party night, but food is on offer every evening.
Saint Lucia also lays on street parties on Fridays, where you can eat extremely well for a similar amount: head for Anse La Raye's "fish fry", or Gros Islet's rather more raucous "jump up".
On Jamaica, the best budget meals are to be had in jerk centres – few-frills, roadside eateries specialising in spicy barbecued pork, chicken and fish. One of the best is Scotchies (001 876 953 3301), 10 miles east of Montego Bay.
On Cuba, the best meals are home cooked in paladares – private restaurants in native Cubans' houses and apartments. Some paladares these days are quite pricey, but at the highly rated Punta G (00 53 7 832 8354), at Calle 17 and G in Havana's Vedado, you can have grilled lobster for CUC12 (£8).
Tropical cool on the cheap
Jamaica has a number of small-scale, hip and very reasonably-priced hideaways. Jakes (001 876 965 0635; jakeshotel.com), pictured, on the south coast, attracts supermodels and rock stars, but its funky rooms, decorated with shells and mosaic tiles, cost as little as US$114 (£76) for a double without meals. In party-loving Negril, The Rockhouse (001 876 957 4373; rockhousehotel.com) is a trendy but affordable option. It sits on the rocks with ladders leading into the sea: doubles from US$150 (£100), room only.
On Barbados, the Sea-U Guest House (001 246 433 9450; seaubarbados.com) is a stylish, bargain place to stay. Its elegant bedrooms, with hardwood floors and hammocks on wide verandas looking out to the unspoiled east coast, cost from US$129 (£86) per double, including breakfast.
La Sagesse is less chic, but one of the Caribbean's great-value hideaways (001 473 444 6458; lasagesse. com). Set on a magical beach in southern Grenada, its double rooms, just steps from the palm-shaded sands, cost from US$174 (£116), without meals.
Holidays to the Caribbean's Hispanic countries tend to work out cheapest. An all-inclusive package to the Dominican Republic or to Cuba can cost up to one-third less than a similar-quality one taken on another island.
In the "Dom Rep", the trio of five-star Dreams resorts are excellent value, and offer good facilities and food. They can be booked through Travelbag (0871 332 9803; travelbag caribbean.co.uk): a week all-inclusive at Dreams Punta Cana, pictured, costs from £989 per person in February, including British Airways flights.
While most holidays to the Dom Rep are all-inclusive, there are other enticing options. Wind- and kite-surfing specialist Sportif (01273 844919; sportif.travel) has packages to Cabarete, a cosmopolitan resort with top conditions for watersports: a week there in February or March, self-catering in the beachfront La Punta Apartments, costs £649 per person, with Thomson flights, transfers and no single supplement.
On Cuba, the most affordable accommodation comes in the form of casas particulares, or private homes. For example, a double room in an apartment on the backstreets of Old Havana – a top-rated casa particular on cubacasas.net – costs about CUC35 (£23.50) a night.
Despite the short distances, flying between Caribbean islands is pricey. So, you may want to stick to visiting an island to which you can fly direct from the UK. That said, the no-frills airline REDJet (flyredjet.com) has good fares on its seven inter-island Caribbean routes. One-way fares (baggage extra) from Barbados to Saint Lucia are typically about US$83 (£55), and Trinidad-Kingston for US$118 (£79). Ferry travel is limited, but sister islands – Antigua/Barbuda, Trinidad/Tobago, St Kitts/ Nevis, St Vincent/Bequia – have frequent connections. In addition, Anguilla is linked with St-Martin, while Dominica has catamaran links to Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Lucia. A car ferry joins the Dominican Republic capital, Santo Domingo, with San Juan in Puerto Rico.
Staying away from the beach can make things much cheaper, even when you factor in the cost of transport. Most hotels on the dazzling white sands of exclusive Anguilla are phenomenally expensive, but a double room with breakfast in the clean and friendly Lloyd's Guest House (001 264 497 2351; lloyds.ai), in the centre of the island, costs US$145 (£97).
On Saint Lucia, La Haut (001 758 459 7008; lahaut.com) is a cocoa and citrus plantation high above languid Soufrière, pictured. It offers modest rooms with mesmerising views of the island's landmark Pitons from US$175 (£117) per double, with breakfast.
Dominica has a number of excellent, inexpensive places to stay in its rainforested interior, including the Papillote Wilderness Retreat (001 767 448 2287; papillote.dm), with gorgeous gardens, hot mineral pools and doubles from US$138 (£92), room only.
A good-value base from which to explore lush and mountainous St Vincent for a couple of days is the 18th-century Grenadine House (001 784 458 1800; grenadinehouse.com). It sits in the suburbs of Kingstown, St Vincent's capital, and its plush, neo-colonial double bedrooms cost from US$150 (£100) including breakfast.
The Frangipani (001 784 458 3255; frangipanibequia.com) is an excellent budget option on the lovely little sister island of Bequia. It's a classic waterfront inn beloved of yachties, where simple doubles with shared bathrooms cost as little as US$66 (£44), without meals.
On the buses
To venture beyond the confines of your hotel or the nearby beach, opt to stay somewhere less isolated. Car hire in the Caribbean is pricey: upwards of £250 a week on, say, Saint Lucia (more if you hire a 4x4, which is advisable, given the state of many of the island's roads). Moreover, organised excursions in the region are expensive: Thomson charges £59.50 per person for a day-long "Outback Safari" tour in the eastern Dominican Republic. However, the best budget transport is the public bus.
On Barbados, in its various forms – whether reliable government bus or communal "route taxi" minivan – the bus will get you just about anywhere for BD$2 (about 65p). And, if you happen to be a member of the National Trust in the UK, take your card along for free access, or reduced entry, to properties belonging to the Barbadian equivalent, such as the Andromeda Botanic Gardens and Arlington House in Speightstown.