The best beach getaways – for less

Think a tropical island getaway would bust your budget? Not if you’re willing to do your traveling in warm weather rather than during a cold snap. Hotel room prices get slashed in mid-April by as much as 50 percent, and airfare often dips by up to 30 percent. Two more incentives: The weather in paradise stays delightful–and you won’t fight the crowds, says Laura Sutherland, author of Great Caribbean Family Vacations. Scope out these four picks with major kid appeal:

JAMAICA An hour and a half from Miami, this island boasts waterfalls, rain forests, and beaches galore. Where to stay: At the luxe new Beaches Resort in Negril (800-BEACHES). The beach is gorgeous, the rooms offer the feel of old Jamaica, and your child can learn to play the steel drums while you scuba dive. Rates begin at about $600 a night for a family of four, not bad when you consider everything is included, from food to waterskiing to gratuities. Don’t miss: YF Falls, about an hour from Negril–kids 8 and over love climbing them. Cheap eats: Cosmos Restaurant and Bar, right on the beach in Negril–the kids can have great burgers while you feast on lobster.

THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS Families love these lush 50-some islands, 60 miles from Puerto Rico. Where to stay: Live aboard a sailing yacht and snorkel to your heart’s content through The Moorings (800-437-7880), the world’s largest chartering company. All-inclusive weekly rates start at $950 per adult and $650 for kids aged 6 to 11 (under 6 are free). Don’t miss: The Baths, where boulders just offshore form caves, grottoes, and small pools for exploring. Cheap eats: C&F Restaurant on Tortola for lobster–and the best barbecue this side of Texas.

MAUI More miles of swimmable beach than any other Hawaiian island, along with an amazing bamboo forest. Where to stay: The Four Seasons Resort Wailea (800-334-MAUI; rates start at $295), where kids will build sand volcanoes and make friends with resident parrots Ricky and Lucy at the complimentary Kids for All Seasons program. The Napili Kai Beach Club (800-367-5030; from $175 a night), on one of Hawaii’s most beautiful beaches, is the ideal locale for spying the humpback whales. Don’t MISS: The inside of the crater of the dormant Haleakala volcano and the Seven Pools at Kipahulu waterfalls. Cheap eats: A bona fide luau that’s pan of most hotel packages. Pig out on roast pork and poi while watching the fire dances.

ST. JOHN The smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John is mostly national park–it’s got more than 40 fab white-sand beaches. Where to stay: Destination St. John (800-562-1901) can set you up in a water-view villa with pool for a mere $1,500 a week. Or explore the seven knockout beaches at the ultra-fancy Caneel Bay (800-928-8889; as low as $250 a night); the younger set loves making treasure maps and the Caribbean dancing at the Kid’s Club. Don’t Miss: The snorkel trail at Trunk Bay, where underwater signs make identifying coral and sea creatures a snap. Cheap eats: Choose from 39 different tropical drinks at Morgan’s Mango, where the kids’ menu includes flying fish.

* Understand that a tropical paradise operates at a slower pace–and that includes restaurant service. Go out to eat a good half hour before the kids reach that “I’m starving” point.

* Ask your travel agent about hurricane refunds–just in case. The serious storm season runs June through November, peaking in late August and September.

* Bring lots of insect repellent–the sand flies get nasty at dusk–and waterproof sunscreen; they’re a lot cheaper at home.

* Invest $20 in kid’s snorkeling gear at home and you will save time–and $5 or more on rental fees everyday.

* Lengthy island bus tours don’t have a lot of kid appeal. Ask the cabbie for an abbreviated version. Always check if there’s a per-person rate first, though, or you could wind up shelling out $50 and up for a 45-minute drive.

* Leave the cruisewear at home. Dresses up, island style, means wearing anything other than a bathing suit, plus shoes.

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