Jamaica: What to Know Before You Go

It was easy enough to figure out most things once I arrived, but these tips will save you a bit of a headache… and some money!

Currency

Jamaican Dollars

$1000 JMD = $10 CAD, $7 USD, €7 EUR, $12 NZD
(March 2020)

Always pay in the local currency

You’ll be asked if you want to pay in American or Jamaican dollars, or will often just be given a bill in USD without an alternate option.

Even if you’re American, always always try to pay in the local currency. The bill in USD will be shown with a lower exchange rate than what it actually is through your bank, so by the time you look at your account you’ll find it’s actually way more expensive than what you saw on the bill and what your conversion app is telling you the price should be.

If you’re not American, you’re not only shown a lower USD exchange rate than the actual going rate, but you’ll also lose out again when your bank does its own exchange from USD to your home currency.

Jamaica is not as cheap as you would imagine (unless maybe you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort… but if that’s your plan this blog isn’t for you).

Getting Around

Be sure to download the map of the country

Do it before you get moving so you can search places without wifi/data. There are only a couple main roads but all the good stuff is off the beaten path and you’ll want (need) to be able to consult your map.

Maps.Me and good ol’ Google Maps are both good apps (and free!) which you can use for this.

Driving

My family and I rented a 7-seater van (or, “bus”, as everyone called it) from Sixt through RentalCars.com. We drove from Montego Bay to Port Antonio, through the Blue Mountains to Kingston and then back to Montego Bay and we only had to fill the tank twice. We drove at least 500km!

Gas costs about $1 USD/litre.

Our route, not including our stops off the main roads

Unfortunately, I didn’t find Jamaica to be very back-packable.

By that I mean there isn’t a big backpacker culture like you would find in Central America or Asia, for example. It’s not simple to find cheap local transport, hitch-hike, or choose from a plethora of hostels. As you can imagine, most of the country is set up for resort-style tourism. Buses are almost always tour buses for day trips.

I was lucky to go as a little family vacation where we could fill multiple rooms in a villa, and renting a car made sense (though, if you’re not a confident driver I don’t recommend this).

If you have lots of time on your hands, you could definitely look into some Workaways where you could live for free/cheap and get a more in-depth insight into how to locals live.

Not Jamaica

Shopping

Don’t buy booze to bring home until Duty Free

It’s infinitely cheaper.

Like, even after talking down a bottle of Blackwell dark rum from $70 to $50… it turns out I could have gotten it for $25 at the airport. It still hurts. 1L bottles of Signature Appleton were on special: 2 for $30. In town one 750ml bottle was going for the same price.

I never believed that duty free shopping made that significant of a difference but… Jamaica changed me.

Same goes for Jamaican cigars

I personally am not a cigar smoker, but both my partner and my Dad are, and they really liked the Jamaican cigars.

Strangely enough, they found that rum-dipped cigars were “surprisingly smooth and flavourful” (a direct quote. As if I would have been able to come up with that myself.) It seems like a little gimmick but apparently they’re good!

If you’re looking for Cuban cigars, you have to look out for knock-offs that are actually made with Jamaican tobacco with a Cuban label slapped on them. But if you’re in Jamaica you may as well be smoking the local cigars anyway!

As with the rum, cigars were tragically, way cheaper at the duty-free. My Dad bought a bunch from a store near Montego Bay before we left, and regret it heavily when we were strolling through Duty Free later.

But of course, if you’re in Jamaica, you should try a cigar while you’re still in Jamaica. You can pick a decent one up from a local shop for about $10 USD… or less if you’re good at bargaining 🙂

Use cash instead of card

In addition to the above with the double exchange rate etc etc etc… we had some weird issues when paying with card. On two separate occasions with different vendors the print out said “declined” on the first go, and then showed up twice on the card.

I don’t think it was a scam actively put in place by the people who took the payment, but there was definitely a disconnect.

Save yourself the headache of calling your bank and just use cash whenever possible.

You’ll also want to keep small bills on you for tipping.

Pulling money from ATMs

If you’re Canadian and use Scotiabank like me, you’re in for a treat! Jamaica is part of their extensive Global Alliance program, so you won’t pay any fees at Scotiabank ATMs! And they’re everywhere.

This also applies if your home country’s bank is an Alliance partner with Scotiabank.
ie. WestPac from New Zealand or Australia
Bank of America from the USA
Deutsche Bank from Germany and others.

Accommodation

My personal and humble opinion is that you should stay somewhere local – not a resort. Sure, resorts employ a lot of people, but the bulk of the money you spend is going straight back to the United States, UK, or whatever rich country owns that monstrosity of a property. Villas are just as luxurious, but the money stays in the community.

Read more about my awesome villas and tree house here.

For more information on restaurants, activities, the route we took, and my personal recounts, check out my other posts!

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