Rio de Janeiro isn’t the only place you can celebrate Carnival. The duo-island country of Trinidad and Tobago is quickly becoming the hottest spot for Carnival in the Caribbean.
Up until a few weeks ago, when I found myself on a last-minute Southern Caribbean island adventure, I knew absolutely nothing about the duo-island country of Trinidad and Tobago (TnT). All I knew was that it sat in the Atlantic, just a half dozen miles off the coast of Venezuela.
I’d never heard the word Trinbagonian, I’d never listened to a 100-member steel drum band rock the night away in open air, and I had never eaten a bake and shark sandwich.
Most importantly, before I visited TnT, I’d always considered the ultimate pre-Lenten Carnival destination for every traveler’s bucket list was Rio de Janeiro.
Turns out Brazil is so “last decade.” In the new roaring ‘20s, where travelers relish the road less-traveled and desire off-the-grid experiences, it’s the ‘pan’-playing, bake-and-shark-eating Trinbagonians who have earned the reputation of throwing the hottest Carnival in the Caribbean.
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Carnival in Trinidad
Trinidad & Tobago’s main celebration is held in the capital city of Port of Spain. While the partying days of Carnival traditionally fall on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, Carnival festivities kick off early in the month of February. And Carnival preparation is a year-round affair.When I arrived in TnT for my recent visit, I got there a full month before Carnival, yet the city’s pregame was already going strong.
Port of Spain’s Queen’s Park Savannah (also the world’s largest roundabout) had already been turned into a Carnival city. Soca music filled the air, Carnival was the primary topic of conversation and fetes and activities were happening every night. The check-in desk at the Trinidad Hilton even proudly displayed a sign on the reception desk that it was Carnival and loud music at all hours should be expected.
Just being in Trinidad during the buildup to Carnival was an educational experience. I learned about the “Panorama” – a monthlong steel drum band competition. I spent one night on a pan-crawl, taking a maxi (the local Trinidad minibus) from ‘panyard’ to ‘panyard’ listening to the steel drum orchestras of 75-100 players as they prepared for their first preliminary competition judging.
Though I didn’t get to stay for the actual days of the Carnival “Mas,” I certainly got a tiny taste of the TnT experience. Pre-Carnival was like the pepper sauce served with every meal in Trinidad – a spicy hit that made me want more.
Credit cards for Carnival: Planning a trip to TnT
If you want to hit up the Caribbean’s Carnival of carnivals, there are a few logistical things you should know. And, of course, a few tips on how you can lower some of your travel costs by using your rewards credit cards.
Outside of Carnival and the periodic cruise ship stopping by, Trinidad does not have a big tourist infrastructure. For accommodation, your choice is primarily an Airbnb or the handful of hotels in town that regularly cater to business travelers.
If you’re looking to use rewards points to cover accommodation costs in Trinidad, there are four hotels (which belong to an international property group) where you can stay with points earned on their respective co-branded credit cards.
- The Port of Spain Hilton: From 35,000 points per night with the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card.
- The Hyatt Regency Trinidad: 12,000 points per night with The World of Hyatt Credit Card.
- Radisson Trinidad: From 44,000 points per night with the Radisson Rewards Premiere Visa Signature Card.
- Courtyard by Marriott: From 25,000 points per night with any Marriott Bonvoy credit card.
During Carnival, the Hilton is by far the most popular hotel based on its proximity to Carnival central in the Queen’s Park Savannah, as it’s an easy walk up a gated path to the hotel. Staying here, however, will require a lot of preplanning.
Remember when I said that people plan Carnival all year long? All four of these hotels are already booked for Carnival 2021 – even though no one actually sleeps during Carnival from what I hear.
Flying to Trinidad on points
Getting to Trinidad from the U.S. is straightforward – especially if you’re flying to the Caribbean from the east coast.
AA flies direct from Miami (MIA) to Port of Spain (POS). The four-hour flight runs 20,000 points each way for economy-class during the high season of Carnival. Yet even through early February, I could find mileage saver fares at 10,000 points one-way from various U.S.-originating points – including Portland (PDX) to POS.
This is a great value when you consider it’s ordinarily a minimum of 12,500 points each way just to get to from the west coast to MIA.
Coming from the Midwest, United offers the most direct routes to POS via Houston (IAH). Expect to pay 17,500 to 20,000 United miles for the flight each way – or transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United MileagePlus to make the booking.
Heading in from the Northeast, JetBlue has direct flights between New York (JFK) and connecting flights via Ft Lauderdale (FLL). The cost of JetBlue award tickets fluctuates based on actual ticket cost, but expect a 15,900-point ticket from JFK or a 6,100-point one-way ticket from FLL.
In my opinion, a 6,000-point ticket from FLL is a pretty sweet deal. If you earned the 40,000-point sign-up bonus on the JetBlue Plus card from Barclaycard, you’d have enough points to take yourself and two friends on your Carnival adventure!
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Once you’re in the Caribbean, you can easily catch a flight to Tobago or another island to sleep off Carnival via Caribbean Airlines or Liat, the local carriers that connect POS to the rest of their island neighbors.
Though you missed this year’s Carnival, there’s plenty of time to earn for 2021. Mark TnT on your calendar for next year, study up on the Carnival for beginner’s guide and prepare to reward yourself with sunshine and bottomless rum punch.