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How to Do Trinidad Carnival on a Budget
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How to Do Trinidad Carnival on a Budget

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(Last Updated On: July 11, 2019)

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Last month, I went on a suuupppper fun trip to Trinidad Carnival with some of my very favorite people on earth. My dad’s side of the family is from Trinidad. My cousin and I had never been so it was a trip that was essentially decades in the making and took almost a year of planning.

I’ve gotten so many questions about the experience like “WTF was going on with all the bare* vibes” and “I want to go.” So I decided to create one huuuuuuuuge Trinidad Carnival guide on what it’s about, how much it costs, and how to plan for it.

Trinidad Carnival can be a very expensive trip. We saved wherever we could, and I definitely want to share with you everything I know including insider tips. There’s a lot to cover so let’s get into it!

(*Bare – Meaning a lot of something. And there was A LOT of vibes.)

 

What’s Trinidad Carnival?

Trinidad Carnival is a sequence of amazing events that happen every year leading up to Carnival Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

A month before these two special days are tons of parties (called fetes). Many are all inclusive with food and drinks. Others you bring your own cooler of drinks and snacks.

There’s quite a bit of history dating back to the 1800’s and slavery/emancipation that’s led to present day Trinidad Carnival traditions. For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into detail about history but it’s interesting and important. You can learn about that here.

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Thousands of people from all over the world meet in Trinidad for Carnival. On Monday and Tuesday bands on trucks take to the streets with masqueraders (the people in costume “playing mas”) reveling from the AM to PM.

Monday is the more chill road day and Tuesday is the full on road day where people playing mas dress up in full costume and pretty make-up to cross the Socadrome stage and show off the band’s theme for the year.

J’ouvert is the official start of carnival and it happens in the wee hours of Monday morning before the sun comes up. Basically, from Sunday evening to Tuesday evening there’s no sleep.

I don’t think anyone in Port of Spain works during these days either. It didn’t look like it anyway. Pretty much everyone is partying in the streets none stop — my heaven.

The Flights

This is going to be one of your biggest expenses. Planning early is going to be integral here. When I say plan early, I mean that you should be starting to look for flights and somewhere to stay in the spring and summer the year before. Places get booked up very fast.

Hopper is an app I suggest to shop for rates. You can put in dates and the app will analyze and project prices to tell you when to buy.

Flight costs about $600 from Orlando. I watched the app meticulously and pulled the trigger when it was most affordable.

To save for the trip, I used Digit and Acorns. Seriously, I love these apps and recommend them to pretty much everyone all the time.

Digit is an app that connects to your checking account and reviews your spending habits. Money that you don’t need is transferred into the Digit account.

A common concern I get from people is that they’re not sure they’ll have enough money in their account. DON’T WORRY. Digit says they will not overdraft you. As a self-employed worker, I have variable income. At first I was concerned but it works very well. It takes less money if you have less money in your account. I’m talking a few cents, but it adds up!

If you’re interested in Digit, sign up at this link to get a bonus $5 into your account.

 

The Accommodations

For savings, our group all stayed with family and friends (who are like family). (Thank you by the way.)  I was lucky here because I know quite a lot of people on the island.

However, I did look around at options in the beginning and found places were about $800+ for a week depending on how nice the digs were. Keep in mind that you will hardly be in the room for the entire time you’re there. You’re not looking for beauty you’re mostly looking for safety.

The other thing is there are travel companies that offer all-inclusive deals for the trip including flights, accommodation, transportation, parties, costumes, etc. I haven’t tried them, but it could be a good option if you’re going with a group of people who are unfamiliar with Trinidad. The all-inclusive deals take care of everything for you so you have less planning.

A word on credit card travel hacking…

Another opportunity for flight and hotel savings is travel hacking with credit cards. Credit card hacking is when you sign up for multiple credit cards that all have a sign up bonus and then use the points or miles towards your flight and hotel.

My friend hacked her way to a $400 honeymoon with this method. You can learn more about the method including what cards could give you the points and miles you need here.

Important: You need to be a responsible credit card user to put this hack to work! To make the most of this hack you need to pay off your credit cards in full each month to avoid interest charges.

 

Trinidad J’ouvert

Boring stuff out of the way, we’ve arrived at my favorite portion of this post. The parties.

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J’ouvert is the official start of the Carnival festivities. It starts at around 3 to 4 AM on the Monday morning. It’s a huge street party with vendors selling food and drinks.

J’ouvert is also a colored powder and paint party, so don’t go out on the street wearing anything nice. You can sign up to revel with a band for J’ouvert festivities. This is essentially a moving party. There’s a huge truck with a DJ and drinks.

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Tickets for J’ouvert party bands range from $80 to $100. There are a bunch of different J’ouvert Monday morning bands you can play with. We played with Prism Ice Box.

Here’s a HUGE list of Carnival festivities for 2018. I’m sure they’ll update this for 2019. Scroll down to Monday and you’ll see the list of the J’ouvert bands. You would choose one and pay online.

Afterward you get an email with information on how to pick up your J’ouvert goodies for Monday that come with the ticket along with details on where you meet the band on the morning to start partying!

Every band does it differently but our goodie bag came with a cup (for drinks, duh), a white shirt, a bandana, and other random stuff. I repeat — don’t wear anything nice for J’ouvert. You’ll be throwing paint and getting paint thrown on you. It’s super fun and super messy. We also were fed breakfast in the morning when the sun came up.

After J’ouvert, we went back home for a few hours and got right back up to join our other band for Monday Carnival. Woop, woop!

 

Playing Mas

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So let’s talk about Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Looking at photos of Trinidad Carnival, it seems like a completely disorganized bacchanal (okay there’s a decent amount of that) but it is quite organized. I was impressed by this element.

To play mas (dress up in a costume), you have to get invited to play with one of the bands. Some bands are harder to get an invite to than than others. Here’s a list of the bands.

Bands launch for the season around August the year prior. During band launch each band hosts a huge event to show off their themes and costumes for the year. The band websites are then updated for people to apply for and order their costume.

We played with Tribe, which is considered one of the best bands. Every band has a different vibe. Tribe is a hype band with a lot of people.

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Smaller bands have less people and are a little bit more spread out. This can give you a more chill experience. If you go to Trinidad for Carnival you don’t have to play in a band but I suggest it if you’re not familiar with Trinidad. Joining an all-inclusive band gives you:

  • The costume
  • Breakfast, lunch, and snacks for Monday and Tuesday
  • Snacks and drinks (alcohol or other) for both days
  • A truck full of bathrooms!
  • Heavy security
  • First aid

During lunch on Tuesday the masqueraders ate in this huge park with bathrooms and a changing station. Honestly, it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. Make-up stations, super clean potties, perfume, deodorant, and all types of primping stuff all set up outside.

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It was HOT outside so you can only imagine how amazing this was. We’ll talk about safety at the end of this post, but the security part is a huge plus.

 

The Cost of Playing Mas

Each band has different sections. The sections are the various costumes. Each section has a front line which are the really huge costumes. And then there are the backline which are the smaller costumes.

The girls in our group each got the backline. The backline can be very basic or you can choose to add on things like leg feather stuff, head feather stuff, and collar feather stuff for extra money. The guys decided to pass on playing with us but have rethought that for next year. It really is a better experience when you’re walking with everyone in the band.

You don’t have to stay in a particular costume section while you’re partying down the street so girls going in a group can choose different costumes.

You do have to get in your costume section when the band crosses the Socadrome to show off to eager spectators. If your crew chooses different costumes within the same band just wait for each other and regroup after your section gets off the stage. (Here’s our section waiting to cross the stage, eeeekkkk!)

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If you get lost while walking with the band it’s actually not too hard to find your friends again because it’s a roped off party. Just stay cool, drink your drink, and stay within the confines of the band. You’ll catch up to each other eventually.

It costs $400 to $600ish for men to play mas. This includes their costume and the all-inclusive stuff. It costs anywhere from $600 to $1,400 for women.

Yes. You can imagine that my eyes popped out of my head when I saw that price. But seeing what’s included (an elaborate costume and two days of all-inclusive stuff along with security), it’s worth the cost.

Again, I used Digit for over a year to save up a good portion of what I needed for my costume. You CAN make Trinidad Carnival happen if you plan early. Start saving small amounts from now. Consider opening a free savings account with Capital One 360 and automate some transfers into the account. Name it your “Trinidad Fund.”

The other great thing is that you can make small payments towards your costume. You put down a deposit initially. I believe we made the first deposit in September to secure the costume. Then I paid the balance of my costume right before we left in February.

Note: Playing mas means that you do get a certain level of attention. You’re part of the show going down the road. People are on each side watching the festivities. There will be cameras on you in the Socadrome when you go across the stage because it’s a televised event. It’s not a bad thing. I had hella fun! Just be mindful of it if you plan to dress up.

 

Finding Your Band + Carnival Accessories

The Tribe costume came in this pretty box and there was also a bag. It included a cup and your wrist band. It also had a snazzy pamphlet with other Carnival information including the path the band will be taking throughout the city.

Naturally, we were never on time to meet the band at the start so we never knew where to find it. Oops! There’s an app for that though!

Download D’Junction. It uses GPS to tell you where the band is. This app is a huge life saver. (I told you there is a method to this partying madness.)

The costume gives you pretty much all you need, but I suggest women bring a few things of their own to make their life easy. The bottom of my costume didn’t fit but I had an extra bathing suit bottom that matched pretty well. Bring an extra bathing suit bottom just in case.

Also you can go bare legged but I wore sparkly stockings and prefer that. It’s a little more added coverage because you’ll be doing a lot of close dancing. (More on that later 😀 ). You can get sparkly or shiny dance stockings from Amazon. I got my stockings from Carnivalista.

See Also
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I recommend getting a lanyard wallet that has enough room for your ID and phone to carry around your neck. You don’t need much of anything else specifically money. There’s food and a bathroom with the trucks so carry the bare minimum. Also women should bring along make-up wipes. These were clutch each time I fell into bed comatose after a full day of partying.

During lunch, we found someone’s wallet and they had A LOT of U.S. cash in it, their ID, phone, and a bunch of other stuff. We gave it to security and she eventually came back to find it but it almost turned into a cautionary tale for her. Don’t bring all of your earthly possessions to a party!

The Other Competitions

There are several competitions that are happening during Carnival like Panorama. Panorama is a steel pan competition. You know that steel pan music that’s become synonymous with the Caribbean? The steel pan has origins in Trinidad. We did didn’t make it to Panorama, but we could definitely hear it!

Beside the music competition, there’s a competition for King and Queen of Carnival. This is where you’ll see the veeeeeery elaborate and huge costumes.

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King of Carnival: Wade Madray – Pacific Tsunami. Photo from National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago

 

The Other Fetes

There are plenty of other cooler and yacht parties happening other than J’ouvert and Carnival Monday/Tuesday. These parties are also usually $50 to $100. Some include stuff and others don’t. We only went to two other parties with friends and family.

What I really like about these parties is that you pay for them ahead of time. This is excellent for budgeting. You can save throughout the year, choose your parties, pay for your parties, and then you have to worry about bringing minimal cash with you when you’re there. Drinks are usually included!

Here’s a link with 2018 parties again. These will likely be updated for future years!

 

Music + Wine (and I’m not talking about the drink)

The music played at Trinidad Carnival is Soca. The best way I can describe it is like Caribbean house music. It’s happy music. I don’t think you can be in a bad mood when listening to it. Not to be confused with Reggae or Dancehall. Confuse these two with Soca and Jamaican’s will kill you. (Lookin’ at you Marc.)

Each year, DJ Private Ryan puts out a Soca mix with the hits for the year. Listen to the mix before heading to Carnival and you’ll know all of the songs they play on the road!

As for the dancing, this makes me giggle because my good friend and I got in a pretty funny debate about the mechanics of the dancing that happens.  From the outside, dancing in the Caribbean looks pretty dirty. It’s called grinding in the U.S., but it’s wining in the Caribbean.

“Thief a wine” is a saying you’ll hear a lot and that’s basically “steal a dance”. Someone comes up behind you, and you dance! It has gotten a little stricter this year. You can report someone who dances with you to the police if you don’t like it and they can get into deep doodoo.

My experience was really good with this. A lot of men asked to dance with you first. If you say you don’t want to dance, no problem. They move on to thief a wine somewhere else!

 

Other Attractions + Food

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Carnival time = partying. But there are still other things to do!

Trinidad isn’t a “beach, beach” island like Jamaica. You need to go to Tobago for that. Maracas Beach is the main beach in Trinidad in Maracas Bay. The bay is beautiful and it’s home to Richard’s Bake and Shark. You have to try bake and shark!

The Avenue is a place to hang out at night. It’s a strip with bars and restaurants. That’s where I had the very best roti and curry beef I’ve ever had in my life. You eat it like a burrito and it’s just delicious. No other words.

Trinidad has pretty much any food that you can think of. There’s a Subway, Pizza Hut, and Church’s Chicken on almost every corner if you want to place it safe. I had Chinese one day and it was pretty bomb. During Carnival there are stalls on the side of the road with food — fried chicken, bbq chicken, fried fish — you name it.

Lastly on the food front, bring bottled water. I lost my mind for a few days and drank tap accidentally. I was in the bathroom back to back in between partying for 48 hours. Don’t drink the water. Period.

 

That Whole Transportation Thang – Update: As of May 2018, Uber is no longer available in Trinidad. 🙁

We found Uber very reliable and affordable in Trinidad. The most expensive trip we took was the first night from the airport and to the first party because we didn’t really know what we were doing. It cost about $60 U.S. for a personal driver to go to where we were staying from the airport and then to the first party and back.

Uber was waaaaaaay cheaper than it. It cost about $4 to $20 U.S. in most instances. We went all the way to the beach for $20 each way and that was 30 to 45 minutes away.

You will be charged a foreign transaction fee when you use Uber so check your credit card to see what the fees are. Our credit card fee was 1% to 2%, still not bad.

The other modes of transportation are taxis and maxis. A taxi is like a regular old taxi. A maxi is a car that hits the bus stops so it’s technically pubic transportation. My advice is to stay away from these modes of transportation especially at night. When they know you’re not from Trinidad it can mean problems i.e. getting robbed. Carry little cash on you.

On that note, let’s move on to…

 

Safety

I can’t do this entire guide without adding a note on safety. Travel advisories have been put out on Trinidad recently because of gang crime and potential terrorist (ISIS) activity. Specifically, there was a terrorist threat for this year’s Carnival. Thankfully, there were no disruptions but travel with caution.

Don’t stay out super late after dark. Have your transportation lined up for where you’re going and the way back. Uber was very reliable for us. Conserve your phone battery or bring a portable charger!

Don’t keep everything on you (money, passport, social security card, etc.) at all times. Keep your eyes open and be vigilant.

 

Total Approx. Cost

The conversion rate is always changing, but when we went it was about $1 U.S. to $6.80 TT. This is nice because your dollar goes far. It’s hard to give an exact cost for how much Trinidad was because we paid for a lot of things in advance. But here’s an approximate:

  • Airfare for two from Orlando – $1,300 total
  • My costume – $900 (backline, w/ headpiece and collar)
  • Spending cash for two people – $800 (street food, a few taxi/maxis, last-minute party, drinks at a few random clubs, beach food and chairs, walking cash)
  • J’ouvert band tickets (2) – $200
  • Water park cooler party (2) – $120
  • Other cooler party (2) – $100
  • Ubers – $100
  • Phone (we used the AT&T $10 per day international for unlimited talk and text) – $100
  • Total for 2 people = $3,620 together or $1,810 per person

 

In Summary

I can say without a doubt that Trinidad was one of the best trips I’ve taken in my life. Going with a big group of people I love made it even more fun.

I love traveling but traveling with a big group of close family and friends makes the experience that much better. Have family you want to get together for this trip? Share this post!

Also Trinidad Carnival is not just a special time for Caribbean people either. People from all over the world love Soca and Trinidad Carnival which adds a little something extra to the experience.

Not to be cheesy, but there’s a feeling of togetherness and happiness that just can’t be beat. It’s like a big old celebration of life!

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