Those of us who have been waiting to travel again might want to answer the question in this article title with an emphatic “Either!” or “Both!” But let us explain why you need to make a choice. Despite obvious similarities, Aruba and Barbados are poles apart from each other in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Below, we’ve broken the two Caribbean island-nations down in various categories to help you decide which best suits your taste and travel style. All that’s left to do is pick one and book your flight.
No matter which Caribbean island nation you choose, be sure to double check this Caribbean Packing List from our sister site, SmarterTravel, before you go.
Editor’s note: Some events and services at the destinations below may be altered/halted due to the pandemic. Always follow all COVID-19 restrictions, rules, and safety regulations both at your destination and upon returning home.
Aruba vs. Barbados: Getting There and Around
Both islands are much-beloved vacation destinations in the Caribbean with plenty of flight options from North America. Of course, the two islands are also regular cruise ship port of calls, but this article is aimed at travelers who want to dedicate a vacation on either island for four days or more.
Aruba: Just 15 miles north of Venezuela, this island in the southern Caribbean Sea is a two-hour direct flight from Miami or roughly a five-hour direct flight from New York City, Chicago, and Toronto. Flights from Los Angeles and the west coast take 8 hours or more (with a stop). Once you arrive at Queen Beatrix International Airport in the capital of Oranjestad, you can take a taxi to your hotel or resort. Many travelers opt to rent a car here as the island’s small size (75 square miles) and distinct beaches makes it ideal for exploring. It’s comforting to know that Arubans drive on the right side and road signs are in English. If we had to pick one island that is better for renting a car, we vote for Aruba. For public transportation, there’s frequent bus service between downtown Oranjestad and the main resort areas along the hotel strip.
Barbados: This pear-shaped island is located in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies. Though its 700 miles east of Aruba, flight distances are similar for those coming from the north: direct flights from New York clock in at just under five hours, while Los Angeles requires a stopover and about 9 hours. You’ll arrive at Grantley Adams International Airport in the capital of Bridgetown. Barbados is twice the size of Aruba (166 square miles) and divided into 11 parishes (similar to states or provinces), each with its own history and character. Some travelers rent a car for the duration of the trip, or for just a day or two, but be prepared to drive on the left! Taxis are readily available all across the island, and drivers tend to be long-time residents who cheerfully chat about their upbringing and Bajan history (tips are graciously accepted). It’s also an adventure to get around Barbados in the blue government buses or the yellow “reggae buses” during daylight hours, named for the music playing on board (bring coins). Public transportation is frequent and a great chance to experience local culture since it is how most islanders get around. After sundown, ask the hotel or restaurant to call a taxi.
Aruba vs. Barbados: Beaches and Water Sports
These tropical islands are synonymous with dreamy stretches of white sand, clear turquoise waters, and lots of water-based activities. Barbados—due to its bigger size and location—offers more beaches and variety, as well as better surfing and scuba diving. Aruba can’t be beat for endless beach walks, some diverse beaches with rock formations, and wind- and kite-surfing.
Barbados: Bajans’ (the name for locals) are proud to say that all beaches on the island are public and many take a refreshing dip during their off time. Be careful when picking a hotel as beaches vary depending on which side of the island you’re staying. The south coast on the Caribbean side is where most of the hotels and resorts are located — these tend to pull in families and groups who enjoy the photogenic medium-sized waves, which are great for swimming and boogie boarding. The west coast Caribbean beaches above Bridgetown headed north can get narrow in size with calmer water—great for swimming laps and relaxed water sports like snorkeling and stand-up paddleboarding. The coral reef that protects most of the island helps make Barbados a great scuba diving destination with more than 200 wrecks around the island including the four sites in the Bay of Carlisle near Bridgetown that are suitable for beginners. Nightly sunsets from both the south and west coast beaches are not to be missed.
The east coast on the Atlantic side is Barbados’s lesser-visited side and that’s how locals like it. It overlooks a rugged, rocky coastline with impressive waves from October to March drawing some of the best surfers in the world with its big barrels. The water is mostly unsafe for swimming, but the deep blue color of the ocean coupled with large limestone boulders (and the absence of large resorts) creates some of the most photogenic views on the island, especially from Bathsheba Beach. It’s not completely devoid of hotels: this is where the Atlantis Historic Inn is located and where you can have lunch. In fact, you may wish to rent a car—even for a day or two—and visit a variety of beaches across the island. Check out our Best Beach Hotels in Barbados for some inspiration.
Aruba: The hot, desert-like environment of Aruba offers steady sunshine year-round, so beaches are without question the main draw. The west coast is where most of the resorts are located—this is where you’ll find endless white-sand beaches and calm blue seas. The most popular beaches include Palm Beach, Manchebo Beach, and Eagle Beach, which tends to rank high on the annual TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice Awards. These three beaches combine to make a fantastically lengthy beach walk with a flat shoreline and picturesque turquoise waves. If this is your idea of a great way to start the day, you’re in good hands. As for water sports, Aruba’s famous trade winds provide ideal conditions for both windsurfing and kiteboarding, popular with locals and repeat visitors. Even if you don’t partake, these fast-moving sails are fun to watch from the safety of your perch on the beach.
You can also drive or take a bus to some of the island’s other great beaches, like Baby Beach to the south, and Malmok and Arashi beaches to the north. Snorkelers have endless clear waters to skim and can even see one of the largest shipwrecks in the Caribbean off the shores of Malmok Beach. The northeast coast, along Aruba’s windward shore, is rugged and wild, while local surfers prefer to head to Wariruri Beach, on the east side, for good waves. There are also endless hidden mangrove areas for swimming, floating, and snorkeling. If you have a car or Jeep, bop around the island with a towel and sunscreen and explore; better yet, befriend a local and ask them for a few secret spots.
Related: The Essential Beach Packing List
Aruba vs. Barbados: Weather and Safety
Aruba is an arid climate with little annual rain. Barbados has more tropical showers and lush green foliage. Both countries are located outside of the main hurricane belt and experience low levels of crime, especially in Aruba.
Aruba: Nicknamed “One Happy Island,” Aruba is a vacation draw for its consistent dry and sunny weather. Temperatures stick in the low to mid-80s nearly all year long and the rays are strong, especially between 11am and 2:30pm, so you do not want to skimp on the chemical-free sunscreen (it’s also a good idea to pack some aloe vera gel). Despite the strong sun, the island benefits from pleasant breezes and, in some places, strong trade winds that not only keep you cool but stave off pesky flying insects, like mosquitoes. Aruba doesn’t have a rainy season, since it only receives less than 20 inches of rain per year (mainly November and December). Better yet, the threat of hurricanes and natural disasters is very low due to its location in the southern Caribbean.
Despite the heavily reported disappearance of Natalee Holloway in 2005, Aruba is often considered one of the safest and friendliest islands in the Caribbean. Like other islands, petty crime persists, so you’ll want to avoid leaving your belongings unattended on the beach. Keep your wits about you if partying and gambling in the casinos and avoid wandering alone after dark.
Barbados: Just like Aruba, Barbados is also located outside of the traditional hurricane belt, thus escaping most of the severe tropical storms and hurricanes. Temperatures stick around the mid-80s throughout the year, but this island receives much more rain per year than Aruba, with an annual 60 inches, mostly during September through November. If you don’t mind the occasional shower, this is a good time to snag deals on flights and accommodations before the high season kicks in. November is the most humid month, so those looking to escape the muggy conditions should consider the south coast with more ocean breezes. Thanks to the increase in rain, Barbados offers more bright green foliage compared to the drought-tolerant landscapes of Aruba.
Though generally a safe place to travel, there are some small pockets in Barbados (mostly in the capital) that are best left avoided due to higher levels of crime. These are listed on the U.S. State Department website. Travelers are not usually victims of violent crime and most hotels and resorts have protective walls or gates monitored by private security staff.
Aruba vs. Barbados: Land Activities and Culture
These two Caribbean islands offer a variety of activities and a distinct mix of cultures, both left over from their period of colonization by England and Netherlands, respectively, and born from the diverse populations that currently call the islands home.
Barbados: The island was under British rule for 340 years and this history can be felt strongly. Resorts like the Sandy Lane and Fairmont Royal Pavilion offer traditional afternoon tea, while cricket is the national sport. In Bridgetown, there’s even a cricket museum offering exhibits on the history of cricket in the West Indies. Polo is also a popular sport with a loyal local and international following. History buffs will want to check out downtown Bridgetown, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012 for its well-preserved British Colonial and Georgian architecture styles built between the 17th and 19th centuries
As for outdoor activities, there are plenty of inland mountain biking and walking trails, as well as limestone caves to explore. You can hike past a U.S. Naval Base to get to Harrison’s Point Lighthouse on the north side of the island. Golfers have their pick between five PGA standard courses on the island including the Green Monkey course at the Country Club at Sandy Lane.
In terms of Afro-Caribbean influences, make sure to learn about the history of slavery and plantation life and visit one or two of the island’s rum shops, tropical gardens, and churches. For instance, the Flower Forest Botanical Gardens is a horticultural park with 50 acres of flowering plants and trees on a former sugar plantation. On a rainy day, the Mount Gay Visitor Centre offers daily tours of the distillery that begin, appropriately, with a rum punch.
Aruba: This island offers more cultural diversity than Barbados. The Dutch first occupied the island in the 17th century in order to protect their salt supply from the South American mainland. Today, the island has roughly 106,000 full-time residents from more than 90 different nationalities. The official languages are Dutch and the native tongue of Papiamento, though most Arubans can also speak English and Spanish. The capital of Orangested offers a range of museums and a weekly cultural festival at Fort Zoutman with dancing, local crafts, and food and drink vendors.
If visitors can peel themselves away from the ocean during the day, check out some of the interior’s dramatic rock formations and unique tree species like the divi-divi which appear sculpted by the constant trade winds. A good excursion is to drive to Arikok National Park on the east coast covering nearly one fifth of the island. Here, you’ll find beautiful vistas with rugged hills overlooking the coastline, tall cacti, rock bridges, and geological formations (guided tours are available). Other family-friendly activities on the island include a small ostrich farm where you can learn about the world’s largest living bird, a donkey sanctuary run by a non-profit organization, and a butterfly farm near Palm Beach. Shoppers can head to a modern mall in Orangested with dozens of high end international shops and restaurants.
Aruba vs. Barbados: Food and Nightlife
Both islands offer impressive restaurant scenes that cater to their large numbers of foreign visitors. Aruba has more distinct cuisine due to its diversity and Latin neighbors, and more nightlife due to the legality of casinos. Once could argue that Barbados is better for romance and intimate dining.
Aruba: While the island may be small, you’ll find a dizzying variety of restaurants and cuisines here with Dutch, South American, and Caribbean influences as well as Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, and Mexican. A popular dish on the island is fish creole, and there are many versions of it, with pan-fried slices of fresh fish served in a gravy of onion, tomato, bell pepper, and garlic—likely served with traditional polenta-like funchi (cornmeal porridge). Other local dishes include rich stews made with beef or goat, salt cod fritters, and a gumbo made with pureed okra called sopi jambo. Hot sauces are made locally, so feel free to spice up any dish.
Aruba’s nightlife usually starts with sunset drinks by the beach in the form of fruity rum cocktails, sangria, or alcoholic milkshakes. Then most partiers head for restaurants, casual bars, and casinos, since gambling is legal in Aruba. If you’re planning on heading to a bar, casino, or club located away from your hotel, we recommend taking a taxi. If you really want to get wild, buy a ticket on the Kukoo Kunuku party bus.
Barbados: Though not quite as diverse as Aruba, most restaurants on the island cater to travelers with a range of New American or European dishes including a wide variety of seafood and meats. You can dine at your hotel or resort, or sample some of the best restaurants around the island by taxi. A trip to the Oistin’s Fish Fry on Friday night is your opportunity to try the national dish: cou-cou and flying fish with spicy gravy. Other traditional meals include pickled pork with spiced sweet potatoes, macaroni pie, fish cakes, and a hearty stew called pepperpot. For a midday snack, look for cutters—little sandwiches served on salt bread with either ham, cucumber, egg, or fish.
Ordering a rum punch at sunset, coupled with some live music on the beach, is a fun way to start any night in Barbados. Gambling is not allowed here, but partiers can head to the St. Lawrence Gap (also known as “The Gap” by locals) to partake in a strip of lively pubs and bars. Romantics, meanwhile, can head to quieter, more sophisticated options in Holetown for a post-dinner drink.
Boardwalk Hotel Aruba: For those in search of an intimate boutique experience on Aruba, the Boardwalk Hotel is an excellent three-and-a-half-pearl choice. This peaceful property, tucked behind three massive Marriott properties and situated on a former coconut plantation, remains an oasis of calm. The bright, spacious casitas have full kitchens or kitchenettes, bright beach-chic decor, and semi-private patios. Snorkeling equipment is free to use, as are palapa-shaded lounge chairs, and it’s just a five-minute walk to Palm Beach (full of bustling restaurants, casinos and nightlife). There’s also a “hidden” beach nearby that’s recommended by the owners—they know the local scoop. While the hotel does have a small pool, there is no restaurant.
Bougainvillea Barbados: This 100-room Mediterranean-style resort gets its name from the local flower, which is ceremoniously placed in rooms upon arrival. The atmosphere is unpretentious, and reasonable prices make it a good value on the south coast—it’s especially popular with families and wedding groups. All rooms have kitchens or kitchenettes, or guests can dine at two restaurants along the water. This resort prides itself on being eco-friendly, and amenities include a spa, fitness center, kids’ club, and water sports.
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