If you plan to travel to a Caribbean island, Aruba or Barbados may be both on your list. In this post, I’ll compare them to try to help you choose the right one for your island vacation.
Both Aruba and Barbados are very popular island destinations and cruise-ship ports. Aruba, located just 30 km off the coasts of South America, is still Dutch, while Barbados, the easternmost Caribbean island, is independent but part of the British Commonwealth, and English-speaking.
What travelers say
- Aruba and Barbados are in a similar budget category, not so much for the all-inclusive Cancun crowd, both are a little pricey if all you want to do is lounge on the beach
- Both islands have good gastronomy and are valid choices if lying on the beach isn’t your sole interest. Barbados is very Caribbean-like and has cultural and natural attractions beyond the beach, while Aruba has a very strong American feel even though Dutch is spoken.
- Aruba has a tourist strip with many shops and casinos, resembling places like Miami. For many, this is Aruba’s strong point, while for others, it doesn’t have the charm and Caribbean flavor of Barbados.
- Barbados is bigger and much more tropical-like, with a greater beach variety and quality. It’s a good place to explore different ecosystems (jungle, savannas, cane fields, rugged and flat coasts), learn about the history of the colony, go surfing, or simply relax the island’s natural beauty.
- On the other hand, if you want shopping, vibrant nightlife, and casinos, then Aruba may be your choice. Aruba is a much arider and desert-like island as it’s less prone to rain or hurricanes, being much further South than Barbados – the latter is in the hurricane belt and more likely to get rain. Aruba is also quite smaller, so beach options are more limited and the beaches can get crowded since early in the morning.
- Barbados has much more traffic than Aruba but is more scenic. Aruba, on the other hand, has a much safer feel. Barbados, while beautiful, does not always feel totally safe to walk alone.
Access and transportation
There are direct flights from Miami, New York or London to either one of. If you want to visit both islands, you have to take a cruise, since there are no direct flights between them. The fastest way to connect by plane is through Miami with American Airlines.
While Barbados is more than twice as big, both islands are relatively small and easy to get around. In Barbados you have buses and cabs, you can rent bicycles or a car or just walk around it. Aruba has a great bus system to move around the island.
Vibe and people
Both islands can offer an enjoyable island experience, but they are quite different in terms of landscape and vibe.
Barbados is very Caribbean, lush, tropical, natural, with friendly and communicative people and many things to see and do. It’s a good choice if you plan to spend each day on a different uncrowded beach while still doing some sightseeing and day trips. You’ll also find pretty good entertainment and food places in the evenings.
Although infrastructure is good on both islands, Barbados has building height limitations and, unlike Aruba, is a much less commercial place, with only a few American restaurant chains. Restaurants in Barbados tend to be Caribbean-style and range from casual diners to fancy places.
Barbados’ capital city is Bridgetown, located in the southwest. It’s quite a busy town, but very beautiful and easy to get around, with medium-sized buildings, a walkable shopping street (Swan St.) and the attractive Independence Square. From Bridgetown you can easily access the luxurious and relaxed west coast. The south part of the island is a good place for water sports, lounging, and partying. The East coast offers seclusion and wilderness.
Aruba is more refined and tourist-driven, with lots of shops, very tall buildings, large casinos, and a distinctive American feel to it, very much like places such as Cancun or Punta Cana. Its beaches are few and very crowded, but beautiful.
Aruba is not only small but mostly desert, full of cacti and a little windy. You can visit the whole island and its different cultural influences in just one day. It’s a very clean and safe place overall, where you can drink water from the tap and, unlike Barbados, you don’t have to worry about panhandlers or vendors hounding you.
Being a renowned timeshare destination, Aruba tends to get filled with families and children, and travelers often report having to wake up very early in the morning in order to get beach chairs close to the ocean.
Nature and outdoors
Both islands have great turquoise-water beaches and some places to explore and discover. Since Barbados is a larger island, it offers more options in both departments.
Barbados is a very natural place, full of lush vegetation where you can come across green monkeys running around. In Barbados, you can catch some rains (mostly in September/October) but it’s much less windy than Aruba, especially if you stay in the South or West Coast.
On the south coast, you’ll find Enterprise/Miami Beach which is great for swimming or, right in Bridgetown, Brownes Beach or Carlisle Bay. In the Southeast, Foul Bay, Crane Beach, and Bottom Bay are stunning secluded beaches with strong currents, ideal for surfing and views. On the West Coast, you’ll find beaches with waves or calm waters like Mullins Beach, Sandy Lane Beach, Batts Rock beach.
In Aruba, North from capital city Oranjestad, are the island’s two most renowned and beautiful beaches: Palm Beach, a gorgeous, very calm beach, and Eagle Beach, a wide beach with lots of bars and stronger currents but very clear waters.
Travelers recommend renting a Jeep to explore Aruba and visit the Arikok National Park or take off-road paths in the desertic eastern part of the island. Aruba also has oyster and butterfly farms, and donkey sanctuaries.
Food and nightlife
Both islands have great cuisine, among the best in the Caribbean. Travelers find fancy restaurants to be slightly cheaper in Aruba than in Barbados.
Examples of well-rated places in Aruba include Fred Restaurant in Oranjestad, or nearby Opus Ocean & Grill for more affordable seafood and Caribbean dishes. For lunch at the beach, Scott’s Bratt is a budget-friendly American food spot in Palm Beach.
The nightlife in Aruba is non-stop, with bars, clubs and partying places open all-night. Many big hotels have casinos – travelers often recommend the Alhambra, the Ritz-Carlton, and the Stellaris.
Barbados also has many options for every budget and type of food. Near Brown Beach, Brown Sugar is a well-priced and beautifully decorated all-you-can-eat place serving local dishes. Further south, near Dover Beach, Champers is a 5-star restaurant with sea views. Also in the South, in the fishing village of Oistins, locals and tourists alike enjoy the island’s national dish, the cou-cou with flying fish, at the Friday evening fish market.
Barbados has a mile-long entertainment district full of bars, clubs, pool halls, and live music. Drinks tend to be quite cheap, with several places offering unlimited drinks for a reasonable entrance fee. There are also quieter options on the northwest side of the island. Partygoers commonly go for grilled fish as a late-night snack.
Although there are all-inclusive resorts on both islands, travelers often suggest avoiding them since both islands have a large variety of food options to choose from on your own. For travelers seeking all-inclusive accommodations, however, the Tamarijn or the Divi in Aruba and the Sandals, Crystal Cove or Mango Bay in Barbados are well-rated.
In Aruba, many good hotels are located on the main beaches. In Palm Beach, the Ritz is huge and luxurious, and the Hilton has decent deals and lets you reserve a palapa in advance. In Eagle Beach, the Bucuti is a boutique, adults-only, quiet hotel with a huge beach.
In Barbados, many of the high-end hotels are located either on the South Coast (closer to entertainment) or West Coast (more relaxed). If you plan to fully enjoy nature in a secluded spot, East Coast hotels may be a good choice e.g. the Atlantis Hotel or the Edgewater Inn.
If you’re on a budget, travelers frequently recommend checking out the website Shoestring Barbados (www.shoestringbarbados.com) where you’ll find decent accommodation deals for renting rooms or apartments.
As mentioned earlier, Aruba can be fully explored in one day so you can spend the rest of your stay enjoying the beach, casinos, and restaurants. In Barbados, on the other hand, travelers generally feel there is much more to do and discover.
Aside from all types of water sports, Barbados offers adventure activities such as Island Safari, ATV tours and caves and submarine tours. During weekends, the Barbados National Trust organizes a minimum 8-mile hike through diverse spots on the island.
Barbados also has a few historical places including Washington House & Garrison, St. Nicholas Abbey, Gunhill Signal station, and several rum distilleries.
(1) Featured: “IMG_1939-Edit” (CC BY 2.0) by brianfagan
(2) “aruba” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by freddie boy
(3) “Barbados Store that looks like a Chattel” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Corvair Owner
(4) “Aruba 2012” (CC BY 2.0) by northern man
(5) “Eagle Beach #3” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Göran Ingman
(6) “Lazy Sunday…” (CC BY 2.0) by gemteck1
(7) “Aruba – Oranjestad and Hooiberg” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by roger4336
(8) “Barbados resort” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Corvair Owner