Difference between revisions of "Saint Thomas"
Revision as of 23:58, 14 March 2010
St. Thomas is in the Virgin Islands.
This is the islands, so naturally the locals are very laid back. You can count on speedy service especially in the areas where they are used to dealing with a lot of tourists though. Some decorum is still important; keep swimwear on the beach, and dress comfortably for other activities.
Say "good morning" "good afternoon" or "good night" when you enter a room, get on a taxi or before you start talking to someone and they will be more friendly, this is the polite thing to do and shows that you aren't a complete tourist.
English is spoken throughout the island.
Cyril E. King Airport (IATA: STT) (ICAO: TIST), 340-774-5100, . This international airport is on Red Point on the island's southwest coast. Local carriers like Cape Air and Seaborne Airlines also offer frequent flights linking the St. Thomas Airport with St. Croix's Henry Rohlsen Airport.
Several airlines serve the island from nearby islands and numerous U.S. mainland cities, e.g., US Airways, Delta, Continental, United, American, Spirit.
By Cruise Ship
Saint Thomas is a very popular stop for cruise ships on both Eastern Caribbean and Southern Caribbean itineraries. When they're in port (often, usually during daylight hours), you may see many large ships...1-2 off-season, frequently four or more (occasionally eight or so) in high-season. Each can put 2-3,000 passengers on the island. You can find fairly dependable data on scheduled ship arrivals and passenger loads for Saint Thomas and many other ports and dates at .
During "high season", Monday through Wednesday tend to have the most cruise ships in port.
Once you've reached any area (e.g., "downtown", Havensight, Red Hook), walking becomes the preferred way to get around.
If you want to see the island thoroughly, without the restrictions of a large bus tour by your hotel or cruise ship, consider hiring a cab/driver for a few hours. Many are amiable and well-qualified to show you places the buses can't or don't go, and where buses go, your driver can time your arrival to avoid the bus crowds. For 3-5 hours, a common rate is around $50 per hour, so four or more people can have a "private" tour for much less than all on a "bus" tour. Cab drivers are happy to oblige, so you should have no trouble hiring one at any resort, the cruise ship docks, downtown or in shopping areas.
Ferries leave from Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook to other islands pretty much all day every couple of hours. There are information booths along the waterfront where you can get a schedule for the local ferries and a ferry terminal near French Town for the longer distances (BVI etc). For on-line schedules to plan your outing, try  for getting around the USVI, and  for reaching the British Virgin Islands. If you are going to St. John it is much cheaper and faster to go from Red Hook.
General note: Everyone in the city uses their horns liberally...short toots for "hello". They drive on the left side of the street and don't really follow the rules. They don't follow the rules about a lot of things, in fact they are very disorganized, but it can be charming.
The island is arguably the biggest shopping mecca in the Caribbean. Goods are imported duty and excise free, and visitors thus do not directly pay any duty or tax on purchases (merchants do pay a Gross Receipts Tax of 4%.) Buyers may face Customs duty as they return home (see discussion below).
U.S. currency is used/accepted universally. ATMs can be found in numerous locations. As anywhere, major purchases should be made by credit card. Most store-front establishments, resorts and restaurants accept credit cards and traveler checks. Few places accept personal checks. Sellers in open-air bazaars may not accept credit or debit cards.
You can shop many dozens of stores downtown (in Charlotte Amalie), and others in a few malls dotting the island, and near cruise ship docks, e.g.,:
Other stores in resorts, strip malls, etc., tend to serve locals and land vacationers; many of them open on Sundays whether cruise ships are visiting or not, e.g., K-Mart (one walkable from Havensight, & a larger store in Tutu Park...an air-conditioned mall), with a Cost-U-Less grocer nearby.
Gems, jewelry, watches, liquor, cosmetics, perfumes, linens and (sometimes) cameras, optics, electronics and fine crystal and china can be good buys, but know the costs for the same/similar items back home. (Some cameras, optics and electronics may be obtained at home from aggressive discounters (e.g., on Internet) for equivalent or lower prices. But those savings can disappear if those sellers charge sales tax, shipping costs, or extra for US-importer warranties.) Price advantages for U.S. citizens may be helped by generous duty exemptions. These advantages can make the economics of buying in the USVI slightly better for U.S. citizens than elsewhere (e.g., St Martin) where prices may be similar, sometimes better. However, unique, appealing or well-priced items seen elsewhere should not be avoided because of feared duty costs...often modest even if you exceed your exemption. (see "Customs and Duty", this section below)
Bargaining is appropriate in open-air bazaars, and should be tried in stores but may be rebuffed in a few for some kinds of items. Here, ensure that items of interest that need any kind of (service) warranty have one in writing that is usable at home, e.g., for electronics, watches, cameras. You need to ask if any warranty is "grey-market" (e.g., see ), international or backed by the US-importer, and understand the consequences of the different kinds. For valuable gems or jewelry, ensure the seller provides a written description and certified appraisal of each item's worth.
In exchange for very large fees, "port shopping advisers" on cruise ships tout certain merchants as more reliable than others, with passenger satisfaction "guaranteed, except for negligence or buyer's regret". But most stores are quite reputable, ready to rectify any problem that's truly their responsibility. Touted or not, smaller retailers such as Artistic Jewelry and Mr. Tablecloth offer quality fully-equivalent to such large and famous stores as Cardow or A.H. Riise. And they may offer items seen nowhere else. The best approach...always thoroughly inspect any high-cost item and obtain a written description or appraisal before accepting it.
Per "Get In" discussion above, when many cruise ships are in port, the open-air bazaar and stores can be crowded...sometimes very crowded. That can compromise bargaining success and how well you are helped even in the best stores with fine staffs. Shopping early or late can help avoid some of the crowds. Stores downtown (Charlotte Amalie) usually open at 0930-1000 and close around 5:00 PM. Half-day, morning ship's tours (the most popular) end about noon back at the ship, and ship itineraries often call for departures at 4-6 PM (with all-aboard as much as an hour earlier). You might time your shopping accordingly.
On Sunday, early can be essential. A few stores (mostly in downtown Charlotte Amalie) don't open, more open only if at least one cruise ship is in port, and many of those stores close by early-mid afternoon. Occasionally, local holidays/festivals make shopping downtown problematic due to street and store closures, e.g., for parades. Most carnivals/celebrations are in late April & early May.
Especially if you must fly to get home, you may wish to have stores ship out-sized or heavy items home for you (liquor, perfumes and tobacco excluded). Costs for surface shipping can be modest, air a bit more but faster. (Your local Post Office, UPS or FEDEX store should be able to give you example costs. "Know Before You Go" noted below indicates the US Postal Service is more convenient for sending dutiable items.) Any methods helps avoid the dangers of damage (or theft) by baggage handlers, greatly simplifies your return home, and allows you to refuse to accept (at/hear home) any shipment that appears damaged. There are requirements for documentation and customs labeling when shipping dutiable items. Retailers should help, and may even arrange everything. If significant customs duty will be involved, you may have to pay it at/near home as you receive the item(s). But ask the merchant if you can simply declare the item on your Customs form as you return home.
Several stores offer large and varied selections of quality and premium liquors at low prices rarely if ever seen in the U.S. They include: A.H. Riise, Dynasty and others downtown; many of the same in Havensight, plus K-Mart, Pueblo Supermarket and Al Cohen's Warehouse near Havensight; A.H. Riise and Supreme Liquors at Crown Bay, with another Pueblo Supermarket nearby. The airport now has stores outside and inside the secure area (airside) (see discussion under "Returning home" below, this section). Most liquor comes in one liter bottles (some larger), some US-produced liquors may be .75 liter ("fifths"), and liqueurs may be in still other sizes. So take care when calculating or comparing cost per ounce or liter.
Some liquor stores will box your purchases and deliver them to your ship, hotel or airport the same day at no charge if you ask and purchase early enough. That way, you don't have to carry them with you the rest of the day. Others (e.g., K-Mart, Cohen's) usually have boxes available, and may box bottles for you to carry. If you have a choice, smaller boxes (e.g., 2-4 bottles each) are much easier to pack and pad in luggage. As discussed in "Returning Home" below, large purchases of liquor induce considerable logistics challenges, so plan ahead on what to buy and how to carry it back, especially if you must fly home.
Customs and Duty
(emphasis U.S.; please expand)
Always consult authoritative sources to obtain and understand consequences of customs limits and duty costs before making major purchases, e.g., for U.S. Customs, download/print and take with you "Know Before You Go" . Another useful, U.S. Customs FAQ page is at . The "keyword" feature helps to quickly get to your interest.
Don't pay duty on what you already own and take on your trip. For fine jewelry, new cameras, electronics, etc.
- Fill out on-line as many Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Forms 4457 as needed to precisely describe the items you're likely to take on international trips, and then print them (see link to form in lower right corner of ). You may have to fill-in your address by hand.
- Take the items, the forms and proof of ownership to a CBP office, and as the agent sees them, have him/her certify on the forms that you already own the items.
- Take whatever valuables you choose and related forms on your trip, and have them handy for CBP inspection as you return to the U.S.
Original (in the U.S.) store receipts can be a fair substitute for proof of prior ownership if you lack time or access to a CBP office. If from an overseas seller, they have little usefulness, even if dated well-before your trip. Don't count on getting 4457s certified as you depart the country; CBP officers are often then consumed processing thousands of arrivals and departures.
Best-effort recap of U.S. duty exemptions:
The following summarizes your duty exemptions/allowances as you return home having visited Saint Thomas (actually any part of any U.S. protectorate) on any part of your trip:
- Total purchases: Each U.S. citizen is allowed to return to the U.S. with $1600 in total purchases (up from $800 for the Caribbean generally). At least half the amount must have been purchased in the USVI. Members of immediate families can "pool" those exemptions. Examples: two parents and two children have a $6400 exemption; even if you exceed your total/aggregate exemption, you have to pay only 1.5% of the next $1000 per person if charged anything.
- Liquor: Under a separate duty exemption, but within the above $1600, each adult U.S. citizen is allowed to return to the U.S. with four liters or five fifths of liquor duty-free (up from one liter), provided at least half of the value was purchased in the USVI. If you purchase at least one liter of product made or bottled in the USVI (e.g., Cruzan rum), you can return with five liters/six fifths duty-free. With different bottle sizes noted above, take care about numbers of bottles versus total liters purchased for your Customs declaration. Exemptions for wine and beer are different; again, consult "Know Before You Go". Adult members of immediate families can "pool" those exemptions as well. Beyond your exemption, costs are moderate, reportedly 3% duty plus $2.14 tax per liter for 80 proof. Take care with very large quantities, e.g., Florida treats more than 24 bottles as a commercial importation, requiring an importer's license (not easily or quickly obtained, and involving an annual fee) and payment of state sales tax in addition to duty.
- Gems/Jewelry: U.S. Customs treats loose gemstones (even fully faceted) as "rocks" having no dutiable value. However, if mounted in jewelry, the full cost as finished jewelry must be declared. No reputable jeweler will separately sell you an unmounted stone and its mount to avoid duty; it would place them and you in violation of the law; if discovered by Customs, items may well be confiscated.
- Tobacco: A separate quantity restriction applies to tobacco products. Overages may be confiscated.
- Blacklisted sources: Any goods made in Cuba (or other "blacklisted" countries) will be confiscated by Customs if found. Major amounts may generate a fine as well.
- Unique items: Original art works created here/abroad and certain other custom-made items may also be treated as non-dutiable; you'll need a certificate of origin from the seller.
- USGR/AGR You may find goods that were made in the U.S., e.g., some T-shirts, a few brands of jewelry...ask sellers. They're called "U.S./American Goods Returning" (USGR or AGR) and do not count against your duty exemptions. If so, ensure the seller provides proper/formal indication on or with a receipt so that the cost(s) will not count against your duty allowance. Similar policy may apply for products made in and returning to other countries.
All purchases (including USGR/AGR) except what you've consumed or given away must be itemized on your customs declaration; their costs should not be included in the dutiable sum of your purchases. Have receipts, certificates and merchandise for all listed purchases readily at hand as you pass through Customs. Be sure to list any food products by type, and note in-advance restrictions on some types.
As you return home (the U.S.)...
- Other customs enforcement (e.g., for Canada or EC countries) depends on country limits and customs diligence. (please expand)
(Emphasis U.S.; please expand):
If you return home by driving directly from the end of a cruise, you are weight/size limited only by the capacity of your vehicle...and your bank account. You'll go through customs processing at the U.S. port where your cruise ends.
With airlines now charging for checked bags (plus large fees for overweight and too many bags), the economics and practicalities of bringing back heavy or large purchases on flights gets complicated. Such items in luggage can greatly affect size and/or weight, possibly resulting in punitive baggage costs. Weight example: With added packing, a large liquor box with six well-padded one liter glass bottles can weigh 30 pounds or so.) Purchases may also be too big, numerous or heavy to be hand-carried on flights. If they induce weight or size challenges, consider shipping what you are allowed to. If you also want to pack fragile items in your luggage, try to avoid placing them in the same "bag" with heavy items.
Whether checked or carried on flights, high-alcohol content liquids (liquor over 140 proof or many or large bottles of perfume/cologne) may be deemed a fire hazard and confiscated. For perfume/cologne, you may be OK if you wrap, bag against leaks and pack one or two bottles separately in each different suitcase.
If you fly home from Saint Thomas:
Carry on: For current U.S. carry-on restrictions when flying, go to  to understand the "3-1-1 rule". Some travelers try to avoid TSA restrictions by purchasing liquor or perfumes/colognes at shops inside airport secure areas immediately before boarding return flights. As above, that option is now available at the Saint Thomas airport.
Liquor Packing Hints:
Boxes: Those offered by stores are usually strong enough to be used as checked "bags" if well-strapped with strong tape, e.g., wide, nylon reinforced. (Note: Some airlines may not accept them as checkable, so know in-advance from the carrier before you count on it.) Two boxes of up to three bottles each can be strapped together, but be careful...dual box handles are clumsy and can only support so much weight and casual handling, your airline may have limits on numbers and weights of such boxes, internal padding alone may not be enough to avoid damage from mishandling (accidental or otherwise), and the costs of more than two checked items per person can escalate rapidly
Securing box contents: Before you tape any box of bottles closed, regardless of how it will be transported, check the arrangement of bottles inside (all-upright preferable). Then add internal padding all around each bottle to avoid breakage, e.g., crumpled newspaper on bottom and around necks, sides wrapped in newspaper or bubble wrap...to eliminate any movement in box and any contact among bottles. Then strap the box/boxes outside with strong tape, place a name tag on a handle and write similar information on the box.
Boxes/bottles in luggage:
- If the boxes must or should go in your checked luggage, do it thoroughly in your room/cabin. Put each internally-padded and strapped box in a strong, leak-resistant plastic bag (e.g., quality kitchen trash bag), and tape or tie it closed so that any leak is less likely to harm other contents. Then pad each box well all-around (e.g., with clothing) so it can't move.
- If you lack a box for any bottles, tape two or three bottles together with liberal padding in-between and around them, put them in a plastic bag, tape/tie it shut, and use other baggage contents to thoroughly pad them to eliminate any movement of the bottles in the suitcase.
- Take care with resulting luggage weight (usually limited to 50 pounds). Your hotel or cruise ship may have scales to check bags.
All the above challenges are helped if you pack lightly at home for your trip, and bring or buy an extra, soft carry-on bag/duffle for loose clothing, etc. displaced by the bottles/boxes in your to-be-checked luggage.
Eat a fresh coconut, there is an old man who comes to the tent market in Charlotte Amalie every day with a pickup truck full of coconuts and a machete and sells them for 2 or 3 dollars, you drink the milk and give it back and he gives it another crack so you can eat the "meat".
In addition to offerings in resort complexes, a few independent restaurants include:
You'll also find others at 
With bottled liquor so inexpensive, most "watering holes" are for visitors.
Most resorts and many restaurants have bars if not nightclubs. You'll also find a few nightclubs in or near most towns, especially Frenchtown and Redhook.
As a pedestrian, take care with the often heavy traffic by looking both ways before crossing. Remember that they drive on the left side.
At night, the common recommendation is to take a taxi to/from any location, and to avoid walking alone. Virtually all stores downtown (and most locations mentioned above) will be closed and shuttered, with no display windows to enjoy.
Generally, tap water is potable everywhere.
If you are staying for a few days, consider ferry rides or inter-island flights to St Croix, the British Virgin Islands (passport required) or the islands just east of Puerto Rico (passport may be required). Even just as a day-trip, try St. John, to enjoy the quieter life, less-crowded beaches and limited but wide-range shopping selection at prices similar to Charlotte Amalie. Ferries regularly depart from Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook at the east end of St. Thomas.
The airport has private aviation operators (on north side of the runway) with amiable, highly-qualified pilots and well-maintained equipment, e.g. Ace Flight Center . With prior arrangements, they can provide, at modest cost, flights in small aircraft, to provide perspectives of the area's islands that can be seen no other way. If landing elsewhere is planned, passports may be required, especially for other than U.S. citizens.
There are several small internet cafes located around the island as well as connections offered by the larger resort hotels. Havensight has two and Crown Bay one that cater to ships' crews; they are open to the public.
Cell phones can be used in most places, with some spotty coverage due to mountains and hills. Calls to the U.S. are treated as long-distance, not international.