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.
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 eight 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 nine 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 longtime 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.