Martha’s Vineyard… on a budget? I admit, it doesn’t sound right. Like Thailand and good bread and cheese, or Brazil and being on time, or England and a reliably sunny weather forecast, it just doesn’t feel like a feasible travel combination.
But lean in, because I’m about to spill what feels like a major secret. The rumors aren’t true – Martha’s Vineyard isn’t an uber-exclusive, snobby haven reserved for only the insider elite. That’s Nantucket! (I kid, I kid – though there’s always been a friendly rivalry between the two islands.) First time visitors to the island are often surprised to find a thriving arts community, a strong agrarian culture, and a laid-back and barefoot feel.
Martha’s Vineyard is expensive. But it’s also one of the most magical places in America, and this community-focused island, where humble houses still outnumber mega-mansions, is proud of its inclusive history of welcoming all. You could be next.
Admittedly, I have been blessed with the unique opportunity to fall in love with Martha’s Vineyard in a way most people don’t have access to – my family vacationed on the island nearly every summer when I was a girl, and my mom now lives seasonally in Oak Bluffs. I know from your comments and messages that many of you feel Martha’s Vineyard isn’t an accessible travel destination for you, and I’m hoping that the insider secrets and stories I’ll share here might convince you otherwise.
You’re not going to travel Martha’s Vineyard on a shoestring. But you also don’t need a private jet, a beach mansion or a Kennedy bank account to make it happen. Here’s a guide for those looking for something in between.
When to Go
Timing is everything when it comes to planning a budget-friendly trip to the Vineyard. If you’re really on a shoestring, aim for anytime before Memorial Day at the end of May and after Labor Day at the beginning of September. If you have a bit more wiggle room in your budget, come between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, when the weather is slightly warmer, the crowds are still manageable and prices not yet peak. Heart set on July and August? God bless you.
While July and August undoubtedly have the best beach weather with average temperatures in the 80’s, June and September are still lovely, mostly hanging in the 70’s. Pushing further into the shoulder seasons, May and October are definitely sweater weather, with highs only in the 60s.
Choosing these off-peak times means not only will crowds be thinner and reservations of all sorts easier to come by, but accommodation prices will be significantly more manageable, and transportation will often be impressively discounted. And events like The Martha’s Vineyard Wine Festival in May and the Food and Wine Festival in October prove there’s plenty going on outside peak season.
Martha’s Vineyard is an island, so eventually you’ll end up on a ferry or a flight in order to arrive.
First of all, don’t rule out air travel entirely. I’ve nabbed midweek JFK to MVY fares for a mere $75 before, and I’ve seen them as low as $60. Book early, fly off-peak, and travel off-season for your best bet at scoring similar fares. (Book at the wrong time and you’ll see fares of over a thousand bucks round trip from New York — for a 40 minute flight!)
Flights generally connect through New York and Boston. You can also fly via Washington DC, Nantucket, Hyannis, Providence, Westchester, New Bedford, White Plains – some only seasonally. Read more about how to generally find cheap airfare here.
Most frequently, however, budget travelers will travel by ferry. If you’re planning to bring your car onto the island, your only option is the Steamship Authority, which departs from Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts. Seasonal passenger ferries also leave from New York and New Jersey, from Quonset Point in Rhode Island (which you can connect to via Amtrak from New York), and from Nantucket, New Bedford, Falmouth, and Hyannis in Massachusetts. Learn more about the various ferry options here — or just read on below.
But back to the Steamship Authority from Wood’s Hole – because it’s by far the most budget friendly option at just $8.50 a pop each way. In contrast, the Seastreak Ferry from New York City is a cool $155 each way (and only runs in each direction once a week).
So now you have to get to Wood’s Hole. If you’ve decided to bring your car onto the island, you’re all set (more on that below in the Getting Around section). If not, you can still reach Wood’s Hole via your own vehicle, but you will have to pay to park it.
Parking in the Steamship Authority lots ranges from $13-15 per day, depending on the distance of the lot. Frequent complimentary shuttles will bring you from your vehicle straight to the ferry. There’s no cheaper option – once, after hearing a rumor that Wal-Mart often looks the other way for long-term parkers in its lots, my mom’s boyfriend tried calling the closest one on the Cape to see what the manager said (apparently they will tell you if they do allow it.) It’s not one of those locations.
But, if you’re staying on the Vineyard for more than seven days, feel free to lose your parking ticket. The maximum fee for a lost ticket is $105, which becomes the cheaper option after a week.
Another incredibly convenient option for reaching Woods Hole is the bus. Peter Pan Bus Lines will delivery you straight to the dock from Boston’s South Station and Boston’s Logan Airport as well as New York, New York and Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve used Peter Pan to travel from Albany to Boston and Boston onto Wood’s Hole for $53 and it was a comfortable, seamless ride. If you find a cheap flight into Boston, it’s only $55 round trip from the airport to the ferry terminal and back – that’s cheaper than a one-way cab fare from the airport in some major cities.
So while there are dozens of options for reaching Martha’s Vineyard, my favorite options are (1) to fly straight to the island, (2) fly to Boston and connect to the Peter Pan bus, or (3) drive or bus to Wood’s Hole.
Where to Stay
This is where the “ouch!” factor comes in — accommodation on Martha’s Vineyard is steep. But you don’t have to rent a $5,000 a week beach house to make it happen, obviously.
• The Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground
Not to be confused with the Campmeeting Association, commonly and confusingly referred to as “The Campground,” the Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground is the one and only official place to pitch a tent. My mom, her boyfriend, his daughter and I all stayed here years ago before my mom became a part-time resident on the island (in fact, it was on that trip that we stumbled on our future home!) and I highly recommend this clean and organized option for those on a budget.
The Campground offers tent camping sites, RV and trailer hook-ups, and modest one and two bedroom cabins. All camp sites have picnic tables and fire pits and cabins come with a small grill. Shared bathrooms have hot water showers, and an on-site laundromat, playground, convenience store and rec room make this a one-stop shop for campers. There is a bus stop right at the campsite, which is located between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, and buses stop every 30 minutes. Bike rentals are also available and it’s a convenient way to reach both towns (we rode bikes to and from each so I could take photos for this post.) The biggest downside? You have to bring your own bedding.
The Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground is open from May 25th-October 11th for the 2017 season. There’s no maximum stay – you can post up for the whole summer, and many do! Two person tent sites start at $60 per night or $371 per night (there’s a discount for single campers outside of peak season.) Four person cabins start at $150 per night or $945 per week.
• Hostelling International Martha’s Vineyard
Yes, Martha’s Vineyard has a hostel! In fact, in 1955 it became the first purpose-built youth hostel (meaning it was built specifically to be a hostel) in the USA. Last summer, I stopped by to see what the Vineyard’s most affordable sleep was like.
The rural surroundings of the HI Martha’s Vineyard lend it the feel of a summer camp, as do the frequent bike tours, scout groups, and families that sometimes fill the sixty-seven beds spread across dorms and private rooms. Unlike many US hostels, this one is filled with primarily domestic travelers – as well as the occasional Europeans or more far-flung wanderers. The downside of the hostel is it’s somewhat remote location near the airport, though there is a bus stop directly in front of the hostel that will whisk you all over the island.
The Martha’s Vineyard hostel is open from May 20th-October 8th for the 2017 season. The maximum stay is one week. Dorm beds start at $38 per night, private rooms with shared bathrooms start at $82 per night. All rates include breakfast. Though I can’t give it a personal recommendation, my mom’s boyfriend’s daughter (whew!) stayed here with a bike tour and gave it two thumbs up. You can also read another blogger’s review here.
• Hotels, Inns, Airbnbs and beyond
Believe it or not, there are plenty of small hotels, motels and locally owned inns that charge less than $100 a night – several of them can only be booked directly though and don’t have a huge online presence, so poke around. This is where the timing of your trip is huge. A room at the centrally located and charming Dockside Inn starts at $99 a night midweek in May – and shoots up to $279 a night midweek in August – and is back down to $109 in September. Edgartown will generally fetch the highest accommodation costs.
Airbnb is also becoming popular on the island, with 19 listings currently available for under $100 a night, and 103 listings currently available for under $150. Get $40 off your first booking here!
If you are staying in the towns of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven or Edgartown, chances are you will be in close walking distance to restaurants, shops, beaches, and other attractions. To get further afield, you have several options.
Sure, you could get around the island on a pricey tour via trolley or van or brightly painted school bus. But you’ll be joined by just as many tourists – and plenty of locals! – on the public Vineyard Transit Authority bus.
The buses on Martha’s Vineyard are reliable, efficient, and affordable, and reach every corner of the island in the summer season. If you’re staying down-island, there’s really no reason not to use them as your primary mode of transportation. There are bus stops at the airport and all major ferry terminals. Fares range from $1.25-$6.25 per ride, though one day passes are available for $8, three day passes for $18, and seven days for $30. Bring exact fare if you plan to purchase your pass or single ride on the bus directly.
Download the Vineyard Transit app to plan routes and track when the next bus is your way. And bonus! There are bike racks on most busses – so feel free to combine a long bike ride out to a destination with a relaxing bus ride back home.
Martha’s Vineyard is a cycler’s paradise, covered in over seventy-five miles of dedicated trails. Find a map of the island’s bike trails here. Also check Google Maps, which shows a bike option when you search for directions for the island! Even with a car on the island, I love the ride between Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, and Oak Bluffs and Edgartown – no parking stress!
All passenger ferries allow bikes onboard for a modest fee, if you wish to bring your own. Rental companies in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown offer rentals starting at $22 a day or $95 a week – call around for the best rates.
Uber and Lyft are now available on Martha’s Vineyard – rejoice! Get a free ride of up to $20 here with Uber, and up to $25 with Lyft here. I always check the quote for both since it varies which is cheaper. If a heavy surge is happening, keep in mind that a local taxi may be cheaper – call one to ask. Already steep rates double from midnight to 7am, so if you really want to enjoy the local nightlife you might consider staying in Oak Bluffs or Edgartown.
If you’re on a budget, local cabs should be used quite sparingly – a bike or the bus are great alternatives.
• Your Own Vehicle
If you’re set on having your own set of wheels, start crunching numbers. Depending on where you’re coming from and how many days you’re staying, it might be most cost effective to bring over your own vehicle, if you have one, on the Steamship Authority ferry.
It costs $137 round trip, not including any passengers, and reservations are absolutely essential. Make a booking as early as possible – like, yesterday – though you may have more wiggle room traveling off-season. If the ferries are full, try for the waiting list. We usually wait list a reservation a couple times a year and often they come through. Fill up your tank before you arrive on the island to save on inflated gas prices.
If you’re planning to rent a vehicle on island, try calling around to local island agencies in addition to checking the usual big booking sites. Car rentals start at around $60-$85 a day. Mopeds are often pricier to rent than cars, rarely starting at less than $100 per day. Keep in mind that depending on the season, parking on the island can be extremely limited.
What To Do
This is the easiest area to save – the best things to do on Martha’s Vineyard are free or nearly so! Wandering the island’s six charming and distinctly different towns, and spreading out on its classic New England beaches, should be top of your list. Honestly, my happiest childhood memories of Martha’s Vineyard are of doing a whole lot of nothing – it’s a place you come to relax and recharge.
Yet here are a few other ideas for $5 and under:
• Jump off the infamous Jaws Bridge – or enjoy the spectacle of those who are crazy or brave enough to do so: Free
• Ogle the Aquinnah Cliffs, a favorite local photo op: Free
• Take a community yoga class at the beyond beautiful Yoga Barn: Free
• Make furry friends and check out a local farm at Island Alpaca: $5
• Watch the sunset in Menemsha: Free (Plus the cost of whatever beach picnic you put together from local seafood shacks and the case of wine you brought to the island – no? Just me? Do like the locals do and bring a blanket and a beach chair and clap when the sun dips below the sea.)
• Ride the famed Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs: $2.50
• Check out the galleries and weekly Vineyard Artisans Festival in West Tisbury: Free
• Work on your tennis swing on the local high school courts: Free
• Take photos of the colorful gingerbread houses of the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association: Free (Or pay $2 to visit the museum, or really splurge on $12 for an official tour of the neighborhood– my mom might be your tour guide!)
And for $10 and under:
• Grab a hotdog and hit the stands to see local baseball team The Sharks play: $7
• Tour the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown: $10 in the summer, $8 in the winter ($12 combo passes provide admission to both the museum and the Edgartown or Gay Head lighthouses.)
• Ride your bike over to Chappaquiddick and tour the Mytoi Gardens: $6 round trip for the short ferry ride across the sound with a bicycle, an attraction in and of itself, and the gardens are free.
Where to Eat
No surprise here – bargain eats are hard to come by. If you’re traveling on a tight budget, staying in accommodation where you can cook many of your own meals (the hostel, the campground, or a rental with a kitchen) will be a huge boon. We always arrive on the island with a huge haul of groceries, which my mom reckons are about 20% cheaper on the mainland. You can supplement the basics with fresh produce from local up-island farms, often available at roadside stalls outside the entrances.
Yet even if you cook the majority of your meals, you can still get that “on vacation” feel splurging on casual treats like ice cream at Mad Martha’s (literally, a Martha’s Vineyard must), apple fritters at Backdoor Donuts, or casual picnic eats like lobster rolls or clam chowder packed up for sunset.
Like most of the US, portions are huge in the Vineyard, so don’t be afraid to split an entrée if you do venture out for a splurge. Here’s a list of my favorite restaurants to do so at.
And here are a few other budget eat ideas:
• Seafood: On Fridays at Grace Church, you can get a massive lobster roll, chips, and a drink for $22. My mom says you get the best deal ordering them “unconstructed.” Available in season only, on Fridays from 4:30-7pm. Other affordable seafood favorites include The Net Result in Vineyard Haven and The Bite in Menemsha.
• Sit down specials: My beloved Sharky’s Cantina has 50 items under $10 on their menu (my go-to order of a pulled pork quesadilla is just $9.99, and I always have leftovers), the lunch specials at Bangkok Thai Cuisine are a bargain (and the owners are Thai and couldn’t be sweeter), Biscuits offers sit-down breakfasts at low-down prices, and the cheese and charcuterie boards (starting at $11.99) at Bad Martha brewery are more than worthy of a meal. The chef at my favorite restaurant on the island, Red Cat Kitchen, recently recreated the bar menu at the casual local pub The Ritz – an amazing opportunity to try his creations at a fraction of the price.
. . . . . .
Bottom line? If you want to visit Martha’s Vineyard on a budget, you will probably have to compromise on something. If you love having the freedom of your own wheels, consider the hostel or campground. If you’d rather get cozy at a front and center inn, take the bus around. If you absolutely must visit in peak season, start pinning some fun summer recipes and planning some beach picnics.
That said, compromise tends to have a negative connotation, and in this case I don’t think it’s true – it’s really quite hard to do Martha’s Vineyard “wrong.” Come with a smile and regardless of how budget or bottomless your wallet might be, you’ll inevitably be swept up in the charm of — what one very biased blogger feels is, at least — one of the most magical islands in the world.
Any questions? Ask away! Are you a Vineyard regular who noticed something I missed? Feel free to add in the comments!
If you’d like to see Martha’s Vineyard through my eyes, my family’s historic Oak Bluffs gingerbread cottage is available for weekly rentals. We renovated each room by hand and I’d love to share its magic with you!