How to Rent Your Own Private Island

About five years ago travel writer Joshua Berman and his wife capped their honeymoon by renting a private island, French Louie Caye, off the Placencia Peninsula in Belize.

He recalls that “it was an incredible experience watching that boat pull away and knowing we were all alone,” which they were for a night and the following day, though they also enjoyed a little non-human companionship. “We had two dogs and a fridge stocked with shrimp and fish in a small wooden cabin. We could see a few other islands in the distance, but otherwise, it felt like the Caribbean was all ours. We cooked our own meals, snorkeled the coral around the island, and sat in the sand watching the dogs chase crabs back into the water.”

If you’re already shaking your head about how beyond your budget a private island overnight like this must be, consider that the present-day nightly rate for French Louie is $450 and includes food, the boat ride to and from the island, and snorkeling gear. Plus, in the years since Berman’s stay, the island has added a caretaker who, among other duties, will catch and cook fish for you.

As with almost any rental experience, you have your pick of different island makes, models, sizes, and amenities, all priced accordingly. For instance, if you and eleven of your closest friends chose to stay on magician David Copperfield’s private island, Musha Cay, you’d watch upwards of $37,500 per day disappear to cover the cost of the villas, meals and alcohol, use of the gym and tennis court, as well as the services of the island’s staff. Which leads to another point: while many islands are private, you and your traveling companions’ experience may be semi-private if there are multiple dwellings for rent on the island. In addition to finding out how private your private island is, there are several other things you’ll want to ask and know before taking this plunge.

Factor in every cost, especially the price of reaching the island.

While having the rental agent or owner break out all your costs, be sure to “ask what's included either as extra costs and/or services, such as meals, resort manpower services, transportation to do other day trips and availability for use of nearby off island resources,” says Howard Smiley, who rented Kamalame Cay in the Bahamas. Beyond the fee for the actual rent, also find out if there’s a “security deposit and any cleaning fees that may be associated with the booking,” says Justin Drake of TripAdvisor, through which you can research and book private island rentals. Also, “don't be afraid to negotiate the price for the rental,” Drake says, “especially if you're getting close to your potential travel date. Vacation rental owners have some liberty to wheel and deal with the rate.”

One key question to ask yourself is whether the cost of reaching the island offsets the high cost of the island rental, or is potentially more costly than the rental itself. Modestly-priced flights to the Bahamas from the U.S. might be a relative bargain compared to your island rental fee there. Then there’s Enedrik Island, which you and up to seven guests can have entirely to yourselves for as little as $499 a week. However, Enedrik is among the Marshall Islands, and unless you’re originating from nearby Australia or Hawaii, you can expect a steep and long flight: from JFK in New York it’s upwards of $3300 and about 38 hours to Marshall Islands International Airport, and then you’ll spend another hour by boat reaching the island. For a simpler commute, you might consider Eagle Island, $400 a night and a 10-minute boat ride from the Georgia coast.

Ask questions that make it seem like you rent islands all the time.

If your island doesn’t come equipped with a caretaker or staff, ask how close by the island’s owner or manager is, suggests Lara Lennon, owner of Romantic Travel Association of Belize. Likewise, you’ll want to know the travel time to “another island or mainland in case of [an] emergency” as well as whether the island has any security, manned or unmanned. And if the weather turns nasty, Lennon advises asking whether the island has any back-up water or power. Along those lines, find out how often it rains, Drake says, so you can pack and prepare accordingly.

As you would if you were renting any accommodation, find out the specific bedding arrangements and, if you’re traveling with kids, whether there are cribs as well as appropriate games or activities available, says Martha Morano, who represents private island Little Whale Cay in the Bahamas. Also ask if the rooms have phones, if your cell phone will work on the island, and whether or not there’s Wi-Fi. Don’t assume rooms are air conditioned, says Alastair Abrehart, who represents Eustatia Island and adds that since “much tropical island living is open air,” you’ll want to ask yourself how the members of your party will “handle lizards scurrying about. They're harmless and do a great service by eating bugs, but herpetophobics and others may not enjoy that.”

If you’re going for a slightly higher-rent rental, Morano suggests that “the food list is very important, so if your traveling companions have special dietary needs like “peanut butter cups or beef jerky [or] certain kinds of chocolate,” request them. “We had one case where the guest had to have agave syrup instead of sugar,” Morano says. “Many clients are upset they do not have their favorite munchie [or liquor] and it will cost plenty to bring it in.”

Know if you’re private island material.

Whether you’re going for a rugged or luxe private island experience, take a moment to consider the company you’re keeping. If you’re with the right person, or, if you channel your inner “Castaway” and go solo, “it’s impossible to explain true solitude to someone who is from a city, and what downshifting to island time can do for your soul,” Lennon suggests. On the other hand, she says, “you need to be comfortable with your travel companions, or private islands can get small quick.”

If the island is big enough, of course, it may not matter if you grow tired of your entourage. Take venture capitalist Tim Draper, who for his 50th birthday last year headed to Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania to stay on privateLupita Island with 20 of his closest friends. The 13 dwellings each included “a rock shower and stone bathtub as well as private plunge pools,” he recalls, and there was a helicopter available to provide guests with a “safari from above,” though by far the coolest experience “was jumping out of the helicopter into the lake, which actually has fresh water that's safe enough to drink.”

If you travel with pets, consider that Stephanie Olsen and her husband once rented an island “about 90 minutes outside of Ottawa, Canada. We drove there, stayed for a month that summer and the reason it so suited us was that we had six indoor only cats at the time who came with -- they had a blast going outside in complete safety.” And in a nod to the importance of loving the one you’re with, Olsen recalls her husband lecturing her “solemnly about how to operate the motorboat and avoid the stones that lay just below the surface in some areas of the lake. Of course, mid-sermon, he ran us aground.”

For those focused on luxury island rentals, Morano suggests that the ideal renters “are well travelled, very independent, know exactly what they want and absolutely love privacy. It will be someone who can relax and create activities for themselves and not rely on a social director -- unless they rent one.”