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A few weeks ago, it was reported that every state in the Union, except for Florida, had snow on the ground. If you're like me, you're probably dreaming of a quick escape from the cold, to sunny beaches graced with warm trade winds. (I find myself having these thoughts often as of late, especially while out shoveling snow or during particularly cold and slippery commutes.) What better way to perk up your spirits than to plan a beach vacation?
And now, with many low-cost carriers expanding their route networks to include Florida, the Caribbean, and Mexico, you can head to the beach affordably. Read on for the latest news from low-cost airlines heading to sunny climes, as well as planning tips to help you put together a vacation on the cheap.
To drum up interest in a new route, airlines will often list introductory fares at substantial savings. As such, you can often find great deals to the Caribbean, Florida, and Mexico by researching where the low-cost carriers are expanding.
This year, for example, JetBlue is offering new service to Turks and Caicos from both Boston and New York in mid-February; and to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Jacksonville and Long Beach in mid- and late May. If past behavior is any indication, the introductory prices on these routes will be significantly cheaper than competing prices on the legacy lines. Or, even better, they could spark competition among multiple carriers.
Other airlines expanding to the Caribbean in the near future:
- Spirit will be adding service to Ft. Lauderdale from Niagara Falls, New York; Latrobe, Pennsylvania; Charleston, West Virginia; and Dallas between now and May, varying by city. Expect low fares as these routes get off the ground.
- While technically not in the Caribbean, Bermuda is the latest island destination in AirTran's route network. Daily flights will be available from Atlanta (May through September) and Baltimore (April through October). Check AirTran's site in late March and early April for new Bermuda sales.
- Vision Airlines has announced new service to Northwest Florida Regional Airport, with easy access to Destin, Ft. Walton Beach, and Okaloosa Island. Service starts March 25, and introductory fares are available from $49 each-way. At publication time, Vision hadn't announced end dates for the promotion, but noted that the lowest fares are subject to availability. In other words: First come, first served.
In order to get the best fare and availability to your preferred beach destination, it helps to familiarize yourself with your preferred low-cost carrier's flight schedule. Unlike service around the continental U.S., flights to and from the Caribbean may be more limited, in regard to both days of the week and available time slots. For example, when I checked sample fares on several airlines, I had difficulty finding AirTran flights from San Juan to Boston on Mondays in February and March, any Spirit flights between Chicago and Tampa in February, or JetBlue flights between Washington, D.C., and Aruba on Sundays in March. Being flexible with your travel dates is a smart strategy when choosing a low-cost carrier to the Caribbean.
Know When to Go
Like their legacy counterparts, low-cost carriers serving the Caribbean will charge more for peak travel times, such as February school vacations (e.g., Presidents' Day weekend) and spring break (the middle weeks of March). Expect to see the highest prices to and from the Caribbean during those high-demand periods, and more palatable prices during the weeks (and weekends) when families are back at school and work.
Check out the following chart to see price differences between peak and off-peak airfares. All fares are per-person, including all taxes and fees. Departures are on Friday and returns the following Monday of each respective weekend tested.
|Route/Airline||Presidents' Day Weekend Fare||First Weekend in March Fare||Off-Peak/Non-Holiday Savings|
|Boston to San Juan on Spirit||$484||$184||61 percent|
|New York City to Nassau on AirTran||$858||$456||47 percent|
|Chicago to Tampa on Southwest||$406||$267||34 percent|
|Philadelphia to Cancun on AirTran||$690||$431||38 percent|
|Washington, D.C. to Aruba on JetBlue||$1,057||$927||12 percent|
As the chart shows, avoiding the highest-demand travel times can reward you with big savings—in one case, more than 60 percent off peak travel fares. If you're not locked in to a particular set of travel dates, use a flexible-date search to find the best prices to your chosen sunny locale.
Don't Forget About Fees
Unfortunately, even low-cost carriers aren't immune from fees, so be sure to consider extra charges when comparing prices. Southwest still offers your first two checked bags free, and JetBlue allows one free checked bag, for all destinations in their route networks, but with most other carriers you can expect additional charges for baggage, meals, entertainment, and the like. If you haven't already, check out SmarterTravel's Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide (Latin American and Caribbean Edition). Whenever new fees are announced, we'll update the guide, so you'll always be able to determine the true final cost of your ticket.
Editor's Note: On January 28, JetBlue announced new fees for Caribbean service. Plan on taking these new fuel surcharges into account when determining the final cost of your ticket.
Which airline is your favorite low-cost carrier to the Caribbean? What new routes would you like to see? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!