After being largely suppressed in 2020 and 2021, international travel picked up last year, with airport traffic approaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels on some days.
Overall, though, international travel to nearly every country is still lagging behind in 2019 — with four huge exceptions.
Mexico (up to 15%), Columbia (+16%), d Dominican Republic (+14%), and Costa Rica (+3%) stands as the only country with 2022 US passenger traffic actually exceeding 2019 levels, according to data from airline trade group Airlines for America, whose members include major US carriers.
As travel demand picks up in the spring and summer of 2023, many analysts predict that travelers’ attention will shift to Europe and newly opened Asia. But what about the quartet of high-performing Latin American destinations in 2022? What keeps them ahead of the curve? And will they be busy this spring and summer?
Ask for a move
When you think of Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica, there are several obvious common draws: each has some combination of warm weather, resorts, beaches, and sightseeing opportunities.
All four countries are increasingly served by low-cost airlines that prioritize such destinations, luring budget-conscious travelers with low base fares (add-on fees, of course). Spirit Airlines, for example, now flies to dozens of cities throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America.
In fact, airlines have overall added more capacity to these areas in recent years. Take Colombia. Last year, there were 23% more seats available on flights from the US to South American countries than in 2019, according to analysis by data firm OAG.
Likewise, Mexico, the DR, and Costa Rica saw an increase in the number of available airline seats last year (so did the US Virgin Islands).
But it’s not just the choice of Spirit airlines that drives the traffic — or the fact that, as OAG’s airline analysts point out, some of these countries kept entry requirements less restrictive during the pandemic and may now be “reaping the rewards of that strategy.”
“We’ve seen a very big shift in how and why people travel,” Delta Air Lines President Glenn Hauenstein told investors in January, explaining how the airline has had to adjust its schedule based on where customers want to take us these days. “
And consumers want these popular warm-weather vacation spots.
2023 International Travel Outlook
“For outbound travelers, this spring it’s all about Asia,” Hopper’s chief economist Hayley Berg announced on the booking site. 2023 Spring Break GuideA nod to the region’s eventual lifting of Covid restrictions
But don’t expect traffic to the popular Latin American destination to slow down anytime soon.
In that same forecast, Berg noted that searches for Caribbean and beach destinations in Mexico and Central America rose for the entire quarter from 2019—Cancun and San Jose del Cabo in Mexico and Punta Cana (whose Bavaro Beach is pictured on the top of the page) Hopper in the Dominican Republic. Listed among the best spring break destinations booked within the app
How? According to Hopper’s analysis, air fares are lower compared to long overseas flights with obvious-tropical temperatures and short travel times.
All of this is important at a time when leisure travel “remains strong,” Marriott CEO Anthony Capuano recently told investors, noting the continued blurring of the line between business and leisure (cringingly dubbed “blizzard”) travel that is often seen on weekends. Hotels are packed and surround it immediately.
It’s a trend not lost on Gilberto Salcedo, tourism vice president of ProColombia, the promotional arm of Colombia’s Ministry of Tourism and Trade.
“Colombia is closer to the United States than most people think,” he noted, adding that it “can be (a) weekend destination” for U.S. travelers.
Whether you plan to take his advice or otherwise plan to travel to one of these countries, here are four things to consider when booking:
Don’t just look at an airport.
Most of these countries have multiple airports served by many major airlines. For example, in Costa Rica, while many travelers fly into San Jose in the central part of the country, there are many resorts much closer to the Liberia Guanacaste Airport (LIR) along the country’s Pacific coast.
In Mexico, there are times when airfares to Cancun are high, but prices are low to San Jose del Cabo—or vice versa.
This is also true in the Caribbean. Depending on your hotel needs, you may want to check into St. Croix instead of St. Thomas when booking a trip to the US Virgin Islands. This flexibility can help you avoid the highest prices and, possibly, the biggest crowds.
Using a tool like Google Flights or Skyscanner can help you find the best prices, airlines and destinations for your travel needs.
(See more: 10 Best and Worst Airfare Search Sites for 2023)
Prices for all-inclusive and à la carte options.
As these destinations grow, and the airlines and hotels that serve them, you’ll increasingly have all-inclusive packages (some of which include flights) as well as more traditional booking options. Alternatives are never a bad thing when it comes to travel, but you’ll want to make sure you fully value each scenario and consider the impact on your travel experience.
High prices often mean big crowds.
Air fares are often a reflection of supply and demand. So if the price to fly to your chosen destination is unusually high, many passengers are booking there too—which means you might have some empty seats on your flight and by the pool.
Go during off-peak times like the spring “shoulder” season.
If you’re looking to book a last-minute flight to any of these destinations during a prime spring or summer vacation over a long weekend, good flight deals are likely to be few and far between.
On the other hand, traveling to Latin America in late April or May—after the spring crowds have died down but before the summer travelers arrive—may be a sweet spot for prices and crowds. Same goes for September, October and early November.