After being largely suppressed in 2020 and 2021, international travel surged last year, with airport traffic approaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels on some days.
Overall, though, international travel to nearly every country still lagged well behind 2019—with four huge exceptions.
Mexico (up 15%), Colombia (+16%), the Dominican Republic (+14%), and Costa Rica (+3%) stood out as the only countries that saw 2022 U.S. passenger traffic actually exceed 2019 levels, according to data from the airline trade group Airlines for America, whose members include the major U.S. carriers.
As soaring travel demand extends into spring and summer 2023, many analysts are predicting travelers’ attention will turn to Europe and a newly reopened Asia. But what about 2022’s quartet of high-performing Latin American destinations? What put them ahead of the curve? And will they remain busy this spring and summer?
Driving the demand
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 also served, increasingly, by low-cost airlines that prioritize just these types of destinations, enticing budget-conscious travelers with low base fares (plus add-on fees, of course). Spirit Airlines, for instance, now flies to dozens of cities throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America.
Indeed, airlines overall have added more capacity to these places in recent years. Take Colombia. Last year, there were 23% more available seats on flights from the U.S. to the South American nation compared with 2019, according to an analysis by data firm OAG.
Similarly, Mexico, the D.R., and Costa Rica saw increases in available airline seats last year (so did the U.S. Virgin Islands, by the way).
But it’s not just the likes of Spirit Airlines driving the traffic—or the fact that, as OAG’s airline analysts point out, some of these countries kept less restrictive entry requirements during the pandemic and are perhaps now “reaping the rewards of that strategy.”
“We’ve seen a very big shift in how and why people travel,” Delta Air Lines president Glen Hauenstein told investors in January, explaining how the airline has had to adjust its schedule “based on where customers want us to take them these days.”
And customers continue to want these popular warm-weather vacation spots.
2023 international travel outlook
“For travelers headed out of the country, it’s all about Asia this spring,” Hopper’s lead economist Hayley Berg declared in the booking site’s 2023 spring break guide, a nod to the region’s finally-lifted Covid restrictions.
But don’t expect the traffic to popular Latin American destinations to taper off any time soon.
In that same forecast, Berg noted searches for Caribbean and beachfront destinations in Mexico and Central America were up by a whole quarter from 2019—with Cancún and San José del Cabo in Mexico and Punta Cana (whose Bávaro beach is pictured at the top of this page) in the Dominican Republic listed among Hopper’s top spring break destinations booked in-app.
How come? Lower airfare compared with longer overseas flights, along with the obvious—tropical temperatures and short travel times, according to Hopper’s analysis.
All of this matters at a time when travel for the sake of fun has “remained robust,” Marriott CEO Anthony Capuano recently told investors, noting a continued blurring of the lines between business and leisure (cringingly dubbed “bleisure”) trips that frequently see hotels packed on the weekend and the days immediately surrounding it.
It’s a trend not lost on Gilberto Salcedo, tourism vice president at the Colombian tourism and trade ministry’s promotional arm ProColombia.
“Colombia is closer to the U.S. than most people think,” he pointed out, noting it “could become [a] weekend getaway destination” for U.S. travelers.
Whether you’re planning to take his suggestion, or otherwise plan travel to one of these countries, here are four things to consider when booking:
Don’t only look at one airport.
Most of these countries have multiple airports serviced by a multitude of major airlines. In Costa Rica, for instance, while many travelers fly to San José, in the central part of the country, there are numerous resorts far closer to Liberia Guanacaste Airport (LIR), closer to the country’s Pacific coast.
In Mexico, there are times when airfare to Cancún is running high, but prices to San José del Cabo are trending lower—or vice versa.
This is true in the Caribbean, too. You might check St. Croix instead of St. Thomas when booking a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, depending on your hotel needs. This flexibility can help you dodge the highest prices and, perhaps, the biggest crowds.
Using a tool like Google Flights or Skyscanner can help you find the best price, airline, and destination for your travel needs.
[See also: The 10 Best and Worst Airfare Search Sites for 2023]
Price out all-inclusive and à la carte options.
With the growth of these destinations, and the airlines and hotels serving them, you’ll increasingly have your choice of all-inclusive packages (some of which include the flight) as well as more traditional booking options. Options are never a bad thing when it comes to travel, but you’ll want to make sure you fully price out each scenario and consider the implications for your travel experience.
High prices often mean big crowds.
Airfare is often a reflection of supply and demand. So if the prices to your chosen destination are unusually high, chances are many other travelers are booking there too—which means there may be few empty seats on your flight and by the pool.
Visit during off-peak times like spring "shoulder" season.
If you’re looking to book a last-minute flight to any of these destinations for a long weekend during a prime spring or summer holiday, it’s highly likely that good flight deals will be scarce.
On the other hand, a late April or May trip to Latin America—after the spring crowds die down but before the summer travelers arrive—can be a sweet spot for prices and crowds. The same goes for September, October, and early November.