Hope for sun seekers

Despite rising airfares, hot deals for trips to the Caribbean are out there

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / January 31, 2010

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Flights from frigid Boston to the warm, sandy beaches of the Caribbean are more expensive than they were last winter. But there are still deals to be had.

Low-cost airlines such as JetBlue Airways and AirTran Airways have been adding offerings to the Caribbean, putting pressure on legacy airlines to match their prices.

Spirit Airlines has flights from Boston to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for $186 round trip, and to Kingston and Montego Bay in Jamaica and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic for $248. JetBlue Airways is offering $198 fares from Boston to Punta Cana - its fourth destination in the Dominican Republic, starting in May - but the sale ends Monday. And AirTran has sale fares from Boston to Nassau, Bahamas, for $198 and Aruba for $278.

“It’s cheaper to fly from Boston to a whole bunch of places in the Caribbean than it is to fly to St. Louis, Missouri,’’ said Gabe Saglie, senior editor at travel deal site Travelzoo. But travelers should keep in mind that taxes and fees can sometimes add $100 or more to airfare to these exotic places.

While there are some deals on airfare to tropical destinations, ticket prices, in general, are headed north. Airlines, which reduced routes and seat capacity last year in response to dropping demand, are now bracing for a slow recovery. Indeed, according to the American Express Business Travel 2010 forecast, domestic ticket prices in North America will increase between 2 and 7 percent and business class seats will be up 1 to 6 percent.

Even airfare to the Caribbean, a popular destination for Americans seeking sun during the colder winter months, is slightly more expensive. Overall, Boston flights to six of the most popular Caribbean destinations through March cost more than a year ago, according to an analysis done for the Globe by airfare tracking website The biggest spike - 14 percent - is on flights to San Juan, which now cost on average $294 round trip, including taxes. Airfare jumped 12 percent to $300 for Cancun; 11 percent to $353 for Montego Bay; and 9 percent to $335 for Nassau.

“Prices are up because last January was hard hit by the recession, requiring airlines to discount to get people off their couches and to their computers booking airline tickets,’’ FareCompare chief executive Rick Seaney said in an e-mail.

Despite the price increases this year, there are still deals on airfares from Boston to the Caribbean, in part due to the increasing competition along the route. While US Airways is dropping six of its eight nonstop Caribbean destinations out of Logan after this season, keeping only Aruba and Cancun, other airlines are picking up some of the slack and increasing their warm weather offerings.

JetBlue, Logan’s largest airline in terms of flights and destinations, has upped its presence from 24 departures to four destinations a week in March 2008 to 38 departures to seven destinations a week this March.

In May, JetBlue will have 16 more weekly flights to four more Caribbean destinations than it did in May 2008. As of last fall, the low-cost carrier also started flying to Barbados and St. Lucia, via New York - the first low-cost carrier to enter the more upscale St. Lucia market.

“JetBlue is a pretty nimble airline in that we’re able to take advantage of opportunities as they arise,’’ said spokesman Sebastian White.

While American has cut back some of its Caribbean routes in other cities, the airline has increased its Caribbean flights out of Boston this winter, with two more flights a month to Aruba, four more to St. Thomas, and 24 more to San Juan. And AirTran just started flying to the Caribbean in November, and although it doesn’t offer any nonstop flights from Logan, a connection in Baltimore opens up cheap airfare to the Nassau, San Juan, and Montego Bay.

“We feel like it’s a market that has been underserved and overpriced,’’ said AirTran spokesman Christopher White.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at