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Island airfares headed south

A shift by carriers to more lucrative global routes is helping drive down prices

Email|Print| Text size + By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / February 8, 2008

New Englanders looking to escape the snow may find better deals this year by flying beyond Florida.

Travelers leaving from Logan International Airport can reach some popular destinations in the Caribbean for 5 percent to 35 percent less than they could last winter, while flying to Florida vacation spots can cost 5 percent to 15 percent more than a year ago.

The reason? Airlines are shifting large planes from domestic routes to more lucrative international routes. Fewer seats on flights within the United States and more seats to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Latin America, and South America drive domestic airfares up and international ticket prices down. Additionally, while airlines have been tacking hefty jet fuel "surcharges" on domestic fares, they've been adding smaller fees or even rescinding them on tickets to some popular Caribbean destinations amid intense competition on those routes, said Rick Seaney, the chief executive of FareCompare.com, a Dallas consumer airfare research website.

"It's supply and demand," said Seaney, whose website crunched for The Boston Globe the yearly data for February and March airfares between Boston and these winter getaway destinations. "The more supply, the cheaper the price."

But in most cases, it's still much cheaper to stay in the United States. Sun-seekers on a budget will still probably prefer Florida, where they can reach beach scenes like Miami, West Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale from Logan for $180 to $190 round trip, including taxes and fees. Although, travelers who have been eyeing an island escapade but have hesitated because of the higher airfare may find the time is right, with $240 to $300 round-trip prices to St. Thomas, Bermuda, and Nassau, Bahamas.

In fact, flying to Nassau costs 10 percent to 15 percent less than last year, with the cheapest round-trip flights going for $240, including taxes and fees. Airfare to St. Thomas plummeted 35 percent from last year, with the least expensive round-trip seats costing only $280 total. And Bermuda fares are 5 percent lower, with the cheapest round trip at $300.

"It's a very competitive market to the Caribbean this year," Seaney said.

That may not have dawned on many snowbirds. Six of the 10 top destinations for New Englanders in January, February, and March this year were in Florida, based on air, hotel, and vacation package bookings on Expedia.com. The Caribbean slid in at the tail end of that ranking, with San Juan claiming number nine. Mexico's Cancun took the 10th spot.

"Skiing's fun, but sunshine - glimpses of that are few and far in between," said Erin Krause, an Expedia spokeswoman.

Bill Rynne of Sudbury returned from a St. Thomas vacation a few weeks ago and is ready to head back for a second dose of sunshine at the end of March. He and his wife, Joan, flew on American Airlines using 30,000 frequent-flyer miles each, which he estimates is equivalent to a $300 round trip.

They thought that was a good deal until, on their last trip, they met a New Hampshire couple on the beach who found Boston-to-St. Thomas tickets for $120 one way. "That's the best price I've heard in years," said the 63-year-old insurance agent, who has made at least two annual St. Thomas winter pilgrimages for the past 20 years.

And prices probably won't get better, travel specialists warn. To snag the best deals, vacationers should book airfare as soon as possible, before planes to popular destinations fill up or airlines roll out more fuel surcharges.

Also key to getting the cheapest fares is flexibility - in travel dates and destinations. Tuesdays and Wednesdays - typically unpopular travel days - are the cheapest days to fly and can mean savings of up to $90 on domestic flights and $200 on Caribbean flights. Expect to pay a $100 premium for flying on some other days of the week starting the weekend before Easter, March 23 this year.

"The 14th through about the 25th are the dates you want to steer clear of," Seaney said. "That's when the most expensive seats are going to be." Blame the early Easter coinciding with college spring break. "It's kind of a double whammy," Seaney said.

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.

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