Katherine and John Morrison of Alexandria, the parents of three grown sons, know that it’s difficult enough to get the clan together for a family photo, much less a vacation. But they are determined to come up with a holiday getaway that includes relaxing under the warm sun, playing tennis, snorkeling, biking and enjoying a little night life.
The Morrisons won’t be alone in heading to a warm locale for the holidays. December is frequently the most popular month for many island destinations, such as the Dominican Republic, the Cayman Islands and Aruba, according to statistics from the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Traveling during the highest point of peak season throws another complication into putting together a vacation that combines ease of travel with the biggest bang for the buck.
Nonstop air travel should be a top prerequisite in narrowing the possibilities, especially in winter, when connecting flights can easily be affected by bad weather. Around the holidays, flights are going out full, so a missed or canceled connection can knock days off of a vacation. Who wants to be stuck in an ice storm in Atlanta for two days? Instead, narrow the choices to those that offer nonstop flights. Caribbean-area destinations with nonstop service from our region include Grand Cayman; Aruba; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Cancun, Mexico; Freeport, Bahamas; Nassau, Bahamas; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; and Montego Bay, Jamaica. Some destinations, however, are limited to seasonal service and weekend-only flights. Nonstops are also typically more expensive, but worth it, especially for holiday travel.
Getting your money’s worth is a top priority, especially because prices are usually inflated for the holiday season. Consider departing on Christmas Day and returning before the ball drops on Dec. 31. For example, nonstop flights on AirTran from BWI Marshall to Montego Bay departing Dec. 25 and returning Dec. 31 were recently $546 per person, but the same flights leaving Dec. 24 and returning Jan. 1 cost $823. Another money-saving strategy is to choose a destination served by competing airlines, especially if a discount airline is in the mix. Three airlines offer nonstop flights to the Bahamas, for example, and fares are the cheaper for it; US Airways, which flies from Reagan National to Nassau, was recently offering round-trip fares of $357 during Christmas week, and Vision Airlines had flights of $409 round trip from BWI Marshall to Freeport.
Taking the all-inclusive route is the way to go when traveling with three young adults, especially if they enjoy loading up the dinner plate and throwing back a few beers. Food and drink can add up incredibly quickly. A Caribbean cruise, for example, would be a good choice for a family vacation as long as alcohol isn’t part of the mix. But if five people each have two beers per day, that will add up to at least $300 in a week. Add a bottle of wine with dinners, and the damage is closer to $500. Non-all-inclusive Caribbean resorts can be even pricier for all but light eaters and teetotalers: It’s not unusual for buffet breakfasts to run $20 a person and a decent dinner for two sans booze $75. All-inclusives also save money by including use of non-motorized water sports equipment, such as kayaks and snorkeling gear.
While they’re a good value, be aware that all-inclusive resorts aren’t for everyone. The quality of the food is often just middling, and those who aren’t joiners may feel as if the organized fun (think drinking contests and karaoke) is a bit contrived.
Considering all the factors, here are four all-inclusive alternatives with taxes and transfers included (airfares, especially around the holidays, are very volatile, so expect price variations — the sooner tickets are booked, the better):
●Take Vision Airlines from BWI Marshall to Freeport, Bahamas, departing Christmas Day, returning Jan. 1; the fare was recently $409 per person. Stay at the 26-acre Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach; five people in two rooms starts at $5,142. Total cost: $7,187, leaving a little spending money for spa treatments, motorized water sports and excursions.
●Take US Airways from Reagan National to Nassau, Bahamas, departing Dec. 25 and returning Dec. 31; the fare was recently $357 per person. Stay at Breezes Bahamas on Cable Beach, which is restricted to age 14 and older, and is situated near two casinos; five people in two rooms starts at $5,599. Total cost: $7,384.
●Take AirTran from BWI to Cancun, Mexico, departing Dec. 22 and returning Dec. 29; round-trip fare was recently priced at $537 per person. (While Cancun is not a Caribbean island, it offers similar weather and attractions). Stay at the 569-room Riu Cancun, within easy walking distance of Cancun’s night-life center; five people in two ocean-view rooms starts at $5,010. Total cost: $7,695.
●Book with a tour operator that bundles flights and hotels. Often these companies will have nonstop charter flights that aren’t offered to the general public. For example, Apple Vacations was recently offering a Saturday-to-Saturday package deal for four adults from BWI Marshall to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic Dec. 24-31 with nonstop flights on a chartered AirTran jet and all-inclusive accommodations at the Grand Paradise Bavaro for a total of $8,097. This package, priced separately, would cost more than $500 extra with nonstop flights out of Dulles on United (there is no scheduled nonstop service from BWI).
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Who: Katherine Morrison, 60, and her husband, John, 66, of Alexandria, and their three sons, Luke, 31; Ben Terry, 30; and Woods, 25
Where: An all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean
Why: To spend the holidays together
When: Five to seven days between Christmas and New Year’s
“I want to take our sons somewhere warm and special. There are only so many years we’ll be free to travel together, and I want to make the most of it.”