Latin America: The Latest Travel Hot Spot?

The Next Hot Tourist Destination

Hilton has numerous Latin American properties as well, and has recently launched an advance purchase sale this spring, with discounts up to 30 percent off hotels and resorts. Sample rates start at $144 at the Hilton Buenos Aires, and $159 at the Hilton Cartagena.

This expansion hasn't gone unnoticed by online travel agencies either. So far this year, Expedia has added 128 Latin American hotels to its inventory, which represents a 5 percent increase. In 2009, the company added 634 hotels, showing 28 percent growth.

It's no coincidence much of this hotel expansion parallels new air service. Major airlines continue to add new routes. To name a couple, Chilean airline LAN is adding a new nonstop to Lima, Peru, from San Francisco in July, and American added a third daily flight from Miami to Lima in February. However, it's the consumer-focused, low-cost carriers that tell the more interesting story.

While you might pay fewer fees on other airlines, self-proclaimed "ultra low cost" Spirit Airlines has been expanding aggressively in Latin America, particularly in Colombia, the past three years, and has been offering rock bottom prices. A recent sale lists fares to Colombian destinations for as little as $49 one way. Spirit's current Colombian roster includes flights to Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin and Armenia (added November 2009), and it plans to add Barranquilla this summer, pending final approval from the Colombian government. Spirit also flies to Lima, Peru, and serves a variety of routes to Central America, including cities in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, as well as in Mexico.

And, as part of its strategy to be the "Best Airline in the Americas," fan favorite JetBlue has been expanding into Latin America and the Caribbean, and is constantly evaluating new cities. So far, the airline has routes to Bogota, Colombia; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Cancun, Mexico.

The market presence of Spirit and JetBlue is helpful to travelers on several fronts. For one, the brand recognition appeals to U.S. travelers and reinforces the notion that Latin America can be affordable to get to. And, visiting friends and relatives from Latin American countries have more opportunities to come to the U.S.

But whether or not you choose to fly one of these airlines, new routes, particularly on low-cost airlines, tend to increase competition, keeping prices low across all airlines. For example, former Colombian (now Brazilian-owned) Avianca often has similar fares to other competing airlines, when factoring in baggage fees (Avianca allows one checked and one carry-on bag for free). Also, major U.S. airlines like American, Continental and Delta tend to offer comparable pricing. In a recent search for May fares from New York City to Bogota, Colombia, most airlines offered round-trip flights for between $450 and $500, including taxes and fees, and some of the best prices were for more convenient nonstops from Delta, Continental and Avianca.

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