At the time of this article’s writing, we are once again nearing the Christmas holiday season. This is a key time of year for the travel industry, especially during the pre-pandemic era, when hundreds of thousands of Canadians would uproot themselves for a week or two of fun in the sun.
Trips to the sun destinations – a loose collection of terms encompassing the Florida Coast, the Caribbean, and occasionally Central America and Arizona – account for a huge portion of the travel undertaken by Canadians.
They’re also something we don’t cover as much here at Prince of Travel because these trips can have a dramatic range in price, all the way from the very cheap up to the outlandishly expensive.
However, it’s often somewhat difficult, or a poor value, to expend one’s hard earned Miles & Points on this type of trip. Cash is pretty much always a better deal, should you choose to pursue this type of travel.
Enter budget carriers: cheap and cheerful alternatives to the more expensive traditional airlines such as Air Canada or WestJet.
I really enjoyed covering the domestic routes offered by these carriers, and now want to help you dissect whether buying an inexpensive cash ticket to the sun destinations might be worth it.
Sun Destination Offerings and Logistics
I’m fascinated by the logistics and business of how airlines try to make money, which I attribute to my mother’s paramour of many years who was a pilot for Delta.
As he explained to me, business travellers tend to be more agnostic about how they fly. Bring on a flurry of connections so long as they arrive at their destination, like Gandalf, exactly when they need to. An executive can’t afford being late to signing an enormous deal!
On the other hand, leisure travellers want to fly with the least amount of hassle or connections. This is even more important if you’re cramped on an economy-only flight such as the ones which budget carriers offer.
Therefore, it’s often only economical for an airline to dispatch full flights to the sun destinations. The upside to this is that high demand paired with a strategically low number of flights helps drive down costs, which is vital for any airline but especially ultra-low-cost carriers with small fleets.
In short, if you do choose to fly a budget carrier to a sun destination, be ready to have lots of neighbours and little leg room on your flight.
All-Inclusive Experiences: Tacky or Great Value?
Why do so many Caribbean vacations look the same? As a result of the logistical reasons mentioned above, carriers want to guarantee full planes. On top of that, most Caribbean sun destinations are countries that are relatively poor.
This makes offering room and board a lot cheaper for enterprising hoteliers, who then usually team up with airlines and travel agents to offer the famous “all-inclusive” experience where drinks, food, and board are all rolled into one package deal.
Is this a good deal? I’ll be honest: it’s not my cup of tea. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to decompress from the hardships of daily life and kick back on a beach sipping a drink with a parasol has great appeal. I just don’t think it’s my favourite method of relaxation.
As I mentioned earlier, I also don’t think this is always the preferred experience of the Miles & Points enthusiast, who often value maximizing value for their points. But to this I have to ask: why not?
We’ve covered Dubai’s Al Maha Desert Resort before, and while it’s far more luxurious than what a budget all-inclusive to the Caribbean could ever provide, it’s also insanely expensive, even when redeeming Marriott Bonvoy points on the current fixed-rewards chart. Further to that, the cash rate is simply unattainable for the vast majority of people.
But really, it’s a very similar type of vacation. As with anything, the luxury experience is almost always better, but in my opinion if you can find a decent all-inclusive experience for the same price as two nights at the St. Regis Toronto’s rack rate, then it’s a no-brainer which will be more fun – your vacation time available notwithstanding.
The other thing that I think turns many people off these types of vacations is the behaviour that can be associated with them. When you go on a full flight to what is ostensibly tropical paradise at an attractive price, all sorts of customers can be in attendance.
Many might be less than civil. They may drink too much, or treat the local population and customs with contempt or disinterest. Some could be even worse, treating staff or guests alike with rowdiness and disrespect.
These are all risks one takes when booking the all-inclusive experience. While the ancient adage goes “you get what you pay for,” I think it’s important to add: “there are jerks at every price point.”
I’d prefer to believe in the better angels of our nature and argue that there are far more decent people out there than troglodytic misanthropes. There’s no reason to miss a great deal because somebody else might not know how to behave like an adult.
Caveat Emptor: Sunwing
Before we get into our matchups, I’ll be introducing the last of our budget carriers: Sunwing. This is also one of only two low-cost carriers left standing, along with Swoop; while Flair and Porter have plans to expand to the US and Caribbean, these ambitions haven’t been achieved yet.
Sunwing is interesting because it’s one of Canada’s only truly tourism-focused airlines. The vast majority of its destinations are in sun locations, with a handful in Canada and the US.
This means that its entire business model, which if you’ll remember requires full capacity flights, is completely reliant on selling lots of tickets to high-traffic destinations in the sun belt.
It also means that the company has been damaged by the pandemic far more disproportionately than other airlines. It recently secured a $375 million bailout from the federal government to remain operational and pay refunds to customers whose flights had been cancelled back in 2020.
The company subsequently used these funds to thank customers by cancelling flights to St. Lucia. To add insult to injury, it also insisted on issuing travel credits instead of cash refunds – as if they hadn’t received bailout funds! They then offered the same destination, but via a code-share arrangement serviced by American Airlines at a higher price!
This is frankly ridiculous from a customer service standpoint. While the price points we will see from Sunwing can appear attractive, this kind of behaviour would make me remember that their products should be purchased with caution.
Remember: this could happen to you! With these logistical realities in mind, Sunwing must go toe-to-toe with Swoop in the budget category, and then trade jabs with its more upmarket competitors Air Canada and WestJet.
Swoop vs. WestJet: Vancouver to Puerto Vallarta
First up, we’ll compare Swoop to their parent company WestJet. Let’s see how big the gap in pricing is to get us from the Vancouver region down to Puerto Vallarta. We’ll go with Swoop first, who fly out of nearby Abbotsford, and use December 15th, dead in the middle of the Christmas rush.
$399 for the middle of tourist season – doesn’t seem too bad for a direct flight. Then again, let’s not forget the fact that carry-on and checked luggage fees could really add up. Due to the 3171-kilometre distance of this flight, a carry-on bag would be $50–56 if booked in advance! Yikes! Even if checked, that would tack on at least $36.75 per bag.
Still, with two checked bags this would work out to about $474. Not bad. Let’s see how WestJet does.
$575 for the same flight, but with the added convenience of flying from YVR and with a free carry-on item. However, checking luggage will still cost more.
I’d say Swoop wins this round.
Swoop vs. WestJet Vacations: Edmonton to Cancun Vacation Package
Maybe my metric of comparison isn’t fair – after all, a flight is just a flight. How do these companies stack up when comparing their package deals? Let’s go from the best city in Canada (Edmonton) to Cancun.
Just to stay in-theme, we will require all-inclusive eats and drinks as this is the typical vacation for Canadians heading to the sun belt, and do it for a leisurely 2-week or so period over the entire break, from December 18 to New Year’s Day of 2022. So what do we get?
There are slightly cheaper properties, but this was the only one above four stars in reviews. At $5,012, it ain’t cheap. So what about WestJet?
This resort appears to be much nicer based solely on user reviews – and it’s $17 cheaper! I’ve been to neither so can’t fully comment, but I’d feel a bit more at ease using a full-service airline like WestJet and staying at a higher-reviewed location.
This round definitely goes to WestJet Vacations.
Sunwing vs. Air Canada: Toronto to Aruba
Mixing things up, let’s compare Sunwing with Air Canada. We’ll go for the middle of the vacation season again, December 19, 2021 from Toronto to Aruba.
Sunwing gets us a ticket of $550 with no flex on cancellation, $600 for some cancellation flexibility subject to a novella of fine print. Given the company’s track record, I’d probably just save the $50 and cross my fingers rather than rely on their charity.
On the upside, you get a free carry-on. Checked bags are $21 in advance, or $26 at the airport. Really not bad compared to the other budget carriers.
Now, let’s look at Air Canada.
Yikes! $1,139! That pretty much says it all. But wait, for those of us who are cunning with our miles and points, can’t we find a better deal?
20,400 Aeroplan points aren’t a lot, but I doubt anyone’s idea of the start of a relaxing vacation is a 20-hour sojourn to even arrive at their destination. To each their own, of course. Sunwing is the clear winner here, though – warts and all.
Sunwing vs. Air Canada Vacations: Montreal to Varadero All-Inclusive
For this next destination I want to do a little experiment: Cuba’s scenic Varadero beach during the off-season. Cuba, which reopened only recently, continues to have a strained relationship with the United States that I suspect will drive prices further down.
On top of that, the Russian tourists that have made up a significant part of the country’s travel ecosystem haven’t been arriving in numbers as large during the pandemic due to that nation’s complex relationship with vaccination.
So let’s see what we can get for a week in January from Montreal to Varadero. All inclusive? But of course!
Sunwing gives us a 3-star resort (the Starfish Varadero) with an average customer rating of 3.5 – so probably “adequate.”
The final price is $775 for the entire experience – flights, meals, everything. Not a bad deal, though I do ponder as to the actual quality of the resort.
What’s really unforgivable is what Air Canada Vacations pulls up:
$905 for the same exact resort, and not even the decency to give us user ratings? Personally, as a picky researcher when it comes to travel, I find this to be unacceptable. Anyone dropping this kind of money for a vacation should be privy to the opinions of other travellers.
Either way, the winner is Sunwing. The fact that the exact same services and product are $130 less is the proof in the pudding. On the other hand, Air Canada seems to have at least paid out cash refunds for its COVID-19 cancellations a while ago, whilst the controversy with Sunwing is ongoing – so maybe that premium is actually worth something.
Diving into the low-cost carriers has been an adventure. On the one hand, you have occasionally lacklustre service, questionable financial decisions, and the lurking possibility of having your flight cancelled. On the other hand, you can really find great deals if you shop around and are willing to take a leap of faith.
Is a cheaper one-way ticket worth it to you for forgoing a bit of comfort? At peak times, I definitely think it’s the way to go if you’re paying cash fares. Personally, though, I’ll still focus on off-peak points rates on major carriers.
As for the all-inclusive experience, it looks like flights are more Swoop’s forte, which is fine. The packages offered by Sunwing, though, appear to be quite competitive, if you can stomach their customer service and cancellation policies. Whether the all-inclusive experience itself is for you is another question.
To sum up, I’d assess these low-cost airlines as garnering a “conditional pass” in my books when you’re trying to just turn off your brain and go to the sun destinations at an affordable price.