The Airline for Beach Seekers on a Budget
When we ask members what kind of vacation they want to take next, “beach” is always the top answer. But not every city in the U.S. has an amazing beach within a reasonable drive.
For those land-locked travelers, it’s good to have an airline like Sun Country flying from a nearby airport. This low-cost carrier got its start flying winter-weary folks from Upper Midwest nonstop to sunny locales with affordable fares. Sun-seeking remains the game plan, but the airline has rapidly expanded its footprint and now flies out of more than 40 U.S. airports to destinations across the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. Many of those destinations are home to a sweet stretch of sand (or two).
So pack a beach bag that will fit under the seat in front of you, grab your mask and a cheap Sun Country fare. With these flights all under five hours in the air, you’ll be at one of these beaches in no time.
Beach You Can’t Miss: It's hard to find a bad beach along the 13 miles of Cancun's Hotel Zone, the 7-shaped peninsula that is home to luxury hotels and all-inclusive resorts. Once you've tired of the beach out your resort's front door, seek out Playa Delfines. Also known as Dolphin Beach, this sandy spot is one of Cancun's largest beaches, so there's room to spread out and look out on the bright blue water (and those dolphins) without towering hotels spoiling the view. The waves can be rougher in this stretch, so keep that in mind if you're going to cool off in the ocean.
Beyond the Beach: What you do off the beach will depend on how far you want to venture from Cancun—whether that's to visit the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza or Coba, or to swim in one of the region's many cenotes (underground swimming holes). About an hour south, you'll come across Puerto Morelos, a sleepy fishing village where the main draw is the scuba diving and snorkeling at the nearby protected coral reef. Tulum is an Instagram star, but Isla Holbox, an island north of Cancun, is drawing a lot of buzz these days as an authentic experience still unspoiled by large resorts and overrun by tourists.
Beach You Can’t Miss: If your playlist has a Beach Boys song on it, then a SoCal beach day is just the vibe you're after. Sun Country flies to three airports in Southern California—LAX, Orange County and San Diego. Rather than pick a favorite, let's give you an option for each one. It doesn't get more iconic than sunset at the Santa Monica Pier. But before the day ends, make sure to try beach volleyball on the Santa Monica sands where the sport rose to prominence in the 1960s. Further down the coast in the OC, Huntington Beach is the center of the surf scene. Even if you don't intend to hang ten yourself, the people- and wave-watching are worth the trip. Just north of San Diego is La Jolla ("the jewel" in Spanish), and what sparkles here is the variety of this coastline—wide beaches, sea cliffs, deep-water coves, tide pools, reefs and sea caves.
Beyond the Beach: Foodies will migrate to spots like San Diego's Little Italy for alfresco dining or chase food trucks like Guerrilla Tacos or Kogi BBQ around Los Angeles. They will work up an appetite with a morning hike in spots like Runyon Canyon or checking out the murals in San Diego's Barrio Logan.
Beach You Can’t Miss: Bavaro Beach and its 30-mile stretch of sand deservedly take top billing on many lists, but Playa Juanillo on Punta Cana's southern side is just as stunning (and less crowded). Several high-end resorts, including Eden Roc, a Relais & Châteaux property, share this beach with its white sand, swaying palm trees and gin-clear water.
Beyond the Beach: Leave the beach behind for a day at Scape Park, a "natural theme park" that will have you ziplining into pools surrounded by waterfalls, swimming in caves and floating in the picturesque Hoyo Azul cenote.
Beach You Can’t Miss: This stretch of southwest Florida is known for its seashells and its sunsets. You'll find the best of both on two of the region's islands—Sanibel and Captiva—which are connected to the mainland by a causeway. Find the best shelling at low tide, especially in sand along the Blind Pass—the inlet between the two islands, and soon you'll be doing the Sanibel Stoop and the Captiva Crouch, so-named for the body position you form when picking up seashells down by the seashore. Toast the sunset with a cold beverage at the Mucky Duck in Captiva, but get there early—parking fills up quickly for this popular pastime.
Beyond the Beach: You can venture even further offshore and catch a ferry to one of the Outer Islands such as Cayo Costa State Park, an undeveloped island with an unspoiled beach and camping area if you wanted to really go off-the-grid. Another way to get out on the water is to kayak through some of the region's many mangroves at Tarpon Bay on Sanibel or Lover's Key State Park near Fort Myers Beach. Keep an eye out for curious manatees, they may float right up under your boat.
Flies from: Dallas (DFW)
Beach You Can’t Miss: Most visitors to this island off the coast of Mexico's Riviera Maya arrive by ferry or cruise ship, so you're already ahead of the game thanks to the nonstop flight from Sun Country. Playa Palancar is on the island's southwestern coast, far enough from the cruise port to avoid most tourists, with a crystal-clear water and sugar-sand beach.
Beyond the Beach: If you're visiting Cozumel, you've probably come for what's below the surface. This island is fabled for its diving and snorkeling opportunities, with warm water and dives of varying difficulties as you explore the world's second-largest reef system, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Flies from: Minneapolis
Beach You Can’t Miss: It's hard to narrow Puerto Rico's many spectacular beaches down to one, but if the goal is Minneapolis to Caribbean beach as quickly as possible, it's tough to top Isla Verde, which is just 10 minutes from the San Juan airport (remember, no delays in Customs when you visit this Caribbean island). Wear your flip-flops through TSA security in the States and your feet will be in white sand before you know it.
Beyond the Beach: You'll find that Old San Juan has aged well, as you walk down the blue cobblestone streets past colorfully painted buildings that house boutiques, galleries and restaurants. About an hour's drive from San Juan is El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest Service. There are hiking trails which lead to waterfalls and swimming holes. But even if you aren't swimming, plan on getting wet. The forest gets 120 inches of rain per year.
Beach You Can’t Miss: For a beach vacation, you'd have a hard time topping the sands surrounding Tampa Bay. Five beaches from the area made TripAdvisor's 2021 list of Best U.S. Beaches, with St. Pete Beach earning top honors. The year before, Siesta Beach on Siesta Key near Sarasota was ranked No. 1. And the year before that, the coast with the most was Clearwater Beach. The region's sun-kissed sugar sand pretty much guarantees you'll have a sweet day, no matter where you set down your beach blanket.
Beyond the Beach: If the painted skies of the area's spectacular sunsets weren't surreal enough, how about the creations of a real surrealist? St. Pete is the home of the Dalí Museum, the largest collection of the famous painter's work on display outside of Spain. For a rush of a different kind, head to Busch Gardens Tampa to see if you're up for the challenge from an impressive lineup of scream-worthy roller coasters.
Beach You Can’t Miss: This stretch of Mexico's Pacific coastline is home to stunning beaches, four AAA 5-Diamond resorts and authentic culture (not to mention some pretty good tequila). You'll find plenty of beach options here, but if you're willing to go the extra mile, then hitch a ride from the marina at Nuevo Vallarta out to the famed Hidden Beach on the Marietas Islands. Reservations are limited to 100 visitors per day, so book your trip to this unreal beach-within-an-island in advance.
Beyond the Beach: After a beach day, explore the boutiques, restaurants, cafes and galleries that line the narrow cobblestone streets of Puerto Vallarta's Romantic Zone. You can venture the four hours to the actual town of Tequila (designated driver recommended), or stay in town for a tequila tasting.