See more of the story

There was a time before the pandemic when Minnesotans sick of winter could book an affordable last-minute getaway to a warmer clime — a timeworn tradition.

Last week's messy dump of snow throughout the state likely prompted similar thoughts for those desperate to escape somewhere, anywhere, if only to defrost for a bit.

Among them: Cheyenne Lindell, of Osceola, Wis., who was flying Friday on a Sun Country flight she booked last month to Sarasota, Fla.

"It's warm and humid there. I'll take it," she said.

Her grandmother and travel companion, Cherry Rosenwald, of Coon Rapids, summed up the reason to escape: "It's cold."

The COVID-19 pandemic altered air travel at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and beyond, perhaps for good. Inflation has pushed the cost of airline tickets and accommodations higher, planes are filled to capacity and travelers are getting creative about where they land. Travel pros say Minnesotans are booking those winter getaways at a furious pace — but not always to the beach or the desert.

Linda Snyder, vice president of AAA Minneapolis travel and retail services, expects bookings to reach or surpass 2019 this year and she's seeing more interest in international travel than pre-pandemic.

"The retired folks that travel a lot, they're going gangbusters," Snyder said. "People are booking like crazy."

As the snow fell last week, AAA travel agents were surprised to get calls from travelers reserving Alaska cruises later this year. Europe also continues to be a top destination as people make up for canceled vacations.

"The winter vacation thing is pretty steady but it's not like it was a number of years ago," she said. "I think people are more excited about doing the exotic vacations than the Mexico and Caribbean."

Families are increasingly interested in traveling to Patagonia and the Galapagos Islands, said Jordan Harvey, co-owner of Minneapolis-based Knowmad Adventures, which specializes in travel to South America.

"People are saying that if they're going to travel, they want something big and cool," Harvey said.

The cost savings of a trip to Mexico or the Caribbean aren't what they used to be when cheap charters were more widely available from MSP, so some travelers are opting for all-inclusive cruises as well as shorter getaways to Phoenix and Austin, Texas. Fans of hurricane-ravaged Fort Myers are heading to Sarasota or the Florida panhandle instead.

"People talk about recession and whether there is one or not," Snyder said. "People are still very willing to still spend on travel."

But those who opt to book that last-minute getaway will likely pay more.

According to the travel website Hopper, airfares across the country are nearly 20% higher than last year and hotel rates are more than 50% more expensive than January 2022. While airfares may seem high, Hopper's research indicates they are actually 6% below pre-pandemic levels.

"Nationally, airfares appear to be slightly moderating," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst with San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group.

"The presence of low-fare airlines such as Sun Country, Frontier, and Spirit at MSP should help keep some leisure airfares down, though airfares may not fall as far as people would like since there is still less capacity compared to 2019," he said.

Makeup travel gains steam

The pandemic saw air travel plunge, as Minnesotans stayed home and worked remotely. But people sick of being cooped up are returning to the skies.

Last year, MSP tallied nearly 32 million passengers, a 24% surge over 2021, and almost 80% of pre-pandemic levels. Business travel has been slower to return.

The top destination from MSP for the first quarter was Florida, followed by California and Arizona, according to the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates the airport. Among the top 10 departures between January and March, eight are warmer than Minnesota.

A Delta Air Lines spokeswoman said the carrier has expanded its winter/spring leisure portfolio from MSP by 15% over 2019. Delta customers out of MSP continue to pick sunny destinations in California and Florida as well as the Pacific Northwest. The dominant carrier at MSP also experienced increased demand to Hawaii. Delta is the only carrier serving Hawaii nonstop from MSP with a daily flight to Honolulu.

Minneapolis-based Sun Country Airlines reported a "meaningful bump" in bookings during the storm Wednesday and Thursday. The top hot spot for snow-weary Minnesotans remains "Cancun, Cancun, Cancun," said Wendy Burt, a Sun Country spokeswoman.

Most of the leisure carrier's warm-weather destinations are booking at or above 2019 levels, and Sun Country has added service to Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Grand Cayman, and Melbourne, Fla. The carrier also increased capacity from MSP to Florida next month by 10% versus last year and offers 12 Florida destinations "because Midwesterners love Florida," Burt said.

Booking a trip in the next six weeks — Sun Country's peak season — will be pricier because of strong demand and high fuel costs, Burt warns.

"Alternatively, if you can survive the rest of winter here, you could wait to travel until after Easter/mid-April when the spring break season is past its peak," she said.

Organized travel planners win

Travelers who plan and book well in advance tend to find the best deals.

Jim Welsch, of Minneapolis, began planning his first big trip post-COVID to Mexico last September. He booked flights to Mexico City, then Oaxaca, and on to Puerto Vallarta, where he monitored last week's snowstorm from afar.

"Breaking up Minnesota's winter played a part in timing," said Welsch, noting he was surprised how "relatively inexpensive flights and accommodations were. I know that since then flight costs have gone up. Thankfully, Mexico is still an inexpensive place to vacation."

Still, given current conditions in Minnesota, "I can already tell that three nights here won't be enough," he said.

Jim Perkins and his wife, Sandy Bjornstad Perkins, of Eden Prairie, rebooked their condo on Captiva Island in Florida for this winter just after they left last year. And their flight reservations weren't far behind.

"Every year it's winter," Jim Perkins said from his beachfront abode last week. "It's Minnesota — there's a pretty good chance it will be cold and snowy."