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Canadians flock to Buffalo for nonstop flights to Dominican Republic

The Canadian dollar may only be worth 71 cents in American money these days, but that didn’t stop dozens of Canadians from flocking across the border Saturday to take advantage of the low-priced, nonstop flights from below-freezing Buffalo to the balmy Dominican Republic.

And why not? Those waiting at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport for their flight said they were still saving $200 or more per person in airport taxes for a nonstop Sunwing Airlines flight to the resort town of Punta Cana. The fact that Buffalo offers any international, nonstop flights at all is a welcome development, they said.

Toronto resident Lalini Bellana, who was traveling with her husband, father and two young sons, said her trip to the Buffalo airport saved her group more than $1,800 in the package deal she booked through Vacation Express, the Atlanta-based company that chartered Sunwing Airlines for its seasonal nonstop flights from Buffalo to Punta Cana and Cancun, Mexico.

“Really, with the price, it was a great savings,” said Bellana, one of 133 expected passengers on the afternoon flight.

This is the second winter season that Vacation Express has offered these nonstop Sunwing charters to the two popular warm-weather destinations. Last season, Vacation Express flew 33 flights back and forth to the two destinations between January and May, ferrying roughly 4,700 passengers round trip, according to airport figures.

Flights start at $299 round trip, with many opting to book flight-and-resort package deals. The weekend flights to Punta Cana began Jan. 16. The flights to Cancun begin on Valentine’s Day.

“It’s a quick and ridiculously inexpensive flight over,” said Senior Marketing Manager Elma Placeres Dieppa, noting that it could cost as much or more for a trip to Florida.

Many preparing to fly out Saturday said they found out about the cheap and friendly Buffalo flights online or through friends who had taken advantage of the flights last year.

Williamsville residents Carl and Elise Fila said they paid about $500 total for their round-trip tickets in a special promotion. Carl Fila was delighted when a gate attendant confirmed for him that the flight to Punta Cana included a hot meal and a free glass of champagne. Vacation Express also permits a free checked bag up to 44 pounds and offers activity kits for children.

“We might not come back,” he said.

It was Carl’s wife who received the email notice listing the flight among the top 20 travel deals of the week. The American couple had never before heard of Sunwing, a Toronto-based airline. But after a nightmarish return flight last year from the Azores that left the two of them sleeping overnight at the Boston airport, Elisa said the nonstop flight was a huge plus.

“Hardly anything out of Buffalo is direct,” she said regarding international flights.

The Filas may have been the only American couple on the plane, even though Vacation Express marketers say stateside reservations are growing this year. Most of Saturday’s passengers were from Ontario, saying the cost of half a tank of gas was nothing compared with the tax savings to be had in Buffalo, and the ability to bypass the congested Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

Fort Erie resident George Ahern, who works in the satellite office of a Buffalo-based business, said it was an American colleague who mentioned to him that a nonstop flight from Buffalo to the Dominican Republic was available. Ahern didn’t believe him until he jumped online and checked for himself.

Saturday afternoon found him, his pregnant wife, and his 5-year-old son sitting in rocking chairs near the gate, taking the same plane out that his buddy and fiancée just finished disembarking from after their week away.

St. Catherines, Ont., residents Heather Felsheim and Lori Berry marveled at how quiet and easy it was to get through the Buffalo airport. This was their first trip through the airport in years, having been turned on to the nonstop Punta Cana flight by a travel agent friend. Even though winter hasn’t been too tough this year, they said, they want to escape the dreariness.

The longtime friends said they were looking forward to “drinks and sun,” even if it meant missing their sons’ birthdays, both of which fall this week. They were, however, bringing their husbands, who were sitting together in the next gate over.

“They don’t want to have anything to do with us,” Felsheim said, laughing.

Nicole and Michael Travale drove from Brantford, Ont., to make their winter escape and save more than $600 in airport taxes. Staying at a water park resort with their 4-year-old twins, the couple said they hope the week away gives their kids the chance to have fun, and themselves a chance to get some rest.

“We hope to have some drinks while they’re on the slides,” Nicole said.

Vacation Express flights run until May 7.