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2017's hurricanes bring bargains for travelers

Traveling to Caribbean after storms

Travelers are finding great deals on winter and spring vacations as shock waves from 2017's brutal hurricane season continue to disrupt the travel industry.

As airlines pull capacity from badly damaged vacation destinations including St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, they're dispatching the extra flights to the likes of Cancun, San Jose del Cabo, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

The extra capacity is pushing down fares -- in some cases about 20 percent during the peak September through April travel period -- to destinations that are already price-competitive in terms of lodging and dining, said Mark Drusch, vice president of aviation for Virginia-based consulting firm ICF International, in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch.

Drusch said the shift in flights has created a glut, pushing down fares, but the market will achieve "equilibrium" once more travelers catch on. He suggested bargain seekers move quickly.

Historic 2017 hurricane season ends

"I've never see a hurricane create this much disruption for this long a period of time," noted Drusch, who spent 20 years working on scheduling and revenue operations for Delta (DAL), Continental (UAL) and Lufthansa. "Historically, when a hurricane hits, an island or two will get hit, then recover pretty quickly. The severity of these storms and the extent to which they damaged those islands is something I've never seen in 30 years. You have more capacity coming out for a longer period of time than I've ever seen."

How significant is the shift in capacity? The three hardest-hit islands have lost 1 million airline seats during the October through March period, a devastating blow to their local economies. It would be basically pointless to fly guests to the islands since the hotels and resorts required to host them were obliterated by the storms.

Flights from the US mainland to the US Virgin Islands are down 69 percent compared to 2016, those to St. Maarten are down 76.9 percent and Puerto Rico flights are down 19 percent, according to ICF data.

Mexico is the biggest beneficiary, gaining more than 500,000 seats. Airline capacity to Cabo is up 13 percent, and the volume of flights to Cancun is up 9.9 percent, ICF data shows. Other destinations to see increases include Bermuda (19 percent), Cayman Islands (17.2 percent), Jamaica (7 percent) and Aruba (6.2 percent).

The added airline capacity likely will boost lodging prices for the beneficiary destinations, though the effect should be muted since, for instance, St. Maarten is more of a high-end leisure market than Cancun, which offers a broad range of price points for vacationers, Drusch said.

"My advice is if you're looking to book your spring break vacation, book it right now," he said. "Look at Cancun. Look at Cabo. Look at Jamaica. Look at Cayman. Book right now, because you might be able to get some real good deals. Especially if leaving from a large market like New York or Boston."

The decimated islands could take years to recover, resulting in a long-term shift in travel demand and even more "devastating" damage for their local economies, Drusch noted.

On the other hand, tourists are likely to enjoy plenty of incentives -- great deals, among them -- once the islands are ready to accept hordes of visitors again.

"Once they have enough capacity -- lodging capacity -- to get people back, there will be a lot of government-subsidized promotion," Drusch predicted. "'We're back in business' kind of stuff."