The Great Escape: 8 Direct Flights from RDU to Exotic Destinations

From Iceland to The Bahamas, plan a trip to one of these worldly spots you can reach direct from the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
by Rachel Simon

Kirkjufell Mountain on Snaefellsnes peninsula, Iceland.

Back in November, I had the honor of being invited to take the new direct flight from Raleigh-Durham International Airport to Freeport, Grand Bahama. The 90-minute trip, offered by Bahamasair, was notable not just for connecting the two areas in what felt like record time, but also for the fact that it marked the seventh international route offered by RDU — as well as the airport’s 46th nonstop flight.

It’s a credit to the burgeoning Triangle area that one can stroll into RDU and hop on a direct flight to one of nearly 50 destinations, not just to hubs like Atlanta, Chicago or New York on your way further afield.

Over the past few years, the airport has expanded its nonstop service to far-flung places in Europe and Mexico, offering travelers a greater number of options without the hassle and risk of layovers (raise your hand if you’ve ever spent a well-earned vacation day waiting out a thunderstorm in Hartsfield-Jackson!).

“RDU’s priorities are to expand our direct domestic and international flights and make travel more convenient for our guests,” says Stephanie Hawco, the airport’s director of media relations. And while the height of the pandemic saw travel for RDU and most other airports plummet, numbers are now back up; in October 2022, Hawco says, RDU saw 1.1 million passengers. With that increased travel comes an increased desire for direct flights, especially to international locations that offer glamour and culture very different from the Triangle.

The Grand Bahama route, for instance, “offers travelers a new option for a beach getaway,” while the Icelandair flight to Reykjavik lets travelers jet off for a “bucket list” trip unlike any other, says Hawco. Read on for a list of exciting places outside the continental United States that you can travel to nonstop from RDU.

Tulum Caribbean turquoise beach in Riviera Maya of Mayan Mexico

Cancún, Mexico

After pausing nonstop flights to Cancún during the pandemic, American Airlines resumed service in November. And in December, JetBlue began offering a twice-weekly direct trip to the tropical destination. It takes just over three hours and drops passengers off in a paradise full of stunning beaches and all-inclusive resorts, not to mention family-friendly opportunities for everything from zip-lining in the jungle to snorkeling by underwater sculptures.

Elevated view to the Tower Bridge of London, United Kingdom, during sunset

London, England

Want to cross the pond? Hop on American Airlines’ direct flight from RDU to London, which has operated daily for over two decades and takes seven and a half hours. Once landing at Heathrow, check out the classics like Big Ben and Tower Bridge, but also try to fit in a play in the West End, tasting trip through Chinatown, or, perhaps, a visit to the Tower of London, where our namesake Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned — or the Palace of Westminster, where he was beheaded.

San Juan, Puerto Rico Caribbean coast along Paseo de la Princesa

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Want to stay a bit closer to home? A direct flight from RDU to San Juan is only three and a half hours. After JetBlue ended its nonstop service to the city in early 2022, Frontier launched its own direct route, which operates daily. And thank goodness it did, as who would want to miss out on San Juan’s historic forts, stunning beaches and unrivaled nightlife — all while indulging in some savory empanadillas and slow-roasted pernil, two of the country’s signature dishes.

Paris skyline with fog around Eiffel tower at sunset

Paris, France

As with American’s Cancún route, Delta’s direct flight to Paris was paused for over two years thanks to the pandemic. In August, the eight-hour trip resumed, and it is now offered four times a week for travelers looking to spend their vacation eating toasty baguettes, taking in classic art and filling their suitcases with clothes and accessories from the city’s many fashionable shops. Plus, there’s Disneyland for the kids!

The Blue Lagoon, hot pool in Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

A volcanic island surrounded by northern seas is just about the opposite of the Piedmont, and you can get directly to Reykjavik on a six-hour flight offered by Icelandair. It flies four days a week and “has been so popular that Icelandair just extended their schedule at RDU,” says Hawco. No wonder: in Reykjavik, you can get off the plane and be soaking in the famous Blue Lagoon less than an hour later, before heading into town (or elsewhere around the country) for whale-watching tours and Northern Lights expeditions.

City skyline view of CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario, Canada from the marina along Lake Ontario

Toronto, Canada

AirCanada’s flight to Toronto paused during the pandemic, but now is back in full force on the daily. And once you arrive, you can have a ball checking out jewels and gems in the Royal Ontario Museum, drinking wine outside Niagara Falls, or dining at the famous 360-degree restaurant in the CN Tower.

Freeport beach on Grand Bahama Island

Freeport & Nassau, The Bahamas

For guaranteed sunny beaches, grab one of the twice-weekly Bahamasair flights from RDU to Freeport to explore the island of Grand Bahama’s many offerings, or head on to Nassau, to which the flight continues after its first stop. In less than two hours, you can be relaxing on the beach, snorkeling with stingrays and eating your weight in fresh fish; you can even take advantage of the country’s People-to-People program and get paired with a local to learn about culture and food in the area. Really, what more could you want?

Original painted houses in St Louis Square, Montreal, Quebec Canada

Montreal, Canada

If you’re in the mood for some delicious French-Canadian food and culture, head north to Montreal via AirCanada’s direct route. It launched in 2019 and operates every day, taking less than two hours from start to finish. That means you’ll have plenty of time to practice your French and eat all the delicious poutine your heart desires — all while soaking up the city’s cosmopolitan vibe, gorgeous architecture and endless array of must-see shops, gardens and ice rinks. Hockey fans could even make some noise for the Canes at a Habs game.

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.