Most Crowded Spring Break Destinations
“March Madness” has a different meaning when talking about spring break. And scenes like Avenida Tulum can either be heaven or hell, prompting us to run far and fast or just join in. Either way, travelers want to know what they’re getting into—before they go.
So here’s our list of destinations that pack in the spring breakers. Whether you join or flee is up to you.
Lake Havasu, AZ
Thousands of college students invade Lake Havasu each spring for time-honored rituals like nearly running aground, naked waterskiing, and around-the-clock boat parties fueled by shots and thumping music. (No, it’s not legal to dive off London Bridge.) There are plenty of places to keep the party going onshore too, like the open-air beach club Kokomo.
This resort strip on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula lures more than 100,000 spring breakers from the U.S. each year—eager to experience the raunchy contests, foam parties, banana-boat rides, and general boozy mayhem that have made Cancún infamous. Many book cheap, all-inclusive packages that include bus rides to clubs like Dady’O and Señor Frogs, where the beers and margaritas flow freely (cover charges often include unlimited drinks).
Cheap and plentiful all-inclusive packages bring thousands of American college students to Nassau each spring to marvel at the British colonial architecture, the abundant natural beauty, and… Who are we kidding? They come to drink. A lot. With dozens of nightclubs, including one at the massive Atlantis on Paradise Island, and plenty of booze cruises setting forth daily, you’ll never be thirsty as long as you and your fraternity brothers are in town.
Miami Beach, FL
Miami was the top U.S. spring break destination in 2012, according to a survey by STA Travel. If you’re looking to tan towel-to-towel on packed beaches all day and crash four (or more) to a room each night, then Miami Beach has you covered. Thousands of students converge on the already crowded city, where day drinkers, Jet Skiers, and topless sunbathers share the sand and surf with retirees. Party-oriented hotels like the Catalina Hotel and Beach Club (setting for a trashy but fun new reality show on the CW) add to the up-all-night, sleep-all-day scene.
South Padre Island, TX
When it’s not spring break, South Padre Island dwindles to fewer than 3,000 residents, bird-watchers, and retirees. But come spring break, an annual migration of college students and families with school-age kids hits that 34-mile stretch of Gulf Coast beach with noisy glee. If the crowd gets to be too much, drive out to the end of the northbound road, cross the dunes to an empty beach, and pretend you’re on a deserted island. Feel like rubbing sunburned elbows with the masses? Padre Island Brewing Company serves burgers, tacos, and local beers, y’all.
Venice Beach, CA
While Venice Beach may not be the first place that comes to mind for gone-wild spring break debauchery, it’s certainly a scene and stays popular year round. Sixteen million visit annually, making this America’s most crowded beach. The people-watching alone is entertaining—fortune-tellers, street musicians, vendors, and skimpy beachgoers and rollerbladers. Rumor has it a zipline will be added later in 2013, a proposal opposed by locals worried it’ll only add to the chaotic, amusement park–like vibe.
Montego Bay, Jamaica
Fans of reggae music, rum, and other, perhaps smokier, ways to relax have been coming to Montego Bay and Negril for spring break for decades. That means that from March to April, every inch of white sand beach is packed with revelers eager to have their hair beaded, sing along to Bob Marley tunes, and practice the worst “Jamaican” accents the world has ever heard. Vacation packages that promise all sorts of activities from cliff diving to snorkeling mean that even if you try to get away from the bars and nightclubs, you won’t get far from the crowds—or the endless loop of “No Woman, No Cry.”
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
As noisy and good-natured as Sammy Hagar (proprietor of Cabo Wabo Cantina and former Van Halen front man—the one who wasn’t David Lee Roth), Cabo San Lucas has been playing host to epic spring breaks for nearly 40 years. The town’s party scene doesn’t take a college degree to locate, but for extra credit, check out local highlights that don’t involve pulsating music and body shots: the sushi at Nick-San, for instance, and Playa Santa María, a sheltered cove ideal for snorkeling (look for a beach access sign on the highway at kilometer 12).
Daytona Beach, FL
College students flock here every March for spring break for its wide swaths of sand and party reputation. In addition to competing with 8 million fellow humans for a spot on the beach, cars—and rentable motorcycles and bikes—are permitted to drive on the hard-packed sand (a rarity in Florida). It’s only fitting for the city proudly home to the NASCAR headquarters.
San Juan, P.R.
Large resort chains dominate the Isla Verde and Condado areas of San Juan, offering convenience and beach access to you—and to the hordes of college students in hundreds and hundreds of rooms. To avoid the crowds and find that quintessential Caribbean island vibe, retreat to an island farther afield, like Vieques.
Between Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest in April, spring is a nonstop party in New Orleans. So it’s no surprise the city captured the No. 1 spot in most nightlife categories in T+L’s America’s Favorite Cities reader survey—including best happy hour, best wild weekend destination, and best singles scene. Bourbon Street, naturally, is spring-break headquarters. For a more interesting scene, grab a to-go cup and head over to Frenchmen Street in the Marigny, a neighborhood popular with locals for live music, dancing, and bars.
Key West, FL
Margaritaville knows how to party, or at least how to bar-crawl along Duval Street, a rowdy strip complete with tacky souvenir shops. Key West is famous for its party-island atmosphere, laid-back attitude, and breathtaking views of the ocean, particularly at sunset (best complemented with a cool glass of Key West lemonade—spiked with vodka, of course). If you’re looking to ditch the crowds, head to secluded Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, accessible only by boat or seaplane.
Myrtle Beach, SC
Until the 2010 opening of a 1.2-mile boardwalk revitalized the beachfront, Myrtle Beach’s vibe felt a bit honky-tonk and down on its luck. But that didn’t keep the springtime crowds from this beach town, and they’re still coming. (Myrtle Beach’s annual Canadian-American Days in March celebrates the longtime tradition of snowbirds migrating to these waters, even though they’re not exactly Caribbean temperature). The influx of party people continues with Harley Bike Week in May, which segues into the frenzied graduation antics of Senior Week, and then hurtles straight into the vacation crowds of summer.
Liz and Dick’s steamy courtship during the filming of Night of the Iguana pegged Puerto Vallarta as a playground for glamorous fun, and ever since then the Pacific coast city has drawn tourists from the U.S. looking for romance and vacations to remember. These days, what they’ll remember is hardly the stuff of a John Huston movie: spring brings college kids looking for all-inclusive resorts, poolside DJ parties, “extreme” zipline experiences, and all-you-can-drink bar specials. Need an escape from the coed frenzy? Snorkel amid coral beds in Los Arcos Marine Natural Area, or stroll the romantic calles of the steeply terraced Old City.
There’s a reason sites like Trip Advisor are full of user queries about how packed Negril gets during spring break: the combination of beaches, nightlife, and party-friendly resorts has turned Jamaica’s west coast into many college students’ destination of choice. From sun up till sundown and well into the night, the bikini-and-beer-bong crowd stays bronzed and buzzed. If wild crowds aren’t your thing, avoid tourist-heavy destinations like Rick’s Café, which offers fruity rum drinks and bar-side cliff diving—a frightening combination if ever there was one.
Panama City, FL
Spring breakers have shown up in Panama City for as long as anyone can remember—if they can remember anything after a bleary, drunken week in the Florida panhandle region. The area’s reputation was cemented by an MTV series in 2007, but the real thing keeps playing out spring after spring as thousands of students roll into town with a lot of beer and a little clothing. If you manage to wake up in time, you can partake in parasailing and Jet Skiing. If you’re more of a night person, clubs that include an outpost of the Coyote Ugly Saloon—New York’s cheesiest, dancing-on-the-bar watering hole—will fulfill your wildest MTV fantasies. Jersey Shore alum DJ Pauly D is even making an appearance this spring at Club La Vela: fist pumping is very much encouraged.
This is Sin City: of course it’s lousy with spring breakers. You’ll spy them underdressed for the weather, lurching along the Strip, and nursing hangovers poolside with a healthy dose of DJ-spun beats, bikini contests, topless sunbathing, and day drinking. Those with swanky tastes want to be seen at the Cosmopolitan (slogan: Just the right amount of wrong), while other college kids hang around casino bars betting on March Madness games. Whatever happens next, it stays in Vegas—unless it gets posted to social media first.
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
It’s easy to understand why so many spring breakers are drawn to Punta Cana: it’s close to the East Coast, it’s gorgeous, and the cast of Real Housewives of New Jersey stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino there. All-inclusive hotels and not-so-exclusive nightclubs ensure that the beaches and streets are packed with students blowing off steam with EPIC partying (their words, not ours). Oh, did we mention the bikini contests? There will be bikini contests.
Spring break comes with more of a PG-13 rating in Galveston, where some of the wildest squeals emanate from Schlitterbahn water park (just wait till you take the Cliffhanger’s vertical plunge). Nighttime concerts and movie screenings under the stars, aquarium shows, rental bikes, and beachfront seafood restaurants keep kids of all ages entertained. It’s especially crowded with spring breakers from Houston, within an hour’s drive away.
On Mexico’s Pacific coast, this town has a scenic position on a curved bay and was the preferred getaway for the rich and famous in the 1950s and ’60s. Fast-forward a few decades (which saw the rise of mega-resorts and neon-lit dance clubs), and foreign tourists are now mostly of the spring breaker variety. Not only has some glamour faded, but Acapulco has also taken a hit from drug-related violence. Still, the package deals keep the partiers coming; Acapulco was the sixth most popular spring break destination of 2012, according to STA Travel.