In our June issue, now on newsstands, we travel to the remote Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, where unspoiled jungles and pristine beaches await those intrepid enough to make the journey. It's a bumpy road trip, to be sure, but made imminently easier by the addition last year of a direct flight from Houston to Liberia, a small city in the northern part of the country that's far closer to the Nicoya Peninsula than San Juan, the capital city and until recently the only city with a direct connection to Texas.
Still, it seems that many travelers are blissfully unaware of the Houston to Liberia route, as the Southwest flights remain as pleasantly uncrowded as the beaches and resorts in the Nicoya Peninsula itself. We can't make the same promises for the flights below, but we're willing to bet there are still plenty of folks who don't know about Houston's non-stop fares to Africa, Europe, South America, Asia and more.
How: United/Lufthansa or KLM/Delta, from $1,300
Why: Our intrepid world traveler Bill Wiatrak just covered this very question in a recent Wanderlust post, "Why You Should Visit Holland Next May." But to recap: beautiful everything everywhere. You like art? Flowers? Canals? Old buildings? Modern "coffee" shops? Miniature replicas of entire countries? You have an entire year to plan your trip to the Netherlands, since the best time to visit is late April and early May.
Bonaire, Caribbean Netherlands
How: United, from $438
Why: Collectively, the three islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba are known as the Caribbean Netherlands, but it's Bonaire you can fly to directly from Houston. Just off the coast of Venezuela (and about as close to that country as you want to get these days), Bonaire is actually nearer to Aruba and Curaçao than its own sister islands, but this just means it's out of the so-called "hurricane belt," making for reliably warm, sunny, beautiful weather no matter when you visit. Though tourists come here for everything from hiking to birding, Bonaire is most popular with scuba enthusisasts, who know the coral reef-flanked island as one world's best shore diving destinations.
How: United/Lufthansa, from $1,500
Why: While it costs far less money to fly into Frankfurt am Main if you take a connecting flight, non-stop flights are always available to the Houston of Germany—one of the country's most important business hubs and one of its most ethnically diverse to boot, with a dominating skyline and massive museum district that belies its small-town feel. Wait, why visit the Houston of another country? If not for business (the main reason most Houston travelers are found on this non-stop flight), then for pleasure: Frankfurt is stunning, its Main river flowing through the heart of the old city that's chock-full of old, Teutonic timber-frame homes and churches.
Sao Paulo, Brasil
How: United and Azul, from $1,500
Why: While it's not the capital of Brazil itself, Sao Paulo does hold a few other distinctions: Namely, it's the most populous city in the entire Southern Hemisphere and the 12th largest by population in the world. And you thought Houston had sprawl... As you may imagine in a city with over 21 million inhabitants, you will never run out of incredible sights to see and things to do; hope you're ready to make a bunch of return trips (which, by the way, is a lot cheaper to do if you book a flight on Aeromexico, though it necessitates a 90-minute layover in Mexico City).
How: Atlas Air/Sonair, from more than you can probably afford
Why: Now this is an interesting one. No one should perhaps want to go to Luanda, which has achieved notoriety in recent years as "the most expensive city in the world," unless they're interested in just spending money hand over fist. Let's explain...
Though the capital city of the West African nation of Angola, a former Portuguese colony, is becoming increasingly modernized thanks to a stable government, decreasing crime rate (disregard that malevolent-looking machete on its national flag) and abundant oil reserves, that progress comes at a price. Cash-flush expats and upper-class Angolans alike are flooding into Luanda, creating a new energy-based economy with foreign investments while also demanding the same level of luxury found in other oil-rich cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi—all without much of the existing infrastructure and in a country that's still recovering from a 25-year-long civil war that only ended in 2002.
The result: $20 McDonald's meals, $125 for a pair of Levis, and one-bedroom apartments starting at $3,400. As expected, flights to the world's third-largest Portuguese-speaking city are similarly expensive, leading Atlas Air to partner with Angola's national airline service in creating a thrice-weekly charter that takes business travelers from the Gulf Coast's energy capital to the West African coast's emerging energy capital. If your O&G company isn't booking you on one of these flights, chances are you'll never experience the "Houston Express."
Liberia, Costa Rica
How: Southwest, from $372
Why: Because you might have been to this popular Central American country in the past, but chances are you didn't get to visit its northern reaches, covered with rainforest and active volcanoes ripe for exploring, nor the ecologically stunning Nicoya Peninsula. Read more in this month's Open Road story "In Costa Rica, a Short Flight and Bumpy Drive Lead to Untold Riches."
How: United, from $635
Why: Already the largest city in Africa, the former capital of Nigeria is set to soon become the third-largest city in the world. And if you're not content with the knowledge that there's a Tex-Mex restaurant with real-deal fajitas in Cambodia (the aptly-named Lone Star Saloon), you'll be pleased to know that there is also the same in Lagos: Bottles, which has become one of the most popular eateries in the city. Also: endless markets (great for haggling), historic sights, splendid beaches and a solid base of operations for exploring deeper into the country.
Update: Apparently, this flight really does fly under the radar (cough cough, we can't help it); United recently announced that it would be discontinuing the route, its only direct flight to Africa, at the end of the month due to its poor financial performance.
How: United/ANA, from $1,288
Why: Obviously so you can reenact every scene from Lost in Translation. And for literally every other reason to visit Tokyo, a bucket list trip if there ever was one.
How: Air China, from $942
Why: It was a pretty big deal when Air China began offering non-stop service from Houston to Beijing, which will get you to China's capital city in only 14 hours. How big a deal? We sent our own editor emeritus, Scott Vogel, to investigate; his travel essay, "Adrift and Loving It in Beijing," illuminates a city that's full of glorious paradigms and puzzles (not to mention some of the best food you'll likely encounter in the world).
How: United, from $497
Why: The dramatically situated capital of Ecuador is tucked into the high Andes mountains, with its own UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city's Old Town, right in the center of it all. For tourists, the convenient Mariscal District provides a densely-packed area of restaurants, boutique hotels, clubs and bars, while more cultural-minded travelers will appreciate the city's wide array of museums, old-school markets and grand cathedrals.