On campuses across the country, thousands of college kids eagerly await spring break each year. After all, decades of MTV have enshrined partying in paradise as a rite of passage, and the appeal of boozy days spent at the beach is hard to resist.
But if spring break has cemented its place in the American college canon, so have the associated concerns. Forty-four percent of female students and 75 percent of male students get drunk daily during their spring break trips. This debauchery has a darker side than merely deep hangovers, though, including elevated rates of sexual assault and other crimes like fighting. In light of these known risks, how do American college students continue to party? Where do they go, and what do they experience hundreds of miles away from their parents?
To find out, we turned to Instagram, reviving an approach we utilized to study spring break activity last year. Tracking more than 800,000 Instagram posts tagged #springbreak, we’ve uncovered the most popular party spots in the nation and worldwide. Additionally, we analyzed how these users talked about alcohol, and which locations produced the most posts about liquor. Keep reading to see how social media reveals the nature of spring break partying today.
Spring Break Cities
Among spring break destinations, the allure of sunshine reigns supreme. Miami was the most popular spring break city in America, according to our post data, witnessing more than 15,300 posts during spring break 2017. Three of the top 10 cities were Floridian, in fact, with Orlando and Fort Lauderdale boasting high volumes of posts as well. Fort Lauderdale residents have long had a contentious relationship with spring breakers, and 2018 promises even stricter enforcement efforts to curb rowdy partying. Similarly, Panama City Beach, an infamous spring break destination, ranked 17th despite strong alcohol laws targeting boozy students.
Not all top spring break destinations were known mostly for partying, however: Some students seemed to use the gap between classes to tour major cities. New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago all ranked among the top 10 spring break places, proving there are Instagram-worthy alternatives to being beachside. San Juan, Puerto Rico, also ranked ninth in posts, but will likely see fewer visitors in 2018 as the city continues to recover from Hurricane Maria.
Spring Break Goes Global
Spring breakers have never limited their adventures to domestic destinations, with thousands seeking beaches beyond the nation’s borders every year. According to our post data, the three most popular international locations belonged to our southern neighbor, Mexico. If Cancún, Cabo San Lucas, and Isla Mujeres remain fixtures of Americans’ spring break plans, the state department warns against traveling elsewhere in the country, cautioning visitors about the risk of crime and violence.
Some travelers, however, opted for far longer flights, with many European cities ranking among the top 10 destinations worldwide. Paris, London, and Amsterdam each saw more than 1,200 posts, and Italian cities Rome and Milan attracted significant spring break activity as well. Some destinations were even more remote, such Tokyo, Dubai, and Seoul. Perhaps these more extensive trips relate to a recent trend reported by travel agents: Instead of spring breaks aimed at relaxation, travelers have sought more active, cultural experiences in recent years.
Drinking Scenes by City
Although we assume many students are quite wholesome in their spring break activities, some places yielded a strikingly high percentage of posts about booze. In Fort Lauderdale, for instance, nearly 1 in 10 posts included a drinking-related word in their captions. Las Vegas was close behind, followed by New Orleans – where the infamous Bourbon Street has been said to smell vaguely of vomit from puking partiers.
Seaside, Florida, ranked fifth for the percentage of posts involving alcohol, took a drastic step to reverse the trend of young people drinking: Anyone under 21 must be accompanied by a parent on the beaches after 8 p.m. The Sunshine State’s proclivity for drinking was hard to miss in our data: Of the top 20 locations for drinking posts, half were in Florida. Texas contributed three cities to the list as well: Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Austin likely owes many of its boozy posts to South by Southwest, a sprawling tech and entertainment festival lovingly dubbed “spring break for nerds.”
Mexico may have dominated the most popular spring break spots according to our data, but the country saw an even greater concentration of drinking posts. Seven of the top 10 drinking destinations were Mexican cities, with Puerto Peñasco topping the list. Tourism in the city has increased in recent years, despite American authorities’ travel warnings about drug cartels. Elsewhere in North America, alcohol was nearly as popular: 8.5 percent of Montreal’s posts mentioned drinking.
Posts from Italy were also likely to mention alcohol, as Rome and Milan were the top-ranked European cities on this international list. Amsterdam was 13th, justifying its reputation for intense partying. The most eye-catching result was Vatican City, which made a surprise appearance in the 17th spot. Either these alcohol references correspond to the wine used in the Catholic Mass, or people are partying near the papacy.
A Tipsy Tourism Timeline
In this comprehensive view of spring break posts, we found related Instagram activity across the U.S. and Mexico heated up around mid-March before beginning to subside in mid-April. By some expert estimates, the busiest spring break travel day of 2017 was March 11, a date that resonates with our data. Colleges in some states, however, tend to schedule their breaks slightly earlier, however, explaining the significant number of posts occurring at the beginning of March as well. Other schools, conversely, don’t break until late April, which means they may miss the peak of the party.
While the percentage of posts mentioning alcohol declined slightly as spring break continued, some of the booziest single days came in late April. On April 27 and 29, 2017, for instance, more than 6 percent of posts referred to drinking. That mark was reached just two other times across all of spring break, on March 17 and April 7.
How Spring Breakers Choose Their Booze
While spring breakers consume a vast array of alcohol on vacation, the most common drink was an old classic: beer. More than 4 in 10 alcohol posts mentioned beer specifically, and suds were particularly popular in North Carolina and Colorado. Wine also accounted for more than 1 in 5 posts and was most popular in California (where proximity to Napa can’t hurt the quality.) Hard liquor appeared most often in cocktails and margaritas, which each accounted for about 9 percent of alcohol posts.
Liquors associated with tropical roots were also frequently invoked by name, with rum and tequila appearing in about 5 percent of posts apiece. Almost as many chose a fancier route to intoxication, citing champagne in their posts.
A Break From School, Not Safety
Our findings reveal the scale and intensity of spring break partying, both in American vacation hot spots and destinations around the globe. But our data also indicate a wide range of options for those seeking alternatives to drunken days at the beach. Whether you pursue the party or another experience, think critically about safety during your spring break travels. By making responsible choices, you can avert disaster in a distant place and return to school rested and restored.
The dangers of substance misuse, however, extend far beyond any single time of the year. If you or a loved one is struggling, you don’t need to suffer alone. By reaching out to us, you can replace anxiety with constructive action. We’ll help you and your family consider your options and put you on the path to hope today.
We scraped over 800,000 Instagram posts containing the hashtag #springbreak. We used an Instagram API to collect these data. The scrape collected images posted between March 1, 2017, and April 30, 2017, by peak spring break dates for universities as shown by springbreak.com.
We did not have a validated measure of the presence of alcohol in posts, so we created one on our own. Alcohol mentions were defined by the presence of the words “alcohol, booze, liquor, beer, wine, vodka, whiskey, tequila, rum, margarita, cocktail, drink, chug, shots, and keg” in photo captions.
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