LOS ANGELES — Nazareth Riquelme, an 18-year-old retail clerk, will be taking a break from school and work in sun-dappled Mexico. Like Judd Wayne, a 21-year-old script reader who will be hiking and surfing the shores of Hawaii, Ms. Riquelme is heading off with half a dozen friends.
As Americans merge onto vacation highways this summer season, they might notice something more than purple mountain majesty in their rearview mirrors: young adults between ages 18 and 24.
The rise of the young and the restless (84 percent of college-agers plan to hit the road, says one survey) is the newest trend in tourism. Their growing presence will help make the nation's beaches, nature trails, and other leisure spots among the most crowded in US history.
Six years of economic growth, falling gas prices, and low unemployment levels have many Americans feeling prosperous - and eager for a break. An all-time record 230 million trips are planned between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
But it's young adults, traveling in packs, who seem most intent on swapping their Birkenstocks and pinstripes for stretch Lycra. Nearly half plan to travel more and stay longer when they get there.
"What we are seeing is the emergence of a younger, cost-conscious traveler who really loves nature and outdoor activities," says William Norman, president of the Travel Industry Association. The association, along with the American Automobile Association, recently conducted a national survey of 1,500 people. "Many of these young people will be spending less, on average, than older travelers. But they are more likely to be traveling in groups."
Many young adults, according to Mr. Norman, see vacation as a right, rather than a privilege or a luxury. Leisure time is often blocked out in their day planners months in advance.
"I feel like I've worked really hard all year and deserve to be able to kick back and do whatever I want for awhile," says Riquelme, after a year of school and 30-hour work weeks.
Riquelme and her closest friends will be traveling as part of a senior class trip to Puerto Vallarta. Taking advantage of a new, package deal put together by her local travel agent, the seven-day, six-night trip will cost only $499, including hotel, air fare, shuttle and nightly coupons to dance clubs. On the agenda: scuba, surfing, sunbathing by day, disco by night.
"Inexpensive package deals for younger travelers are one of the hottest segments of the travel industry right now," says Glendale Fiesta, a travel agent at New Age Travel in Sherman Oaks. "The younger traveler is the one with the least experience and smallest pocketbook. Tour operators are zeroing in on that market."
While profit margins are thinner for these packages, college-age travelers often travel in packs - so the volume makes this an appealing customer for travel agents.
Another feature common to this burgeoning group of travelers is that they tend to spend less time basking on the beach with a Danielle Steel novel. Leisure is approached with ambition. They don't just want to be outside, they want to be active.
To appeal to this market, cruise lines are going after the first-time cruiser by offering more physical adventure in the places they stop. That means getting off the boat to hike on glaciers, fly over fjords, or paddle kayaks to within a shout of a grizzly snout.
"Cruise lines have learned that younger vacationers want to do more than lie around and eat," says Bernadette Harding, spokeswoman for Cruise Lines International Association, the trade association for 26 North American cruise lines.
Because of the humming US economy, all segments of travel have been steadily rising for the past 18 months, including cruising, airlines, lodging, car rentals.
"Anyone who has tried to find hotel space in any top metropolitan area knows there is a major crunch," says Chris Privett, an analyst for the American Society of Travel Agents. "We see no signs of that slowing any time soon."
Bound for water worlds
According to the American Automobile Association, 75 percent of US vacationers are headed for beaches or lakes. Forty-five percent of those surveyed will go camping, hiking, and climbing - up from 40 percent last summer.
If many of their favorite destinations are jammed, vacationers this year at least have the advantage of more planning-friendly technology, according to Jackie Handley, spokeswoman for the National Park Service.
"Because of flooding in Yosemite, travelers this year are more than ever interested in exactly what is and is not open," says Handley. By surfing the web (www.nps.gov), family planners can get up-to-the-minute data on park and trail closings, reservation availability, weather, and other related information.
For the fifth year in a row, Florida, California, and Hawaii top the wish-list states to visit for summer vacations. Orlando, Myrtle Beach, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Los Angeles are the top five destinations. On average, travelers will spend $1,112 on 8.1 days away from home. The cost is an all-time high.