Taking stock of summer travel

In recent years, Americans have gone out of their way to seek thrills. This year, many are packing off to places as placid as Antarctica and as familiar as Disney World to avoid them.

Reservations this year on voyages toward the bottom of the earth, for example, have risen close to 50 percent compared with 2001, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators.

Travel agencies promoted the trips more this year. But experts primarily credit surging interest in polar travel and other quiet destinations to an icy shift in national temperament: Americans who once paid a premium for "adventure" are making safety and serenity a priority.

Consider the customers of Atlas Travel. After Sept. 11 and the onset of recession, customers of the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based agency began cancelling spring and summer trips to Europe and the Middle East.

"Even people going to Spain and Italy cancelled," says travel consultant Johanna Sardinha. "They got scared."

A popular alternative offered by Atlas: USA tours, which take families through a necklace of national parks or a string of big cities.

Without question, experts say, many more Americans than usual are opting to vacation stateside. Most will prefer to take a vacation that is no farther than three hours away by car or plane this year, according to a study by travel forecaster Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown.

Their choices will likely include campsites, national parks, and theme parks. Many are waiting to book travel until a month or two before departure, expecting to find last-minute discounts on airplane tickets and hotel rooms.

Does late booking win deals?

Strategic consumers will find good deals, experts say, but a convergence of travelers' routes this year could quickly crowd out top destinations, from Caribbean cruises to Michigan campsites.

"There has been a trend this year for people to wait and see if there is a better deal out there," says Bob Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association. "A lot of times when you wait, you don't get exactly what you had in mind."

Despite signs of economic recovery, a spirit of frugality appears to be shaping many Americans' travel plans.

According to a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, Americans who don't plan to take vacations of a week or longer, most cited the sluggish economy as the reason. Of those who are planning longer vacations, more than half will travel by car, partly in an effort to cut costs. Only 40 percent will travel by plane.

"The idea is to economize by traveling closer to home and cutting a day or two off a trip," says Jerry Cheske, public relations director of AAA.

Sales and rentals of motor homes, travel trailers, and other recreational vehicles have also boomed, encouraged by gasoline prices that have remained stable, despite some jitters about price hikes this spring. Others are riding trains. Reservations for Amtrak's sleeping cars are up 9 percent this year.

Pastoral America may be the beneficiary of increased domestic travel. Reservations at 140,000 campsites administered by ReserveAmerica, a campsite booking firm, are up 20 percent this year; Kampground of America has registered a 5 percent jump at its 500 sites.

The government is projecting a 2 percent increase in visitors to US national parks this summer. (Entrance fees rarely exceed more than $10 per person.)

Popular draws, according to the National Park Service, include parks within a few hours' drive of major cities, such as Great Smokey Mountain National Park (65 miles from Charlotte, N.C.), Lake Meade National Recreation Area (30 miles from Las Vegas), and Shenandoah National Park (100 miles from Washington, D.C.).

"We're getting families and visitors that haven't been to parks in years seeking the parks for peace and quiet," says David Barnett, a National Park Service spokesman.

Taking to the sea

Travelers' desire to stay earthbound has led many to take to the seas. Travel agencies report that customers have cancelled Mediterranean and other European cruises, which require Americans to get on an airplane before lifting anchor. Instead, vacationers are opting to drive to seaports like Baltimore; Galveston, Texas; New York City; and Los Angeles.

They are setting sail for parts of the world they perceive as safer, like Alaska, Canada, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Sixteen new ships are scheduled to be added to several cruise-line fleets this year – according to the Cruise Lines International Association – creating a market for discounts.

Good deals in the Caribbean, Europe, and the Mediterranean are still available from mid-July on, experts say. Excluding taxes and extra charges, travel agents say consumers looking for bargains should pay no more than $100 per night for a basic room.

To the surprise of many travelers, however, they still need to reserve a spot a few months before departure. "There's a lot of mythology out there, with people thinking they can book at the last minute [for a cruise]," says Bob Birthisel, leisure reservations manager of Mann Travel & Cruises, a Charlotte, N.C.-based agency.

The hunt for airfare bargains

The rising popularity of Internet travel sites, which often list last-minute bargains, has contributed to Americans' growing confidence in their ability to find big discounts.

Domestic air travel has fallen off about 10 percent this year. Still, those flying on domestic airlines this summer will need to be flexible with their itineraries to take advantage of price cuts.

Low-cost airlines like AirTran, American Trans Air, and Southwest generally offer significantly reduced fares. Major airlines often match their prices in order to compete on flights out of specific cities.

The discount carriers are becoming more prevalent. Each of the three discount airlines recently added flights out of Lexington, Ky.; Milwaukee; and Los Angeles, respectively.

But consumers hunting for cheap tickets might have to fly in and out of midsize cities where discount carriers are often based. The savings can add up to more than $150 per ticket. Southwest, for example, now offers a buy-one-get-one-free sale for many tickets bought before May 24.

International travelers have fewer options. Many travel agents are reporting ticket prices higher than last summer's. "I've been seeing fares averaging in the $900s and $1,000s," says Mary Premsky, a travel counselor for Travel Advisors International in Chanhassen, Minn.

The airlines have reduced their overseas flights, keeping prices high. Any reduction in airfares would likely come after the first two weeks in June, observers say, when airlines will know whether their flights are filling up. The cities most likely to see discounts then: London and Paris. "Every US carrier flies there, and there's a better chance they will have a price break," says Tom Parsons, president of Bestfares.com.

Packages and refunds

Those who wait might have a hard time finding lodging. Europeans themselves generally start vacationing in early July after children get out of school.

Patience will yield far better hotel and airline deals come September. "Airfares will be from $300 to $400 cheaper to Europe in the fall," says Mr. Parsons.

Those who cannot wait should consider booking a package vacation through a travel agency. Packages list one price, keeping specific airfares and hotel rates hidden. This allows airlines and hotels to sell their services at cut-rate prices without lowering advertised rates.

Others who miss out on discounts offered later in the summer can sometimes take advantage of vouchers. If travelers find that their flight is later listed at a lower price, they should ask the airline for a credit for the difference between the discounted ticket and their own.

"It's almost like people are playing the stock market with airfares right now," says Bob Jones, "chief frugalist" at onetravel.com. "They might be wiser to go ahead and get tickets [now] and wait for prices to go down."

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