Summer travel survey

Staying close to home handles many Americans' concerns about cost and - though worries have faded - safety.

Calls and e-mails to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism have risen 45 percent since last year. Requests for Iowa's official travel guide are soaring, say state officials, who anticipate a bumper crop of tourists this summer.

The Midwest is one of a handful of US regions expected to benefit from this year's trend in summer travel. The reason: Most families' top activity will not be touring a big city or lying on some island beach, but taking a long drive to take in the views.

More than 70 percent of travelers plan to spend at least part of their leisure time cruising along scenic roads, according to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIAA).

With the car playing a big role in Americans' travel plans, pastoral states like Iowa, within driving distance of several major cities, are prime destinations. "More than 80 percent of our travelers arrive by car or RV," says Shawna Lode, public-relations manager for the Iowa Tourism Office.

Car travel is enabling Americans to accomplish two important goals: Stay close to home, and keep budgets tight. Most Americans will hop in the car and vacation within 1,000 miles of their home this summer, spending an average of $2,000 - down from $2,250 last year and $2,375 in 2001, according to a survey by Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, a nonprofit consumer group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Among the reasons for such moderation, say experts: uncertainty after the Iraq war, concern about the SARS outbreak, and economic sluggishness.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans do not plan to take a "significant" vacation of one week or longer away from home, according to a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted May 5-9. Of that group, 43 percent cited the economy as the main obstacle - an 8 percent jump from last year. Only 3 percent said safety concerns affected their plans.

"Our success in Iraq, as well as the lower terror alert status at the time of the poll, contributed to a higher feeling of safety," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence.

Because of low bookings during the spring, airlines and other industries linked to overseas travel are offering some of their best deals of the past three years. But will low prices be enough to offset consumers' concerns?

"People were hunkering down until something changed with the war, but they are also realizing that this could be the last summer they can get really incredible deals," says Gary Sain, a partner with Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, a travel-marketing firm in Orlando, Fla.

Perhaps what most reveals the mind-set of American travelers this year: Rentals of recreational vehicles (RVs) have risen. RV rentals are expected to be 24 percent higher than last year, and 71 percent of RV owners plan to travel more this summer compared to last year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

RVs serve a clear purpose for most travelers, say RVIA president Dave Humphreys. "They are for people who never like unpleasant surprises, and this year the desire for no surprises is a high priority."

So, too, is the need for flexibility. Mr. Humphreys partly credits the RV boom to Americans' increasing tendency to delay finalizing travel plans. "RVs give you the flexibility of not having a hotel reservation or a plane reservation," says Humphreys of those who already own an RV.

Primarily because of the war with Iraq, more than 40 percent of prospective travelers had not made plans by the middle of April, according to TIAA.

"We've been lazy," says Edward Denizard, who recently saw his daughter off to France in Chicago's Midway Airport. "It's partly from a little bit of apprehension."

As a result, more and more people are likely to head to regional sites, especially national parks, which are expecting near-record numbers of visitors. "Places within a one- to four-hour driving range of a major metro area will be major magnets," says Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, a trade group.

Mr. Crandall cites Wasatch Cache National Forest outside Salt Lake City and Lake Lanier outside Atlanta, as examples of destinations that already have been inundated with reservations. Other parks that ordinarily require a plane trip, such as Glacier National Park in Montana, could see attendance drop, he says.

Dozens of unfilled seats to destinations overseas, especially Europe, have prompted airlines to offer reduced fares. Flights to Europe before June 18 have been marked down by as much as $300, says Tom Parsons, CEO of Bestfares.com, a ticket wholesaler. Tickets to Europe for July and August, he adds, are cheaper now than if they had been bought in January and February.

"This could be some of the cheapest fares to Europe seen in a long, long time," says Mr. Parsons. The cheapest cities to visit are Paris, where travel from the US is down 25 percent, as well as Dublin, Ireland and Amsterdam, he adds.

Americans choosing to travel overseas this year are going to locations away from such major global hot spots as the Middle East, China, and even parts of Canada, where the SARS virus has recently been described as a threat but has now been taken off the US Centers for Disease Control's advisory list.

The most popular destinations abroad: Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America. "Because of the war, these places are considered less risky," says Marlene Oliver, spokeswoman for Far & Wide Travel, a Miami tour operator.

Cruise takers, too, favor more familiar shores

Even while at sea, Americans are staying closer to home. The Caribbean and Alaska, perennial favorites, will draw the most cruise-ship passengers this summer, while regions such as eastern Canada, which traditionally have been only niche players, will see occupancy rates surge, say experts.

What do these areas have in common? Safety.

"Eastern Canada seems like one of those places that everyone feels safe to go to," says Janice Furlong, director of marketing for the Cruiseship Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, which reports that the number of cruise-ship passengers to eastern Canada is up 100 percent this summer from three years ago.

Interest in cruises around the US also has been bolstered by cruise lines adding ports in secondary cities, such as Charleston, S.C., New Orleans, and Tampa, Fla.

Cruise ships reachable only by an overseas flight are struggling to fill their cabins. Reservations on ships sailing around Europe and the Mediterranean are down, say experts.

But the cruise industry is taking into account prospective passengers' concerns about safety. Cruise lines in the Mediterranean, for example, have changed their routes to visit ports in countries like Spain and Italy rather than hot spots like Israel or Turkey.

"Cruise ships have an advantage over resorts in that they can steer away from problems," says Cheryl Fenske, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association.

Thanks to discounted fares, most ships will be more than 90 percent booked this vacation season. Many cruise lines don't substantially cut prices until about one month in advance of departure to accommodate the fact that many consumers are waiting to plan their vacations. To get people to sign up, some cruise lines are even forgoing cancellation fees.

Experts say consumers can easily find a one-week cruise for no more than $500. "From a consumer standpoint, there are plenty of attractive values," says Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst for Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

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