Americans are developing a new travel itinerary for vacations and weekends: fewer trips that are better planned and closer to home. "IT's a long-term trend, and the only thing that will turn it around is cheaper gas and a major change in the economy," asserts Dallas travel consultant Stewart Robinson, who expects neither.
Instead, Mr. Robinson and others in the travel industry expect higher energy costs and inflation to continue to crimp American leisure travel plans in 1981, as they did last year.
Travel agendas increasingly include activities like:
* A weekend at a local hotel or resort -- at a special package price -- instead of traveling to a distant city.
* A relaxing ocean cruise that, while not cheap, can be carefully budgeted without fear of last-minute "surprise" expenses.
* More one-day automobile trips to regional parks and historical sites that past vacation plans have often bypassed.
Propelling these subtle shifts in American travel behavior is a general increase in fuel costs that have made all major modes of travel more expensive. The use of the automobile for vacation travel has been greatly affected because it is no longer economical for many Americans to simply hop into the car for a quick vacation getaway, travel analysts point out.
"Impulse travel is almost gone," says Robinson, because of the high cost of gasoline and the perceived problems in finding open gas stations for fuel or repairs in unfamiliar places.
Gasoline consumption in the United States dropped more than 6 percent in 1980 -- the result of more fuel-efficient automobiles and a decline in driving.
Impulse has been replaced by careful vacation and leisure-time planning. This does not necessarily imply that Americans want to spend less on travel, but that "they are more concerned with getting more for their money," says Robinson.
He points out, for example, that many vacationers are deciding to rent cars at their destination instead of driving their own automobiles -- an option that may be slightly more expensive, but one that often allows for more efficient use of vacation time.
Changes in American travel habits have broad implications for many businesses , including hotels and motels, airlines, bus lines, and restaurants.
"The whole leisure travel industry is shifting," Robinson says. Instead of the past emphasis on establishing resorts, lodging facilities, and restaurants out on the nation's highways, he sees a retrenchment as travel becomes more localized.
The combination of higher gasoline prices and a weak economy in 1980 seemed to affect nearly every aspect of domestic leisure travel. The US Travel Data Center, a trade association, reports that total domestic travel volume last year was down 3 percent and that vacation travel fell 10 percent from the previous year.
Within this broad decline, Americans tended to travel closer to home. And, where possible, they combined vacation and business travel in order to economize. As a result, lodging business sales declined and Americans dined out less frequently, the Travel Data Center reports.
Clearly, inflation took some of the fun out of leisure travel in 1980. While most families struggled to keep pace with inflation -- incomes barely kept up with the rising cost of living last year -- the cost of travel in the US soared 21 percent. The exceptional increase was largely a result of rising fuel costs.
Indeed, the traditional notion that when the economy sours Americans turn increasingly to recreation and leisure activities "was proven completely untrue in 1980," says George Delanoy, a vice-president with GSC-Six Flags Inc., operator of six major US amusement parks. Overall attendance at the parks was up marginally in 1980, and Mr. Delanoy is not expecting any dramatic improvement this year.
Airlines were particularly hard hit in 1980. Rising fuel costs boosted air fares an average of 29 percent, and domestic air travel fell 7 percent. "We think volume will be the same or maybe down 2 or 3 percent in 1981," forecasts Earl Ditmars of American Airlines. "Most of the decline is coming in p ersonal, discretionary travel," he adds.