Longer vacations, longer lines

At Designer Travel agency here, you can see posters of London in fog, Paris in mist, and Greece in sunlight, but you can't see an agent - just yet.

"I'm sorry, we'll be with you in a few minutes," says Lynn Solky, who has been signing up neighborhood clients for dream vacations anywhere from Tahiti to Mexico for 20 years. In a word, how is this year's summer season - which begins with Memorial Day weekend - shaping up? "Hectic as they come," she says.

From B&B's on the coast of Maine to dude ranches in the dusty deserts of Arizona, there will be a lot more than fruit on the plains and purple in America's mountain majesty.

From this Monday through Labor Day, there will be 271 million travelers - a 4 percent rise over last year - bolstered by record low unemployment and a soaring stock market. The good news is that most are planning longer vacations - 8.5 days on average. The bad news is that could mean lines longer than those for "The Phantom Menace" at your favorite lookout, campsite, taffy vendor, or bathroom stop.

"People are gassed up, stressed out, and ready to rumble," says Michael Pina, spokesman for the Travel Industry Association of America. Rising gas prices are not expected to have a major impact on summer travel, but one roadblock will be highway construction - the most on record since the 1950s. Some 414 major American roads are under construction, costing $218 billion over the next five years.

"If you are driving across the country, no matter what route you take, you have to expect to run into work zones," says Kenneth Wykle, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.

More than anytime in history, all age groups will be hitting the road. "There has been momentum gathering for expanded vacations from every demographic of society," says Mr. Pina.

That means family travel is up, seniors are on the go, and young adults are out to try more activities from mountain biking to hang gliding.

"People are working harder during the year, so they feel justified in investing more in themselves for vacation," says Robert Brennan, president of the National Tour Association and owner of a package-tour business.

Partly because the amount of corporate travel is down during the year, summer trips are accounting for a bigger share of overall travel. The months of June, July, and August will account for nearly one-third of travel by Americans this year.

Mr. Brennan also says a major trend in travel is being led by seniors who are remaining healthier longer, and thus want more control over their vacations.

That means more flexibility in tour itineraries to shop and pursue activities on their own, from hiking to river rafting.

"Tens of millions of baby boomers are turning 50 every year," Brennan says. "They have more energy, more knowledge, and more discretionary income. They want to get out and experience the world rather than just watch it pass by."

Because of this, traveling as part of a group is more popular this summer than last (up 3 percent). And what these people spend - an average $956 - is growing as well. Because of the Internet, and the availability of books and videos, more travelers are requesting educational counterparts to their tours.

"The expectation of the average traveler to go behind the history of what he is seeing is soaring," says Brennan. "It's not enough just to take someone somewhere anymore."

Going to a beach or lake tops the lists of activities planned by vacationers, with Florida, California, and Hawaii named as the places Americans most want to visit. The most visited National Park sites are the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California - each with more than 14 million visits last year.

Because of such high numbers, park officials suggest prospective travelers look to lesser-populated parks or areas near the leading parks that have similar characteristics.

"Why go to the Great Smokies and run into 10 million other people when you can go to Big South Fork nearby and see vistas that are just as majestic?" asks National Park spokeswoman Elaine Sevy.

If there is another trend evident in surveys leading into summer, it's that families want to spend more time in activities together. "Many of our clients are telling us they gravitate to dude ranches because they are places where mom, dad, and kids can have a period of meaningful interaction without distraction," says Jim Futterer, president of the Dude Ranchers Association of America. "They say they want time away from news and media, corrupt politicians, and sports stars, as well as other scandals. To them, vacation has become a time of fun, but also respite."

Top 10 most visited National Parks

1. Great Smoky Mountain (N.C.- Tenn.)

2. Grand Canyon (Ariz.)

3. Yosemite (Calif.)

4. Olympic (Wash.)

5. Yellowstone (Wyo.-Mont.-Idaho)

6. Rocky Mountain (Colo.)

7. Grand Teton (Wyo.)

8. Acadia (Maine)

9. Zion (Utah)

10. Mammoth Cave (Ky.)

Source: National Park Service

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