Summer travel: still robust, but with 9/11 alterations

Airline travel is down, but still, vacation plans this Memorial weekend are up 1 percent from last year.

Charlotte Grande is an avid gardener. So this year, her family gave her a trip to London for the Chelsea Flower Show.

But she won't be going alone. Almost the whole family – three daughters, three sons-in-law, and a granddaughter – are going with her.

Call it the positive post-Sept. 11 fallout. Surveys and travel professionals are finding that as Americans look ahead to the summer travel season, which unofficially begins this Memorial Day weekend, an increasing number are choosing to vacation with their loved ones.

"It's brought families together, definitely," says Adriane Greene, chairman emeritus of the Association of Retail Travel Agents. "More are traveling together as family units, as well as with close friends."

That's just one travel trend that professionals are seeing as they book trips for this summer – one that Jerry Cheske of the American Automobile Association (AAA) says "won't be like any other."

First, there's still tumult and uncertainty in the wake of Sept. 11. This is the Grande family's first trip since then, and Charlotte Grande's daughter Donna Wilder says they're doing "a lot of praying." Second, there's economic uncertainty. While experts say the economy is mending, some companies are still laying people off.

That combination is expected to impact how and where people choose to vacation – but it's not expected to keep them home.

"We believe that people will begin to travel like they have in the past, with some modifications," says Mr. Cheske. "And those modifications include traveling closer to home, trips of shorter duration, and looking for ways to economize."

Traditionally, about 80 percent of Americans who take a summer vacation pack up the family car for a road trip. Some top domestic destinations reported by travel agents so far are ground zero in New York City and other sites inspiring patriotism, such as the Grand Canyon.

AAA predicts the number of summer road warriors will increase by about 2 percent, in part because of concerns about flying. AAA is predicting that airline travel will be down by 7 percent.

But the organization is expecting a strong start to the summer this weekend. It's predicting that 35.2 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home, which is up 1 percent from last year.

Still, some travel experts believe the summer projections could be volatile. While gas prices have leveled off, the recent spike and concern about the oil-rich Middle East could end up sending more people to airports. A new Monitor TIPP poll found that for 33 percent of Americans, gasoline prices were a key factor.

That's another trademark of the coming season: uncertainty. For instance, surveys are finding that more people plan to travel domestically. But some travel agents report that while this was true in the six months after the attacks, bookings for Europe and beyond are picking up.

And then there are the cruises. Because so many new ships are coming on line, there are some great bargains. But already, travel agents are finding that some of the top cruise packages are sold out.

The situation at the airports is also still very much in flux. While 4.1 million people are expected to travel by plane this weekend, many have waited until the last minute, hoping for better deals. And while airlines have begun restoring some of the flights cut last September, the total number is still down about 12 percent. This means that individual airplanes are ending up being packed to the gills.

Furthermore, the new Transportation Security Administration is still in the process of replacing more than 30,000 security screeners, and most employees will still be doing some learning on the job. Many of the leisure travelers, who will be flying for the first time since Sept. 11, will also be getting their first tutorials in shoe screening and explosives detection.

At the same time, there will be fewer airline personnel at the check-in counters. The airlines laid off more than 80,000 people in the wake of the terrorist attacks, and only a few have been called back.

All in all, the airports are expected to be congested, and there will most probably be delays. But few believe the summer crunch will be as excruciating as it was in 2000, when a string of thunderstorms created record delays.

Still, the word from experts is to get to the airports two hours early, even though some airlines are boasting they can get you through check-in and security in less time.

"You don't know if it will take you 15 minutes or an hour and 15 minutes to get through security," says David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association. "You need to bring food, water, and materials to read or occupy yourself – and lots of patience."

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