Many view summer trips as necessity


If you thought a slow-down in the economy and fears of a recession might lead to travel deals this summer, think again.

The demand remains for vacations, travel officials said, though people might opt for cheaper destinations or spend less time once they arrive at the beach or mountain resort.

“In a lot of people’s minds, travel is no longer a luxury-type item but more of a necessity-type item,” said Clay Ingram, spokesman for AAA-Alabama. “Each family is going to spend a little less, but they are still going to go.”

And as a result, airline seats and rooms at resorts and hotels and cruise ships are filled, he said, meaning the consumer will see few discounts.

Roger McWhorter, owner of Elite Travel in Decatur, said there is so much demand by people booking last-minute vacations for June, his staff is working overtime.

After a big month for travel bookings in January, business slowed significantly by March, and McWhorter said he feels that consumers were worried about a recession.

But by April, even as gas prices soared, people were feeling the economy isn’t as bad as news reports indicated and planned summer vacations.

Typical pattern

That’s a typical consumer pattern during an economic slow-down, he said. People become more cautious and take longer to make decisions.

He agrees with Ingram’s assessment that travel is no longer a luxury and said the industry has experienced only two down periods since the early 1990s. One of those was the result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The other was at the end of President Clinton’s term in office.

The last time McWhorter remembers the economy suffering enough to get great travel deals was just before Clinton took office in 1993.

If the country goes into a true, deep recession, then, yes, resorts and airlines and destination sites would have to offer deals, McWhorter said.

“But right now, there are no bargains,” he said.

To prove that people are still traveling, he pulled up hotel rates for downtown Manhattan.

“There’s nothing below $300,” he said. “And that’s because demand is greater than supply.”

More evidence: Cruise sales for 2008 are higher than last year, according to the April issue of Travel Trade magazine.

Cautious spending

Consumers are spending more cautiously, booking closer to travel dates and staying fewer days at sea, it reported, but they are still going. Of about 5,000 travel agents polled, 42 percent reported cruise bookings were higher in 2008 than the year before, while 40 percent said bookings were about the same.

Ingram said while some popular destinations, basically those that require traveling long distances, will suffer some, others just a short drive away will benefit.

“There’s one group of people that has a very specific destination in mind,” he said. “What they will typically do is make some adjustments to their plans to make up for the higher gasoline costs and other items that might have gone up.”

To compensate, this group might stay in a cheaper hotel, eat in cheaper restaurants, pack their own lunches or simply stay one day less, Ingram said.

“The other group is one that really wants to go somewhere, but they really don’t have a destination in mind,” he said.

“That group will typically look at going some place closer to home. They might just drive to the beach for a few days. They might go to Atlanta.”

Seeking deals

While there are no widespread deals available this summer, Ingram said there are chances to save money because resorts and airlines still run into times where too many rooms and seats are available.

He noted Southwest Airlines recently offered $39 round-trip ticket from Birmingham to New Orleans, and Disney World offered free meals for people staying on property.

Last summer, some beach resorts even offered to buy the gas to get people down there, Ingram added.

“A lot of travelers are waiting till the last minute to decide, hoping to get a good deal,” Ingram said. “The travel industry is aware of that and they are trying to find the right balance of when to offer some special deals. They don’t want to do it too soon, but they want to stay heavily booked as well.”

To save money, he gave “commonsense” advice and simply urged travelers to do their homework and compare prices or use a travel agent who “know where the bargains are.”