- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

It’s beginning to look like a jolly holiday season for the travel industry as the economy gets stronger and consumers change their moods about vacationing away from home.

“There’s a reverse in the cocooning [trend],” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Bank One. “We’re leaning back into that willingness to go out, which was not the case two years ago or even last year.”

Although most travelers are waiting until the last minute to make plans, some destinations already are showing signs of advanced bookings for the holiday season.

Grande Lakes Orlando, a complex that includes a 584-room Ritz Carlton and a 1,000-room J.W. Marriott hotel, has had a “tremendous upswing” in holiday bookings, particularly from the Washington region, said Bruce Seigel, director of marketing.

“There’s a significant difference in advance bookings based on all [aspects]: the economy, world events and the way people feel about travel in general has turned the corner,” Mr. Seigel said. “There’s a tremendous enthusiasm out there in the industry for ‘03 and even better for ‘04.”

The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel is expecting a strong holiday season, said spokeswoman Treva Marshall.

“They are projecting for the hotel to be relatively full, if not sold out,” Ms. Marshall said. “[Reservations] are moving at a very rapid pace at this point.”

The latest Bank One report said many resorts from Florida to Colorado in September were fully booked for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day. That’s two months ahead of last year.

Travel industry officials said Americans held off on plans to vacation earlier in the year because of the sluggish economy and the war in Iraq. Now they have a better attitude about travel and are starting to consider holiday vacations.

“People do seem a lot more positive,” said Deborah DeYoung, a AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman. “They are ready to go and are tired of waiting.”

AAA travel agents haven’t had an upswing in holiday travel yet, but they are expecting a surge in bookings within the next couple of weeks. Those who are booking are not skimping and are planning seven-day family vacations, Ms. DeYoung said.

Most travelers are continuing to wait until the last minute, holding out hope for better-than-ever deals on hotels and airfare.

“With the explosion of information [on the Internet] and the sluggish economy, we’ve all been trained to wait until the last minute,” said Chris Loughlin, co-editor of Travelzoo Top 20, a weekly newsletter of the best travel deals.

But travel agents warn that travelers will lose out if they wait too long.

“People are really unrealistic,” said Mindy Milliron, vacation specialist at Carroll Travel in the District. “There’s just not enough seats on planes.”

When fewer people were traveling, the airlines cut flights, meaning fewer seats overall to fill. For example, before the September 11 terrorist attacks, US Airways had 417 airplanes. Today, the Arlington airline has 279 planes.

Now that demand is picking up, seats are scarce. And the available ones are being sold at a premium, industry officials say.

“We’re predicting air travel will be much more expensive this year,” Ms. DeYoung said.

The airlines are offering good deals, though — for now.

For example, British Airways was offering $99 and up for airfare to 30 European cities during the holiday season. That deal ended earlier this month. More airline deals are expected to come to an end soon.

Travelers will have to book early if “they want to go somewhere they cherish — a nice property [and book] a good airline at a good price,” Mr. Loughlin said.

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