- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Many Washington-area residents are hanging up their snow shovels and packing their bags as the region braces for another winter storm.

Travel agents have been busy since mid-January booking weekend getaways to anywhere warmer than here — from the Florida Keys to Costa Rica.

“The cold engenders a long sense of deprivation,” said Heather Dolstra, vice president of Democracy Travel in the District. “This year, there’s much more desperation.”

Yet another storm was in the forecast for last night and today, with the National Weather Service issuing a winter-weather advisory calling for a wintry mix of precipitation from snow to sleet to freezing rain.

At Democracy Travel, the phones started ringing off the hook a little more than two weeks ago.

Desperate travelers, all too familiar with the brutal weather of the past winter, have been searching for a warm getaway. Some people have called with the hope of leaving the next day, Ms. Dolstra said.

“I really have to chalk this up to pent-up demand,” she said. “This year, there’s a lot more momentum.”

Whether it’s momentum or just cabin fever, Washington residents’ cries for help seem justified.

Last month, the average temperature at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was 30.5 degrees — 4.1 degrees colder than the normal average January temperature, according to the National Weather Service. The coldest it got last month was on Jan. 10, a frigid 8 degrees. The coldest January before last month was in 1994, with an average temperature of 28.8 degrees.

Olney resident Theresa Sugrue has had enough. Fed up with the weather, she and her husband are planning a trip later this month to Jacksonville, Fla.

“It is so cold, and there’s no end to it,” Mrs. Sugrue said. “We just have to get out of here for at least a couple of days.”

Jacksonville’s average high temperature in February is 67 degrees.

People living in frigid climates in Washington, Boston, Chicago and New York are using the online site Cheap Tickets to book much-needed trips to warmer destinations.

The Internet travel site offers “Last Minute Trips,” which are package deals that include air fare, hotel and car rental booked 14 days to three hours before departure. During the first half of January, Miami and the Florida Keys was the top destination for last-minute trips from people in New York, Chicago and Boston. It was the No. 2 destination for last-minute travelers from Washington and Philadelphia, Cheap Tickets said.

But last-minute getaways might not be the best alternative for budget-savvy travelers. A two-night trip to Key West — flying out of Reagan Airport on Friday — will cost $650 per person, which includes air fare and a hotel stay at the Hyatt Key West Resort and Marina, according to a search on www.cheaptickets.com. The rates were even higher the weekend of Feb. 14, because of Valentine’s Day and the President’s Day holiday on Feb. 16.

Mary Peters, president of Friendly Travel/American Express in Alexandria, says some desperate travelers have unrealistic expectations with their limited budgets. She suggests deals at places like Miami’s South Beach, Costa Rica and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

“People have had it with this cold weather,” Ms. Peters said. “We’re trying to find them what they want with the budget they have.”

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