- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

Cabin fever is getting to people a little earlier this year.

Americans are booking their summer vacations early — with some people having made plans back in January — reversing the trend of waiting until the last minute in the hope of getting low air fares and hotel rates.

Slightly more than 80 percent of Americans planning to travel this summer have started thinking about plans for their trip, according to a study by the Travel Industry Association of America, a District trade group.

Requests to the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau for travel information are up 32 percent from this time last year, according to Managing Director Carolyn McCormick, signaling that travelers are thinking about vacations earlier than in previous years.

House-rental companies had 20 percent more summer reservations booked in February compared with a year ago, she said, adding that houses are still available for rent.

“People are planning about five to six months out,” Ms. McCormick said.

Shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the slowing economy and the rise of travel Web sites such as Orbitz and Expedia allowed many travelers to find discounted fares close to departure, instead of booking months ahead of time. As the economy improves and travel increases, many are finding they need to revert to their old methods.

“People waited until the last minute to see how the economy was, if their job was on the line. Post-9/11 … people lost jobs as the economy slowed down,” said Dennis Castleman, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

This year, travelers are booking early to avoid high fares or minimum selection, said Samantha Cook, senior vice president of research at TIA.

“We’ve finally gone back to a more regular pattern of leisure travel,” Ms. Cook said. “People are acting more like they were around the turn of the century. They’re more likely to be thinking ahead on their vacation travel.”

“I think too many people found that by waiting, maybe the prime locations they wanted were harder to find,” said Donna Abbott, public relations director at the Ocean City Department of Tourism, where requests for travel information were up a couple hundred through January, the latest figures available, from last year.

“The booking window is getting longer simply because the rooms are getting tighter,” said Cynthia Rankin, spokeswoman for the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu. “People are realizing they need to make their plans earlier out.”

From late 2001 through 2004, travelers often could find cheap air fares and lodging to Honolulu two weeks out, she said. Not anymore.

“Occupancy has gotten much higher,” she said. “People have to call much earlier because rooms are getting booked up.”

Occupancy at the Hawaiian Village can reach 100 percent on some days in July and August, she said.

The cheap airline fares of years past may be on their way out, too.

American Airlines announced this week that it won’t be adding flights this summer, as it has done in the past, to try to make a profit from the increase in travel. Carriers have also been raising rates as fuel prices climb. Flights are expected to be more expensive and full.

Across the board, airlines aren’t offering as many sales, said George Hobica, publisher of airfarewatchdog.com, which tracks airfare sales.

“I don’t think we’re going to see the big fare sales that we’ve seen in the past,” Mr. Hobica said. “But there will always be some sales.”

Still, some travelers, mostly those who can drive to their vacation destination, wait until the last minute to make their plans.

About half of Virginia Beach vacationers plan their trips one month or less ahead of time — just as they always did — according to Ron Kuhlman, director of tourism marketing and sales at the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. An increase in the department’s budget seven years ago allowed it to extend its advertising schedule from April to as early as February, boosting visitors during the beach’s “shoulder season” of April and May.

BY THE NUMBERS

Americans planning to travel this summer are planning their vacations earlier this year than they did in previous years.

• 81 percent of Americans planning to travel this summer had started thinking about their plans in January.

• 30 percent of Americans planning to travel this summer said they are planning their summer travel earlier this year.

• 43 percent said they are planning their summer travel during the same time period as last year.

• 9 percent said they are planning their summer trip later this year than last year.

• 21 percent of Americans planning to travel this summer booked their lodging by January.

• 38 percent have already booked or decided on their mode transportation,

Source: Travel Industry Association of America

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