- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

BOSTON (AP) - Dena Feldstein Brody had sketched out an $8,000 budget for a 12-day family vacation this summer in England, France and Spain. But those plans were made two years ago. Since then, the dollar has plummeted and airfares have soared.

So Mrs. Brody and her husband and daughter are setting their sights closer to home, renting a vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard, the popular Massachusetts tourist destination for presidents, celebrities and others looking for a seaside getaway.

“I just think that the dollar is better spent here for the time being,” said Mrs. Brody, an independent staffing consultant.

Despite recession worries, weakness in the housing market and rising fuel costs, travel-trend watchers say Americans aren’t giving up their vacation plans. But they’re definitely scaling back.

Vacationers are paring the number of days that they plan to spend at exotic locations abroad, buying all-inclusive foreign travel packages to cushion themselves against currency exchange shocks or just planning trips closer to home.

“They are trading down, but they are not trading out,” said Peter Yesawich, chief executive and trend analyst for YPartnership, a marketing company specializing in travel.

Money is certainly tighter for travelers this year. Gas prices are near record highs — averaging $3.32 per gallon compared with $2.59 this time last year — and analysts expect prices could jump another 75 cents a gallon in the next two months. And the dollar is struggling against the euro, valued at almost $1.60 now compared with $1.33 this time last year.

That reality caused Cathy Bielawski, an insurance executive in Clifton Park, N.Y., to reconsider her plans. She had hoped to take in the landscapes, nature reserves, wine and art of the Tuscany region of Italy but booked a seaside home on Martha’s Vineyard instead because of the soaring euro.

“Originally, I thought I could probably do the trip for $5,000 to $6,000, and after looking at the numbers, it was closer to $9,000,” said Ms. Bielawski, 49. “I just don’t want to be spending this much money in Tuscany. I’d rather spend less money to have an enjoyable experience at home.”

Nationwide summer travel booking figures compiled by AAA show most of the leading destinations this year are not linked to the British pound or euro, said Mike Pina, the association’s national spokesman.

The top spots included Orlando, Fla.; Cancun, Mexico; Honolulu; and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

The number of Americans booking trips to Ireland dropped by at least 20 percent — a decline rivaled only by that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Brennan Breene, reservations manager for VisitIreland.com. The trend is particularly hard-hitting because Americans are the biggest-spending visitors to the country, he said.

Tour bookings to Europe through the AAA, however, are up nearly 5 percent for summer travel in 2008 versus travel in 2007 — with the top destinations being London, Rome, Dublin, Paris and Athens, Mr. Pina said.

“Evidence to date suggests many U.S. customers are continuing to travel, but that they are perhaps more inclined to book tour-operator packages and all-inclusive deals,” and more are searching for online deals and discounts to save money, said Simon Bradley, executive vice president for the Americas for VisitBritain, the country’s national tourism agency.

The desire for alternatives to exotic foreign destinations, and perhaps a desire to cook in while on vacation to control costs, has led to a spike in demand for summer beach house rentals, said Jeff Talmadge, co-owner of WeNeedaVacation.com.

Mr. Talmadge, whose site helps customers book homes on Cape Cod, Mass., and in Florida, said bookings in February — the company’s busiest month of the year — were up 31 percent from a year earlier.

But that wasn’t enough to help Florida, which saw fewer tourists last year as compared with the preceding year — the first drop-off in visitors to the state since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. The Legislature’s top economist, Amy Baker, said the national recession was largely responsible for that downturn.

Some vacation-home owners in the Panhandle have reported sluggish bookings, with some repeat tenants saying higher gas prices will keep them from coming back.

The cruise industry has been reaping good business from vacationers attracted by the value of seeing several destinations in one trip and the ability to pay for the package in dollars before leaving.

Still, some cruise lines are adding surcharges of $5 to $10 per person per night to offset fuel prices, said Christine Fischer, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association.

Some cruise lines also are hoping to boost revenue by adding or raising prices on options, such as spa treatments, onshore expeditions and other services that aren’t generally included in the price of the ticket.

The cruise association projects that 12.8 million people will take a cruise this year, up 200,000 from last year. The organization represents 24 cruise lines and 16,000 travel agents.

Mrs. Brody said she wouldn’t consider a cruise because she wanted more time to really explore an area, not fleeting excursions. The weak dollar played into her decisions, too.

“What this has done is it made me think harder about places in the United States I’d like to visit,” Mrs. Brody said.

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