- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009

A week on a Caribbean beach, or keeping your job?

Travel agents across the country say that many would-be summer vacationers are making tough choices between taking time off or forgoing trips amid increasing fears that they won’t be employed when they return. To be gone is to be forgotten, many say.

“They are not traveling very far or for very long,” says New York City-based travel expert Blake Fleetwood of Planetamex.com, who describes a certain “panic factor” among travelers in the era of downsizing and recession.

“People are scared of losing their jobs and want to stay in touch with their work,” says Mr. Fleetwood, president of Cook American Express travel. “People are not blind. They see the layoffs - their colleagues and friends who are there one day and gone the next. There is definitely a panic factor for even those who are secure in their jobs and income. In the back of their minds, there is the nagging little voice saying ‘Am I next? How can I spend this much time or money on a vacation?’ ”

Ann Mack, director of trend-spotting at the advertising firm JWT in New York, says her company’s AnxietyIndex survey found that 52 percent of parents said they were downsizing family vacation plans over fears that the timing was wrong for them to enjoy themselves while so many companies and workers struggle.

“During times like this, with weakening job security, people feel guilty about indulging themselves and are nervous to leave their office for too long,” Ms. Mack says of worker worries. “I don’t know if it’s this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing, but as there are layoffs abounding, people are more fearful to leave for any period of time because they won’t be seen as intrinsic to the operation.”

In the upscale Cascades area of Grand Rapids, Mich., veteran travel agent JoAnne Kochneff says that while leisure travel has been usually bulletproof in her neighborhood, even in economic downturns, more clients are pushing back to see if fares go down and if there are better deals to be had.

“We have had a lot of people who have asked us for quotes on different vacations or have actually put down deposits or a hold on these to call us back and say that at this time, they want to hold off because they don’t know what is going to happen with their jobs,” says Ms. Kochneff, president of Travel By Gagnon.

She says callers to her monthly public radio show “Travel Talk” are expressing increasing anxiety about getting away this summer.

“This is the first time I can remember this happening, and I’ve been in the travel business for 20 years,” she says. “It’s a shame, because I’ve never seen bargains like there are now. There are some phenomenal prices.”

Many who are deciding to travel will go away for a week instead of two weeks. They also are choosing destinations that are closer to home, agents say. An increasing number of travelers are waiting until the last minute to decide, says Kim Peele of McNair Travel Management in Alexandria.

“We’re finding that people are booking closer to their departure date, more so than they have in the past,” Ms. Peele says. “This could be related to job security, their own finances or watching what is happening with their own 401(k)s. Some are simply waiting to find out if there is going to be a better deal.”

Because many travelers have limited resources, she says, more are turning to travel experts for help as they seek to stretch dollars and find the best offers. Travel vendors such as tour operators and cruise lines also are offering deals, with many hotels offering a fifth night free after a four-night stay.

“We are seeing a big boost in all-inclusive travel,” says Ms. Peele. “People really want to know right upfront what their trip is going to cost, so an all-inclusive trip gives them that certainty.”

Cruise operators are offering up to $300-per-cabin credits to entice travelers to choose vacations at sea, with a few lines returning the unused credit dollars back as cash at the end of the trip, she says. Several groups who booked travel last year are now asking to have their tour fees renegotiated as airfares continue to fall and deals continue to sweeten, making this time a buyer’s market for those who have the financial flexibility - and job certainty - to get away.

With gasoline prices down from last year, travel by plane or by car is more affordable than ever, experts report.

Also on the rise: more vacationers paying for travel insurance, says Ms. Kochneff, who adds she is urging her clients to consider cancellation insurance as another way to protect their investment as the economy remains tight.

“People are really cutting back,” Mr. Fleetwood says of the nation’s ongoing travel unease. “They are going to any place that is cheap. They are using points to pay for airfare and hotels … staying closer to home, going to visit parents and other relatives and going to visit friends with summer houses instead of paying for five-star hotels.”

The beaches of Mexico, even with the concern over the swine flu, the Caribbean as well as Italy and other European destinations remain popular, as do Disney World and Florida, agents say. Airfares are expected to remain low to entice more consumers to fly, with travelers giving smaller cities a closer look as a way to make their travel dollars go further.

Ms. Mack adds that the “staycation” trend of last summer will continue to be in vogue this year along with long-weekend trips to nearby places as people look ahead for any glimmer of economic recovery.

She hopes workers, many full of job unease, will seek time to recharge, even if it is on a budget. “In the toughest of times, it’s important to take time to rejuvenate and to escape the daily onslaught of bad news,” she says.

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