While the economic downturn has caused many Americans to reduce their discretionary spending, local travel agents report that price cuts and heavy incentive offers are enticing travelers to pack their bags and get away from it all.
For consumers who have been hesitant to travel, Doris White of Travel Dynamics in La Jolla said this is great time to maximize one's travel dollars.
"There's a lot of good value out there right now," White said.
Tim Smith, president of Carefree Vacations, agreed: "It's really a great time for travel. If (consumers) understood what I know, they'd be flocking to the agencies."
The numbers are up
Americans may be pinching their pennies when it comes to buying big-ticket items and eating out less often, but the travel industry has remained relatively stable, experts said.
Some travel planners have reported a slight drop in business, but a survey by the U.S. Travel Association revealed that an estimated 54 percent of American households are planning to take at least one leisure trip this summer, compared with 50 percent at the same time last year.
Some individuals seem even more determined than ever to take that trip of a lifetime.
Barbara Jenkins-Lee, owner of Rancho Del Mar Travel in Solana Beach, said her agency has remained busy.
"People who have had nest eggs erode are saying: 'What the heck. My stock might be even worse next year. I might as well spend it now,' " Jenkins-Lee said.
The economy is also impacting the industry in that consumers recognize the need to get away from what they're going through, Smith said.
How the industry is changing
Although people are still traveling, White said there has been a definite shift in where and how they are spending their money.
"Last year, 75 percent of what I was doing was international travel," she said. "This year, people are staying closer to home."
That has resulted in an increase in domestic travel, as well as more and more vacationers targeting Canada, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia.
Vancouver and Whistler, Canada, are growing in popularity because the 2010 Winter Olympics will be hosted there, White said, even among people not attending the Olympics.
Both White and Smith are seeing more and more travelers wait until the last minute to buy.
"Usually by now, mid-June, everybody's summer plans would be set," White said.
There's good reason to hold off, according to White. With occupancy down on cruise ships, vacancies up at hotels and an increase in cancellations, companies have been forced to slash prices and develop incentives to attract business.
"This year, now more than ever, it's like the longer you wait, the better a deal you can get," White said. "They're all offering something special."
There also seems to be a shift from "indulgent" travel, such as three-week European excursions or spa getaways, to trips that focus on creating memories and connecting with family.
People are planning vacations with extended family or multiple generations, White said.
"Travel is about an experience," Smith said. "It is not about price, but price is a component."
Where to find the best bargains
While some of the best savings come in the form of last-minute deals, there are plenty of offers around, such as stay three nights, get one free; complimentary meals or spa services; free airfare; and free travel for children.
According to the U.S. Travel Association's Travel Price Index, for the first quarter of 2009, the cost of lodging and airfares was down by 6.8 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively, compared with 2008.
One of the biggest trends in travel is the popularity of all-inclusive options - venues that provide lodging, meals and entertainment for one price. This encompasses cruise ships, resorts such as Club Med and Sandals, tour packages and fully inclusive travel itineraries organized by a travel agent.
Possibly one of the most underutilized resources available to help vacationers save money is the travel agency itself.
With the expansion of the Internet and the proliferation of online travel sites came what Smith called "a mass migration" of people who thought, "I can do it myself."
"We in the business know that's not the case," he said.
An annual study comparing pricing between Internet sites and travel agencies revealed that agencies consistently provide a better value.
"The long and short of it is that the Internet is flooded with offers and consumers are (ill-equipped) to make a decision," Smith said.
Viewing Internet travel sites as little more than automated search engines, Smith said travel agents offer consumers a number of advantages, frequently at little or no cost: international connections/relationships, advocacy in the event of problems while traveling, trip planning assistance, firsthand knowledge about worldwide destinations, specialized training and insider info on where and how to find great deals.
"We know what's out there," White said. "We know where the bargains are; we know what's a value and what's not."
Some of the trends reported by local travel agents are echoed in a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Travel Association:
- Americans plan to take more day trips or long weekend getaways in lieu of weeklong vacations.
- The market of "undecided" leisure travelers, an estimated 38 million U.S. adults, means more and more people are taking advantage of last-minute deals. The survey revealed that 45 percent of travelers will plan their trip and 39 percent will book it within two months of departure.
- Consumers are becoming selective shoppers, seeking out packages and comparing prices and features, especially online.
- Cruises and other all-inclusive getaways are currently a hot trend.