Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer travel forecast: Bargains
Sara K. Clarke Sentinel Staff Writer
May 13, 2009

Relatively low gas prices and widespread discounts are expected to tip the scales this summer for recession-weary Americans desperate for a little rest and relaxation.It's the year of the travel bargain, and Orlando is among the destinations ready to take advantage of the trend this summer, tourism experts say."People are looking for a deal," said Gary Sain, president and chief executive officer of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Having recently begun a marketing campaign that includes an "Orlando Smile" discount card, Sain thinks the area is well-positioned to win its fair share of summer vacationers."This year, they're going to compare," he said. "Shop and compare."

Travel watcher Peter Yesawich said leisure travelers, buffeted by 18 months of recession, are sticking to their frugal ways this summer. He said a large majority of summer travelers plan to employ various tactics, such as driving more and flying less, to keep costs down.The AAA travel club hinted Tuesday at what may lie ahead when it predicted that 32.4 million Americans will mark the unofficial start of summer later this month by taking a trip during Memorial Day weekend.That 1.5 percent increase in travel compared with 2008 constitutes a "small but psychologically important uptick," AAA said in its report, considering that travel during last year's Memorial Day weekend had been down sharply — 9.6 percent — from the previous year.Last year at this time, U.S. motorists were in shock as the price of gasoline was about to surpass $4 a gallon for the first time in the country's history. This year, the outlook is much different: The federal Energy Information Administration projected Tuesday that regular gasoline will average $2.21 a gallon during the April-through-September driving season — or about $1.60 a gallon less than last summer. AAA is a bit more cautious, saying it doesn't expect prices to average more than $2.50 a gallon this summer.

'Americans feeling better'"Sharply lower gasoline prices and plentiful travel bargains have Americans feeling better about taking a road trip this summer, which should help tourism-based economic activity throughout the nation," said Robert Darbelnet, AAA's president and chief executive officer. Indeed, AAA's Michigan office said Orlando is one of its members' top-10 driving destinations, and the only Florida destination in that top tier.But can the bargain traveler really save the summer for Orlando and other vacation destinations? Other forecasts say maybe not.One-third of Americans surveyed for an Associated Press poll released this week said they have already canceled at least one trip so far this year because of financial concerns. And only 42percent of those surveyed plan to take a leisure trip this summer, according to the poll of 1,000 adults, which was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media.Yesawich's company, Orlando-based Ypartnership, predicts leisure travel will be down 2.4 percent during the June-to-August period when compared with last year. Destinations that understand consumers' frugal ways this summer could have an advantage, he said.

New deals, new ridesWalt Disney Co., for example, reports that discounts such as its "buy four, get three free" hotel packages at Walt Disney World have helped the giant resort keep summer bookings on par with last year's performance.Universal Studios and SeaWorld say they are excited by their summer prospects. Each of the two theme parks is adding a new roller coaster this summer — Manta at SeaWorld in about a week, and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit at Universal sometime later in the season.Each park also is offering deals meant for Florida residents likely to stay closer to home this year once schools are out."We are hearing that people are looking for deals, looking for value, and that is something we want to make sure we have," said Dan Brown, general manager of SeaWorld, Discovery Cove and Aquatica.

Steven Cole Smith and Jason Garcia of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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