It used to be that a vacation was strictly an annual affair, something people spent all year planning and saving for so they could enjoy two weeks of relaxation and fun.
These days, however, the two-week vacation is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. According to the Automobile Association of America, the length of a standard vacation in 1989, the latest year for which figures are available, was only 4.6 days, down from 5.7 days in 1988.
Taking two or three "mini-vacations" a year instead of one long getaway is particularly popular with two-income families, says Philip Davidoff, president of the American Society of Travel Agents and owner of Bel Air Travel in Bowie.
"They're able to get away from the job together for a day or two at a time, but it's more and more difficult to get two weeks together," says Mr. Davidoff. "Also, as our society has become more complex, the need to be refreshed is more frequent. Ten years ago, you could live for that two-week vacation. Today, you can't wait that long, and you don't have two weeks to take."
"People are feeling somewhat insecure about committing themselves," says Mary Ruksznis, co-owner of Precision Travel in Columbia. "In the '60s, people started traveling a great deal, and it became part of their lives. Baby boomers are used to this, and they still will go away, but where and for how long has changed. They don't want to stray too far from home."
Kathleen Stinebaugh, manager of AAA World Travel Agency in Lutherville, says senior citizens still prefer to take longer vacations, but everyone else is cutting back. "From age 18 to mid-50s, you've got two members of the family working for a living. Time can't be spared the way the senior citizen travelers can spare the time."
Generally, people embarking on a mini-vacation are willing to spend only a couple of hours of their precious time getting to their destination, according to Mr. Davidoff. Marylanders' favorite spots for short trips include Nassau in the Bahamas, Bermuda, East Coast ski resorts and almost any place in Florida.
But for the truly adventurous traveler, the possibilities are almost endless. "A lot of the European airlines have packaged weekend trips to London, Paris, Amsterdam and other major cities in Europe," says Mr. Davidoff. "It's never really gained any popularity, though, because of the amount of time traveling for the amount of time there."
One of the hottest trends in mini-vacations is the short cruise, three or four nights instead of the traditional seven. Royal Caribbean's Miami-based Nordic Empress has been serving the three- and four-night market exclusively since June, while Carnival has offered short cruises since 1984.
The Nordic Empress has been such a success, according to Royal Caribbean director of public relations Lloyd Axelrod, that the cruise line is renovating a 2-year-old ship called the Viking Serenade to offer short cruises from California. "It will be the largest ship on the West Coast, and it will serve only the three- and four-night market," says Mr. Axelrod. "That's how important it is to us."
The cruise line is devoted to providing its passengers with "a concentrated cruise experience in a short period of time," explains Mr. Axelrod. "We have a lot of entertainment facilities, dance floors, ample pools, Jacuzzis with champagne bars. On the Nordic Empress, the fore and the aft are designed with huge glass circular views. The ship departs the port of Miami at 5 o'clock in the evening, and when you're eating dinner, you can see the lights twinkling in the background behind you.
"People feel that since they're only going to be there for three or four days, they have to pack as much into that three or four days as they can. One of the things we noticed is that they eat significantly more lobster in a three- or four-night experience than they do in a seven-night experience," says Mr. Axelrod.
Carnival Cruise has three ships doing short cruises out of its fleet of eight, according to public relations assistant Ely Bello. Its newest ship, the Fantasy, offers three-night cruises with a stop in Nassau, while the four-night cruise visits Nassau and Freeport.
Another big reason for the growing popularity of short cruises is the price. The price tag for a three-night cruise can be as low as $500 per person, while a week at sea is usually closer to $1,000.
Sheila Domarecki, manager of Cruises Only in Towson, says that short cruises have been particularly popular with her younger clients. "The younger end loves the three- and four-day, because they can afford it," she says. "The more affluent people prefer to do the seven-day cruise. Some middle-aged people will do the three- and four-day, but as an average, it's people in their 20s and 30s."
Indeed, tour packagers offering three- and four-night vacations are stressing the affordability angle. Pan Am Holidays has a wide variety of three-night island vacations available at under $500 per person, including trips to Bermuda, Freeport, Nassau and St. Croix. Florida getaways can be had for around $400.
A short trip can turn into a dream vacation, but only if it's planned with care. If you're traveling on a budget, make sure you know what's included in the price of your tour package. On a cruise, for instance, those little extras, like a bottle of wine with dinner or an island sightseeing tour, can add up quickly.
"Be very honest with your travel agent on the budget you have to spend and the amount of time you have and the kind of activities you like," suggests Mr. Davidoff, "and you'll get good advice."