Exotic locales don't tempt most Marylanders planning dollar-wise vacation trips


January 05, 1992|By Alyssa Gabbay

When Marylanders seek rest and relaxation this year, chances are many won't look much farther than their own back yards.

The struggling economy and the dollar's poor value in Europe will discourage most local residents from jaunting off to France, Italy or the more exotic locales of pre-recession days, travel agents predict.

Indeed, some won't take vacations at all in 1992, according to agents and industry executives. Others will travel, but closer to home, and for shorter periods of time than in previous years.

"With the slowdown in the economy, someone might take a few long weekends instead of a week or two weeks off," journeying to such areas as the Eastern Shore or Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley, said Nancy Gravatt, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), an Alexandria, Va.-based travel trade organization. "They might also combine a vacation with a business trip," since that may seem like a cheaper way to explore an interesting area.

These patterns would mirror those of last year, when 51 percent of all summer trips taken by Americans lasted only between one and three nights -- a jump of three percentage points from the previous year, according to a survey by the U.S. Travel Data Center. "The length of vacations has shortened, and the frequency has decreased," said Scott Dring, a spokesman for the Washington-based organization.

Still, the travel industry is expected to perk up from 1991's doldrums, when the Persian Gulf War and the foundering economy closed more than 2,300 travel agencies and caused the nation's airlines to lose almost $2 billion.

"I don't think things will be as bad as they were last year, when you had the war to deal with as well as the economy," said Fred Elburn, agency manager of Charles Center Travel Inc.

To encourage cautious citizens to take the vacation plunge, many travel suppliers are lowering their prices to "rock bottom," according to Philip Davidoff, president of ASTA. Substantial discounts are now being offered in cruises, tours and hotels, he said.

For example, Fling Vacations Inc., an Allentown, Pa.-based tour operator, is now offering a three-night package to St. Thomas or St. Croix from Baltimore for as low as $439 per person, including air fare and accommodations. Typically, air fare alone for such a trip would cost about $400, said Mr. Davidoff.

Unprecedented deals are also available for travel to Europe, with Iceland Air serving up a round-trip flight to Luxembourg for $298 from Baltimore, and other carriers providing flights to London starting at $318 -- about $100 less than the usual price at this time of year, according to Mr. Davidoff.

Even areas that once seemed recession-proof are responding to the current climate by reducing costs. With attendance slipping last year at Walt Disney World, Orlando hotels are expected to drop room rates by $2 or $3 for 1992.

Still, Florida won't be empty of tourists this year. Thanks largely to low-cost packages, the land of palm trees, white sandy beaches and life-sized cartoon characters is expected to top the list of most-visited vacation spots this year, according to a recent survey of travel agents conducted by ASTA.

"[Going to Florida] is a way to get away, and to get into a warmer climate, without spending a lot of money," said Jim Pryor, president of Baltimore-based Carlson Travel Network/Four Seasons Travel. Mr. Pryor noted that a family of four could spend a week in Florida for about $2,000 -- a price that includes air fare, car rental, hotel accommodations and five-day admission to Walt Disney World.

A typical family might couple a trip to Mickey Mouse land with a visit to the beaches at Fort Myers or Marco Island, said Mr. Pryor. They might also hop over to the other side of the peninsula to check out Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach.

For those who want to fly farther south for the winter, Caribbean islands such as St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Barbados will probably hold much appeal. Less expensive than Europe, they still offer a touch of the exotic, according to Gil Cullen, president of Towson Travel.

Caribbean cruises which transport travelers from island to island are also likely to strike many a vacationer's fancy, said Mr. Cullen.

In fact, cruising, the only segment of the travel industry that grew in 1991, is expected to be the "value of the year" for 1992, according to Mr. Davidoff. Many cruise lines have dropped ticket prices to fill ships. It's now possible to book a seven-day Caribbean cruise during peak season for about $1,000 per person, including air fare, said Fred Elburn, agency manager of Charles Center Travel Inc. of downtown Baltimore. The same package might have cost $1,400 or $1,500 last year.

Approximately 4 million Americans took cruises in 1991, an increase of about 10 percent from the previous year, according to the New York-based Cruise Lines International Association.

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