Summer vacation: Spending it wisely Packaged tours: a great way to wrap up low-fund fun

April 11, 1993|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Contributing Writer

When Tony Bartlett was shopping for a vacation recently, he looked for three things: a first-class hotel on a world-class beach, a destination with Old World charm . . . and a great bargain.

Sound like a tall order?

Maybe -- but he found all three.

Later this month, Mr. Bartlett and a friend, Lauri Holthaus, will board a charter jet to Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico's Pacific coast. They'll stay at a beach-front hotel that's rated one of the best in this fishing village with its growing reputation for great beaches and wonderful weather.

And the cost?

"Airline fare and a week's accommodations right on the beach is $625 per person," says Mr. Bartlett, a Baltimore attorney. "You can't beat it."

Mr. Bartlett and Ms. Holthaus, a legal secretary, are part of a growing new trend in the travel industry: budget-conscious vacationers who want to know the price of their vacation before they go.

Travel agents suggest the recession, the effects of the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the uncertainty of a new administration in Washington are a few of the reasons for the lingering cautiousness among those planning pleasure trips.

"We've gone through two terrible years," says Dino Luzzi Sr., owner of Town & Country Travel in Towson. "But I'm starting to see a little bit of a turnaround."

"Customers [are] afraid to put out too much money for a vacation," says Karen Pedersen, a travel consultant at Holidays to Go in Timonium. "As a result, I'm booking a lot of tours that include meals, drinks and activities. The only out-of-pocket expenditure is souvenirs."

Richard Purdy, manager of Pierson Travel Service in Catonsville, says rates are excellent for package vacations to Hawaii. "You can go there for a week for $850 -- and that includes air fare, hotel, transfers and room tax," he says. "The rates are really good because business is off."

Where are this summer's other vacation hot spots for the value-conscious? Travel agents say look south, look to Europe, and don't forget the United States.

Cruises, especially to Caribbean destinations such as Jamaica, St. Lucia and Antigua, will continue to be popular this summer. "People know they can budget better on an all-inclusive package cruise," says Peggy McClure, owner of Bon Voyage Travel in Roland Park. "The bulk of it is paid for before you go."

A popular destination for people who like to skin-dive while stretching their vacation dollars is Cozumel, located on the "Mexican" Caribbean. "It's in the same area as Cancun, but it's not as built up," Ms. McClure explains. "Cozumel today is what Cancun was years ago -- huge beaches, quiet and remote.

"Another place that's always popular is 'Mickey Mouse Land' -- Walt Disney World," Ms. McClure says. "It's extra popular when the kids are out of school."

While Florida remains a popular summer target for families with school-age children, it's the resurgence of Europe as a vacation destination that has travel agents buzzing.

"Since January, things have been looking very promising, especially in Europe," says Pierson Travel's Mr. Purdy. "The exchange rate is not great, but it's better than it has been. And air rates are low, especially to Paris, England and Ireland."

"We're getting more requests for Europe this spring," Ms. Pedersen agrees. "Air fares are on a par with last year and there are good deals if you hit it right -- especially to Austria, London, Paris and Cannes."

"Most of the inquiries I'm getting are for Western Europe," says Gil Cullen, president of Towson Travel, "but there's also some interest in Eastern Europe."

Unfortunately, getting a bargain on a round-trip airplane ticket across the Atlantic may not be easy. "Usually, there are sales on air prices in May that offer lower fares," Mr. Cullen says. "But the airlines do strange things and it's hard to predict. It all depends on demand -- if it's heavy, prices won't go down."

For now, though, low air fares can be found -- if you look hard enough. "Deals come and go very quickly," Ms. Pedersen says. "An airline fare can change from day to day as much as $100 per person. And there's no trend, so you just have to watch the prices closely. A great fare this week could be the highest fare next week."

Town & Country Travel's Mr. Luzzi predicts air fares will go higher before they drop: "The airlines are in a bad, bad way. The bottom line is, they're not making any money. The current pricing is low and will probably increase 8 to 10 percent -- or better. How long can they afford to lose money?"

Of course, you could take a vacation that doesn't require the airlines. For those planning to drive to summer vacation destinations, the gasoline situation for this summer looks, well, not bad.

"It gets tougher each year to predict, but I don't see anything big thatwill affect gas prices one way or the other," says William F. Zorzi Sr., a spokesman for the Maryland chapter of the American Automobile Association. "There seems to be plenty of gas now."

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