Where spring breaks eternal

Nine weeks of getting 35,000 maniacal kids back and forth to exotic locations is no day at the beach.

Conversations

March 11, 2001|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun Staff

At this very moment, Robert Baranoski is dangerously close to a nervous breakdown. Why? It's the official start of week three on the spring-break calendar -- traditionally the largest travel week for college kids -- and Baranoski is in the college-kid travel biz.

"We have about 17,000 people airborne this weekend," says Baranoski, general manager of Hanover-based Student Travel Services, a 17-year-old company specializing in spring-break getaways. "Half are coming home from week two, and the others are going out. And they're predicting snow! I'm just crossing my fingers."

The season begins around Feb. 17 and doesn't end until the last student has stumbled back toward school sometime around April 28 (Maryland generally sends its students on break beginning week four). For destinations, that's nine solid weeks of drunken hedonism. For Student Travel Services (www.ststravel. com), which is handling the vacation plans of 35,000 spring breakers this year, it's sheer insanity.

"I'll be sleeping here this weekend," Baranoski says, which seems a small sacrifice when you consider how much revenue the business generates. Baranoski, 33, says the average spring break trip, which crams four to a room and requires flexibility in travel dates, costs about $700. Multiply that by 35,000 and you get $24.5 million flowing from your kids' pockets into just this one company of about 30 employees.

Most of those traveling are headed to Cancun, with Jamaica a distant second, Baranoski says. Florida, once the spring-break hub, has lost its luster.

"To be honest," he says, "that's because there's not too many 21-year-olds in college. They've got a while before they hit drinking age, and they want to go to places with lower age limits."

But don't worry, Mom and Dad -- Baranoski says they have staff at the destinations that can give your teen the number of the nearest American embassy if there's trouble. They'll even front bail money until you can wire the cash, if need be.

Here's a little more from Baranoski about the behind-the-beach scenes of spring break:

What else does the on-site staff do?

They'll greet the students, help with hotel check-ins and solving on-site problems like overbooked rooms. They're mostly there to give the students the reassurance of an American representative; they're not chaperones.

How old are spring breakers?

It goes anywhere from the typical college freshman to grad students. We even have people that missed out when they were in college. ...

So, we're generally talking about 18- to 24-year-olds. Because of their ages, is this the first sans-parents vacation for most?

Oh, yes, we get a lot of inexperienced travelers. Last weekend, for example, we had a noon flight, and we had a kid show up at 10 p.m. ...

Sounds a little like that's owing more to stupidity than inexperience. Do you deal with a lot of that?

Last year, a kid didn't understand why you need a passport to go to Mexico, because you only need one when you go out of the country, he said. And every year we get complaint letters saying, "Everybody down there speaks Spanish!" It's ridiculous. But more typically, you have kids used to staying at places Mom and Dad can afford, and they have certain expectations. They're trying to travel with us for $400 and stay at the Ritz. It's not going to happen.

If they're so cash-strapped, how are they paying for this?

Credit cards, credit cards, credit cards. And some are "student representatives" who go for free. If you've gone to college, you've probably seen the fliers. Basically, you get 15 friends to go, or sell 15 trips, and you get to go for free.

Why are so many kids spring- breaking? What are they looking to get out of it?

A lot of them are looking for that once-in-a-lifetime adventure. They want that one memory before they graduate and get the mortgage and 30 kids. They're thinking, "This is it, when I get back I'm getting a 9-to-5 job and my life as a party guy or party girl is pretty much done." And they're all looking for romance.

So, instead of beginning at graduation, life ends there. Does this have more kids clamoring to go on spring break?

Definitely. MTV has been a big factor, too. [MTV's coverage] has basically made spring break a rite of passage for everybody. There's the prom, and there is spring break. And you know what it's like: "What, do you mean you didn't go to prom?" It's that way with spring break now.

Any favorite spring-break stories?

A girl slid down a slide right into a stinging, prickly fish thing. Stingers got stuck in her heel and a whole bunch of Jamaican men rushed over to her saying, "Let me pee on it!" Apparently that's what you're supposed to do in the situation; human urine causes some sort of reaction that helps. But this girl wasn't hearing of it. Can you just imagine? Standing there in pain and a whole bunch of men coming up offering [to do that]? We also had a guy being chased by security who jumped into a lagoon and landed on an alligator.

Any advice for the would-be spring breaker?

Basically, just use common sense. If you go to New York City, you're not going to walk in the middle of the street with all your money hanging out of your pockets drunk out of your mind. Don't do it in Cancun, either.

Knowing what you do, would you ever let your own kids go on spring break?

I would send my kids to Cancun before I would send them to Ocean City. I went to Ocean City for senior week, and I know what goes on. At least in Cancun, they have no access to automobiles.

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