The idea of packing up and herding their three young children on a plane for a big vacation was so daunting to Tony and Terrie Weis that the Phoenix couple has always limited family trips to drives to the Eastern Shore.
But this month, they're flying away for a week at Disney World, tempted by travel deals that are luring even unlikely tourists far from home.
Initially, Terrie Weis said, she was unwilling to travel anywhere in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Discounts totaling about $1,500 helped her come around.
"The deals are too good, and I'm not waiting," she said.
That all-American quest for a good bargain gets much of the credit for surmounting fears that paralyzed travelers after the terrorist attacks. Over the past couple of weeks, the rush for deals has reinvigorated the travel industry.
Even longtime travel agents are raising eyebrows over the offers: two-for-one air fares, $250 cruises and luxury hotel rooms at cut-rate prices.
One example: a room at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, including a ticket to a top Broadway show, a voucher for $75 off on dinner at a fine restaurant, sightseeing, museum and parking discounts costs $234 per person if booked through the city's Paint the Town Red, White & Blue tourism campaign.
Unaware of that promotion, one New York travel agent hooted when he heard about it. "That must be a mistake," he said. "You can't even get that kind of price in New York City at the Holiday Inn."
Travelers are also snapping up discount cruise packages. In the past, $2,500 was the best price for a weeklong Caribbean cruise on a Windstar luxury sailing ship. The company recently offered the same trip for about $1,100.
Prices at `rock bottom'
"I've been in this business for about 30 years, and I really have not seen rates this low for many years," said Dick Knorpp, director of sales for Cruise Vacations International in Rockville. "The pricing is definitely rock bottom."
Allan Cohen, general manager of Taylor Travel on Reisterstown Road, is among many travel professionals reporting a decided uptick in business since Thanksgiving.
"Three weeks ago we were twiddling our thumbs," he said. "This morning I arranged two trips to Hawaii, and I've already booked six people on a cruise - and that was before 11 a.m."
At Apple Vacations, a national travel company based outside of Philadelphia, the volume of travelers has returned to levels of a year ago, although prices are down considerably.
Barely a month ago, the company encountered three forms of resistance, says Timothy Mullen, director of marketing. People didn't want to travel because of the economy, security fears or simply out of a preference to stay close to home. "The second two [reasons] are no longer a factor," Mullen said of the abrupt turnaround.
Incident-free travel over the Thanksgiving holiday might have helped lure back many travelers, said Cathy Keefe, of the Travel Industry Association of America.
"Everything went very smoothly, and I think it was just a reminder of how important travel is to everyone," she said. "Christmas will be the next big barometer."
In addition to deep discounts, some say residual fears about airport security are helping segments of the travel industry - cruises in particular. "We are seeing a lot of people trying cruising for the first time," said Juli Patton, of Seattle-based Holland America.
Despite the financial loss of reducing fares, she added, "We're looking at this as a long-term investment. We have a very high percentage of repeat customers, and chances are a significant number will decide they really like cruising and come back."
Others worry that the prices have dipped too far.
"It's like a fire sale," said Paula McGaughey, manager of Belair Travel and Cruises in Bowie. "I think they're setting unrealistic expectations for pricing." Although many of the deals extend through the first quarter of next year, most have deadlines for purchase or limits on amenities.
Flexibility and speed
One customer, hoping for a balcony cabin during the most popular cruise week in February, was shocked when McGaughey quoted a price of $4,000. "If they can go the week before, it's much cheaper," she said. "Flexibility is a big thing when you're looking for these deals." Speed is another.
One customer called her to book a Caribbean cruise for his family of five after seeing ads for $500-per-person trips. He was too late. "People have responded to these deals, and the stuff sells out," said McGaughey.
Still, many of the deals are hard to miss. Besides newspaper and television ads, the promotions wave is arriving by mail, pop-up Internet ads and calls from telemarketers.
Tony Weis found his deal through Town & Country Travel in Towson, which he walks past daily on his way to work. He'd often stop in and peruse the vacation packages, "even though I can't do the majority of them," he said.