By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/30/2009 2:49:51 PM ET 2009-06-30T18:49:51

For Yvette Woolfolk, a court analyst in Sacramento, Calif., travel is more of a “need” than a “want.” “I depend on it to help me recharge my batteries,” she says, and neither the harsh economic climate nor a recent pay cut will make her give it up.

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Instead, she intends to adjust her travel plans to reflect these unsettled times. Last year, she went to Spain and Morocco; this year, her summer plans include a three-day trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, a book-club weekend in Oakland and a day at Disneyland during a business trip to Los Angeles.

“This summer, I’ve decided that a balanced approach to travel is in order,” she says. “I want to be able to travel within my means — no charging! — and support the local economy at the same time.”

Chances are, she won’t be alone. We’ve already had the nay-cations and stay-cations. For a lot of Americans, this summer is all about recalibration.

Hitting the road — just not as hard
For its part, the travel industry is hoping more people follow Woolfolk’s lead, demonstrating what U.S. Travel Association President Roger Dow calls “travelers’ resilience.” Sure, the Mediterranean cruise or trip to Machu Picchu may be off the table, but that doesn’t mean everybody’s parking the car and staying home.

According to the group’s latest research, Americans are expected to take an average of two trips during June, July and August, stay approximately seven days and spend more than $900 on their longest trip. Along the way, they’ll tally an estimated 322 million leisure trips, a decline of 2.2 percent from last year.

AAA sees a similar pattern for the Fourth of July holiday. Last week, the organization projected that 37.1 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles over the holiday, a drop of 1.9 percent from last year. Approximately 32.6 million (88 percent) will travel by car, a drop of 2.6 percent that AAA attributes to economic uncertainty and gas prices that have climbed almost 40 percent since the first of the year.

And yet, there are glimmers of brightness amid the dark statistical clouds. In late June, gas prices finally stopped rising (after 54 straight days) and have actually started to slip (off a nickel in the last week). And with more people making their plans closer to departure, travel providers are reporting an increase in last-minute reservations. The overall numbers may be down, but avid travelers, and the businesses that cater to them, appear to be adjusting.

“Every major city seems to have three, four, five [nearby] destinations — whether it’s a state park, amusement park or another city — where people can get away for the weekend for something of a short-burst vacation,” says Steve Short, vice president of leisure business development for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “They can leave when they’re ready, come home when they’re ready and go at their own pace.”

As evidence, he cites recent rentals at neighborhood (i.e., non-airport) locations, which draw much of their business from local residents. “For Memorial Day, neighborhood rentals were up five percent over 2008,” he says. “For the Fourth of July, advance reservations are up by double digits.”

John Paul, manager of public affairs for AAA Southern New England, sees a similar uptick in requests for the organization’s Drive Vacation packages, which are typically pegged to destinations within a 500-mile radius. “We’re seeing more extended weekends,” he says. “Even at $3 a gallon, it’ll cost you $75 in gas — that’s a pretty inexpensive way to get 500 miles.” In late June, he adds, requests for summer trips were up 25 percent over last year.

The interest in lower-cost, closer-to-home travel isn’t confined to the holiday weekend, either. Across the country, travel providers and tourism promoters are rolling out summer programs that let budget-conscious travelers enjoy destination experiences while avoiding the drive to the airport. Consider:

  • Amusement parks: At Holiday World, in Santa Claus, Ind., season pass sales are up 20 percent over last year. “People are saying they’re not going to make the big trip to Florida this year,” says Paula Werne, director of public relations. “They still want to do something, so they’re coming here for three days, staying in a cabin or their RV and enjoying the savings.”
  • State parks: Last year, Texas Parks & Wildlife introduced the Texas Outdoor Family Program, weekend workshops that provide instruction and hands-on experience in camping and other outdoor skills. (A $55 fee covers everything except food and bedding.) “We did 15 workshops last year,” says program coordinator Chris Holmes, “and we’ll do 60 this year. We have a waitlist for every one of them.”
  • Cruises: With growing fleets (and shrinking interest in exotic itineraries), the cruise lines have rediscovered the joys of homeporting. This summer, newer and bigger ships are sailing out of San Diego, Norfolk and especially Baltimore. “The cruise lines are bringing the ships to the people,” says Stewart Chiron, aka The Cruise Guy. “A lot of people [around Baltimore] want to cruise and will enjoy not having to hop on a plane or drive to New York.”

Rising airfares, falling traffic
No doubt, the airline industry is none too pleased by all of the above as it only exacerbates its already shaky prospects. In the last year, the nation’s airlines have been hit by one demand-crushing crisis after another. A global recession. Skyrocketing oil prices. Massive cutbacks in corporate travel. The swine flu pandemic. And, let’s not forget, the introduction — justifiable or otherwise — of so many add-on fees that a) no one could figure out how much a trip would actually cost, and b) anyone who could avoid flying seriously considered doing so.

And even six months of near-continuous fare sales have been unable to stimulate sufficient demand. Last week, the Air Transport Association of America (ATA) reported that the number of passengers traveling on U.S. airlines in May dropped 9.5 percent from the year before. Revenue from those passengers was even worse, plunging 26 percent, the seventh monthly decline in a row. For the summer travel period (June 1­­–August 31), ATA is projecting its member airlines will carry 195 million passengers, almost seven percent fewer than they did in 2008.

Still, it is the “busy” summer travel season, which may explain why the airlines rolled out their first fare hikes of the year in mid-June, a pair of $10–$20 bumps that could signal the end of bargain-basement fares. “The crystal ball has bad news for consumers this summer,” says Rick Seaney, ceo of FareCompare.com. “The free fall in prices is over — or we’re going to see $200 checked-bag fees.” (He’s kidding — we think.)

Instead, look for even more market-specific, limited-availability, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them “flash sales.” According to Mike Fridgen, vice president of marketing and product at Bing Travel (formerly Farecast), 48 percent of fare sales last only one day, which means you have to already be in the loop to snag a seat. (More on that tomorrow.) It’s like buying concert tickets, echoes Seaney: “You have the chance to be first in line for that U2 show or last in line. Which do you want to be?”

Flash sales side, summer airfares will primarily be a matter of perspective. According to the number crunchers at Bing, domestic airfares are currently 20 percent lower than they were last year. A lot of that is simply a function of last year’s run-up in prices, but still, 20 percent off is 20 percent off. On the other hand, international airfares are genuinely low — business and first class, in particular — and will likely remain so as long as Wall Street’s chastened high-fliers opt to fly coach or stay home.

Frugality as fashion statement
Put it all together and it’s hardly surprising that the travel industry is bracing for a downturn. And yet, interviews and anecdotal evidence suggest that the bad news is balanced by good deals and that those that can travel will find a way to do so. They’ll adjust their plans, modify their budgets and pursue experiences that are more in tune with these uncertain times. They will, in a word, recalibrate.

According to Kyle McCarthy, editor and co-founder of FamilyTravelForum.com, that’s more true than ever. As part of its offerings, the community-oriented Web site features a free trip-planning service in which users fill out a form detailing their destination, interests and other pertinent information. Not surprisingly, the form includes a question inquiring about the user’s travel budget. “For years,” says McCarthy, “people would check off ‘Whatever it takes.’ Now, they’re not afraid to put in a specific amount.”

The upshot, she adds, “is that showing off with super-luxe things may not be so stylish, and even people who can afford much more are reaching toward more budget-oriented experiences. Being frugal has become fashionable.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea,drop him an e-mail.

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