NEW YORK — As more oil from the Gulf of Mexico washes up on surrounding beaches, tourism in many Southeastern states is fading — even in areas far away from the gooey mess. But hotels from Texas to Florida and some airlines like Spirit are eager to drum up business driven away by oil fears — which means bargains aren't hard to find.
Prices for hotel rooms are down by as much as 30 percent across the Gulf Coast and some spots in the Caribbean, as worries spread about where the oil will wash up next. Hotels in some cities as far away as Miami and along the eastern coast of Texas are seeing bookings affected by the spill, even though the likelihood of oil appearing there is small.
Airline ticket prices to the Gulf region have fallen slightly since the spill. In general though, flight deals are harder to find because airlines can move planes to other routes if passenger numbers drop.
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Room prices for New Orleans in July have plunged by about 30 percent over the last six weeks, Travelocity senior editor Genevieve Shaw Brown said. Prices in Ft. Myers, Fla., are down by about 16 percent. They've dropped by about 10 percent in Miami.
Some resorts are getting inventive. Sterling Resorts, which manages vacation properties along the Gulf Coast, is offering a "clean beach booking guarantee." Guests can get their deposits refunded or reschedule their vacation if they're concerned about the oil.
The Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Fla., is offering a "buy three nights, get one free" deal this weekend. It's also constructing a massive inflatable water park for visitors that are concerned about going into the ocean.
Although the summer is the "low season" for many hot Florida spots, a number of Gulf cities rely on the peak summer tourist season. They're hurting, and no one is sure when they'll get a foothold again.
While hotel deals appear to be growing, you can't fetch a bargain everywhere. In Pensacola, Fla., for example, prices have remained flat over the past six weeks for rooms in July. Brown said that's due in large part to all the workers that have converged on the city since oil first leaked in April. Oil first washed up on Florida beaches earlier this month.
But because workers don't spend the kind of money that tourists do on activities like eating out or buying souvenirs, many businesses are still being hurt. Hotel prices are also holding up in more inland cities like Orlando — home to Disney World.
If you want to take advantage of these deals, you'd better jump fast. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the spill, the deals might go quick. That makes more sense for people within driving distance of the coast who don't have to worry about buying an airline ticket in advance.
Still, flight deals are out there.
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People looking for a last-minute trip to the Florida panhandle from New York can snag a package for just $400 per person this weekend on Lastminute.com. That includes a flight on US Airways and two nights hotel. The same deal is $637 with American Airlines.
Some airlines have been more aggressive than others in drawing in the beach crowd. Last week, Spirit Airlines offered a $50 discount on roundtrip flights to certain beach destinations; Fort Lauderdale; Cancun; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Atlantic City.
Two out of four of those spots could be hurt by the spill. Ads that featured a bikini-clad model with the tagline "Check out the oil on our beaches" drew a slew of complaints. Spirit later pulled the ads, but it continued the discount — which works out to be more than half off, considering most Spirit flights are under $100.
Brown said it's tough to tell whether airfares will get cheaper later this summer to the Gulf Coast and Caribbean. But if the oil spill continues to spread, cheaper airfares will likely start to pop up in larger numbers in September, when the summer crowds subside and airfares typically fall.
A couple more words of advice when booking airfares or hotels in the area: Travel insurance may not cover your loss if you decide to cancel your vacation, since the spill is a known risk. It's also a manmade disaster, which prevents insurance from paying under most natural disaster insurance clauses.
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