High gas prices may mean fewer families will be headed to the beach or the mountains this summer, but rising prices likely won't be keeping wealthy people from missing out on vacation.
Although their stock portfolios may be in decline, wealthy Americans who are less likely to feel the impact of a slowing economy and rising energy and food prices are largely going ahead with their vacation plans even though consumer confidence is at a 16-year low.
Households earning $100,000 or more have been taking a larger share of hotel rooms since 2000 and now account for about a third of hotel stays, according to D.K. Shifflet & Associates in McLean, Va.
"If you think about the high-income folks in the U.S., the CEOs and others who make a lot of money and have been doing well over the last eight years, they can afford to do that. And they're doing it while they can," said Doug Shifflet, chairman and CEO of the travel research firm.
At a country club outside of Portland, about 150 people spent part of a recent sunny day indoors at a "Luxury Explorers' Showcase" to learn about African safaris, tours of the Amazon and Galapagos, private jet charters and even space tourism.
Organizer Pamela Hurley-Moser said not all of the attendees were loaded with money, but all had one thing in common: They had no intention of canceling travel.
"There are many people who absolutely can't afford to travel (right now). Then there's a middle range where people are going to scrimp and save in almost every other area in their life so that they can do a trip," said Hurley-Moser, owner of Hurley Travel Experts in Portland.
The tour operators that made presentations seem to be doing just fine.
TCS Expeditions, which offers tours via private jets, is sold out for 2008 and nearly sold out for 2009 even though the standard price for trips like "Wildlife of the World" and "History's Lost Cities" is $64,950 per person, said Melanie Cole, vice president of sales in Seattle.
Guests who're ponying up for a one-of-a-kind experience are well aware of the economic uncertainties facing the U.S., said Martha Wharton, vice president of marketing. "They're very concerned about the economy, the political uncertainties, all of those things, but they're not changing their buying patterns because of it — yet," Wharton said.
Likewise, Conservation Corporation Africa is doing well with safaris launched from lodges it owns or operates in Africa and India.
"Certainly the economic events have affected travel. There's no doubt about that. But it has not affected the luxury sector of the market as much as the middle-of-the-road market," said James Currie, a former safari guide who now serves as CCA's public ambassador.
Michael and Hedy Cohen listened to Currie's pitch and said they hope to go on an African safari within a year. "It's not cheap. It's probably going to be $10,000 per person," Michael Cohen said.
"If you want to go, you go. That's the way I feel," said Cohen, who's from Cape Elizabeth. "I've worked all my life. I've been fortunate. We've been able to make a few bucks and we like to travel. If I want to go on a trip, then we go."
Houghton and Jennifer Carr of Yarmouth looked into luxury barge canal trips in France because the slower pace suits him better at age 78. He said he and his wife always look carefully and try to use frequent flier miles that they've accumulated.
At this point, they're not ready to give up the trip.
"Sure, if the expense skyrocketed we might have to rethink, but we're looking forward to doing it now at this stage," Houghton Carr said.
Some tour providers have noticed a change in preferences. Instead of seeking outright opulence, many travelers are now seeking vacations that educate as well as entertain. Travelers are seeking out language immersion programs and cooking schools, for example.
"They want more than tiki torches and umbrellas in their drinks," said Jennifer Reynolds, director of travel agency sales for International Expeditions. "They want substance-driven travel. They're looking at something that has some 'mind candy.'"
International Expeditions offers a seven-night Amazon cruise for $3,100, 10 days in the Galapagos for $5,000 and a 15-day tour of Egypt led by a naturalist for $6,500. So far, the Alabama-based company is holding its own, Reynolds said.
British Airways, for its part, is betting that wealthy travelers are still willing to pay for luxury. The airline's new premium affiliate, OpenSkies, began trans-Atlantic service last month with a Boeing 757 with only 82 roomy, leather-clad seats.
While it's difficult to quantify, one thing is clear: occupancy rates are higher at the top-tier hotels like Ritz Carlton than at lower-end "economy" chains, said Bobby Bowers of Smith Travel Research in Hendersonville, Tenn.
That stands to reason: Those who earn the least are the first ones to cancel their vacations in tough times, and they're more likely to stay in economy hotels.
Higher-end hotels, meanwhile, seem to be holding up better despite a drop-off in corporate travel that began when the economy started to sour.
Helping to offset the drop in business travelers is the weak value of the U.S. dollar, which has discouraged Americans from traveling abroad for their vacations while luring Europeans who see travel to the U.S. as a relative bargain, Bowers said.
"The fact is there are a ton of luxury hotels that have gone up in the past year, and they don't seem to have too much trouble filling their rooms," said Peter Frank, editor-in-chief of the travel site Concierge.com.
All of this could change if the economic slowdown isn't reversed.
"High-end is holding its own right now," Shifflet said, "but if the economy doesn't improve some, then it's going to start to see an additional slowdown."