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A good summer mystery: What about travel?

When it comes to travel, does anyone know what’s going to happen this summer? A lot of people claim to. Actually, three organizations unleashed surveys on an unsuspecting public within a 48-hour period last week, each offering a slightly different, and at times, contradictory summer travel preview.
Image: Luggage
A person is seen rolling luggage at a baggage claim area at Philadelphia International Airport, Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 21, 2008. American Airlines said Wednesday it would begin charging $15 for the first checked bag, cut domestic capacity 11-12 percent later this year, and eliminate an unspecified number of jobs as it tries to deal with record fuel prices. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Matt Rourke / AP file

When it comes to travel, does anyone know what’s going to happen this summer?

A lot of people claim to. Actually, three organizations unleashed surveys on an unsuspecting public within a 48-hour period last week, each offering a slightly different, and at times, contradictory summer travel preview.

  • AAA predicts that travel during the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer travel season, will essentially be unchanged from last year (technically, up 1.5 percent).
  • Deloitte says less than one-third (29 percent) of Americans are taking vacations this Memorial Day weekend. But that’s up five percent from last year. It also forecasts 64 percent of us will go on summer vacation.
  • An AP-GfK poll is decidedly less optimistic, finding 42 percent of Americans plan a leisure trip this summer, down from 49 percent who said they were taking a summer trip in May 2005.

Confused yet? Same here.

The discrepancies could probably be explained by separating summer (three months) from Memorial Day weekend (three days) and segregating the AP-GfK poll from the Deloitte findings, since one compares year-to-year numbers and the other uses 2005 as a baseline. But I’m a black-and-white kinda guy when it comes to surveys, so I’m more inclined to believe one of these is right and two are wrong.

The truth is important.

Travel companies use surveys to predict demand. More travelers this summer can translate into higher prices; fewer travelers, and you’re looking at bargains.

So somewhere between 42 percent and 64 percent lies the fate of your summer vacation. Specifically, how much you spend on your well-deserved getaway.

I asked the folks behind the surveys to help me understand the differences. I wanted to know why I should believe their forecasts. What was their methodology? Did they ever verify whether their predictions were correct by actually counting the number of summer vacationers or motorists?

Trevor Tompson, the Associated Press director of polling, said his organization is “proud of the careful methodology we use to conduct our research,” but declined to provide specific answers on how the results were verified. He only reiterated that his poll suggested fewer Americans were planning to take summer vacation trips than those who were asked the same question on a similar AP survey four years ago. I’m left to assume that there was no follow-up survey to find out if 49 percent of Americans actually vacationed four summers ago.

Deloitte’s Adam Weissenberg says his company takes some steps to ensure the accuracy of its predictions. “We know that last year's survey showed Memorial Day weekend travel was down significantly due to high gas prices and that proved to be accurate based on hotel occupancy rates and data released which spoke on the various means of traveling involved, such as car rentals and flights,” he told me. Deloitte plans to evaluate its summer travel forecast following the Labor Day weekend and promises to analyze Memorial Day travel in early June.

Betsy Sell, a managing director at AAA Travel, initially brushed off my questions about methodology, saying, “To go back a month later, and say, ‘Oh by the way, our predictions were off by a half a point’ — I don’t know how newsworthy or interesting that is.” I assured her I was interested and that I would ensure its newsworthiness by publishing her answer. She told me AAA would be able to verify the accuracy of its predictions this year, thanks to a new research partner.  “We want to be as much on point as we can be,” she added. So will AAA be able to tell us if Memorial Day travel was up 1.5 percent this year, as it predicts? She couldn’t say.

I mean no disrespect to the organizations that are trying to forecast summer travel, but I’m left with the impression that even if by some miracle of mathematics all three of these polls are right, we’ll never know. It’s not like stock picking or political polling, where you get the correct answer at the closing bell or when the last vote is cast. No one is held accountable, and when it comes to my colleagues in the fourth estate, I think it’s safe to say no one really cares.

And so, in the spirit of that apathy, I decided to conduct my own informal focus group. I’m not going to make you wait for the results. Deloitte is closest to the truth — we are traveling this summer.

And how.

Angela Pickett, an account clerk from Lafayette, Ind., is taking a road trip with her family to Maryland this Memorial Day. She’s keeping an eye on gas prices, but isn’t overly concerned. “Cost is not a big factor in this trip, mainly because I’ve been saving for it,” she says. She’s in good company. A lot of travelers have told me they skipped their summer vacation last year and have saved their pennies for something special in 2009.

Mary Kirsch, a librarian from Waldwick, N.J., is headed to Oahu to work at a summer camp for two weeks. “My husband will meet me out there the second week so he can bike tour the island,” she says.  “After my camp stint ends, we are going to be total tourists for a third week. We are renting a Jeep Wrangler and going exploring.” Thanks to the recession, destinations like Hawaii and Las Vegas are bargains this summer, so chances are, Kirsch won’t be alone on her island.

Is this just a pent-up demand for vacations that will fade after summer? Maybe, maybe not. Patricia VanHooser leaves for a Bermuda cruise this week, but that’s just the start of her adventures. She’s off to Australia in September and New York after Christmas. “Travel is a real bargain now,” she says. “I hadn’t planned to go, but who can stay home at these prices?”

Truth be told, the travelers I spoke with were adamant — almost militant — about getting out of town during the warm months. “We’re definitely not staying home this summer,” says Linda Cane, a retired teacher from Caldwell, N.J. “There will be two trips: one by car and one by plane. I’m taking my daughter to Santorini and Athens. At the end of the summer, the whole family is going up past the 1,000 Islands to visit friends on Gananoque Lake in Ontario, Canada.”

I could go on, but I’ll spare you the dozen or so other interviews I conducted with real travelers who say they’re taking summer vacations.

The way I see it, we should be grateful to Deloitte, AAA and the AP. Their downbeat forecasts probably have airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines and hotels dreading the summer of 2009. Prices will be aggressively lowered, based in no small part to these polls and the groupthink in which mainstream media travel “experts” participate.

For the rest of us freethinking travelers, the future is no mystery.

I have just three words for you: Best. Summer. Ever.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at .