Out of work since December, Kathleen Hewes quickly realized a 14-year family tradition at the Delaware shore would have to come to an end in 2009.
"We decided in January we couldn't afford it," Hewes said of her now one-income household.
Then Hewes heard back from rental agent Sue Cooper: the owner of the beach property would welcome the Hewes back to Bethany Beach — for free. The family has the last week in July booked at a three-bedroom town house.
"It was like Christmas," Hewes, 53, of Media, Pa., said. "I was in a state of shock."
The feel-good story is not likely to be repeated for many struggling families seeking sea and sand during the summer months, but beach rental owners and agents are willing to strike a deal more so in this sour economy than in recent years, according to renters, owners and agents.
From the grand Victorians of Cape May, N.J., to the sun-bleached behemoths along the miles and miles of sand of the Outer Banks and farther south to Myrtle Beach, S.C., discounts of 5 percent, 10 percent and 20 percent are to be had, even as the summer high season approaches.
The bargains are not across the board, and vacationers determined to spend a week at the shore have to identify features that work for them. Beachfront, for instance, is still coveted even amid the economic gloom, and you must shed the American aversion to haggling.
Mindful of the shaky economy, many are doing just that.
"We are getting vacationers who are looking for a bargain, or a discount, or needing something other than a seven-night stay," said Lisa Roland of Sandbridge Reality, which manages 325 properties in the dunes south of Virginia Beach's boardwalk and high-rise hotels.
Sandbridge is already holding the line on rates for 2010, based on this year's market, she said.
In Hilton Head, S.C., Buddy Konecny's Seashore Vacations has 175 properties, primarily condos, and he said he's slashed 10 percent off some oceanfront units. He's had to: through April, reservations were off 10 percent.
Early on, he was fielding cancellations, primarily from snowbirds up north. "A lot of people were worried about their jobs and 401(k)s," he said.
By necessity, people are not hesitating to horse bargain. "They're trying to get the best deal they can," Konecny said.
Polling suggests many Americans will just stay home.
An AP-Gfk Poll found that one-third of those surveyed said they already have canceled at least one trip this year because of the nation's financial morass. As a whole, the poll found that only 42 percent of Americans plan a leisure trip this summer.
Beach rental agents describe a reservation pattern that reflects a jittery nation. People who traditionally book for the summer during the first of the year balked as the near-collapse of the financial markets emerged into public view. Since then, reservations picked up as tax refunds began to trickle in, then slowed. Some blame a cooler, wetter spring, and expect vacation commitments to increase once the weather warms.
The uncertainty has led to deals that agents said wouldn't be considered in a robust economy — such as stays shorter than the standard one-week commitment during the summer peak season.
"Homeowners are more willing to offer rate reductions and specials than they would have in the past," said Cori Davies of Sun Realty, which claims to be the largest vacation rental company in North Carolina's Outer Banks with more than 1,400 units.
"It's really a consumer's market now," she said.
Sun Realty's portfolio includes some monsters: oceanfront homes that sleep 20 and have amenities such as saunas, pools — even chapels. The "big boys," Davies said, have defied the economy and been booked at $8,000 to $10,000 a week.
It's all about value, she said, as renters tally up the costs of sharing and conclude a beach rental is cheaper than booking a flight, a hotel stay, and seven days and nights of restaurants.
That observation is consistent with Marc Paul's experience. A northern Virginia attorney, Paul owns two vacation homes in Duck, N.C., and the six-bedroom unit has been booked while he's struggled to find families for his three-bedroom unit.
Paul believes some families are closely watching the economy before committing to a vacation rental.
"My only theory is with this economic situation the way it is, some people are waiting until the last minute — are we going to go on vacation, are we not going to go on vacation?" he said.
Beyond slashing rental prices, agents and owners are adding enticements.
Paul offers a gift certificate to a local grocery.
Sun Realty is seeing more owners amenable to rentals for less than one week, usually the summer standard stay, and some owners are piling up the perks: adding putting greens to a property, throwing in bikes or golf carts, and gas cards and restaurant gift certificates.
Aaron Tuell of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau has heard of owners and agents offering trip insurance that cover job losses. You lose your job, you get your deposit back. Conditions vary with the carrier.
Doug Frechtling is a professor of tourism studies in the school of business at George Washington University, and he's also owned homes on the Delaware shore since 1973.
In a sluggish economy, people are more likely to vacation closer to home, and a beach destination is a car trip away for many from New England to Florida and the East Coast's population centers.
He's convinced vacation rentals will weather the recession.
"People still go on vacation, partly because they feel they earned it," Frechtling said.
That's exactly how P. Kevin Morley feels. The Richmond, Va., photojournalist, his wife and two children head to Corolla, N.C., the second week in June for a rental at the same price they paid last year.
"I would pay more to go on this vacation," Morley said. "Keeping your sanity," he said, "there's no price you can put on that."