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Economy troubles summer travelers

Americans are traveling slightly more this summer compared with last year, but are sticking closer to home and spending less while doing it, recent surveys have found. — By Brock N. Meeks
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Despite some residual jitters about traveling in the post-9/11 era, worries about job security, the economy and rising personal debt trump terrorism as major issues Americans are factoring into their summer-vacation plans, recent surveys show. And while summer travel is expected to increase slightly this year, people plan on sticking closer to home and spend less while doing it, according to an annual survey from the Travel Industry Association of America.

“THERE ARE LITERALLY millions of Americans out there who are more worried about their personal economics than the threat of terrorism,” said Doug Nunes, president of Ameridebt, a non-profit credit counseling service. Nunes said Ameridebt released its survey Wednesday on summer vacation plans after it became concerned about the cross-currents of the economy and personal debt in the wake of 9/11.

“What emerges is a good news, bad news picture for American consumers,” Nunes said. “The good news is that the threat of terrorism isn’t keeping Americans away from their vacations this summer,” Nunes said, noting that his survey shows a four percent increase in planned travel this summer over last. “The bad news is that debt and job concerns appear to be a bigger concern than terrorism for Americans who are cutting back on summer vacation costs this year.”

Slightly more that one in four (28 percent) of those participating in the Ameridebt survey who said they will spend less on summer vacations gave debt or job worries as the primary reason; only 19 percent said terrorism is likely to put a crimp on their travel plans.


Though no survey has looked at the psychological effects of 9/11 on travel, it isn’t surprising that this summer people are seeking out family and friends over more exotic and foreign destinations

“The issue is not whether Americans will be traveling for pleasure this summer - because we think they will,” said Suzanne Cook, TIAA’s vice president of research. “The issue is really how they will travel, where they will go and what will they do when they get there.”

More than half of those vacationing this year plan on spending time with family and friends, according to a survey done by credit card company American Express. Weekend trips, taken by car, are the most popular this year, the survey shows, with some 62 percent of those surveyed saying they are planning at least four such trips this year compared to the three they took last year.

“We’re seeing a back to basics mentality reflected in preferred summer vacation activities with a growing interest in travel experiences that provide connections - connections to family, connections to the natural environment, and connections to America itself,” Cook said.

The most popular activity this summer? Visiting friends or relatives (78 percent) according to the TIAA. That’s followed closely by going to the beach and visiting a small down or rural area, TIAA said. Interest in visiting historic sites this summer is up (48 percent vs. 42 percent last year). Meanwhile, travel interest in visiting big cities is down, TIAA said.

Also popular this summer: family reunions, with some 37 percent of summer travelers saying they plan to attend one, that’s up from only 25 percent who did so last summer season.

TIAA estimates that 19 percent of U.S. travelers will travel more this summer than in 2001; 56 percent say they’ll travel about the same as last year. Only one in ten of those that traveled last summer said they don’t plan on going anywhere this year.

On average, Americans expect to take about three extended trips this summer and intend to stay away an average of 8.1 nights on their longest pleasure trip, the TIAA survey says.

Among those traveling, the state of the economy and their own bank accounts will be an issue: travelers plan to spend an average of $1,066 on their longest summer trip, according to TIAA estimates, that’s down 9 percent from what was spent last summer.

The American Express survey shows that Americans expect to pay $2,031 on airfare, accommodations, sightseeing, meals, souvenirs and other expenses for vacations of five days or more. That’s a seven percent drop from last year’s spending of $2,173, American Express said.


Plastic will fuel the summer vacation season. The Ameridebt survey shows that 38 percent of those traveling this summer plan to finance at least part of the trip with their credit cards. Of those using the cards, one in five plans to put over half the cost of the trip on their cards, the Ameridebt survey says.

More troubling: “Many of those paying for the vacation with a credit card will add to their long-term debt burden,” said Wayne Russum, of Opinion Research Corporation, the company that conducted the Ameridebt survey. “One third said they will not pay off the entire amount when they return,” he said.

Part of the problem could stem from a warped sense of what makes for a good vacation.

“Too many travelers make the mistake of thinking that unless they drop a lot of money on a trip it isn’t special,” said Ed Perkins, a consumer travel advocate and founder of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. “The reality is that you can have the trip of a lifetime and not end up in debt forever to pay for it,” Perkins said. “The trick is to know where you can cut cost without cutting enjoyment.”

Quick cost cutting ideas from Perkins:

Don’t obsess on airfares. Look for deals on hotel rooms, which is often makes for the bulk of travel expense.

Use local transportation rather than grabbing a taxi for every ride.

Be alert for discounts.

Finally, work the currency exchange to your advantage by using your credit card to make purchases. “But only if you plan on paying it off when you return,” Perkins warns.