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The new normal in travel

Shorter, cheaper vacations and bargain-obsessed buyers aren't just popular now — they may be the future.

When Roger Bell takes a vacation, he normally flies to a national park or visits friends up north for two weeks. But like many Americans, Bell, a Woodstock, Ga.-based technical writer, lost his job in 2009. And that changed the way he vacations -- maybe permanently.

Bell was unemployed almost a year before finding a new job that paid 25 percent less than his old one. That, in turn, downsized his next vacation from a destination like Yellowstone or Yosemite to an overnight trip.

"I'm only taking a few days off work over the weekend and only going to coastal Georgia for a beach trip by car," he says.

Welcome to the "new" normal in travel: Shorter, less expensive vacations -- or in extreme cases, just daycations -- being taken by increasingly cost-conscious travelers. Maybe you've been on one of these mini-trips in the last year. If you haven't, you probably will.

Travelers say they've begun strategically downsizing their vacations, and there's no evidence the cuts will be reversed anytime soon. Quite the contrary. From where I'm sitting, it looks as if these changes are here to stay.

An American Express survey released earlier this year found that 80 percent of travelers were trying to trim costs for summer travel by driving instead of flying and looking for deals. And it's not just us. A Gallup poll concluded that 4 in 10 EU residents cut their vacations in 2009. You know it's serious when the Europeans say "non" to their hard-earned getaways.

No doubt about it, being frugal is "in." Consider what happened to Dean Starovasnik, who works for a technology company in Atlanta. He just wrapped up a weeklong vacation to Jekyll Island, Ga., which is half the length of the "normal" vacation.

"We packed food for picnic lunches on both five-hour drives," he says. "We used Hilton points from my business travel at the brand-new property on the Jekyll Island beach and stretched them even further by staying Monday through Friday. The property offered the standard Hampton Inn breakfasts, which included at least one hot entree each day."

Jekyll Island has a lot of natural attractions, which Starovasnik and his family were able to easily see at no additional charge using the hotel's rental bikes (they got them free because of his elite status with Hilton).

Starovasnik is the typical "new" vacationer. He doesn't spend money if he doesn't have to and thinks creatively about travel and recreation. But there are other forces at work, too. Before travelers began cutting back, travel companies did. Airlines added fees, hotel slashed amenities, cruise lines piled on the surcharges faster than your aunt can load up her plate at the midnight buffet. Some might argue that those changes set in motion the events leading to the downsized vacations now being taken by people like Starovasnik and Bell.

Let's take a closer look at the traveler of today -- and tomorrow. But before I do, let me add that it doesn't have to stay like this forever, and lowering prices isn't the answer to bringing travelers back. I'll have the solution in just a moment.

Here are a few ways to spot the "new" traveler:

They burn their miles.
As we all know by now, frequent flier miles don't appreciate over time. Today's traveler is aware of the fact that miles lose value, particularly in light of the way in which some loyalty programs have raised their redemption rates. Starovasnik put a match to a week's worth of his points, and I've spoken with countless others who have done the same. For example, Sue Wolko redeemed 25,000 miles in US Airways frequent flier miles and paid $78 in taxes to fly from Philadelphia to Toronto for the city's film festival in September. "I'm also using my Starwood Points to redeem for six nights," she says. "Total savings: $1,800."

They live smaller.
How much time do you spend in your hotel room or cruise ship berth? If you said, "I just sleep there," then you're well on your way to becoming a "new" traveler. Big, expensive accommodations are a waste. Kelly Garner, a housing specialist in Alexandria, Minn., ought to know -- and not just by virtue of what she does for a living. She's a regular visitor to North Carolina's Outer Banks. "Each year, I try to figure out how I'll get there the next," she says. This year, despite a small budget, she did it by cutting the size of her accommodations to a "modest" cottage. "But it's oceanfront," she says. "And for us, that's what it's all about." Savings: At least $1,000.

They do more with less.
When Joan Schmelzle, a retiree from Rockford, Ill., saw her stock portfolio heading south, she decided to abbreviate her Italian vacation this fall. Cutting the time by more than half, from a generous 10 weeks to 4, meant she had to cram more cities into her itinerary. But it's all the more reason, she says, to savor her trip. "I've been promising myself this vacation for years and years," she says. The getaway promises to be no less eventful: Itinerary stops now include Florence and she'll be spending Christmas in Rome, "another long-time dream." I hear the same thing from other travelers, who are somehow able to fit a week's worth of activities into a weekend. They can do more with less.

There are opportunities for you contrarians out there. Given the fact that vacations are trending shorter and cheaper, be on the lookout for specials that try to keep you at a destination longer. Many hotels have "stay four nights, get a fifth free" deals that are designed to add time to your stay (ordering meals, enjoying the spa, running up a big room bill). Keep an open mind on those offers, because they might be a great deal.

And how about the travel industry? Will it have to adjust to the new "normal" or is there a way to revive the Great American Vacation? Cutting prices is almost certainly not the answer. That's been tried. Look at the airlines. What a disaster!

I think the answer is bring back service. I'm not talking about over-the-top, obsequious, the customer-is-always-right kind of service, although that wouldn't be such a terrible thing. I'm talking about a more pragmatic kind: More "pleases" and thank-yous" and remembering that we're not a number, and that this is our vacation.

Service was the first thing to get jettisoned out the cabin door when things got tough. Bring it back and we'll come back.