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A summer for thrifty travelers

Slumping economy equals good travel deals

By Marnie Hunter
CNN

Cancun is a short flight away from the U.S. mainland, and offers spectacular beaches, snorkeling and diving, exciting nightlife and ancient Mayan temples.
Cancun is a short flight away from the U.S. mainland, and offers spectacular beaches, snorkeling and diving, exciting nightlife and ancient Mayan temples.

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(CNN) -- Travelers face the daunting task of making arrangements that meet both their expectations and their budgets before they can pause to savor the anticipation of taking off on a sun-drenched summer adventure.

Whether it involves calling a travel agent or combing the Internet for the best rates, planning a vacation can be nerve-wracking, particularly with looming economic uncertainty and fears of terrorism and SARS.

Travel industry professionals are finding that Americans still want to get away, but they are taking world events into account when tailoring their plans.

"People are still traveling, but they're staying closer to home. ... They're going to the Caribbean, and they're still going on their honeymoons, and they're still going on cruises, they're just keeping a little closer," said Jeff Walters, a travel agent for Carlson Wagonlit in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Fortunately, the domestic travel climate is inviting, according to Geoff Silvers, a spokesman for Orbitz travel Web site.

"[Air] fares continue to be at record lows, and there also continues to be record availability in terms of seats because business travel is down," he said in a phone interview from his Chicago office. "There has really been no better time than now for consumers to travel domestically."

Silvers said that many of this year's top destinations are perennial favorites -- domestic destinations such as Orlando and Miami in Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada. Many travelers willing to venture a little farther are heading to the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada.

Hot destinations

Americans ready to pay a visit to Mickey Mouse in Orlando, Florida, are in luck this summer. The Disney resort is offering deep discounts on hotel packages, selling seven nights of accommodation for the price of four -- with park passes included.

Minnie and Mickey Mouse give autographs in Town Square as guests arrive at the Magic Kingdom in Florida's Walt Disney World Resort.
Minnie and Mickey Mouse give autographs in Town Square as guests arrive at the Magic Kingdom in Florida's Walt Disney World Resort.

"I think Walt Disney World has been affected, more than many theme parks, by the lack of people coming here from outside the country and the unwillingness of people to travel fairly long distances and spend a lot of money," said Douglas Stallings, an editor for Fodor's travel guides.

"I think it's one of the best deals of the summer," he said.

Shawn Mitchell of Atlanta, Georgia, has taken note of the savings opportunity. She's planning to return to Orlando, Florida, for the second year in a row with her husband and 5-year-old daughter.

"We have been shopping around, but since we were guests at Disney last year, they're sending all types of coupons and brochures and various savings packages," Mitchell said.

For those travelers looking for a destination geared more toward adults, a jaunt to Las Vegas, Nevada, is an affordable option in the summer. Low convention traffic and high temperatures leave hotels with plenty of rooms to fill.

Sunday through Thursday rates are always cheapest, according to Stallings. He said that staying at one of the top hotels during this part of the week could run under $100 a night.

Coast to coast

For many travelers, good old-fashioned sun and surf is a stronger draw.

That's the case for Tim Good, a physics professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. He and his wife are researching a trip to California to visit friends and family and to show their three sons their old stomping grounds.

"I had in mind just heading for the beach and doing some body surfing," Good said. "That's how I spent a lot of my free time, which wasn't so much, going to graduate school."

The hot weather in Las Vegas this summer means cool deals at hotels along the strip.
The hot weather in Las Vegas this summer means cool deals at hotels along the strip.

Good's wife, Rhonda, has been looking into the cost of flying the family of five across the country. She was satisfied with the fares she found in her initial search.

"I think they're pretty reasonable," she said. She was able to find fares from Baltimore, Maryland, to San Francisco, California, totaling about $1,200 for five tickets.

Stallings, the Fodor's editor, said he finds good fares from the East Coast to California where established airlines' flights overlap with routes flown by some of the new discount carriers, including JetBlue and Frontier.

Flexibility and booking in advance help in finding the best deals, Stallings said. Flying cross-country also tends to be a better value than flying to California from the middle of the country.

"The coast-to-coast trip, you get a lot more for your money, a lot more miles for your money," he said. "It tends to be a really good deal."

Resorts and cruises

Some travelers don't go for the hassles of navigating while they're on vacation, and cruises and all-inclusive resorts offer numerous amenities at reasonable prices.

"Cruises are very popular because they're very inexpensive," Walters said. "I mean, you get a cheap [one-week] cruise with everything for less than $1,000, and that's very unusual."

The summer is off-season in the Caribbean and Mexico, so it's prime time for good values in those destinations. Walters sends a lot of clients on charter trips to Cancun and the Mayan Sun Coast in Mexico.

If an escape from the heat is in order, a cruise through Alaska might be a refreshing change.

Walters has seen one-week Alaskan cruises that would have been $1,200 to $1,400 a few years ago go for under $1,000 for a week. It's the cheapest rate he's ever seen for an Alaskan cruise.

One caveat: While there are travel deals for every temperament ripe for the picking, they're the sorts of deals with a limited shelf life. Vacationers should try to book early for the best selection.


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