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Travel

Summer vacations: Down(sized) but not out

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We're bumping into one another on airplanes, finding fewer airfare sales and getting little bang for our buck in Europe. If we try to cut back by driving this summer, we'll be paying more than $3 per gallon at the pump.

But Americans still aren't giving up their summer vacations.

"When people see higher prices, they simply adjust how they travel," said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry of America, www.tia.org, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit agency conducting marketing and economic research for the domestic travel industry. "We'll see consumers who will continue to travel, but what they'll do is delay major purchases of that new freezer or washing machine until fall."

Even as costs increase, Keefe said 1.4% more Americans will take personal trips this summer than last, and 85% of them will travel by car. To cut costs, some will shorten their trips, and others will stay with friends or relatives.

"Last summer people told us they were going to be affected by gas prices, but that didn't happen," Keefe said. "This year prices started to take off earlier and stay at the $3 mark, but people did not adjust their travel habits at all. Right now, consumers are just taking it on the chin."

Despite increasing costs, seven in 10 U.S. adults plan to take a summer vacation this year, according to a survey released May 16 by Expedia.com. Even though airline ticket prices are increasing, 60% of respondents say they'll fly as much as they did last summer, and 9% plan to fly even more.

"The airfare increases are fairly flat nationally," said Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch, a quarterly report based in Bellevue, Wash., that details consumer travel trends. "In the last year airlines raised fares 10 times, so they don't want to do that again right now."

If travelers shop for fares, are flexible about departure dates and avoid the summer peak, they still can find deals within the U.S. A recent check on AirfareWatchdog.com found round-trip fares from LAX of $240 to Boston, $158 to Denver and $184 to Dallas. (These fares may no longer be available.)

Expedia, www.expedia.com, found greater capacity on some routes this summer. As a result, summer fares are 4% to 7% lower to destinations including New York City, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., Boston, Orlando, Fla., and Vancouver, Canada.

"I have basically the same feeling as last summer: Be prepared or risk having an unpleasant trip," said John DiScala, founder of JohnnyJet.com, an online travel site and newsletter. "The airports and planes are going to be packed, especially during peak times and days."

To find the best fares, DiScala suggests, consider an alternative airport (vwww.alternateairports.com) near your first choice. While trying to book a flight recently from Los Angeles to Erie, Pa., he found the fare was half as much if he was willing to fly 95 to 130 miles farther into Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland or Pittsburgh.

Overseas travel is a different story. Airfares have remained high since last year and even increased slightly on some routes. And the dollar continues to sag against foreign currencies. That means that Americans aren't getting as much for their money across the ocean, where a dollar is worth about 75 cents in euros and 50 cents in Britain. Five years ago, the dollar was worth 92 cents in euros and $1.46 in Britain.

"London is astronomically high. I cannot recommend that anyone go there right now," said George Hobica, publisher of Airfarewatchdog.com. Because the dollar is so weak there, he said, he has found a simple hotel breakfast might cost $50; even breakfast at McDonald's could run about $15.

"Europe is remaining stubbornly high," said Hobica.

Airfares to Paris, Amsterdam and Athens have increased by 5% to 10%, but fares to London and Frankfurt, Germany, have dropped about 10% to stimulate travel from the U.S., said Expedia Travel Trendwatch's McGinnis.

"Last summer we saw more routes going on unadvertised sales and Internet sales. But now I think it's because of the weak dollar. A lot of Europeans are coming here, and they have to get back, so the planes are full. If you go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York right now, you can walk through the place and hardly hear anyone speaking English. These are not just big tour groups."

One of the keys, Hobica said, is to know where to look. Air India, vwww.airindia.com, for example, doesn't necessarily spring to mind when you think of Frankfurt or Paris and London, but it recently had fares of less than $1,500 to these destinations.

European discount airlines expanding in the U.S. are not necessarily places to look for deals now, McGinnis said. Because Europeans can get more for their money on this side of the pond, those planes are filled in both directions with charter trips from Europe.

Travelers to Europe may find savings by using the flexible date search features on many websites, Hobica said; changing an itinerary by one day sometimes can save as much as $800.

And if the best round-trip fare to an international destination in coach appears to be $1,800 or more, he suggests checking for special deals in business class. If you're considering paying that much, Hobica said, why not look to see what a 60-day advance purchase business-class ticket might be?

"If they are going to have to pay an arm and a leg anyhow, they might as well sit comfortably," he said.

You may find even better deals on airlines designed for business class, such as Silverjet out of Newark, N.J., and MAXjet out of Las Vegas. In the last month, Hobica said he had seen a $400 round trip to London, two-for-one flights and a fly-one-way free.

Savvy American travelers going to Europe this summer will alter their destinations, experts say. More people are choosing Eastern European countries where the economies are not based on the euro, said Mike Pina, spokesman for the American Automobile Assn, www.aaa.com. His figures show U.S. travel tours to Eastern Europe up by 55% and to Europe in general down by 2.4%. Specifically, tours to Germany are down 43%, while bookings to Slovenia are up 100% and Romania, 700%.

More Americans have increased confidence about vacationing off the beaten path, McGinnis said. That comfort level comes from looking to user-generated information on the Internet, such as one traveler's video diary of a trip to colonial Mexican town, instead of having only slick marketing information to trust.

For that European experience without the currency problems or the steep airfares, he suggests travelers try places such as Quebec or the Mexican mountain communities of San Miguel de Allende or Guanajuato.

The best advice: Zig when everyone zags and adjust your expectations. "When you're talking about summer vacation, it's a tradition and a habit that is not easily taken away. Airfare prices are increasing. There's the liquid-and-gels debacle and fear of terrorism, but none of it seems to keep Americans down," McGinnis said.

Americans "won't give up travel," McGinnis said. "It just won't be the five-star version."

travel@latimes.com

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