An Arithmetic Answer to Questions of Vacation

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

You've probably heard how Mark Twain, revered writer and seasoned traveler, once classified falsehoods three ways: There are lies, damn lies and statistics, he wrote, citing former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as his source.

But in this age of free-flowing data and unfettered markets, statistics can be a fine friend to a traveler. In fact, if you apply the right magnifying glass to a new batch of numbers from American Express, the World Tourism Organization and international currency exchange-rate tables, you can find clues to saving money.

By the time you're done, midweek travel, off-season travel, England and Canada are likely to look a bit more alluring.

From Big Bear to Belgium, prices are usually better in "off" seasons when tourist traffic is lighter. And even though many older Americans are taking advantage of travel in the "shoulder seasons," just before and after the traditional summer school break, most U.S. travelers still make their trips in June, July and August.

In compiling its annual Leisure Travel Index, American Express hired pollsters to survey 1,002 U.S. adults by telephone between April 18 and 22. About 29% planned a leisure trip in June this year, 44% planned to travel in July (the busiest travel month of the year) and 35% planned to travel in August.

Among Westerners (defined as residents of the 11 westernmost states of the Lower 48), the high-season trend is even stronger: The survey found 40% of Westerners planning August trips, compared with 37% in the Northeast, 34% in the North Central states and 30% in the South.

The number of vacationers decreases dramatically from September through May (19% of those surveyed planned to travel in May, 20% in September), which means greater opportunities for travelers whose dates are flexible.

The American Express survey also found that the long weekend continues to grow as a holiday habit. In fact, it found that Westerners were even more inclined to weekend travel than other Americans. Overall, the pollsters found that most respondents planned to take three long weekend trips this year. But for Westerners, the average was four long weekend trips.

Of course, a weekend trip makes sense if your work schedule or other obligations demand it. And in fact, three of every four respondents told the American Express pollsters that technology has either reduced their leisure time or left it unchanged.

But if a little more planning and a few more workdays off are possible, consider this: If all other factors are equal, it's cheaper to take three five-day trips than it is to take five three-day trips. Taking fewer, longer trips, you spend less time and money on travel. You also end up using hotel rooms on weekdays, which in popular vacation spots are often less expensive than weekends.

A few other figures from the AmEx survey: On their biggest trip of the year, travelers from the West on average take off for nine days, at a family cost of $2,120. Westerners take 57% of their vacations by car and take just 8% of them outside the U.S. (In other regions, respondents said they took 13% to 17% of their vacations outside the U.S. An American Express spokesman said the pollsters had neither facts nor theories that might explain this difference.)

The World Tourism Organization, a Madrid-based group that recently released a set of nation-by-nation numbers for 2000, gathers global statistics to help nations and international companies formulate policy. But a prospective traveler can look at the same numbers, along with international exchange rates, and see which country is likely to be cutting prices.

Even before concerns over foot-and-mouth disease flared earlier this year, England had seen a slowdown in international tourist arrivals, perhaps because of the pound's high exchange rate. The World Tourism Organization's preliminary results show that visitor arrivals to the United Kingdom fell by nearly 2% to 24.9 million in 2000. (Meanwhile, the worldwide number of international visitor arrivals was growing 7.4%, to more than 698 million.)

In response to that soft market and fears over foot-and-mouth disease, many airlines and operators of English tours have dropped their prices substantially. Now tourist options in the cities and countryside are largely back to normal, and the mighty English pound has been slipping a little.

For the year that ended May 29, the pound's value against the U.S. dollar slipped about 5% (from 67.02 pence per dollar at institutional trading rates to 70.39 pence per dollar). If you've put off thinking about Britain as a destination, it may well be time to rethink it.

Then again, the rest of Europe is popular for good reasons. France (the leading tourist destination on the planet, according to the tourism organization) drew an estimated 74.5 million international visitors in 2000, Spain drew 52.7 million, and Italy 42.1 million. The currency of each of those nations is tied to the euro, which has been weak against the dollar, losing about 40% of its trading clout since its birth in 1999. In the year ending May 29, the euro's institutional trading rate had slipped about 9%, ending at 1.16 per dollar.

Apart from Britain, the most popular foreign destinations for American travelers are Mexico and Canada. Though the AmEx survey shows that Mexico is substantially more attractive to Westerners than Canada is, the two countries are strikingly even in overall international tourist arrivals. But the U.S. dollar has been weakening against the peso in Mexico and gaining strength against the Canadian dollar.

The World Tourism Organization estimates that Mexico welcomed 20.4 million international visitors last year (a 4.9% increase from 1999). In the year ending May 29, the dollar's buying power dropped from 9.552 pesos (at institutional rates) to 9.08 pesos, a slide of about 5%.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the tourism organization's count of international arrivals climbed to 20.4 million (a 4.9% increase). The Canadian dollar lost about 2.7% of its buying power against the U.S. dollar in the year ending May 29, winding up at $1.56 Canadian for each U.S. dollar.

Now, in case those cautionary words of Mark Twain's are still ringing in your head, consider this: For all his accomplishments in the world of letters, Twain was not exactly a whiz with numbers.

Though he made a fortune with his writing and married into a moneyed family, Twain made so many bad investments that in 1894, nearing age 60, he had to declare bankruptcy. He died in 1910, without a frequent-flier mile to his name.

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Christopher Reynolds welcomes suggestions, but he cannot respond individually to letters and phone calls. Address comments to Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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