Cooped up inside for what has been described as one of the Southeast’s harshest winters, a record number of residents are booking vacations in search of more tropical climates, but some travel agents said the cold weather isn’t entirely responsible for the surge in sales.
Travel agents in Augusta and Aiken say other contributing factors might include higher airfares to Europe and uncertainty in euro and British pound exchange rates.
“My sales are up for the year, but it’s really hard to pinpoint if more travel plans are being made in response to the winter weather,” said Katherine Wilson, owner of Cachet Cruise and Travel in Aiken.
AAA Carolinas thinks this year’s harsh winter has directly contributed to an “exodus of travelers seeking refuge from the weather” by booking tours, cruises and hotels in record numbers, according to a news release from the auto club’s travel agency this week.
Trips taken by those booking through AAA, the largest leisure travel agency in the Carolinas, showed a 15 percent increase in tours, 12 percent increase in cruises and 33 percent increase in hotels over the first quarter of 2013.
The top five destinations for those several thousand travelers that included AAA members and the general public were Orlando; Mexico/Caribbean; Honolulu; Las Vegas and Miami.
“People wanted to put this winter behind them with a positive memory,” said Sarah Henshall, vice president of travel for AAA Carolinas. “Everyone was so excited telling our agents how happy they were ‘getting away’ even for just a few days and we already have seen bookings skyrocket for the second quarter of this year.”
AAA Carolinas reported that travelers are already booking ahead in greater numbers than last year and the top destinations already booked for the second quarter of the year are Orlando, Europe, Mexico/Caribbean, Honolulu and Las Vegas.
Plus, its travel agency said that it has seen a 3 percent increase in air travel this year and a 10 percent increase in rental car reservations.
AAA South also expects 2014 to be a strong year for travel, with a majority of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee residents (82 percent) saying they plan to take at least one trip this year.
Even though more than half (52 percent) prefer traveling both domestically and abroad, 77 percent of residents traveling in the next three months plan to stay within the U.S., according to a recent AAA Consumer Pulse survey.
Patty Font, owner of Augusta Travel Agency, said her spring-break sales were down, but that the summer season is picking up fast, with many customers booking cruises or planning trips to the Caribbean.
She said the high airfare to Europe might have caused greater interests in the tropics than February’s ice storm.
“I can’t say it’s specifically related to the harsh winter,” Font said of her sales. “The winter probably hurt more than it helped, with people putting discretionary spending towards post-storm cleanup and repair.”
Wilson agreed a pricier flight to Europe could be sending more vacationers to the tropics. She also added that some of her clients, which mostly include retirees, have voiced concerns in euro and British pound exchange rates.
Among her two most popular destinations now are 10-day cruises to Alaska or 10-day trips to Italy, each of which cost between $10,000 and $12,000. Other vacation sites include South America, Hawaii, French Polynesia, British Isles, and Jamaica.
“My agency has been very busy with many people travelling in May and June and I guess you could say the winter wore on people this year, but I am not sure it’s directly related to an increase in travel plans,” she said.
Fueling her uncertainty, was that a lot of Wilson’s clients made early-bird reservation deposits last fall for summer vacations.
Their final payments, she said, were sent between January and March.