Originally created 05/15/04

Travelers step out in summer



Gas prices might be at the highest levels ever, but experts say that won't stop vacationers from putting the pedal to the metal this summer.

The period between Memorial Day and Labor Day is predicted to be a big one for travel - on the roads, in the air and even at sea.

"We're expecting a fairly strong showing," said Cathy Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association of America, which, in its annual report, predicted leisure travel will increase 3.6 percent and business travel will increase 4.6 percent overall this year.

And she said summer will certainly not be an exception.

Judy Reville, a spokeswoman for AAA Augusta, said the Southeast AAA offices have seen a 13 percent increase in the number of requests for TripTiks, customized maps for personal itineraries, for the summer.

"It bothers everyone that they have to spend more on fuel," she said. "But it's not stopping them from traveling. Driving is still the most economical way to travel."

When the weather really warms up and children get out of school, Ms. Reville said families will tend to head to Orlando, Fla., first.

Other hot-spot destinations this summer will be Tampa, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; and New Orleans.

Augustans are even planning long-distance, cross-country trips to places such as San Francisco.

"We are getting requests for people who are driving out west," she said. "They're still going."

Sales and rentals of recreational vehicles and trailers has seen a recent jump, too, said Earl Allen Jr., the president of CSRA Camperland Inc. in Martinez.

Mr. Allen said his business is seasonal, so when spring comes, families start buying campers. This year there has been a 20 percent jump in sales, including good growth in April, usually a slow month because of the Masters Tournament and taxes.

"We're doing well," Mr. Allen said, explaining that high gas prices haven't fazed his broad base of customers. "The main factor for them is that they can get the gasoline ... America's gonna travel."

From what he's heard, RV owners are planning vacations to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and making weekend trips to Lake Thurmond, Mr. Allen said.

Another summer travel option is cruises, which Ms. Reville said have become more popular to families.

"After 9-11 they were so cheap. The prices have gone up a little since then, but not much," she said.

"Most everything is prepaid, and it's just a fun, relaxing vacation."

This summer, the large number of families going on cruises will be driving to Florida cities such as Miami and Jacksonville and boarding from there.

Airlines should expect to see passenger levels on par with numbers before the Sept. 11 attacks for the first time, said Jack Evans, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade organization for all major U.S. airlines.

Fares are at a 20-year low, so travelers will be flying in great numbers, both domestically and internationally.

"That's the good news, but the bad news is that profit margins are down for airlines," Mr. Evans said,

Fuel prices have just skyrocketed to $40 per barrel, which translates to an estimated industrywide loss of $2.5 billion this year, he said.

It's hard to tell when things will turn around, but Ms. Keefe said that overall, the public is expressing a desire to travel more and more.

"We have a long way to go to exceed 2000 levels," she said. "But we're slowly returning to what was considered the norm."

Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or dena.levitz@augustachronicle.com.