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Summer travelers looking for bigger, longer vacations this year

The Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World Resort.
Getty Images
The Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World Resort.

Consumers may be spending less at the malls, but it may be to save up for summer vacation, according to preliminary information on early trip planners.

"It looks like it's going to be a strong summer," Sarah Gavin, a travel expert with online booking company Expedia, told CNBC on Thursday. "People are starting to take bigger trips."

Gavin's optimism was based on searches at Expedia.com for summer travel.

"Air ticket prices in general are up 3 percent over last summer," Gavin said. That calculation is based on all the searches for summer airfares made by people in the U.S. during the first three month of this year. Gavin said she couldn't provide actual booking numbers until Expedia reports its first-quarter earnings a few weeks from now.

At Best Western hotels, actual year-over-year summertime bookings (May 23 through Sept. 2) are already up 10 percent for its U.S. hotels and up 17 percent for its Canadian properties, according to Best Western strategic services information provided to CNBC on Wednesday.

In addition, travelers are planning longer trips. The Best Western summer bookings show a 14 percent increase in overall room nights. Best Western has more than 2,200 hotels in North America, ranging from midscale- to upscale-style properties.

Gavin said the searches at Expedia also indicate people are planning slightly longer summer vacations than last year.

For people in major U.S. markets searching for summer travel the top destinations are currently Cancun, Mexico; Las Vegas; Orlando, Fla.; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; Seattle; Los Angeles; Miami; San Francisco; Los Cabos, Mexico; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Travelers from the U.S. are looking to make more trips to Europe and Asia this summer, Gavin said. While the Asia trips (mainly Thailand, China, the Philippines and Taiwan) are likely due to a 4 percent price drop over last year, the European vacations appear to be catching up to pent-up demand left over from the recession, she said.

Traditional family road trips are also likely to be big this summer, Gavin said. In Florida, searchers are looking for Orlando, Kissimmee and Lake Buena Vista. "I think Disney World is going to have a really stellar year," Gavin said. People are looking for "a day or two longer stays than last year for that market."

Recent forecasts see the travel spending continue to rise this year among both leisure and business travelers.

Summer optimism comes on the heels of positive travel spending at the end of 2013. Real spending on travel and tourism in the fourth quarter of 2013 increased at an annual rate of 4.2 percent according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The strongest individual category was "traveler accommodations," where spending jumped 14.5 percent in the fourth quarter.

U.S. hotel bookings have also been up during the first months of 2014, according to research firm STR. The most recent numbers, for the week ended April 5, show the industry's occupancy increased 2.4 percent from a year earlier to 65.2 percent.

The optimism extends to new hotel construction.

The Reed Construction Data report for March 2014, released Tuesday, shows lodging (hotel and motel) starts were at their second highest level since 2009. The new hotel and motel projects started during the first quarter of this year have an estimated value of nearly $1.7 billion. The states with the highest number of new projects are California, New York, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania.

"Note that all of these states are major destinations for tourists and business people. They are also the larger states, so not surprisingly, they tend to have the greater number of projects," Bernard Markstein, U.S. chief economist for Reed Construction Data, said in an email to CNBC.

—By CNBC's Amy Langfield.

Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at @CNBCtravel.

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