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Summer Travel Outlook 2011

CNBC.com
Tuesday, 17 May 2011 | 10:03 AM ET
Travel Dollars - A CNBC Special Report
Travel Dollars - A CNBC Special Report

"Travel is glamorous, only in retrospect."

That's how veteran travel writer Paul Theroux put it, and few today would argue with that characterization.

Check-in at any airport can be frustrating, stressful and, yes, time-consuming. Planes are jammed, usually at full capacity, with more people toting carry-on bags to avoid new luggage fees.

Your reward? Higher fares — about 14 percent more for the average U.S. ticket than a year ago. (A large part of that has to do with higher energy costs.) Depleted airline staff. And no free on-board drinks or food.

Meanwhile highways to the beach and the mountains are crowded, even if they've been repaved. Tolls have been raised and, well, yes, high gasoline prices make this alternative less than alluring.

But, hey, travel isn't so much about getting there, as it is being there — and the stories and memories we bring home. Who doesn't like to talk about travel?

Heading into the summer of 2011, Americans are certainly in need of a good vacation and the ranks of the travel sector in need of steady work.

Some 13.2 million people work in the hospitality and leisure sector with another 381,831 employed by airlines. Employment is not back to pre-recession levels.

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Travel and leisure is always one of the last sectors to recover from an economic downturn, and the hotel industry, for one, is finally free of its 2008-2010 slump. Occupancy was up 4.4 percent over a year ago in April, and revenue per available room was up 5.5 percent, according to STR.

Airlines in 2010 had one of their few profitable year in the past decade and are hoping, despite those pernicious energy prices, to make it two in a row.

Americans may be ready to splurge a bit. Staycations may be falling away. With the dollar weak, Destination USA may be the buzz phrase.

Fifty-nine percent of those polled by American Express Travel in late April said they planned to take a summer vacation. They also said they planned to take an average of two week-long vacations — spending an average of $1,200 per person — and three weekend getaways with an average spend of $300 per weekend.

An Orbitz.com studyofabout half as many people found that 80 percent of them planned to take a summer vacation despite high gas prices.

Travel revenue is expected to rise 5.5 percent in 2011, driven by a surge in international visitors, to $795 billion, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

The always important business travel segment will notch nearly 7 percent growth during the same period to $246 billion.

As growth goes, those are certainly feel-good numbers and much better than the expected performance of the broader economy.

So, sit down, strap yourself in and check out our articles, polls, slideshows and quiz. We'll be still be here when you get there — or return.