Vacations have become a luxury for many Americans trying to make ends meet in this economic downturn, but there are signs that people are slowly, even timidly, on the move again.
Families who postponed trips last year are making modest vacation plans, travel agents say. And business owners or executives who felt it was insensitive to travel as they cut costs and laid off workers are again making plans to get away, leisure industry experts added.
Stacy H. Small, president of Elite Travel International, said at least half of her clients who were business owners cut back last year. “I had a lot of clients say ‘I just don’t feel right,’ ” she said. This year, nearly all have returned.
The pent-up demand is starting to filter through, though it is more a trickle than a flood. With it, analysts said, comes a new level of austerity as vacationers search for frugal ways to get away by juggling their finances, taking shorter trips and even staying with relatives.
The auto group AAA says it expects 34.4 million people to travel at least 50 miles from home this Labor Day weekend, up nearly 10 percent from 2009, a forecast based on an improved economy and lower gasoline prices.
People are traveling with “one hand firmly clasped to their wallets,” said Henry Harteveldt, a market researcher for Forrester Research.“The comments I get are that generally business is better, but no one is popping Champagne corks,” he said.
In response, hotels, cruise lines and other travel-related businesses are discounting rooms, advertising reward programs and adding incentives, like the Cape Cod innkeepers who threw in a whale-watching excursion with a four-night stay, or the Las Vegas hotel that included a spa treatment with a room reservation.
Lawrence J. Kordasiewicz, a 59-year-old retired teacher, and his wife found ways to cut costs on their trip to Cap Cod. They shared the driving with another couple and stayed fewer nights at the Honeysuckle Hill Bed and Breakfast, where he said a generous breakfast meant they did not have to eat again until dinner.
The cost of vacation travel can vary greatly — a vacation can be anything from a car trip to a campground to a condo rental to a lengthy stay in a luxury hotel.
One industry organization, the U.S. Travel Association, forecasts that spending on leisure travel will increase to $519.6 billion this year in the United States, from around $489 billion in 2009.
With couples like the Kordasiewiczs taking advantage of incentives like free breakfast, restaurants and shopkeepers selling items like T-shirts, taffy and jewelry say travelers seem to be thinking twice before opening their wallets, if they do at all.
“They are coming in the door more,” said Belinda Schmitt, the manager of Guertin Brothers Jewelers on Main Street in Hyannis on Cape Cod. “But I am finding that tourists are not interested in buying jewelry as much. We have started carrying jewelry that can maybe more meet the needs of people on a tighter budget.”
For some, worries about tighter finances can lead to last-minute changes in travel plans.
Jacqueline Kimbrell, a former bank employee in Phoenix who has been unemployed since 2009, had planned a family vacation to Sea World in San Diego and even picked out an airline and a hotel.
“I thought O.K., what if one of the kids gets sick and we get a doctor bill?” said Mrs. Kimbrell, who has a daughter with a nut allergy.
So instead of spending $1,000 on a short trip to San Diego, she, her husband, Keith, who is a landscaper, and their children bought supplies, packed up a tent and went camping. The cost: about $300. “You find a spot, you put up your gear, and you go,” Mrs. Kimbrell said.
The National Park Service expects about 285 million visitors this year, and visitor numbers at parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Death Valley are running above levels a year ago.
“We usually see an uptick in visitation when times are tough,” a spokesman for the park service, Jeffrey Olson, said.
Analysts said hotel revenue and occupancy were rising, albeit slowly. Smith Travel Research said hotel revenue this year through July was $58 billion, up from $55 billion in the same period of 2009. About 592 million rooms were booked through July, compared with 552 million a year ago, the research firm said.
Hotels are luring travelers with free offers — like an extra night, a meal or a gift — instead of cutting prices. The additional night’s stay can help increase ancillary spending.
Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., offered two nights free for five nights booked in 2009 in response to the downturn, but this year did not need to continue the promotions. Taylor Cole, a spokeswoman for Hotels.com, said some packages of four nights even included a free camera.
Hotels in Las Vegas have added incentives like spa treatments and tickets to shows to attract visitors. The city’s convention and visitors bureau said visitor numbers were up 4.3 percent in June, to 3.1 million. Still occupancy rates declined 2.4 percent that month on an annual basis as room inventory grew
Matthew Jacob, a senior analyst for Majestic Research, said an important hotel indicator that measured revenue per available room was on track to post an increase of at least 5 percent this year after a 16 percent decline in 2009.
Another shift, analysts said, is that many vacationers are avoiding airlines because of the higher costs. One beneficiary has been Amtrak, which said that third-quarter sales for its vacation packages were up 51 percent from a year ago.
And cruise lines are reporting stronger bookings for the second half of the year after introducing special fares and other incentives, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.
Jill Rosenberg, manager of executive and group travel services for AAA, said more people were inquiring about last-minute discounts on cruise ships. “They didn’t go away last summer because everything was doom and gloom,” Ms. Rosenberg said. Now, she added, “as much as things are bad, they are not getting worse.”
On Cape Cod, Freddy Riley, who runs the Honeysuckle Hill Bed and Breakfast with his wife, Ruth, has noticed that guests have changed their habits.
More are requesting shorter stays, he said, and are eating picnic-style on the porch or using the inn’s barbecue to grill their own meals.
And then there is the free alcohol. Mr. Riley has watched the whiskey, aperitifs and wines that he sets aside for guests drain away more quickly.
“Obviously it cuts into the bottom line,” he said. “But I would rather have all of my bedrooms full and people having a glass or three of wine, than the rooms not full.”