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Gas Prices To Force Summer Travelers Into The Economy Class

By Gretchen Macchiarella, Ventura County Star June 1, 2006
Planning a summer vacation is often a series of trade-offs to keep the whole family happy. This summer, the budget might be making more demands than the kids.

Household vacation budgets are nearly the same as last year, but the price to fuel a car or jet has soared. That means travel costs will make a much bigger dent than in the past.

"Air this year has been extremely high to go any place, and I am talking any place," said Donna Quartararo, travel agent at Born to Travel in Simi Valley.

Many families are trading down on hotel rooms or trying to rent condominiums for vacation, she said. They also might be looking to fly at awkward times to get a good price or to get a seat at all.

"People who don't have as much money are willing to finagle to get that vacation," Quartararo said.

Convenience might be a luxury some people cannot afford.

Trip modifications are going to be very common, said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association. Destinations that are closer to home or are not a big tourist trap will be popular.

"I think a lot of smaller, off-the-beaten-path destinations will do well," she said.

Americans are expected to take 325.6 million leisure trips from June to August, the association reported. And travelers will spend an average of $1,033 per household on their longest trip, which this year is an average of six nights away from home. The number of trips and amount of cash to be spent are up less than 1 percent from last year.

Keefe said just because the increase is less than usual doesn't mean there won't be many people traveling.

"It is still going to be a record summer," she said.

That translates to more people than ever at the airport, on the highway and in hotels.

Los Angeles International Airport announced last week that it is expecting 200,000 more travelers this summer, but there will be the same number of flights. With 18.7 million passengers passing through, airport officials warned consumers that seats might be scarce and lines will be long.

Traveling through a hub airport can save $100 per ticket, Keefe said. For a family of four, that could be significant.

Kate Miller said she believes convenience is almost always worth the extra expense.

The Ventura resident flies out of Santa Barbara Airport, if possible.

On the way home after a recent business trip, she had just enough time for a quick hello with her husband, Adam Chamberlin, before her bag was unloaded in a small tent at Santa Barbara Airport. And then they were off, walking a few steps to a car.

Convenient, but at times costly.

When the trip is for pleasure, "if it's $200 more or something, we think twice," Chamberlin said.

When considering the cost of gas, drive time, parking costs and getting to the gate, the couple is willing to pay more to avoid the hassles of LAX.

Santa Barbara flights are running nearly as full as in Los Angeles. Airport Marketing Director Terry Gibson said the airport served 73,000 passengers in April, with planes about 75 percent full and as high as 87 percent on Dallas flights. Last year's high was 76,000 passengers in August, but the airport has been running higher this year.

"Santa Barbara is no longer a secret," Gibson said. "I think that the trend across the country is to use smaller airports because it is so much easier."

Traveling on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday will often save money, and less crowded airports will certainly save headaches, Keefe said.

In an informal search of airfares to Cancun, a midweek flight at dawn from Santa Barbara won on price, if not convenience.

"If you just can't afford to take an entire week, take a trip from Tuesday to Thursday," Keefe said.

Travel officials all over the country are spotting opportunities and marketing to consumers, Keefe said.

The Costa Mesa Conference and Visitors Bureau is offering a fly, drive and dine promotion. If travelers book at least a two-night package, the bureau will give them a $30 reimbursement for gas or flight costs and a $30 restaurant gift certificate for every night of the stay.

This far into the season, Quartararo said, it is time to secure plans. New fees and gas surcharges are being added to air fares all the time, she said.

Some airlines already are tacking a $100 to $200 fuel surcharge on international flights.

"People think, 'Oh, I am going to wait,' but the prices are not going down," Quartararo said. "If you see one, grab it."