When Roger Bell takes a vacation, he normally flies to a national park or visits friends up north for two weeks. But like many Americans, Bell, a Woodstock, Ga.-based technical writer, lost his job in 2009. And that changed the way he vacations – maybe permanently.
Bell was unemployed almost a year before finding a new job that paid 25 percent less than his old one. That, in turn, downsized his next vacation from a destination like Yellowstone or Yosemite to an overnight trip.
“I’m only taking a few days off work over the weekend and only going to coastal Georgia for a beach trip by car,” he says.
Welcome to the “new” normal in travel: Shorter, less expensive vacations – or in extreme cases, just daycations – being taken by increasingly cost-conscious travelers. Maybe you’ve been on one of these mini-trips in the last year. If you haven’t, you probably will.
Travelers say they’ve begun strategically downsizing their vacations, and there’s no evidence the cuts will be reversed anytime soon. Quite the contrary. From where I’m sitting, it looks as if these changes are here to stay.
An American Express survey released earlier this year found that 80 percent of travelers were trying to trim costs for summer travel by driving instead of flying and looking for deals. And it’s not just us. A Gallup poll concluded that 4 in 10 EU residents cut their vacations in 2009. You know it’s serious when the Europeans say “non” to their hard-earned getaways.
Let’s take a closer look at the traveler of today – and tomorrow. But before I do, let me add that it doesn’t have to stay like this forever, and lowering prices isn’t the answer to bringing travelers back. I’ll have the solution in just a moment.
Here are a few ways to spot the “new” traveler:
They burn their miles. As we all know by now, frequent flier miles don’t appreciate over time. Today’s traveler is aware of the fact that miles lose value, particularly in light of the way in which some loyalty programs have raised their redemption rates. For example, Sue Wolko redeemed 25,000 miles in US Airways frequent flier miles and paid $78 in taxes to fly from Philadelphia to Toronto for the city’s film festival in September. “I’m also using my Starwood Points to redeem for six nights,” she says. “Total savings: $1,800.”
They live smaller. How much time do you spend in your hotel room or cruise ship berth? If you said, “I just sleep there,” then you’re well on your way to becoming a “new” traveler. Big, expensive accommodations are a waste.
They do more with less. When Joan Schmelzle, a retiree from Rockford, Ill., saw her stock portfolio heading south, she decided to abbreviate her Italian vacation this fall. Cutting the time by more than half, from a generous 10 weeks to four, meant she had to cram more cities into her itinerary.
There are opportunities for you contrarians out there. Given the fact that vacations are trending shorter and cheaper, be on the lookout for specials that try to keep you at a destination longer. Many hotels have “stay four nights, get a fifth free” deals that are designed to add time to your stay (ordering meals, enjoying the spa, running up a big room bill). Keep an open mind on those offers because they might be a great deal.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.