Look for higher airfares, higher gas prices and long lines at airport security this summer. Planes will be so jammed that even getting the middle seat on a flight you want will count as a minor triumph.
And yet, Americans will travel more this summer than at any time since the busy summer of 2000 -- before a recession and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with hijacked aircraft sent the U.S. travel industry into a slump it is only now pulling out of.
Pent-up demand is driving predicted surges in both domestic and international travel this summer, industry experts say, and even the expected discomfort of high prices and crowded venues will not seriously deter travelers bent on luxuriating in sun and surf, revisiting old family favorites and seeing the classic sights of the Old World.
"Americans are not going to give up their summer vacation,'' said Chris McGinnis, a San Francisco travel analyst and author of a summer travel forecast for the online travel agency Expedia.com. "Gas will be over $3 a gallon, and airfares will be $20 to $30 higher than last year, but that's not enough to keep them from going away for the hallowed institution of the summer vacation.''
According to the Expedia study, 55 percent of Americans say they will fly as much this year as they did in 2005, with 6 percent saying they'll fly more -- even though airfares have risen about 10 percent from this time last year and may rise again by summer, thanks mostly to surging jet fuel prices for U.S. and international airlines.
Many vacationers will travel somewhat differently this year, McGinnis said, given high prices and a weak dollar. "Travelers are considering shortening their vacation, and staying at a Hampton Inn, for example, instead of, let's say, a full-service Hilton,'' he said.
And those going overseas are beginning to consider less-expensive countries in Eastern Europe, rather than the pricey euro-zone in Western Europe, he said. McGinnis himself is doing just that, combining a summer vacation in Greece with a visit to Croatia, which he says is emerging as an economical alternative to neighboring Italy. "It's got beautiful beaches, the same weather and a lot of history,'' he said of Croatia.
Budget-busters or not, longtime favorites in Western Europe are still expecting a strong influx of Americans. British Airways has reported stronger advance bookings to the United Kingdom this year than last, and Expedia said the top foreign travel destinations booked on its site are, in order of popularity, London, Paris and Rome.
Old favorites dominate domestic travel, too, McGinnis said, with Las Vegas emerging by far as the favorite U.S. destination for Americans and Orlando coming in second.
Early Birds Planning
The Travel Industry Association of America, which represents U.S. tour operators, hotels, airlines and others and promotes travel to and within the United States, is still crunching numbers for its summer forecast, according to spokeswoman Cathy Keefe.
One thing the association has already noticed, though, is that people are gearing up for trips earlier than in past years, in hopes of locking in deals. In a report released last month, the group found that 81 percent of Americans surveyed said they had already started to think seriously about their summer trips -- about 30 percent more than usual this early in the year. For the entire year, the association expects domestic leisure travel to increase about 4 percent from last year.
Early bookings help beat the crowds, and may help save money, as prices tend to rise as summer approaches.
Gasoline prices and airfares have continued to spike in recent weeks, with airlines adding or extending fuel surcharges. In some cases, fuel surcharges were instituted last year and left in place to grow. Last week, Lufthansa Airlines said it would raise transatlantic fares $12 each way, sending its existing surcharge to about $80 per ticket each way. On April 12, American Airlines increased its fuel surcharge $10 each way on long-haul flights.
A busy summer traveling season translated into heavy traffic at Oklahoma's airports in July, but high fuel prices could cool that trend in August.
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American Airlines raised prices on round-trip international tickets by $20 Tuesday, citing the rising price of jet fuel.
A decade ago, fuel accounted for about 15 percent of airline operating expenses and today it's 35 percent.