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Travel agents say business on the rise for 2011 summer vacation season

In 1950, when AAA first began tracking vacation expenses, the average daily cost for meals and lodging was $13 a person.

According to their most recent data from 2008, for two adults traveling and dining together, AAA recommends budgeting $80 a day for meals, not including tips or beverage, and $164 for lodging.

And prices have only gotten higher since then.

Beth Mosher, director of public affairs with AAA Chicago said that, unsurprisingly, travel took a hit at the height of the recession toward the end of 2008.

“What we did see in 2008 with high gas prices was that people did cut back on their travel, and that did affect their decision to go on a trip,” Mosher said. “Gas prices then were well over $4.”

AAA tracks the number of travelers by car, air travel, train and other forms of travel on peak travel dates, namely the Fourth of July and Memorial Day in the summer.

Over the Independence Day holiday in 2000, AAA recorded 30,331,000 travelers. The number of those traveling on that day peaked in 2007, when there were 42,268,000 recorded before plummeting by more than 12,000,000 travelers in 2009.

Illinois July Fourth travelers peaked in 2007 at 2,269,793 before facing declines similar to those felt in the rest of the nation, dropping by more than 600,000 travelers in 2008. Forecast numbers for 2010 also showed a drastic recovery in numbers, with more than 300,000 additional travelers taking trips.

Although current gas prices are nearing the $4 mark, Mosher said, more recent data indicate an uptick in the number of people making summer vacation plans.

“Trends have shown that people don’t usually change whether or not they go on a trip, but people will cut back in other ways,” Mosher said. “They’ll stay at a less expensive hotel, cut back on souvenirs, eat out less, travel closer to home, or visit friends and family.”

Though Mosher and Margaret Skoulund, a travel consultant and office manager with Cary Travel Express, said they had expected an increase in travel by car, Mosher said that this hadn’t been the case and she instead saw an increase in air travel.

According to AAA calculations, the highest gas prices in the nation can be found on the Pacific Coast, where gas stations are averaging prices of $3.89 a gallon. Closer to home, the Great Lakes region is averaging $3.57 a gallon. The lowest prices can be found in the Mountain West region with gas costing an average of $3.38 a gallon.

Undoubtedly, high gas prices also are causing airlines to increase the cost for flights. With so many people opting to fly, those wanting to beat rising ticket costs are booking well in advance, Skoulund said.

“The last three weeks or so we have had a lot of people booking in full so they could avoid a fuel surcharge increase,” Skoulund said.

Skoulund said she has been working around the clock, sometimes putting in 10- or 11-hour days, to keep up with the demand.

“In 2011, we have had one of our best years so far within the past 10 years,” Skoulund said. “We already had hundreds of travel bookings for our office. There has been probably a 30 [percent] to 40 percent increase in business since the recession hit.”

Skoulund said that travelers aren’t just booking small trips. Recently she has seen an uptick in destination weddings, cruises, all-inclusive packages and European vacations.

While these types of trips can carry a high sticker price, Skoulund said, one trick of the trade in keeping prices lower is to travel in the off-season, particularly in May, September and October.

“For a typical family of four going on an all-inclusive weeklong trip during the off-season, it would probably be about $3,000 [total],” Skoulund said. “In-season, it would be about $1,500 a week per person.”

Skoulund said another tip is to check with travel agents for last-minute deals.

“An example of something like that would be a charter going from Chicago to Cancun with 10 seats left so they’ll run a special at the last minute to fill the seats,” Skoulund said.

Another cost-cutting measure suggested by AAA is to eat a main meal midday to take advantage of lower lunch prices at restaurants. Many restaurants also offer children’s menus and “early bird” dinner specials at reduced prices.

Another low-cost option for families on a budget is to visit one of Illinois’ state parks.

“It’s one of the more economical routes to take this spring and summer,” said Januari Smith, communications manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “A lot of our state parks can be reached on a tank of gas, and our campsites are cheaper than a hotel.”

Illinois has 320 state parks and 45 million visitors annually, with a variety of offerings, including fish and wildlife areas, forests, trails, natural areas and recreational sites.

Smith said that the most popular parks close to McHenry County are Starved Rock State Park, Kankakee River State Park, Kickapoo State Recreation Area, Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area, and Adeline Geo Karis Illinois Beach State Park.

Nightly rates for shelters, campgrounds and cabins at these parks range from $8 to $50, depending on the time of year.

How much will it cost?

Calculate how much gas will cost on a road trip by visiting www.AAAmaps.com or www.fuelcostcalculator.com.

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