Summer trips will be cheap, close to home

SACRAMENTO -- Think the staycation is so last year? Think again.

Last summer's recession-driven travel trend, the stay-at-home vacation, has returned for another visit -- with a related, economy-minded twist: When people do hit the road this summer, they'll likely travel shorter distances and spend fewer days at their destinations, according to travel experts.

If they're not staying home, they're staying closer to home.

Take Christine Young, 31, who lives in Lincoln with her husband and six kids.

"We're hanging out at the pool and doing things around here," said Young, who's blogging about money-saving travel on her site, "If we do any last-minute travel, we'll take road trips. With a family of eight, summer or not, we love road trips. We pack the kids and everything we need and just drive. We're always looking for ways to save even the tiniest bit."

AAA Northern California projects that 4 million Californians will travel this Memorial Day weekend. That's an anticipated decline of 2.3 percent compared with last year, despite a decrease in gas prices and the prevalence of bargains from attractions still reeling from last year's staycation phenomenon.

"The savvy traveler can definitely continue to travel," said AAA's Cynthia Harris. "People will travel closer to home and stay overnight this summer or do a three-day weekend. Or they'll stay with friends and family instead of paying for a hotel."

By contrast, the national travel picture may have stabilized and even improved, according to AAA, with projections indicating an uptick of 1.5 percent for this weekend.

"We're still seeing people travel," said Amanda Moreland of the California Travel and Tourism Commission. "People feel that traveling is their birthright. But the economy now is such that people want to stay close to home."

That sense of caution has led to a travel industry eager to deal.

The forecast for summer 2009 travel indicates fewer travelers spending far less money. An Associated Press-Gfk Poll shows just 42 percent of Americans have leisure travel in mind this summer. People are waiting longer to make their plans, according to the travelhorizons quarterly survey, because of economic uncertainties and to grab last-minute deals.

"Prices are better than a year ago," said Tim Leffel, author of "The World's Cheapest Destinations" and other guides to low-priced travel. "That's a giant trend. You don't have to spend as much to catch a flight or rent a beach house. This is a great time to go."

If you can afford overseas travel, said Leffel, the dollar's strengthened buying power plus airfare deals and bargain packages make Europe, Latin America and South Africa prime destinations this summer.

"The luxury end is holding up fairly well," he said. "The low end of travel hasn't changed, either. If you lose your job and have a severance, you might be better off backpacking around Southeast Asia than sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.

"It's the middle seeing the big decline."

And the middle is where most people live.

Elk Grove resident Maria Dickerson is busy shopping for cheap airfares so her daughter, who graduates from high school next year, can visit college campuses around the country. For the most part, Dickerson said, 17-year-old Destinee will stay with relatives while touring universities in Southern California, Michigan and Boston.

"It's an economy-based college tour," Dickerson said.

"There are good deals out there. It's tough for everybody right now."