NEW YORK - The value of the U.S. dollar is surging, gas prices are at their lowest levels in four years, and hotel rates are softening. If you can afford a vacation, 2009 will be "the year of travel deals," predicted Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor of Travelocity. "As long as the economic slowdown continues, deals will abound for people who do have discretionary income to travel."
Pauline Frommer, the guidebook writer, agreed.
"Because of the sharp drop-off in bookings, we're seeing some pretty deep discounts to just about everywhere," she said, citing as an example Walt Disney World's offer of seven nights for the price of four. "It's definitely going to be a buyers' market next year."
But even though travel is becoming more affordable, more people are expected to stay home due to the recession.
The Travel Industry Association predicts a 1.3 percent drop in 2009 leisure travel.
Here are some details on these and other trends - such as increased interest in presidential sightseeing, thanks to events like the Lincoln Bicentennial and the inauguration of Barack Obama.
The dollar abroad
In April, it cost $1.60 to buy a euro. As of mid-December, a euro cost just $1.36, meaning your dollar goes nearly 20 percent farther now.
The dollar is doing even better elsewhere. An Australian dollar costs just 67 cents in U.S. currency, down from nearly $1 last summer, and Canadian dollars are worth just 80 (U.S.) cents now. Earlier this year, the Canadian dollar was worth more than a U.S. dollar.
And the guidebook publisher Lonely Planet put Iceland on its top 10 destination list for 2009, citing great deals in a country where local currency and the national economy have collapsed.
Cars, trains and buses
Feel like a road trip? Go for it. Gas hasn't been this cheap in four years. A gallon of gas averaged $1.65 in mid-December, down from an all-time high of more than $4 a gallon in July.
Between November 2007 and October, Americans drove 100 billion fewer miles than the same period a year earlier, according to the Federal Highway Administration. But Amtrak set a record for train ridership in its 2008 fiscal year - 28.7 million passengers, an 11 percent rise over the previous year.
Bus ridership also surged, as options have grown beyond Greyhound to cheap Chinatown-to-Chinatown buses and trendy BoltBus, known for onboard wireless Internet service and online deals.
Don't expect lower fuel prices to lower domestic airfares, though Richard Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, predicts "stable high prices for domestic fares."
"We had 30 airfare hikes between the summer of '07 and '08, which raised the price point 20 to 40 percent. I think that price point will stay stable in 2009."
But while domestic fares won't drop, Seaney said "international travel is going to have the best deals in the last three to four years," due to decreases in fuel surcharges and some new start-up routes with introductory prices.
For a peak summer trip to Europe, March is typically the best time to buy tickets, he said, but pricing may be volatile, so sign up for fare alerts.
Travelocity's Brown encourages savvy travelers to look beyond airfares "to see what they can get out of their hotel stay, whether discounted room rates or value-added promotions which are everywhere - free nights, free breakfast, free room upgrade. In Vegas, it's gambling credits and spa credits."
Demand for hotel rooms in the first quarter of 2009 is expected to be down 1 to 2 percent, while supply will be up about 3 percent, with new properties opening that were planned before the recession, according to Smith Travel Research, which tracks the industry. That's expected to affect rates.
and other events
Anniversaries often bring out the best in a destination with exhibits, festivals and deals. Here are some big anniversaries in 2009.
_ The bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth will be celebrated in Washington, D.C., and many states with exhibits, events, heritage trails and performances. Details at www.lincolnindc.com and www.abrahamlincoln200.org.
The interest in Lincoln coincides with a surge in interest in President Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal and sites associated with President-elect Barack Obama, from places where he lived like Chicago and Hawaii, to Washington, where record crowds are expected for the Jan. 20 inauguration.
All this has led the ad agency JWT to declare "presidential sightseeing" a top travel trend for 2009.
One event to look for: A re-creation of Marian Anderson's 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial will be held on Easter Sunday.
_ Berlin marks the 20th anniversary of the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall with exhibits and events. www.visitBerlin.de.
_ Scotland in 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, who wrote the words to "Auld Lang Syne." A "Homecoming Scotland 2009" celebration will include a "clan gathering" in Edinburgh, July 25-26, for people of Scottish ancestry from around the world. www.homecomingscotland2009.com.
_ Philadelphia, Baltimore and Richmond, Va., mark the 200th anniversary of poet Edgar Allan Poe's birth. For Baltimore events: Nevermore2009.com. Here in Philly, check the Poe National Historic Site at www.nps.gov/edal. Find Richmond's Poe museum at www.poemuseum.org. *