When it comes to travel, does anyone know what's going to happen this summer?
A lot of people claim to. In fact, three organizations released surveys within a 48-hour period last month, each offering a slightly different and, at times, contradictory preview for summer travel.
AAA predicted that travel during the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer-travel season, would essentially be unchanged from last year (up 1.5 percent).
Deloitte said that less than one-third (29 percent) of Americans would take vacations on the first weekend of the summer-travel season. But that's up 5 percent from last year. It also forecast that 64 percent of us will go on vacation during the warm months.
An Associated Press-GfK poll, decidedly less optimistic, found that 42 percent of Americans plan a leisure trip this summer, down from 49 percent who said they were taking a summer trip in May 2005.
The discrepancies could probably be explained by separating summer (three months) from Memorial Day weekend (three days) and segregating the AP-GfK poll from the Deloitte findings, since one compares year-to-year numbers and the other uses 2005 as a baseline. But I'm a black-and-white kind of guy when it comes to surveys, so I'm more inclined to believe one of these is right and two are wrong.
The truth is important.
Travel companies use surveys to predict demand. More travelers this summer can translate into higher prices; fewer travelers, and you're looking at bargains.
So somewhere between 42 percent and 64 percent lies the fate of your summer vacation - specifically, how much you spend on your well-deserved getaway.
I decided to conduct my own informal focus group. I'm not going to make you wait for the results. Deloitte is closest to the truth - we are traveling this summer.
Angela Pickett, an account clerk from Lafayette, Ind., is taking a road trip with her family to Maryland this summer. She's keeping an eye on gas prices, but isn't overly concerned. "Cost is not a big factor in this trip, mainly because I've been saving for it," she says. She's in good company. A lot of travelers have told me they skipped their summer vacation last year and have saved their pennies for something special in 2009.
Mary Kirsch, a librarian from Waldwick, N.J., is headed to Oahu to work at a summer camp for two weeks. "My husband will meet me out there the second week so he can bike-tour the island," she says. "After my camp stint ends, we are going to be total tourists for a third week. We are renting a Jeep Wrangler and going exploring." Thanks to the recession, destinations such as Hawaii and Las Vegas are bargains this summer, so chances are, Kirsch won't be alone on her island.
Is this just a pent-up demand for vacations that will fade after summer? Maybe, maybe not. Patricia VanHooser leaves for a Bermuda cruise this week, but that's just the start of her adventures. She's off to Australia in September and New York after Christmas. "Travel is a real bargain now," she says. "I hadn't planned to go, but who can stay home at these prices?"
Truth be told, the travelers I spoke with were adamant - almost militant - about getting out of town during the warm months. "We're definitely not staying home this summer," says Linda Cane, a retired teacher from Caldwell, N.J. "There will be two trips: one by car and one by plane. I'm taking my daughter to Santorini and Athens. At the end of the summer, the whole family is going up past the 1,000 Islands to visit friends on Gananoque Lake in Ontario, Canada."
I could go on, but I'll spare you the dozen or so other interviews I conducted with real travelers who say they're taking summer vacations.
The way I see it, we should be grateful to Deloitte, AAA, and the AP. Their downbeat forecasts probably have airlines, car-rental companies, cruise lines, and hotels dreading the summer of 2009. Prices will be aggressively lowered, based in no small part to these polls and the groupthink in which mainstream media travel "experts" participate.
For the rest of us free-thinking travelers, the future is no mystery.
I have just three words for you: Best. Summer. Ever.