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Vickroy: Travel experts say Chicagoans just want to get away

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Updated: March 3, 2014 4:05PM



Like most of us who hunkered down under Round 2 of this miserable polar vortex, Carolyn Saunoris has had enough.

“Everybody’s sick of the cold and this stupid snow,” she said.

But Saunoris is among the lucky ones — she’s getting out.

She and her husband, James, who owns Saunoris Garden Center in Frankfort, as well as a group of friends, are heading south.

“We booked the (cruise ship) Allure (of the Seas) at the end of February,” she said. “If I had known the weather was going to be this bad in January, I would’ve gone sooner.”

Still, she said, just knowing that Grand Cayman, St. Thomas and other tropical Caribbean ports of call are at the end of this swirling snow-blasted tunnel is enough to lift her spirits.

Pam Carroll, owner of Gadabout Travel in Palos Hills, where Saunoris booked her Royal Caribbean cruise, said her agency has “been swamped, swamped, swamped” since the beginning of January.

Business, she said, has doubled since the weeks before Christmas.

“This is our busiest time of year anyway,” she said, referring to the post-holiday rush that the cruise lines call the “wow” season. “The cold weather is just the icing on the cake.”

“Everybody is just done with it,” Carroll said.

And so they’re leaving town, heading south to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, to Jamaica and to ports where cruise ships await to carry them to other sunny, warm weather locales.

Cruise Lines International Association predicts 21.7 million people worldwide will cruise in 2014. North America remains the dominant source for cruise passengers, at 51.7 percent, although demand is increasing in international markets, according to the association’s annual State of the Cruise Industry findings.

Even a rash of bad news surrounding cruise lines — the latest involving a stomach bug aboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas — can’t stop them, Carroll said.

“They hear the news and they just don’t care,” she said. “They still want to go.”

And they want to go far enough to ensure a tan, which is why many are going beyond Florida.

“For a few hundred more they can go to Jamaica and be guaranteed ‘pool weather,’ ” Carroll said.

Though it’s too early to compile statistics on January travel, AAA Chicago’s office is reporting, anecdotally, there has been an increase in the volume of people in the metropolitan area who are planning and booking warm-weather vacations, said Heather Hunter, AAA Travel spokeswoman. “They’re telling us it’s due to the weather.”

David Huether, spokesman for the U.S. Travel Association, said come summer, the organization will have hard data to support what many speculate is the impact the polar vortex is having on travel during these severely cold months. Meanwhile, he said, it is hearing that occupancy rates are rising fast at hotels in the southwestern United States, particularly Arizona.

“At the same time, we are able to measure interest in travel to certain destinations, such as Florida,” he said. “We’ve seen throughout January that searches to travel destinations in that state have risen at a pretty high pace compared to previous months, which suggests an accelerated interest in getting away to warm destinations.”

A downside to this flurry of movement is that the deep freeze is causing a spike in flight cancellations at airports across the country, Huether said. And, he added, “The cold weather may extend the winter travel season for skiers and snowmobilers.”

Carol Lekki, owner of Carol’s Travel Service in Tinley Park, said her agency is experiencing a 20 percent spike over last year for bookings in February, March and even April.

“People are telling us they need a break, they need to get away,” Lekki said.

Their destinations of choice are all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean.

And even though rates are typically at their highest for such destinations this time of year, they’re booking anyway.

“Deep recession discounts are gone,” she said. “Integrity is back in pricing now.”

There are some discounts, particularly on last-minute specials, but not over spring break or Easter.

Lekki said most people are accepting of the higher prices.

“They say, ‘If that’s what it costs to get out of here, that’s what it costs,’ ” she said.

“I think life has improved financially for many people in this area, not all, but many,” Lekki said. “We’re seeing growth overall, even in summer trips to Europe and to the exotics, such as Australia and Asia.”

The news is the same at World Travel Mart in Oak Lawn.

Agent Jeri Mulligan said, “I’d say we’ve had at least a 30 percent spike in bookings.”

People want to get out of the cold, she said, and into the sand and warm waters of the Caribbean.

Orbitz, an online discount travel service headquartered in Chicago, tracks popularity among destinations. For January and February, 90 percent of the states or territories chosen are warm weather destinations, spokeswoman Marita Hudson Thomas said.

“Right now, we have 131 percent more tickets sold to warm weather versus cold weather destinations for January and February,” she said.

“Chicagoans, specifically, are increasingly going to the Caribbean, Arizona and Puerto Rico, which raised the most spots in popularity of states/territories to visit in January and February,” she said.

And while Chicagoans are doing their best to get out of town, Meghan Risch, of Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism marketing office, said, brave out-of-towners are continuing to head into the vortex.

During the first 18 days of January, five of which had a negative high temperature, Risch said, Chicago tourism was up in three key metrics: room demand, up 10.3 percent; room occupancy, up 5 percent; and revenue, up 9 percent. More specific, she said, demand for rooms among leisure travelers increased 6 percent.

Though it’s too early to start packing, Saunoris said, once we turn the corner into February, the waiting time for her trip will fly by.

“Everybody is complaining about this weather,” she said. “Everybody is dying to get out of Chicago.”

Then again, she said, given all the delays at O’Hare International and Midway airports this winter thanks to the snow and cold here and elsewhere: “Maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t try to get out sooner. We might have spent our vacation in an airport.”



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