Bad weather, times don't freeze travel

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 15, 2009 - 12:45 AM

Despite the economy, many Minnesotans still trade in the cold for sunny destinations.

When Nicole Niemeyer got home from work Jan. 28, temperatures had already dipped below zero for 13 days that month.

"I got home and said, 'Let's get out of here,' '' Niemeyer said.

Her fiancé, Mark Schwanke, replied: "You read my mind."

The Olivia, Minn., couple went to a travel agent in Willmar the next day. One week later they were on a flight to Vegas. "Come hell or high water, we need to get out" and escape the cold and bad economic news, Schwanke, 25, said as he sat sipping a beer while waiting to fly out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The travel industry is struggling as people stay home in the uncertain economy. Airlines are being forced to slash fares as fewer fliers than expected turn out.

But some Minnesotans appear to be bucking that trend, many of them feeling forced to venture south by what's so far been an unseasonably cold winter.

December and January were the coldest such period since 1983-84. An 86-hour below zero stretch in mid-January in the Twin Cities was the longest in 12 years. Statewide it was the coldest January since 1994.

Airlines and travel agents say the cold means a bump in calls for flights out of town, but they said people are adjusting their trips to fit their newly trimmed budgets by going for fewer days, going to more modest destinations or booking closer to when they are leaving to try to catch a better deal.

"When it's really cold, bookings go up," said Wendy Williams Blackshaw, vice president of marketing for Sun Country Airlines. "We are the only people who actually pray for cold weather."

Despite seeing a softening of the market, she said Sun Country's bookings were up in January over last year but declined to release specific numbers.

Roger Miller, owner of Minnetonka Travel in Wayzata, said business in January and so far this month is up 5 percent over last year.

"People are looking for value without question," he said. "They are looking to do a more reduced type of vacation. Instead of 10 days they might go seven or eight. Things like that, to help keep their budgets in line."

Minneapolis travel expert Terry Trippler agreed, saying people are still getting out of town if they can. "If they can at all afford it, they will find a way. It may not be Cancun; it may be three days in Las Vegas. They may adjust where they are going because of the economy, but they are still gonna go."

That's what Niemeyer and Schwanke did when they went to the travel agent. He works for a grain elevator and she works at a manufacturing plant, and with no money set aside for the trip, they told their travel agent to take them someplace warm.

"We needed to get out and get away from everything. The cold. Jobs. Everything. It's gotten old, very old," said Schwanke, who said it was his first plane trip and the first warm-weather trip for both of them. It was "just good to get away and forget about life for a few days and warm up."

Ryan and Nathalie Gardner of Muskegon, Mich, who were on the same Las Vegas-bound flight as Niemeyer and Schwanke, said they planned their trip and had the money set aside for it. "The economy is bad, but we got a hell of a deal," said Ryan, 26. "We wanted to get out of the cold, and we still have our jobs."

And even if we aren't thinking of escaping the cold on our own, others are steering us in that direction.

Blackshaw said Sun Country has what's called a weather trigger with WCCO-AM. When a blizzard is forecast or it's below zero, Sun Country has spots that automatically run on the radio station.

"The whole reason we do it on WCCO is that's where people tune in for school closings," she said. "We want to get those people when they are really engaged in the weather."

Staff writer Bill McAuliffe contributed to this report. Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

  • WAYS TO SAVE

    Here are a few tips from Consumer Reports:

    Be flexible: Leaving very early or very late in the day can mean a much lower airfare, as can flying on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sundays are the costliest for domestic flights; Saturdays are for international travel.

    Check around: Start with large travel-agency sites such as Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity. But always check the carriers' own sites as well, because they often offer fares found only there. Buying directly from the airline also eliminates the transaction fees charged by third-party sites.

    Bring the basics: With so many airlines now charging $15 and up for checked bags, pack only what you'll really need or get by with a carry-on.

    Seek discounts: Many are offered to senior citizens, children, students, military personnel, government workers, and members of organizations such as AAA and AARP.

    For Consumer Reports' complete list, go to: www.consumerreports.org/cro/money/travel/index.htm. Click on "How to Find Travel Deals."

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