Hottest ticket for Minnesotans? Anywhere far from the cold

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 8, 2014 - 10:28 PM

Even more than usual in March, Minnesotans are desperate for a respite from relentless winter weather. They’re flocking to airline sites and travel agents with the same mission — to go anywhere warm.

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A young boy snorkles off of Ranguana Caye, in March 2005, a small island off the coast of Placencia, Belize, a beach town in the southern part of the country. The tiny country of Belize, a little smaller than Massachusetts, has caught the collective eye of vacationing hordes for years.

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The breaking point for Melanie DeLuca was when the windchill hit 26 degrees below zero. That’s when she and her husband looked up airfares, sick of towering snowbanks, icy roads and long stretches of subzero temps.

“We didn’t care where it was, as long as it was warm,” she said.

The Maple Plain couple flew to Florida last week, extending husband Mike’s two-day business trip to a weeklong sunny, 80-degree escape aboard a cruise ship to Cozumel.

Even more than usual in March, Minnesotans are desperate for a respite from relentless winter weather. They’re flocking to airline sites and travel agents with the same mission — to go anywhere warm. And with many school spring breaks at hand, a busy travel month is even busier.

Local travel agents say sales are up 30 to 50 percent so far this year. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport experienced a 6 percent jump in passengers in January compared to last year. Last week, for the first time ever, all six parking ramps at both terminals were full.

It’s as if Minnesotans are taking a collective spring break, fleeing to any place where the term “polar vortex” doesn’t exist.

“It’s been hopping. … I think everybody just needs a break,” said Jennifer Yokiel, president of Minnetonka Travel in Wayzata, which has had a 30 percent uptick in sales so far this year compared to last year. “Everything” is to warm places, she said. “I don’t think we could give away a ticket to Detroit.”

The Twin Cities has already had the fourth snowiest meteorological winter on record and the coldest winter in 36 years — all after last year’s winter, which ended with snow in May. Now, with more gray skies and snow possible this week, even the hardiest Minnesotans are bailing, trading shovels and scarves for sandals and sunscreen.

“This part of winter has been brutal,” said Kristen Bruner of Eden Prairie.

She doesn’t usually leave for the holidays, but sick of the cold, she booked a Christmas trip to Florida. Then, last month, feeling the winter blues, she took a quick trip to California. And now, a two-week trip to Orlando this week to golf, run and sit by a pool.

“I feel like I have to get out of here,” said Bruner, a longtime Minnesotan. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown just less patient” with the weather.

While some winter-weary friends can’t afford a trip, she said others are sticking it out until spring. In fact, Explore Minnesota Tourism says business at downhill ski resorts and other lodging is up this year thanks to the extra snow.

Not that it matters to Bruner.

“Everywhere you look, you just see white forever; it’s kind of depressing,” she said. “It’s hard to believe it will ever be green.”

Winter blues

Many others share her cabin fever.

The airport has had 134,000 more passengers compared to this time last year, according to the latest numbers in January. Spokesman Patrick Hogan said it’s because more Minnesotans are escaping to warm places, and low-fare carriers such as Sun Country and Spirit Airlines are expanding; Spirit more than doubled its number of passengers in December and January from this time last year.

That’s translated to a bigger boon at warm-destination airports such as Southwest Florida International in Fort Myers, which had a 3 percent increase in passengers in January from last year. Some states, such as Hawaii, are even targeting cities like Chicago with marketing campaigns featuring images of beaches and pools.

I’m “ready to be done, [we’ve had] way too much snow,” Tammy Woker of Woodbury said before flying Thursday to Phoenix, which she picked largely for “guaranteed sunshine.”

That’s exactly what AAA Minnesota travel agents are hearing from travelers, requesting locations that are sure to be warm, such as the Caribbean, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Hawaii.

“The location is not the top issue,” AAA spokeswoman Gail Weinholzer said. “It’s ‘I want to go somewhere next week for $3,000, and I want to go somewhere warm.’ ”

While March is typically busy during spring breaks, she said so far this year, the number of flights booked January through June is up 33 to 50 percent compared to last year.

“People have had it,” said Terry Trippler, a Twin Cities-based national airline analyst. “It’s going to be a good winter for airlines.”

He said flight prices have held steady so far this year, but last-minute flights will cost more than normal because of the increase in demand. In fact, last-minute travelers may be out of luck.

At Minnetonka Travel, Yokiel said affordable flights are booked this month, except for some to San Diego. Or, she said, there are lots of spots on Alaskan cruises — or to Detroit.

“Warmer weather flight seats are at a premium,” Weinholzer added.

Think spring

Luckily, spring weather may be in sight in Minnesota.

Forecasts for the metro show temps will remain below normal but will stay in the 30s and 40s through the next few weeks. Star Tribune meteorologist Paul Douglas says no more subzero temps are in sight. And although it’s too far out to say with certainty, the National Weather Service’s 45-day trend shows 60s the second week of April.

But it’s too late for people like Trippler. After 37 years in the Twin Cities, he and his wife are moving to Rapid City, S.D., which has had temperatures in the 60s this winter.

“We’ve had it,” he said. “I seriously think we’re going to see more people leaving Minneapolis-St. Paul because of this winter.”

 

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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