Travel agents: Feel free to vacation almost anywhere

Bargains available all over the globe

Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Alaskans were among those hesitant about traveling after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"In fact, business came to a complete halt for a good three weeks; the phone didn't ring," said Juneau travel agent Kristen Josserand of Alaska Travel & Tours. "It was sad. But things are picking up now, and people are still planning to go out of the country in 2002."

Local travel agents say they have good news for Southeast Alaska residents planning vacations in the next six months. There are sweet deals out there, many offered by resorts or hotels trying to attract business after the lull that followed the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.

"If you're planning a winter vacation, I'd recommend either Palm Springs or Hawaii," said Shannon Sweeney, who founded Great Escapes travel agency 12 years ago. For those reluctant to travel, she recommended "staying a little closer to home, which makes people feel more at ease, especially if they have children. Prices are very good in Hawaii right now because of the lack of tourism, and you can get to Palm Springs easily from Juneau in one afternoon."

Mexico is probably the most popular vacation destination for Juneau residents because Alaska Airlines flies there and the company's $50 companion coupons and frequent-flier mile deals cut travel costs, Sweeney said. Rooms at some Mexico hotels and resorts are offering tempting deals during this time, normally their peak season; some rooms have been discounted more than 40 percent. Nevertheless, she has hesitations about Mexico based on personal experience.

"There are communications problems; people have trouble getting in touch with you if you're in Mexico - if there are problems," she said.

Jodi Schwantes, an agent with Uniglobe Travel, recommends "knowing what's going on" before you head for the airport.

"Since Sept. 11, there have been many security policy changes (with both airports and airlines)," Schwantes said, "and you want to check those things out. For example, if you are not in the boarding area within 30 minutes of boarding, they will give your seat away. You used to have to be there only 15 minutes ahead."

To find out what items can't be taken aboard in luggage or other recent security rulings, browse on the Web site of the airline for details, she said.

Schwantes also suggests getting a passport if you are headed for Canada or Mexico.

"It's not mandatory, but it is now a recommendation," she said.

Josserand recommends travelers have their identification in order and confirm all flights 24 hours in advance "because there have been a lot of unscheduled changes." But she feels travel is safe. "The last flight I took from Anchorage to Juneau, I sat next to a federal marshal. Airlines are taking security seriously and almost bending over backwards. Travel has never been safer."

Travelers concerned about safety should consider their own back yard, said Shannon Wiley, manager of Goldbelt Family Travel.

"Alaska is safe," Wiley said. "A lot of people who are Alaskans have never vacationed here, and there are all sorts of things to see like Denali, Fairbanks and the Kenai River."

Wiley, who has worked in the travel industry since 1986, said she would steer vacationers away from the Middle East but not from Europe, where there are bargains. For instance, BritRail Classic Passes, which allow unlimited travel on the National Railroads of Britain, are discounted 25 percent through Feb. 18. FrenchWaterways is taking 30 percent off spring departures of its eight-passenger barge; the price is $2,750 per person, double occupancy, in contrast to the regular cost of $4,000. Italiatour is offering off-season packages through March 10 to Rome or Florence starting at $599 a person, double occupancy, which includes round-trip flights from Chicago.

"For the most part, travel is safe in most parts of the world," Wiley said. "You do need to be aware of travel advisories issued by the State Department, and we can pull those up for customers."

"Build up some confidence, get out there and do it," Wiley said.

Nancy Dillman, a publicist for Hacienda Beach Resort in Cabo San Lucas, Baja, Mexico, visited Juneau a week ago to confer with travel agents.

"I'm seeing a downtown in tourism world-wide that ranges from 15 to 40 percent depending on the location," Dillman said. "Places like Las Vegas are down the least, about 10 percent. Mexico in general was down until the beginning of December."

However, Dillman sees the situation in Alaska as "a different animal" because every flight she has taken here has been completely sold out.

Travel agents in Juneau and Anchorage told Dillman that the No. 1 travel destination for Alaskans has always been Hawaii, but now they are traveling to Mexico. "It's very easy to promote Cabo when it's minus 14 degrees in Anchorage and 84 degrees there," she said with a laugh.

She also mentions New York City as a "great value" now.

"The food is still exorbitant - a bagel and cream cheese, $8," she said. "But theater tickets and hotels are totally on sale." NYC & Company Convention and Visitors Bureau said that hotels rooms had only a 55 percent occupancy rate in late October, 30 restaurants closed, three downtown hotels closed and Broadway ticket sales are down 26 percent.

Local travel agents are among those planning long-distance trips.

Josserand, who founded Alaska Travel & Tours in 1997, is headed for Micronesia in January.

"It's my gift to myself," Josserand said. "I am just being certified in scuba diving, and three oceans converge there, with more than 1,500 species of fish. The weather is 85 degrees and the water is 75 degrees, which sounds pretty good. I have no fears about going."

"I am myself planning a vacation to Mexico in March, and I feel safe there," said Wiley of Goldbelt Family Travel.

"I think the United States will be on sale for the next three to six months," said Dillman, a former hotelier who has been in the travel business for 20 years. She recommends looking for hotel bargains at the Web site www.HotelDiscount.com. or 800-964-6835. Hotel Hacienda Beach Resort can be reached at haciendacabo.com.

Information about BritRail passes is available at (877) 677-1066 or www.britrailnet. Details about seven-day cruises on the Loire on the barge Bon Vivant can be found at (866) 498-3920. Italiatour, the tour division of Alitalia, has information at (800) 845-3365 or www.italiatour.com.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.



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