News and Tribune

April 26, 2013

STAWAR: Vacation planning: Then and now

By TERRY STAWAR
Local columnist

Last week was the official deadline for filing your federal income tax return for 2013. It also marked the unofficial deadline for getting your summer vacation plans in shape. 

My wife Diane and I just made it in under the wire. As far back as February, half of all Americans said they had already made reservations or had plans for their summer vacation this year, according to American Express. With such fierce competition, closing the arrangements on that perfect summer rental or getting those ideal flight dates confirmed are becoming less and less likely. 

According to research by Ayelet Gneezy and Suzanne Shu, marketing researchers at the University of California, people are as prone to procrastinate when it comes to pleasurable events as they are to unpleasant activities such as doing their taxes or going to the dentist. 

According to the U.S. Travel Association statistics, leisure travel is a $564 billion industry worldwide. Three out of four of all domestic trips taken are for leisure purposes. 

Vacation planning is essentially a personality-driven activity. Some travelers love to research and plan, while others prefer to “wing it.” According to CNN reporter Marnie Hunter, “Some travelers relish planning trips right down to the last timed museum entry. For others, that kind of scheduling sounds like vacation prison.” 

To us compulsive planners, those “play-it-by-ear” folks appear a little careless, or perhaps just plain lazy. 

Digital technology has changed almost everything, including vacation planning. Today, this process requires hours of studying various websites. Back in the day, before the Internet dominated everything, vacation planning was more of an art. It required a long-term strategy of acquiring and carefully analyzing multitudes of travel books and brochures, as well as newspaper and magazine articles. 

Diane once cut out a travel article about vacationing in Yellowstone National Park in the winter. It took her 25 years, but eventually I did find myself in sensible footwear dodging buffalo on a wild snowmobile ride to Old Faithful. In the days before Google Maps and GPS, difficult-to-fold paper maps — obtained for free from filling stations — played a key role in vacation planning. In order to find just the right route, I remember my father pouring over his Phillips 66 maps for hours, like Napoleon planning his invasion of Russia. 

People who were too wealthy and busy to figure out their own route belonged to fancy automobile clubs, who would do it for them, and then mail back detailed maps with the route highlighted in yellow.

Of course, the best source of travel information came from word-of-mouth. The skilled vacation planner was constantly alert to such recommendations and hints. This required not only sifting through countless conversations, but also judging the credibility and accuracy of the informant. You also never knew where you might run across something important. Diane, for example, learned about a quaint log cabin near the Smoky Mountains for rent at a dental appointment. Too bad the homemade brochure didn’t mention that the cabin was considered to be haunted.

Today’s vacation planning consist mostly of viewing various websites, including the online travel oriented ones like Travelocity and Orbitz, lodging sites like Hotel.com, Airbnb.com and HomeAway.com, as well as specific websites for parks, attractions or resorts. 

Diane does most of the actual trip-planning while I serve mainly as a technical consultant and occasionally look up restaurants and search for coupons and discounts at our destination. According to the U.S. Travel Association, 80 percent of travel decisions are made by women. Other gender differences in vacation planning are noted in a survey by HomeAway.com. For example, the average woman takes 10 pair of underwear for a one-week trip, while the average man takes only three. The average woman also packs about 18 different outfits and wears about 10. 

Today’s travel planner is also confronted with an added challenge — entomophobia, or more simply the fear of bedbugs. In the past, this wasn’t such a big issue thanks to the widespread proliferation of DDT. While those pesky environmentalists may have prevented the contamination of our water supply, they have also thrown every potential vacation lodging under suspicion. 

When we were planning our last trip to the New York area, we found a website that purported to have up to date information regarding the last report of bedbugs at a number of hotels and motels. We were surprised at the number of bed bug reports from very famous and expensive hotels. Although the status of a hotel can change with every new guest, we relied on the information provided and seemed to do fairly well in picking a place to stay.

People may still rely on word-of-mouth to make vacation choices, but today it’s usually strangers’ reviews posted online at websites like TripAdvisor.com, which publishes thousands of user reviews on hotels, restaurants and attractions. I’m surprised how often the reviews contradict each other, which only encourages us to seek out further information. 

Rod Cuthbert is a travel industry veteran and co-author of “Vacation Rules,” a book advising you how to plan your vacation. He says, “It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the vacation research and booking process …” 

For some people, the search may become more fun than the vacation itself. Studies by a Dutch tourism researcher and scientists at the University of Washington and Northwestern all found that people reported the greatest amount of happiness in the time leading up to their vacations, rather than during the vacation. According to Cuthbert, “People enjoy the process of searching for destinations, looking for deals, planning activities and booking everything online.” What they often forget is to establish an overall goal for the trip, resulting in a vacation that is “good, but not great.” 

According to “Vacation Rules,” one of the biggest mistakes in planning trips is including too many components. My father was certainly guilty of this. He never wanted to stay anywhere for more than one night, so most of our summer vacations were like being on the lam for two weeks out of each year. 

Most of the time was spent driving. As a kid I got to see a lot of America, but most of it was blurred as we whizzed by in our Chevrolet. Also to my mother’s perpetual annoyance, no matter where we went, on the way home, my father always wanted to make a surprise visit to some distant relatives in Kansas City, even if we had to drive 500 miles out of our way to do so. 

Journalist Jennifer Harper from the Washington Times reports that many Americans feel guilty about taking vacations. For many people, fears about job security may be a major factor, according to therapist Raymond Folen, who says, “taking time off makes them feel bad or worthless.” He says that such people were often raised by parents who taught them that, “a good child is a productive child.” 

Humorist Davis Sedaris writes that being away from home always made his father “anxious and crabby.” This was certainly true in my family. My father never seemed to trust anything that smacked purely of leisure, including reading for enjoyment, playing sports, and, of course, taking vacations. I thought of him recently when I heard somebody say, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” Since he always liked electronics, technology and bargains — and was committed to a do-it-yourself philosophy — I suspect he would have approved of online vacation planning. 

 Good luck with your vacation plans this year. I hope you find some good deals, interesting things to do, and most importantly, don’t let the bed bugs bite.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com