48° Good Afternoon
48° Good Afternoon

THE HIGH END: Economy, shmeconomy - the rich still travel

High gas prices may mean fewer families will be headed to the beach or the mountains this summer, but rising prices likely won't keep wealthy people from missing vacation.

Although their stock portfolios may be in decline, wealthy Americans who are less likely to feel the impact of a slowing economy and rising energy and food prices are largely going ahead with their vacation plans even though consumer confidence is at a 16-year low.

Households earning $100,000 or more have been taking a larger share of hotel rooms since 2000 and now account for about a third of hotel stays, according to D.K. Shifflet & Associates in McLean, Va.

TCS Expeditions, which offers tours via private jets, is sold out for 2008 and nearly sold out for 2009 even though the standard price for trips such as "Wildlife of the World" and "History's Lost Cities" is $64,950 a person, said Melanie Cole, vice president of sales in Seattle.

Guests who're ponying up for a one-of-a-kind experience are well aware of the economic uncertainties facing the United States, said Martha Wharton, vice president of marketing.

Instead of seeking outright opulence, many travelers are now seeking vacations that educate as well as entertain. Travelers are seeking out language immersion programs and cooking schools.

"They want more than tiki torches and umbrellas in their drinks," said Jennifer Reynolds, director of travel agency sales for International Expeditions. "They want substance-driven travel. They're looking at something that has some 'mind candy.'"

While it's difficult to quantify, one thing is clear: occupancy rates are higher at the top-tier hotels such as Ritz Carlton than at lower-end "economy" chains, said Bobby Bowers of Smith Travel Research in Hendersonville, Tenn.

That stands to reason: Those who earn the least are the first ones to cancel their vacations in tough times, and they're more likely to stay in economy hotels.

Higher-end hotels, meanwhile, seem to be holding up better despite a drop-off in corporate travel.

Helping to offset the drop in business travelers is the weak value of the U.S. dollar, which has discouraged Americans from traveling abroad for their vacations while luring Europeans who see travel to the United States as a relative bargain, Bowers said.

Travel Extras