Florida, Alaska and cruises top vacation picks


When it comes to choosing a summer vacation, a lot of Marylanders are going to the dogs.

Don't be alarmed, however: The dogs are huskies -- and they're pulling sleds in Alaska.

Thanks to massive publicity surrounding this March's 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the 49th state is high on most travel agents' lists of popular summer destinations -- whether the trips take visitors to the sites of the grueling Anchorage-to-Nome dog-sled race or on a cruise through Alaska's spectacular inland passage.

"The popularity of Alaska is definitely increasing," says Cooper Walker, co-owner of Walker Wilson Travel in Baltimore. "It has more national parks than any other state."

Alaska probably won't rival Florida as a summer vacation spot any time soon. Yet the popularity surge of the formerly exotic destination may be a sign that the travel industry, a victim of the Persian Gulf war and the recession, is recovering from a dismal 1991.

This spring, travel agents report the phones are ringing again as customers, seeking adventures outside the state, book vacations and inquire about destinations -- although no one is suggesting that business is back to 1990 levels.

So, with the travel business on an upswing, an informal survey of Baltimore-area travel agents asked this question: What are the most popular summer vacation destinations for 1992?

"No. 1, head and shoulders above the rest, is Orlando, Fla., and Walt Disney World," says Richard Purdy, manager of Pierson Travel Service in Catonsville. "It's one of the world's great tourist spots. A lot of people go to Florida every summer -- it's amazing."

The Caribbean, too, remains popular with vacationers, Mr. Purdy adds -- especially for people who prefer the comfort and convenience of a cruise ship.

"You can get great deals in cruises by sailing out of Miami and doing the Caribbean," he says. "The popularity of cruises is really coming back since the gulf war -- and because the recession seems to have abated over the last five months."

Several travel agents say that savvy vacationers can take advantage of great bargains currently available for summer cruises.

"Right now, most cruise lines offer good discounts," says Eric Washburn, manager of Harford Travel Service in Bel Air. "It's because new ships are coming on line almost monthly."

Caribbean cruises will offer great summer values, according to John Hicks, owner of Going Places in Glen Burnie. "Cruise lines are very competitive right now," he reports. "And airlines are offering special deals like two-for-one rates -- it's really rock-bottom. You can get a seven-day cruise for $800 on a good ship. Think about it."

For landlubbers who prefer a single destination in the islands, Cancun, an island off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and the Bahamas are good bets.

"Cancun is always popular," says Mr. Purdy, "especially with the 20- through 40-year-old crowd. Also, you can go to the Bahamas. . . . It's low season there in the summer and rates are less expensive. You can get four nights for $500 -- including air fare, hotel, everything."

Another option that's popular with families is combining a trip to Walt Disney World with a cruise to the Bahamas. Look for seven-day packages offering three nights of cruising and four nights at Disney World -- or vice versa.

"I've done it twice with my two girls and I think it's a good value," says Karen Pedersen, a travel consultant with Holidays to Go in Columbia. "It looks costly until you break it down day by day. For a family of three in a low season week, it costs between $2,500 and $2,900, but that includes everything except food when you're at Disney World -- even airfare."

Although Florida and the Caribbean get more visitors, Europe is still a "must" destination for many vacationers. But this summer, many Marylanders may pass up a trip across the Atlantic.

"We'll have to wait and see about Europe's popularity this summer," says Peggy McClure, owner of Bon Voyage Travel in Roland Park. "It's been popular this spring, but I expect it to drop down because of airfare increases to Europe."

If you've already cruised the Caribbean and vacationed in Europe, you might want to consider Alaska. But you'd better hurry.

"Seven-day cruises on Alaska's inland passage are selling out already," says Mr. Washburn of Harford Travel. "More ships are going in, but demand outstrips supply. Although Alaska is for the experienced traveler, it offers beautiful scenery and luxurious travel." Some vacationers, however, are booking summer excursions a little more offbeat than cruises, Walt Disney World and the Caribbean.

"I'm getting a lot of inquiries for the Amtrak 'All Aboard America' fares," Ms. Pedersen reports. "You can do quite a bit of train travel for a reasonable price. It's similar to a Eurailpass, which allows unlimited train travel in Europe during a limited time period."

It's also the kind of travel that attracts the type of vacationer who's more experienced -- and, maybe, a little bored with the run-of-the-mill vacation.

"People are looking for something different to do," Ms. Pedersen theorizes. "Maybe they like the idea of seeing the world from ground-level rather than an airplane."

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