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Holiday Travelers Welcome Back The Vacation

Forget the staycation; more Americans are heading out for far-away fun this holiday weekend.
Eric Risberg
Forget the staycation; more Americans are heading out for far-away fun this holiday weekend.

This Memorial Day weekend is kicking off what promises to be the best vacation travel season since 2007.

"Workers are starting to regain enough confidence in their employment situation to ask for and actually use vacation time," John Challenger said in a written analysis. He's chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an outplacement firm based in Chicago.

Over the past three summers, the travel and leisure sectors have been hurt by the surge in "staycations," the stay-at-home alternatives for people who couldn't afford destination vacations.

Once the recession took hold in 2008, millions of Americans had no choice but to look for fun in their own backyards because they had lost jobs or their work hours had been cut. In addition, many people who still had good jobs stayed home, too — fearful that they might be next in the unemployment line.

Today, the headlines about mass layoffs are gone. In fact, planned layoffs are now at the lowest level since the late 1990s. Challenger statistics show that for the first four months of 2011, employers announced 167,239 job cuts — down 24 percent from a year ago.

"Job security is the strongest it has been in several years, as corporate job cutting shrinks to pre-recession lows," Challenger said.

That change is helping bring back vacation planning. Here's one way to measure the rebound: The Air Transport Association, which represents major carriers, said that in the summer of 2007, domestic airlines carried about 218 million passengers. After the recession hit, that number of passengers fell to just 200 million in the summer of 2009. With 18 million fewer people getting on airplanes, the downturn rippled out to hotels, rental cars, restaurants and so on.

This year, the trade group estimates that during the June-August period, the number of passengers boarding planes will tick up to 206 million. The lodging industry also is reporting gains, with occupancy and room rates running roughly 5 percent higher than last year.

The uptick already is being felt this holiday weekend. AAA, the auto club, estimates that 34.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more over this Memorial Day weekend. That's the best figure since 2007, despite this year's sharp increases in both gasoline and plane tickets costs.

IBM found a different way to estimate travel plans. It used advanced computer analytics to look across the social media world — examining blog posts and tweets — to see if people were talking about canceling their Memorial Day plans because of inflation.

IBM said its analysis identified more than 11,500 individual references to travel and Memorial Day, and found that just 1.6 percent of this year's posts discussed canceling Memorial Day trips, versus 2.8 percent in 2010.

"Memorial Day travel experienced a gain of more than 14 percent in 2010, and this year we expect to add slightly to that gain, due to an increase in air travel and an improvement in the overall domestic economic picture," AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet said in a statement.

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Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.