Travel is a luxury for cash-strapped Americans By Art Pfenning / December 18, 2003 Share 1 -- he Travel Industry Association's (TIA) fourth-quarter Traveler Sentiment Index shows a slight decline from the third-quarter results, recording its lowest level since the beginning of this year and at its second-lowest showing ever. However, the decline does not come from a lack of consumer interest in taking a pleasure/vacation trip -- those numbers still are relatively strong. The faltering index is being driven downward by a decline in respondents' perceived ability to take a trip, based upon personal finances and, in smaller part, a decline in having the free time necessary to travel.According to the TIA, travel prices have risen by 4.1% overall since January; air fares have risen 5.2% over the same time period. This accounts, in some measure, for travelers feeling a pinch in their wallets. But the index components also speak to another issue: high unemployment and surging worker productivity.Americans will be hard-pressed to travel the way they did a short time ago until the U.S. economy picks up and the nation's jobless return to work.Art Pfenning is the research director for Northstar Travel Media, Travel Weekly's parent company. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.