Caribbean, Florida Top List of Hot-Selling Holiday Destinations

NEW YORK -- The holiday travel season is shaping up as a lucrative one. As one top supplier to the Caribbean put it, the question in mid-November is not "what's hot?" but rather, "what's left?"

Steve Lassman, vice president of sales for Travel Impressions in Farmingdale, N.Y., said there is very limited availability for its hottest-selling sun destinations. "Aruba, Cancun, Orlando, Jamaica, Nassau and Puerto Rico are far and away the best [sellers for us]," he said.

At Delta Vacations, top draws are Grand Cayman, the Bahamas and St. Thomas, said Chris Hamaway, senior manager of marketing for the firm, which is operated by Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Certified Vacations. Hamaway said that St. Thomas' refurbished hotel infrastructure "is in its best shape in years, if not ever," and clients are eager to go.

Perhaps nothing is so alluring, however, as good value. "When someone calls and says, 'Where can I still go for Christmas and New Year's,' and the cruise lines are sending over last-minute sales, people are scarfing them up," said Cyndi Napolitan, travel consultant with Worldwide Travel in Lancaster, Pa. "My No. 1 seller has been cruises in the Caribbean," she said, adding that "cruises have been a better deal with pre-packaged air. I don't have to worry about clearing space. [Cruise lines] do it all for you."

Bargain hunters also can aim a bit farther north. Although Thanksgiving and the Christmas-Hannukah period tend to be peak periods for Central and South Florida, clients who can end their vacations a few days after Thanksgiving or New Year's will find significantly reduced rates for hotels and cars once the holiday guests depart.

Hoteliers said agents are likely to find holiday bargains at the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa airport hotels because commercial travel dwindles during the season. For families headed to Florida, Amelia Island Plantation, northeast of Jacksonville, offers rack rates that are about $100 a night cheaper for a one-bedroom suite than those in effect during the hotel's March to May peak season.

Orlando, even with its 85,000 hotel rooms, will have few of them available near theme parks during both Thanksgiving and Christmas, predicted Maurice Honor, vice president of Kingdom Tours, Plains, Pa., a major Florida wholesaler.

Gogo Worldwide Vacations, in Ramsey, N.J., already had sold out one of its three Christmas charters to Orlando on Kiwi; some seats still remained for Dec. 24 to 28 and Jan. 1 to 4, and on packages with higher-priced scheduled air service, a spokeswoman said.

But good holiday room rates still were available in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, according to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Agents looking for rooms there will find the bureau's reservations service available to them at (800) 345-6710.

Despite its stormy autumn, Mexico was attracting significant holiday travelers. At Peak Travel in San Jose, Calif., Cancun and Puerto Vallarta were the most sought-after beach resorts, according to retailer Terry Hall, who said the two destinations were nearly sold out. Terry Hill, owner of Franciscan Travel in San Francisco, said Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Los Cabos were in high demand.

Not all holiday revelers necessarily are sun seekers. As Jack Young Jr., president and chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Clement Tours & Travel, put it: "I think for value, [clients] should go to Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia."

Tom Crabb, owner of Dallas-based Lakewood Travel, cited the favorable exchange rate as an incentive to lure clients to Canada. "The 71% exchange rate is very nice," he said. "You get a good bang for your buck up there."

Operators reported that holiday theme tours to Europe are selling well this year. DER, in Chicago, typically sells out on its two Christmas market tours in Germany, according to a spokesman, and this year will be no different, with bookings up by 18% year-to-date.

Henry Magenheim, Gay Nagle Myers, Kristin O'Meara, Cathy Carroll, Tyler Davidson, Lori Tenny and Dinah A. Spritzer contributed to this report.

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