Travel is a luxury for cash-strapped Americans

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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 [email protected].

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