This year's spring break anything but typical

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Student travelers go skydiving in Spain, an up-and-coming spring break destination according to StudentUniverse.
Student travelers go skydiving in Spain, an up-and-coming spring break destination according to StudentUniverse.

From the Zika virus to a shaky stock market, from low gas prices to a strong U.S. dollar, a number of factors that have come into play at the start of 2016 are throwing traditional spring break travel patterns for a loop.

Some spring breakers are going all out with far-flung trips, while others are simply opting for last-minute DIY staycations, taking advantage of low gas prices and hitting the road. Some are heading to Mexico, Florida or the Caribbean just as in years past, while others are steering clear of traditional fun-and-sun destinations.

This year, Julia Douglas of Chicago-based Jet Set World Travel reported that her office is seeing a greater variety in spring break destinations than in years past. Some of her agency’s top destinations include Aspen, Colo., Florida, California, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, Anguilla, Jamaica and Mexico. She said there has also been a strong emphasis on ski trips, with some spring breakers taking advantage of Canada’s weak dollar relative to U.S. currency to head north for deep snow. 

But Douglas also pointed to a couple factors that have made spring break a bit of a challenge this year.

First, she said that families whose net worth is tied to securities have been holding back a bit as they monitor the market’s recent downturn. Another challenge has been a scattered spring break calendar, with schools throughout the country closed at different times throughout February, March and April.

“The calendars aren’t really lining up this year,” Douglas said. “One of our families who has four kids, one parent is going with two kids and the other is going with the other two.”

She said these factors placed a higher demand for quick getaways during Presidents Day weekend, when kids and parents were all guaranteed time off during the same time frame.

“It also seems to work out better for families fearing volatility to be away for a shorter period of time,” she said.

Then there’s Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that has hit countries across Central and South America and the Caribbean as well as Mexico.

Kim Launer, a travel consultant at Chicago-based Royal Travel & Tours, said she had about 17 cancellations due to Zika concerns and felt that spring break travel was down overall this year compared with last year.

But Launer said people are still feeling the itch to go somewhere over the break, especially the college set. Mexico remains a top spring break destination, which was true not only for Launer but seemingly across the board.

Two of STA Travel’s three main spring break destinations so far this year have been in Mexico, according to Brandon Amelong, senior manager for product and partner marketing at the agency, which specializes in student travel. STA’s main spring break destinations this year are Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; Cancun; and Panama City Beach, Fla. Bookings to those three destinations together have increased by around 13% this year compared with 2015.

However, STA has noticed a reduction of interest in and travel to South America, with passenger volume down around 20% to that region, which Amelong said could possibly be attributed to Zika. 

John Caldwell, the president of MLT Vacations, said that he, too, was seeing bookings for spring break travel to Mexico, the Caribbean and Florida leading the way.

But Caldwell and others have noticed another interesting trend in this year’s bookings: a subtle shift away from the traditional resort getaways to slightly more up-and-coming resort areas within popular spring break destinations.

Panama City Beach, Fla., remains one of the most popular destinations for college students on spring break.
Panama City Beach, Fla., remains one of the most popular destinations for college students on spring break.

“We have seen some increased demand this year in less traditional spring break markets,” Caldwell said. In Mexico, he said, “Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit have seen demand increase significantly. In the Caribbean, Aruba has seen a nice spike in bookings and Nassau/Paradise Island and Grand Cayman are both outpacing traditional spring break destinations like Punta Cana and Jamaica.”

A recent Orbitz.com survey of 804 respondents found increased interest in less traditional spring break destinations this year, such as Panama City, Panama; Mexico’s Riviera Maya; Dublin; Toronto; Mesa, Ariz.; and Carlsbad, Calif.

Student travel specialist StudentUniverse said its 2016 spring break bookings are up 37% compared with 2015.

But StudentUniverse is seeing some relatively different trends for spring break among students than others have reported. For example, the company’s top spring break destination for the past several years now, including 2016, has been New York. This year, other top locales are London, Los Angeles, Orlando, Dublin and Miami, with just 36% of the company’s spring break bookings for domestic locations.

Five international cities made the top 20 in StudentUniverse’s spring break destinations for the first time in 2016: Dublin (No. 5), Barcelona (No. 9), Rome (No. 12), Madrid (No. 15) and Tokyo (No. 16).

“A lot of students are looking to spend their spring break having experiences that they can add to their resume and talk about, not just relaxing on a beach,” said Danielle Dougan, public relations manager for StudentUniverse. She said that only 40% of domestic spring breakers and 21% of international spring breakers are going to the beach or warmer climes this year.

Brittney Magner, a luxury and family travel consultant and colleague of Kim Launer at Royal Travel & Tours, said she was able to get most of her spring break travel on the books in the fall before the current economic uncertainty and news of the Zika virus hit. Her spring break bookings doubled this year, with most families heading to Mexico, the Caribbean, the lower 48 states and some to Europe.

She said families that canceled due to Zika concerns ended up rebooking in Arizona, Florida or California.

“Being a luxury family travel specialist, spring break has always been extremely important, as all of my clients are looking for that special one-week break with their children,” Magner said. “And this was a very busy spring break.”

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