The unofficial kickoff of the summer vacation season this week found a growing number of people on the move, marking a steady return to travel as the economy recovers and consumer confidence improves.

In fact, if the surveys and forecasts are right, 2013 could prove to be one of the strongest summers on record.

Incentives, promotions, value-adds and a bounty of new apps are also helping to fuel interest in and demand for travel.

Orbitz summer travel surveyResearchers and travel executives are encountering a few surprises as they look into what's hot, what's trending, who is traveling and what role price is playing in consumers' decisions to hit the road or stay home. (Click here or on the image for a larger view of a chart depicting the results of an booking data and summer travel survey.) 

For example, John Lovell, president of, said last week that Europe has come roaring back as clients get past their airfare sticker shock.

"Europe is back, and it's clear that airfares no longer are an issue, as they had been over the past 18 months," Lovell said. "Consumers see it for what it is. Much like gas prices, consumers were waiting it out to see if pricing would come down. And in this case, they have found that the higher prices are here to stay. It is what it is, and consumers are seeing it that way."

He added that demand for river cruising is "exceeding expectations," an observation echoed by Michelle Weller, vice president of sales and customer service for Travel Leaders in Houston.

"Europe became the hot spot in the past month, especially Viking river cruises, which now are sold out," Weller said. "We have people begging for river cruises in Europe. I've got tons of bookings for Europe packages, too, with Paris, London, Italy and the Mediterranean topping the list."

River cruises are also selling quickly at Travel Leaders in Mesa, Ariz., according to project manager Sarah Nelson.

"This is the first year we've noticed an increase in bookings for more than 12 months out," Nelson said. "We've had clients comment that they are less concerned with the economy."

The agency also has more first-time clients heading for Europe, especially Spain and Italy, than it has had since 2008.

Demand for Europe is reflected in several surveys, as well.

Italy, Spain, France and the U.K. popped up on Ensemble's 2013 summer survey as among the most popular international destinations for family travel, followed by Mexico, Hawaii and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

Italy came out on top in ASTA's Summer Hot Spots survey as the most popular international summer destination booked by ASTA agents. It was followed by the U.K.

In ASTA's city rankings, London, Paris and Rome were the leaders in Europe, with Orlando, Las Vegas and San Francisco leading the pack on the domestic front for the 11th year in a row.

"Some things never go out of style," said ASTA President and CEO Zane Kerby. "A family-friendly destination such as Orlando, and a destination like Las Vegas, with thrills and excitement, are perennial favorites among Americans."

A survey of more than 1,000 TD Ameritrade investors suggested that prices do not appear to be a stumbling block in summer travel if planning is done carefully.

Changing of the Guards in London"While uncertainty remains, there have been good indicators that the economy is getting stronger and Americans are feeling more optimistic," said Carrie Braxdale, managing director of investor services. "That optimism can fuel spending, so it's not surprising that so many plan to travel this summer."

Ameritrade's survey found that 78% of those polled said they would vacation this summer, with 26% planning to spend more money on their summer travels this year than in the last five years.

In addition to pent-up demand from last year's softness in Europe bookings, more reasonable airfares this summer are contributing to a growth in European business for Csilla Dali, owner of Chicago-based Global Voyages.

"The airlines are throwing in shoulder season fares during high season," Dali said. "This is the first time I've seen lower fares to Europe during the summer."

Arvid Olson, owner of Travel Leaders in Palm Coast, Fla., agreed that European airfares "are better than 2012," and added that "the promotions offered by tour and cruise operators have encouraged clients to book Europe," as well.

Two other strong sellers for agents are Alaska cruises and tours to U.S. national parks.

It's all adding up to a very strong picture for summer, said Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group.

"Alaska, Europe and Caribbean cruises continue to provide value for family travel booking trends," Block said. "We're experiencing strong growth once again on river cruises, and our European motorcoach business is up double digits over last year."

Block added that Cancun and Jamaica remain the top two destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, and "both are up over last year."

Europe business also is strong for Mimi Cassidy, co-owner and operations manager at Moraga, Calif.-based Moraga Travel.

"I've been doing so much more Europe and more FIT travel to London, Paris and Ireland," Cassidy said.

She attributed the uptick in London bookings in part to the exposure from last summer's Olympics.

Eric Hrubant, with CIRE Travel, a division of Tzell Travel Group in New York, cited multigenerational travel as a hot seller this summer.

"I'm working on a family history trip to Greece for a family that consists of four generations," Hrubant said. "It's a great way for families who live in various parts of the world to come together on neutral ground and have quality time."

Hrubant has also seen an upswing in both corporate and leisure travel to Turkey.

"Consumers are looking for new and affordable vacations, and Turkey is a perfect fit," he said. "The five-star hotels there have rates much lower than in neighboring Greece."

Lovell said that national parks are especially strong this summer among extended families who want a cultural experience "uniquely American. This is where we're seeing the biggest increase in interest."

Another hot spot, Lovell said, is Hawaii, which has made a strong comeback in the past year and a half.

"The cautionary tale there is that rates are increasing because of the influx of Japanese and Chinese tourists," he said. "This has made availability tight."

Several travel sellers have seen increases in requests for vacation rentals instead of hotels or resorts.

Ryan McGredy, president of Moraga Travel, said, "As the hotels try to shift their revenues from room rates to the fee side, families are looking at higher costs for a hotel stay." He said he sees the increase in vacation rentals as a backlash to hotel commoditization.

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and next year's FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in Brazil have given exposure and a lift in bookings to Latin America, according to Anthony Cheng, COO of Alhambra, Calif.-based APF Travel.

"Even though our summer is winter in Brazil, there are periods during the coming summer months when it is difficult to get a hotel booking in Rio or Sao Paulo," Cheng said.

Michelle Baran contributed to this report.

On Twitter, follow Gay Nagle Myers
@gnmtravelweekly or Michelle Baran @mbtravelweekly. 
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