Tripping by Wheel or Wing

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Contrary to their couch-potato image, Americans do like to get up and go, especially when it involves splitting town. That fact is never more apparent than in the month of May, when Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer holiday season and many travelers embark on their longest vacations of the year. Whether their travel plans include road maps or airfares, however, may well depend on where they live.

The vast majority of recreational travel in this country is still logged on the road. A recent Simmons Market Research survey found that 43 percent of Americans vacation by car, with the highest concentration of drivers living in heartland regions throughout the upper Midwest and New England. These vacationers are used to highway travel, accustomed as they are to schlepping long distances between their hometowns and cities for shopping and entertainment. But most car travelers also can be defined by what they're not: city dwellers, who can't be bothered with car ownership; and Southerners, whose relatively low levels of income and education add up to more sedentary lives.

"You have to have the time, the money, and the interest to want to travel," says Catherine Shaw, director of marketing research for the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA). "But education is the key. The higher your education, the more you travel."

While air travel was once considered a luxury for the upper crust, today's no-frills airlines have made flying accessible to average folks. Simmons reports that 27 percent of American vacationers travel by air-and that number is steadily rising. Last year, airlines sold a record 546 million tickets for all domestic flights, and 1999 looks even more promising. "The economy has been good and airfares have been fabulous," explains Diana Cronan, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association. Upscale city dwellers still comprise the greatest percentage of air travelers, but a growing number are mid-scale retirees from the Sunbelt and educated baby boomers who've migrated to jobs in the Western states but still love their getaways.

As a generation, boomers are the nation's most avid travelers overall, having grown up with cross-country interstates and cheap airfares. They frequently take their kids along on business trips as well, making business travelers with children the fastest-growing travel segment, up 32 percent from 1997. They're also one reason why the markets that rank high for both car and plane travel tend to be state capitals-including Albany, New York, Madison, Wisconsin, and Boise, Idaho-which are home to a disproportionate number of educated boomers who work in government.

To cope with job and family responsibilities, Americans have shortened their vacation trips from four days to three, on average, over the past decade. "The two-week vacation is pretty much a thing of the past," says Janie Graziani, manager of public relations at the American Automobile Association. "Most people feel they can't afford to stay away from work for too long."

Ironically, the South has both the lowest rates for travel by its residents and the most popular tourist points. Orlando, Florida, remains the number-one destination in the country, thanks to DisneyWorld and the attendant sprawl of sights such as Universal Studios and SeaWorld. But the regional proximity to beaches and lakes also contributes to Southerners' relatively low travel rates. They simply have to go fewer miles to find boats, boardwalks, and bikinis.

A sunny convergence of economic and demographic forces is expected to boost both air and road travel in the coming years. Gasoline is still cheap, and cut-rate airlines continue to slash fares. And educated boomers are steadily moving closer to their retirement years, when they'll have more time for cross-country travel. Even the long underserved travel market for minorities is taking center stage, thanks to the increasing popularity of heritage tourism and family reunion vacations. Already, travel agents report that minority travelers are more likely than the general population to rent cars, go shopping, and visit historic sites.

But the democratization of American travel is unwelcome news to one group: the beau monde, who no longer have exclusive bragging rights to hidden resorts and exotic locales. Wealthy travelers instead find themselves seeking once-in-a-lifetime events as part of their vacations, observes the TIA's Shaw. "You can no longer say, 'I just got back from Hawaii,' but 'I just got back from watching the Ironman Triathlon on Kona,' " she says.

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