By Bill Hanna
New passport requirements, violence in some Mexican resort towns, crowded airplanes and steadily increasing gasoline prices won’t keep college students from heading out of town.
The passport requirements went into effect last month for travelers to Mexico and the Caribbean and appear to have done little to slow students’ demand for international travel during spring break. But one travel agent predicts that some students will be surprised by the new rule when they try to check in at airports this weekend.
“It’s going to be interesting, especially with the college kids going to the Caribbean and Mexico,” said Steve Cosgrove, owner of Dynamic Travel in Southlake, Texas. “How many will show up at the airport without their passports?”
Even though charter companies like Funjet and Worry-Free Vacations have offered to pay for passports for those who book packages, Cosgrove says some college students don’t know about the new requirements.
“Either they’re going to be clueless or they’re going to forget it and leave it at home; there’s going to be some screaming fits at airport counters this weekend,” said Cosgrove, who just returned from a junket to the Bahamas where he saw one adult who showed up without a passport.
Despite the passport concerns, college students as well as families are traveling this year.
Planes are full, and hotels are booked up – both at warm-weather destinations like Florida and California as well as ski resorts in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
“If you’re looking at the top 10 family destinations – Florida, California, Mexico or something in that order – it would be refinance-your-home week,” said Tom Parsons of Best Fares.com. “If you can find a seat at all, you’re going to be paying $1,400 to $1,500 to get to Cancun this weekend. It doesn’t necessarily mean more people are traveling this year, just that the airlines are getting smarter with the way they do business, cutting capacity and making sure their planes are full.”
South Padre Island expects to host an estimated 85,000 college students this month. It won’t be a record, but tourism officials predict it will be enough to keep the South Texas beach town firmly in its position as the second-most popular domestic destination behind Panama City, Fla., and ahead of Daytona Beach, Fla., and Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
“In all of the traditional spring-break destinations, the total numbers have been declining,” said Dan Quandt, executive director of the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It doesn’t mean kids are shying away from spring break, it just means some are staying away from the larger spring break sites. There’s lot of unique competition. They can nearly fly to Paris for the week for the same price they can drive here and rent a condo. Some are simply going off on their own in smaller groups, and some are doing humanitarian efforts with groups like Habitat for Humanity.”
Still, the desire to celebrate spring hasn’t diminished, said Christi Day, a spokeswoman for Lewisville, Texas-based STA Travel, which has travel agencies at 70 college campuses nationwide. Bookings this year increased 18 percent over last year, she said, with the destinations as varied as the students’ interests.
“It’s still a rite of passage,” Day said. “If I’m in college, I’m going to do spring break. Many will want to be actively engaged in some activity rather than driving to the beach or the mountains to party.”
Just as the passport issue doesn’t appear to be curbing international travel, neither does drug-related violence in the Mexican resort town of Acapulco, where federal troops are stationed to protect some beachfront hotels.
Acapulco was STA Travel’s No. 1 destination for students at its three Texas branches at Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston.
That doesn’t surprise Cosgrove, the Southlake agent.
“Any destination can be dangerous,” Cosgrove said. “My worry is going to be is if my kid is going to get drunk and fall off a balcony rather than get hit by a drug dealer – or if my daughter is going to be coming home and making me a grandfather. Those are the kind of things that would keep me up at night.”