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Originally published Sunday, December 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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2009 may be the year for travel bargains

The U.S. dollar has strengthened; gas prices are at their lowest levels in four years, and hotel rates are softening. If you can afford...

Americans' travel habits

International destinations: The 10 most-visited destinations by U.S. residents flying abroad in 2007 (latest year for which complete statistics were available): Mexico, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Jamaica, People's Republic of China and Spain, according to the Department of Commerce Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.

For the first eight months of 2008 compared to same period in 2007, travel by Americans abroad was down 4.8 percent to Europe; up 4.4 percent to the Caribbean; up 3.7 percent to South America; up 5 percent to Mexico; and down 5 percent to Canada.

Top 10 destinations for 2009: As chosen by the publisher Lonely Planet's U.S. staff: U.S., Mexico, Argentina, Canada, Spain, Italy, Costa Rica, Iceland, Colombia and the United Kingdom.

Top tour destinations: Italy ranked as the top international destination for packaged travel, according to an annual survey of 50 tour companies by the U.S. Tour Operators Association. Egypt was second, the first time the country has shown up in that category for the survey, and Latin America, for the first time, was named most popular international region. The most popular U.S. region for packaged travel was the West and the national parks, followed by Alaska and Las Vegas. China was named as offering the best value, and the Middle East was chosen as the hottest up-and-coming area.

The Associated Press

The U.S. dollar has strengthened; gas prices are at their lowest levels in four years, and hotel rates are softening. If you can afford a vacation, 2009 will be "the year of travel deals," predicts Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor of Travelocity. "As long as the economic slowdown continues, deals will abound for people who do have discretionary income to travel."

But even though travel is becoming more affordable, more people are expected to stay home due to the recession. The Travel Industry Association predicts a 1.3 percent drop in 2009 leisure travel.

Here are details on these and other trends, including the growth in presidential sightseeing, thanks to events such as the Lincoln Bicentennial and the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Obama.

Travel abroad and the dollar: In April, it cost $1.60 to buy a euro. As of late December, a euro cost just $1.39, meaning your dollar goes about 20 percent farther now.

Travel to Europe by Americans was down 4.8 percent in the first eight months of 2008 compared to the same period in 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But now, "prices are coming way down and 2009 may be the year to plan your European trip," said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. She cited "two big reasons: the slow economy and the fact that the dollar is gaining on the euro."

The dollar is doing even better elsewhere. An Australian dollar costs just 67 cents in U.S. currency, down from nearly $1 this past summer, and Canadian dollars are worth just 80 (U.S.) cents now. Earlier this year, the Canadian dollar was worth more than a U.S. dollar.

Cars, trains and buses: Feel like a road trip? Go for it. Gas hasn't been this cheap in four years. A gallon of gas averaged $1.65 in mid-December, down from an all-time high of over $4 a gallon in July.

Between November 2007 and October, Americans drove 100 billion fewer miles than the same period a year earlier, according to the Federal Highway Administration. But Amtrak set a record for train ridership in its 2008 fiscal year — 28.7 million passengers, an 11 percent rise over the previous year.

Bus ridership also surged, with intercity bus departures rising nearly 10 percent, according to research from DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Bus options have grown beyond Greyhound to cheap Chinatown-to-Chinatown buses between New York City and Boston and other cheap bus lines.

Air: Don't expect lower fuel prices to lower domestic airfares. Richard Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, predicts "stable high prices for domestic airfares. We had 30 airfare hikes between the summer of '07 and '08, which raised the price point 20 to 40 percent. I think that price point will stay stable in 2009."

The trend toward fewer flights may continue too. The Air Transport Association of America's outlook for 2009 noted that seating capacity has fallen between 10 and 12 percent nationally the past year, with a 25 to 50 percent decrease at many of the nation's top 100 airports. "All signs suggest that the schedule cuts prompted by high fuel prices in 2008 will deepen in 2009," ATA chief economist John Heimlich said.

The good news: FareCompare's Seaney says "international travel is going to have the best deals in the last three to four years," due to decreases in fuel surcharges and some new startup routes with introductory prices. For a peak summer trip to Europe, March is typically the best time to buy tickets, he said, but pricing may be volatile, so sign up for fare alerts.

Hotels: Savvy travelers should look beyond airfares "to see what they can get out of their hotel stay, whether discounted room rates or value-added promotions which are everywhere — free nights, free breakfast, free room upgrade. In Vegas, it's gambling credits and spa credits," said Travelocity's Brown.

Demand for hotel rooms in the first quarter of 2009 is expected to be down 1 to 2 percent, while supply will be up about 3 percent, with new properties opening that were planned before the recession, according to Smith Travel Research, which tracks the industry. "A drop in occupancy is certain, and with that we can already estimate that rates will soften somewhat," said Smith Travel spokesman Jan Freitag.

Anniversaries and presidential sightseeing: Anniversaries often bring out the best in a destination with exhibits, festivals and deals. Here are some big anniversaries in 2009.

• The bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth will be celebrated in Washington, D.C., and many states with exhibits, events, heritage trails and performances. Details at www.lincolnindc.com/ and www.abrahamlincoln200.org/.

The interest in Lincoln coincides with a surge in interest in President Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal and sites associated with President-elect Barack Obama, from places where he lived like Chicago and Hawaii, to Washington, D.C., where record crowds are expected for the Jan. 20 inauguration.

• Alaska marks 50 years of statehood in 2009. Check www.alaskaturns50.com for deals and events.

• Berlin marks the 20th anniversary of the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall with exhibits and events; www.visitBerlin.de.

• Scotland in 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, who wrote the words to "Auld Lang Syne." A "Homecoming Scotland 2009" celebration will include a "clan gathering" in Edinburgh, July 25-26, for people of Scottish ancestry from around the world, www.homecomingscotland2009.com.

• The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was established in 1909 and kicks off a three-year centennial celebration in 2009, marking the 100th anniversary of the facility in 2009 and the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 in 2011, www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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