Drive Vacations

As a sign of the times, North American self-drive vacations pick up speed

By: Lisa Jennings

Long known for offering escorted vacations, Cosmos is branching out into something new: self-drive packaged vacations in the U.S. and Canada.

Fly-drive packages have long been a popular choice abroad, especially in Europe, but less so in the U.S.

That may change, as more tour operators known for escorted programs jump on the increased interest in FIT travel and as U.S. travelers look for vacations closer to home.

For Cosmos, the step toward FIT vacations was a natural evolution of their product line, said Phillip Gordon, chief operating officer for Group Voyagers Inc., the parent company for Cosmos and its sister brand Globus.

“It will help us reach out to a different audience, specifically the family market,” said Gordon, who is based in Littleton, Colo.

Cosmos’ “On The Road” tours are commissionable 10 percent on air and 13 percent on land.

The vacations are designed to appeal to independent-minded travelers looking for the value and convenience of a packaged vacation.

Travelers pick their itinerary, which can be booked any day within the season (April-October).

There are 12 destination options, from eight days around New England, to the “Great Southwest,” which takes travelers from Los Angeles to Monument Valley via Phoenix and back through Las Vegas.

The package can include airfare, car rental (with Alamo), pre-selected hotels (Holiday Inn Crown Plaza, Sheraton, Best Western or Ramada Plaza), and recommendations for sightseeing.

On the first day of the vacation, travelers meet with a Cosmos official for a briefing on the journey, and receive their “TripKit” with maps, driving instructions, and suggestions for stops along the way. There is also a 24-hour call service.

Cosmos has always focused on budget-conscious travelers.

But self-drive vacations will appeal to families in particular because children under 11 who share a room with two adults stay free and are not charged in the rental car fee.

Travelers can also choose the land-only option, and drive their own car. Pre- and post-night extensions are also available.

For a family of four with one child under 11, for example, the Florida Explorer vacation (8-days from Miami to Cape Canaveral, Orlando and down the Gulf Coast), including a quad hotel room and full-size car, would be $1,134 (land only).

That amounts to about $35 per person, per day.

The Travel Industry Association reports that car travel was up 3 percent in the first half of 2002.

But this year gas prices are up again in mid-February they reached the highest level in 18 months averaging $1.60 per gallon.

Still, with war on the horizon, North American vacations are likely to have more appeal.

Classic Custom Vacations also launched three new self-drive itineraries this year, in Florida, Arizona, and California.

These tours are fully customized, with options including air, car, attractions, and pre-booked upscale hotels. Collette Vacations, which has offered self-drive travel programs in Canada, also branched out to the U.S. last year.

Charlie McIlvain, chairman of the National Tour Association, said, “We’re going to be seeing more programs of that type, the FIT market is emerging more and more.”

Baby Boomers, in particular, “want more flexibility in their travel plans ... than seniors do or did.”

Texas-Sized Tours

Sure, car travel offers the benefits of air conditioning and fewer bugs in your teeth. But what could be better than hitting the open road on a Harley?

So contends Charlie McIlvain, president and CEO of Idle Time Tours of Dallas-Ft. Worth. A small tour operator known for escorted vacations, Idle Time this month launched “Texas by Motorcycle,” for FIT or group travelers.

The motorcycle tours include rental of a Harley-Davidson (anything from a “Fat Boy” to a “Dyna Wide Glide”) with the option of sampling the state’s bed-and-breakfast accommodations, grand hotels or, for those truly born to be wild, choosing their own itinerary.

Idle Time also offers “Texas by Motorhome” tours, which include a rented RV. Travelers can take advantage of state parks, RV parks and camp sites. And if rolling down hot asphalt doesn’t appeal, there are also “Texas by Biplane” tours available which is the best way to see the Chisholm Trail, a former cattle trail from San Antonio to Abilene, Kansas, said McIlvain.

The motorcycle and motorhome tours are commissionable at 10 percent, but, as of last week, fares had not been set on the biplane tours. 817-790-7909.