Leave the cold weather behind: Tips from area travel agents about cruises, warmer climates and seeing the Northern Lights

Courtesy photo Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas is docked in Miami, Florida. The ship includes glow-in-the-dark laser tag, a surf simulator, a zip line and rock climbing, all on board.

Want to escape the gray, cold skies of Central Pennsylvania? Area travel agents say many residents like to escape to an inclusive tropical paradise.

In her nearly 40 years in the travel industry, Karen Kurtz has witnessed many changes: A rise in the popularity of all-inclusive packages to the Caribbean and more multi-generational-family-friendly trips.

“For the winter travel months, all inclusive Caribbean resorts are most popular,” said Kurtz, owner of Ketrow KURTZ Travel, LLC. “People like it because they can get a non-stop flight. They leave in the cold and arrive to the warmth.”

The top five tropical destinations are: Punta Cana, Jamaica, Mexico, and Saint Martin and the Caymans.

Punta Cana, located on the easternmost tip of the Dominican Republic, is best known for its stretch of beaches and clear waters along the Coconut Coast, an area of lavish, all-inclusive resorts.

“Years ago, cruises were more couples focused. People dressed up in ball gowns for dinners on a cruise,” Kurtz said. “Today, cruise lines are adapting to serve families and are destinations in and of themselves. I was just on the Symphony on the Seas and they had an area set up like Central Park and another area set up like a board walk with a merry-go-round and Coney Island hot dog stand.”

Such a cruise enables families — often comprised of grandparents, parents and children — to make memories based on shared experiences, Kurtz said. “I’ve been in the business for 40 years and this is one of the changes. Parents are busy working today and see a vacation as an opportunity to make memories so experiences are more valuable to them.”

On Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas all ages can participate in glow-in-the-dark laser tag, learn to surf board on a 40-foot long surf simulator, snag a zip line, and tackle rock climbing — all on the ship. Additional activities for the more sedate traveler include watching aqua theater (features dancers, divers and acrobats doing stunts outside against the back drop of the sea), mini-golf and scrapbooking. And these are just a few on-board options.

In addition to the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii are also popular destinations, according to Marita Williams, manager of travel and promotion for AAA East Central region.

“When it’s cold in our region, people are always looking to go somewhere warmer,” she said. “But don’t rule out a winter climate. Our Alaska tours have taken off, due to the attraction of the Northern Lights also known as the aurora borealis.”

The Northern Lights result from collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. This beautiful natural phenomenon has also boosted interest in trips to Finland, Iceland and northern Canada, in addition to Alaska, Williams said.

“Don’t let the cold weather deter you,” she said. “There is so much to amuse, enthuse and be in awe of at these winter destinations. In addition to the Northern Lights, many travelers enjoy the skiing and snowshoeing these destinations offer. If you have never tried snowshoeing, it’s a great experience. And, for those of us that are getting up in years, snowshoeing offers a fun, safer alternative to downhill skiing.”

However, in Angela Koelle’s experience as a travel consultant at Classic Travel in Hollidaysburg, warm weather beckons more residents.

“We get a lot of people who want to get to warmer climates. Most frequently they ask for all-inclusive Caribbean resorts, cruises and the ever-popular Disney World in Florida,” she said. Clients are equally divided between “empty nesters, those baby boomers who are finally in a position, both financially and without the time constraints if they’re not working,” to travel and families with school-aged children who want to do something in the spring.

“An all-inclusive package offers more bang for your buck,” Kurtz said. “It typically includes hotel, taxes, tips, meals, all beverages, including alcohol, and most watersports activities. It’s all about the client and what they want out of their trip.”

On average, the average Blair County vacationer books a five-to-seven-day vacation, Koelle said, noting that recent retirees often stay longer, usually up to 10 days at a resort.

Hollidaysburg resident Joseph Dumm, 65, describes himself as a “lifelong traveler.” His most recent adventure took him to Tanzania, Africa, where he took two safari trips.

The first safari took him to Katavi National Park where he spent three days observing crocodiles and monitor lizards. Then he took a short plane ride to Mahale National Park and journeyed to Mbali Mbali Mahale on Lake Tanganyika, one of the largest and deepest fresh water lakes.

Mahale National Park, Dumm said, is home to about 1,000 chimpanzees and they were his primary reason for taking this, his second trip to Africa.

“I like to travel and see different cultures,” he said. “And, I like to see different animals, as well.”

Dumm retired a year ago from his career as a quality control engineer for several bicycle manufacturing companies. Traveling internationally in his career embued him with a love of travel. He’s taken trips to China, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and others.

Given his decades of travel experiece, Dumm said he makes his own travel arrangements, but for the novice he recommends using a travel agency either locally or at the destination city.

And, even though the internet has many people making their own travel arrangements, Koelle said many people like to speak to a local travel agent.

“We have our steady customers who either don’t want to make all their own arrangements or those who don’t have the time to do it. It’s what we’re here for,” Koelle said. “I have one client who will call on a Monday and I can find them a destination they can leave for on Friday. They are more concerned about getting away for a few days than the destination.”

Other tips the travel consultants offered:

n Book 2019 summer vacations in January, February or March for the best pricing, selection and discount opportunities.

n Arrive at the airport extra early and take advantage of in-airport amenities, such as special eateries and nail salons to pass the extra time.

n When traveling internationally, make sure your passport is valid a minimum of six months beyond your return date.

“It used to be that the cheaper days to fly on were Tuesdays or Wednesdsays,” Koelle said, “but that’s not true any longer.”

And, for those who haven’t traveled in many years, be prepared financially.

“Just like the price of milk has gone up in recent years, so have travel costs,” she said. “If you haven’t traveled for 10 years or since last year, don’t expect to pay the same amount. And, the prices are, unfortunately, beyond the realm of the agent’s control.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.