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Summer Travel Forecast: Better, But No Blowout

Patrick Veling, the owner of a California real estate data analysis and consulting business, says he's taking his "most expensive vacation ever" this year. Instead of the normal one-week vacation, he and his wife Susan are taking their two adult kids on a three-week vacation through northern Europe that will include a 12-day cruise. They'll see Denmark, Norway, the Shetland Islands, Ireland and the Netherlands.

"My confidence in the economy and my business is now strong enough that my wife and I have pretty much insisted we make this trip," says Veling.

Others are benefiting from rising home prices and low interest rates. Their homes are finally worth more than they owe on their mortgage, and they are finding it easier to refinance. That leaves them more money to spend.

"The improvement in confidence is all in the upper income brackets," says Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial.

During the worst days of the recession, travelers mostly stayed home. Hotels desperate to fill rooms started marketing "staycations" to families who couldn't afford to drive or fly somewhere. Summer air travel fell by nearly 8 percent in two years, from 217.6 million passengers in 2007 to 200.3 million in 2009. Luxury hotels saw their occupancy levels plummet during that period from 72.5 percent to 59.3 percent. More than half the rooms at economy and midscale hotels sat vacant.

There has been a slow and steady climb back, but not all parts of the recovery have been equal.

Luxury hotels such as Four Seasons, Park Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton and Mandarin Oriental are filling 73 percent of their rooms on average, surpassing their pre-recession peak, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from hotel research firm STR.

But budget hotels like Days Inn, Econo Lodge and Motel 6 are still below their 10-year occupancy average and more than 3 percentage points below their peak.

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