Winter-weary Americans plead: Get me out of here

By Don Babwin

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 28 2014 3:28 p.m. MST

In this Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 photo, bundled up commuters walk past an advertisement for the Hawaiian Islands near a train stop in Chicago. With yet another polar vortex like storm system bearing down on many parts of the country, suffering Midwesterners dream about being anywhere but home. Florida resorts and other tourist operations have been fueling this with email and other ad campaigns dangling a little sunshine and beach scenes in front of us.

M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

CHICAGO — Shannon Frauenholtz has had it with winter. Barely able to stomach the television news with its images of snowbound cars, she heads to the tanning salon, closes her eyes and imagines she's back in Mexico, where she's already vacationed once this winter.

She's toyed with the idea of joining her mother in Hawaii or just driving to an indoor water park, figuring that while the palm trees might be plastic and the "beach" smells of chlorine, at least it's warm.

"I don't need a vacation. I don't need the relaxation," said Frauenholtz, of New Ulm, Minn. "I just need the heat."

All over the Midwest and the East Coast, travel agents are being inundated with a simple request: Get me out of here. And travelers fortunate enough to have escaped are begging hotels to let them stay a little longer.

Because they know how miserable people are, warm-weather destinations in California, Arizona and Florida have stepped up their enticements. Trains and billboards in Chicago have been plastered with ads showing beaches and pool scenes. In Philadelphia, one promoter put fiberglass mannequins dressed in flip flops, tank tops and shorts atop taxis with their arms outstretched — a whimsical inducement to "fly" south.

Reminding Americans that there are places where nose hairs don't freeze is an annual tradition. But those in the business of luring visitors to warmer climates say it's rarely been easier than this season, when "polar vortex" has entered the everyday vocabulary and "Chi-beria" has become popular enough to emblazon on T-shirts.

"This year we wanted to have a little more fun with it," said Susannah Costello, of Visit Florida, the state's official marketing organization, which came up with the mannequin idea.

The ads showing children and bikini-clad women making snow angels in warm beach sand are more plentiful than in years past, acknowledged Erin Duggan, of Visit Sarasota County.

"We did that because we knew winter was shaping up to be brutal," she said.

Not that people needed much reminding of the harsh conditions.

"The winter is so bad, there is a certain amount of desperation," said Alex Kutin, an Indianapolis travel agent. "They come and say, 'I've got to get somewhere warm. Where do you recommend?'"

Another assault of bad weather was expected over the weekend, with forecasts for at least 6 inches of snow through Monday in a 1,500-mile stretch from Kansas to the East Coast. Parts of the Northeast could see a foot or more.

Kevin Tuttle, of Verona, Wis., was so intent on finding warmth that he decided against Florida out of fear that the polar vortex might reach down and find them there. Instead, he and his wife will take their 4-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to Manzanillo, Mexico, a resort on the Pacific ocean.

"That's near the equator, right? It's got to be pretty warm," Tuttle said, adding that "a lot of sand castles are in my future."

Just how many more people are trying to get out of the ice box is unclear. Airlines do not release any route-specific data. And although the government tracks some of it, figures will not be released for six months.

But other travel statistics suggest there has been a jump. The jetsetter.com travel site found that the number of hotel bookings in warm-weather spots made by customers from Illinois, New York, Massachusetts and the Washington, D.C., area rose 7 percent in January compared with last year.

Visit Florida says hotel bookings in the state rose 3 percent in the four weeks ending Feb. 15 compared with the same period last year. And the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association reports that RV parks from Florida to Arizona report are packed, with one Arizona park expecting a 6 percent increase in revenue over last year.

Travelers are also staying longer once they arrive.

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