College students hit the beach during spring break Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. | AP
Updated: March 19, 2011 8:34PM
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — University of Iowa sophomore Jimmy Novak didn’t let $3.50 a gallon gas prices keep him from making a spring break pilgrimage here with his fraternity brothers.
“We’re squeezing five people in a car to save money on gas, and we made a ton of sandwiches before we left instead of stopping for fast food,” Novak said. “We just told ourselves it’s going to cost a pretty penny.”
Travel marketers remain optimistic that a trifecta of a severe winter, delayed gratification and improving economy will trump soaring gas prices. Advance bookings for March and April are up sharply at many destinations, and recent airfare increases tied to the rising cost of fuel are making road trips cheap by comparison.
Lodging reservations at Panama City, Fla., a spring break hot spot, are on par with last year’s migration, which took place before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in late April, said Dan Rowe, CEO of the Panama City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
March is the city’s third-biggest tourism month after June and July, and the bureau held promotional events at several Midwestern college campuses this winter to reassure students that area beaches were clean and free of oil.
“If you spread out the incremental cost over several days, it’s still a relatively minor part of a trip,” Rowe said about gas prices. “I don’t think people are going to sacrifice a week at the beach over a few extra dollars.”
A poll by Orbitz found that Orlando dethroned Las Vegas as the No. 1 spring break destination this year.
Overall, Florida is king of spring break 2011 with four of the top 10 destinations in the state: Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers and Tampa.
Cancun was No. 3, despite the Texas Department of Public Safety discouraging spring breakers from heading to Mexico because of continued violence, and the U.S. State Department issuing a travel warning.
Traditional hijinks continue: Two college students were arrested last week for taunting and trying to steal live alligators from a restaurant pond in Panama City, Fla.
The students, from the University of Alabama and the University of West Georgia, were charged with felony burglary.
On a more serious note, last week Philip Christian, 23, a student at Georgia Southern University, was found dead in a Destin, Fla. after attending a party the previous night.
Gannett News Service with Sun-Times wires