As spring break rolls around this year, college students across the nation realize they can't afford to "go wild" as they did in the past. Tough economic conditions and increasing violence in Mexico have curbed students' plans for a free-spending and free-wheeling time.
Travel numbers are down. TripAdvisor, a popular online travel community, surveyed more than 1,000 users, and only 35 percent said they plan to travel this spring. Not surprisingly, the depleted demand has reduced prices. STA Travel, one of the world's largest student travel organizations, said that travel packages are selling at 20 percent to 30 percent lower than a year ago. STA Travel officials said in years past the price would increase around spring break by at least 20 percent, but that did not happen this year.
Part of the problem is that most undergraduate students, 53 percent, are steeped in debt. They don't have the cash on hand to spend on an unruly adventure. According to the Arizona Board of Regents, average debt among undergrads is more than $17,500. And some students say the recession has made things more difficult.
"The economy has tanked," said Katie Powers, an interdisciplinary studies senior at ASU. "I feel that I have to make more money and pay off some debt when I get the chance."
Powers is looking forward to spring break, which begins next week. She plans to take advantage of a week without school. She will log more hours working for ASU in its accounts payable office. Powers also wants to complete a few job applications, as she is graduating this semester.
For those students who can afford to take a trip, many are choosing to make domestic stops, as opposed to more exotic ones.
Patrick Evans, STA Travel marketing communications coordinator, said business is the same as last year for prime destinations such as Jamaica and Cancun, Mexico. However, in Acapulco, Mexico, the numbers did see a decline.
Instead some students are opting for closer venues.
"Miami has been a really huge seller for us for spring break," Evans said. There has not been a significant change for Panama City, Fla., or South Padre Island, Texas.
Affordable prices play a large part in some sticking closer to home, but many students (and parents) are skittish about traveling south of the border. The Mexican government has been locked in a brutal battle against drug cartels, in which thousands of Mexicans have died.
The U.S. State Department has taken interest in the events. It is particularly distressing now because more than 100,000 college-aged Americans travel to resort areas in Mexico every spring break. Although the violence has not been aimed at travelers, the department issued a travel warning on Feb. 20 to those going to Mexico.
The warning caught the attention of Arizona's three public universities, which issued notices to students. Karen Moses, ASU director of health and wellness, said that the university has informed students of the travel warning on its Web site and in student housing weekly newsletters.
"Safety and well-being of our students is a major concern at all times," she said. "But we are confident that they will make an informed decision."
The university has been fielding calls from worried parents, interested in what's going on over the border, Moses said. During the break, many ASU students head to Mexico, most notably, Puerto Peñasco, popularly known as Rocky Point, which lies about 50 miles from the Arizona border.
Rocky Point has not been stung by the drug violence that's riddled many Mexican border towns, but that does not stop the concern. Amy Sanders, an ASU business communication sophomore, said she had intended to visit Rocky Point with her friends this spring break, but her parents vetoed the plan.
"My friends are still going," Sanders said, "but I won't be able to make it."
Instead, Sanders will be earning some extra cash as a waitress at the Native New Yorker restaurant. And, with any luck, she'll have some of the week to relax at home, she said.
A HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
For those students who don't want to splurge or spend their nights at a club, the Student Conservation Association offers another option. The association is taking 60 students into the Grand Canyon at nearly no cost as part of its "Alternative Spring Break."
Students are invited to the canyon to work with park and association staff on a variety of projects involved with the preservation and protection of the park's natural and cultural resources.
"They're going to work, but they're going to enjoy it," said Kendall Schwartz, SCA media relations manager.
This year, the association received more than 200 applications for 60 spots - a 40 percent increase from last year, Schwartz said. In this economy, students are realizing that they can benefit from a memorable spring break without having to empty their parents' pockets.
"We think we offer a unique experience with our program," she said. "Spring break is something you should always remember."