Winter-weary Americans seek the heat

Polar vortex adds to sales for those who offer taste of tropics

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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" smell of chlorine, at least it would be warm.

"I don't need a vacation. I don't need the relaxation," she said. "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.

"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?'"

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.

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

But Visit Florida, that state's official marketing organization, says hotel bookings in Florida rose 3 percent in the four weeks ending Feb. 15 compared with the same period last year.

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.

Travelers are also staying longer once they arrive.

Micah Hilgendorf said the thought of heading back to ice-covered Chicago, where he owns a couple of bars, prompted him to tack on three days in Florida before and after a cruise out of Miami. He also flew to Palm Springs, Calif., for four days.

Dave Knieriemen, a retired engineer from Fremont, Ohio, is doing the same thing.

"We've reserved a room for another night in case our flight gets canceled because of the weather," he said this week from Arizona as he watched the Cleveland Indians play a spring training game. "And it's so horrible (in Ohio), we might stay a bit longer, anyway."

Travel agents say the numbers of travelers would be even higher if all those who wanted to get away could find a seat on jets. "It's far easier to find people a resort to stay in or a cruise ship than to find them a flight," said Gail Weinholzer of AAA in Minnesota.

The inability to find a flight, afford a trip or get time off work has sent a surge of customers to businesses closer to home that can offer even a short escape from the cold.

"We're getting a lot of people coming in here to warm up," said Kirstin Leffew, the manager of Bronze Bay Tanning in Pendleton, Ind. "They want the beds that have been used the most, the ones that are nice and hot."