Spring Break. Woo.

Spring break is here, and for most students, that means one thing: going home. What it's like for the silent majority that doesn't make it to Cancun?
March 14, 2008
 

Siggy's WaterWorks seems like an ideal place to spend a week off school. The sky is always in high resolution. You'll never have to worry about sunburn or sand between the toes. Best of all, it's free. Yet on a recent sunny spring afternoon, the exotic island was deserted save for a lone student floating in midair.

For all their apparent popularity, such tropical locales are the exception in college students' spring break travel plans, and not only because Siggy's exists only in the virtual world of Second Life. Despite the yearly pressure to venture to hot spots like South Padre Island, Cancún or Jamaica, most students opt instead for school-sponsored service trips, staying on campus -- or just plain going home.

That was the case last week for Jill Caldera, a junior at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and, at the time, the lone denizen of Siggy's WaterWorks Island. "Not really sure, just relaxing :)," she said when asked what she was doing there. But while her avatar pranced and flew around the island, in real life she was sitting at home between terms. Like many other students on break, she said she was planning on spending time with friends.

That number might actually be increasing. Out of the over 11 million full-time college students in America, only tens of thousands make it to the kinds of places documented in the Girls Gone Wild series. According to a survey conducted this year by the National Association of College Stores, 37 percent of students who responded said they were going home for the break and 28 percent said they would work, while 5 percent were going on volunteer trips and 6 percent simply said they would "do nothing." Just under a quarter said they were "taking a special trip."

Rough estimates provided by Jeff Jacobsen, president of the college tour operator Student Travel Services, suggest that 85,000 to 95,000 students visit Cancún, Acapulco, Jamaica and the Bahamas combined each year.

On top of that, he said, rising tuition costs may have contributed to a modest decline in the number of students going on spring break trips over the past several years. It's unclear whether the credit crunch, record gas prices and the spiraling dollar will cause similar damage in the spring break tourism market this year, or if they'll make prices for some Caribbean locations more attractive. Initial reports have already suggested that fewer families are planning long-distance trips during the pre-summer months. Some also worry that new passport restrictions will put a damper on the number of students going abroad, and American beaches on the Gulf of Mexico saw boosts in visitor spending last year.

Murray MacDonald, the associate director of undergraduate housing at Dartmouth College, said the number of students staying on campus in the spring "interim" period between terms this year -- usually between 600 and 650 out of 3,400 students in college-affiliated housing -- is "probably going up." Students who remain on campus usually do so because they have jobs or live abroad and can't go home, he said.

Elsbeth Lo, a senior at Cornell University from the Los Angeles area, is venturing home for her break next week. "Most of my other college friends either go home or go on service trips (alternative breaks, habitat, disaster relief)," she said in an e-mail. "I don't think any of my friends actually go on 'Spring Break, Woo' trips." But when she does run into students coming home from such trips, "I feel like I'm watching some sort of MTV reality show or something."

That awareness of the popular-culture notion of spring break as a nonstop beach party is widespread. Dori Zweig, a freshman at Gettysburg College, said she also spent her just-ended spring break at home in the Washington, D.C., metro area. "I'll be hanging out with some friends and family, but mostly just sleeping a lot and working on some school work," she said in an e-mail.

She added: "You always see these shows on TV, discussing college kids going crazy at spring break, but that's not really my scene. I do like to have a good time, but I also like just being around my friends in a close setting. Maybe sometime I'll go to Cancún or wherever for spring break, but not this time!"

Zweig isn't alone. To take one example, of the 42 members (out of about 100) of a Dartmouth sorority who responded to an internal questionnaire, well over half planned to go home or spend time with family. (One responded, "sleeping.") Many of the other respondents planned to study or train for their sports teams. Only a handful said they were going to a typical spring break resort locale.

Julia Schwartz, a senior in the sorority, had originally planned on a cruise in the Caribbean, then decided in favor of Miami. A variety of factors, from logistics to cost, forced many of her friends to back out each time. Now she's spending the break with her family instead.

"I don’t think that any of it necessarily was a result of [just] prohibitive cost; it was really just so many different things coming together between the cost and the time and the scheduling,” Schwartz said.

And anyway, planning ahead for spring break takes so much ... work.

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