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Student Rates for the Young at Heart

By Michelle Higgins
March 14, 2010

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EVEN if your college days are a distant memory, it’s possible to travel on a student discount over spring break this year.

Student travel agencies are beginning to actively court nonstudents and older travelers, extending their low prices to the not-so-youthful set. Though it has quietly offered discounts to nonstudents for years, STA Travel began actively promoting “flights for everyone” on its home page late last year, highlighting sales and negotiated discounts available to travelers of any age, like round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Sydney from $798 or New York to London from $476.

StudentUniverse, which has operated as an online travel agency exclusively for college students since 2000, expanded its discounts to recent college grads up to age 25 earlier this year. And StudentCity, which specializes in vacation packages for college and high school students, said that while it doesn’t advertise the fact, its discounts aren’t restricted by age.

“We specifically market to students but do not exclude the young at heart from travel on our tours,” said Jacqueline Lewis, managing director at StudentCity in Peabody, Mass.

The shift, driven by customers looking to include friends on trips who had recently graduated and parents who wanted for themselves the deals they found for their kids, comes at a time of rising travel costs. Airfares are expected to average $349 in the March spring break period, up 9 percent from the same time last year, according to Bing Travel, the Microsoft search engine that predicts airfare prices. The average ticket for the most popular spring break travel itinerary with a Saturday departure and Sunday return is $418, up $57, or 16 percent from last year.

The student sites offer specially negotiated rates at discounts anywhere from 10 to 25 percent below the going market rate. For example, a search for flights in mid-March from New York to London on StudentUniverse.com turned up seats on a nonstop from $536 on Virgin Atlantic. The best rate for the same dates on Kayak.com: $573 with a stop in each direction. A similar search from Los Angeles to San Jose was $494 on StudentUniverse.com versus $527 on Kayak.com.

Some of the best deals come in the form of packages or group tours. A weeklong trip in late March to Cancún from Atlanta with a room at the hip ME Cancún was $2,014 for two on StudentCity.com, or $1,007 a person. The same trip on Expedia.com was $2,966 for two, or $1,483 a person, though cheaper rates could be found by selecting less convenient flights, requiring a longer layover on the way there and returning at midnight. And STA Travel is offering a weeklong Galápagos trip for $2,250 a person — about $1,000 less than comparable tours.

So what’s the catch? To maintain their deals, student travel agencies restrict some of their deepest discounts to students and younger travelers. “Part of the reason why we get these deals is we are extremely strict on who is able to fly,” said Atle Skalleberg, vice president of StudentUniverse, which decided to extend its deals to recent college graduates because its clients complained that their “older” friends weren’t finding the same prices and were passing on ski trips and beach getaways because it was either too expensive or inconvenient to arrange separately.

Airlines, he said, are willing to offer such discounts to students to reach new customers and hook them for life. But the carriers don’t want to do so at the expense of diluting their regular pricing, which is one reason StudentUniverse verifies each customer’s age, and its expansion to nonstudents extends deals only to those 18 to 25. Still, graduate students up to 35 qualify for its discounts.

STA Travel is more liberal when it comes to extending discounts to nonstudents and older travelers, but maintains restrictions implemented by hostels, airlines and other travel partners.

For example, it is currently offering 10 percent off more than 45 European tours with departures through May, bringing a 14-day trip through eight European countries to about $105 a person a day, but only to travelers under 35. Its “flights for everyone” are also priced slightly higher than its student fares, with starting rates to London, for example, from $365 (not including taxes) for students versus $476 for nonstudents and those 27 or older.

Yet the rates can still beat out the usual search engines, so it’s worth checking StaTravel.com or calling one of its agents. Still other deals, like the $2,250 seven-day Galápagos April adventure, which includes flights to and from the islands and Quito, Ecuador, are available to anyone.

“We regularly have people 50, 60 plus come in and book with us,” said Patrick Evans, an STA spokesman. “It’s kind of our dirty little secret.”

But will you end up smack in the middle of a beach full of gyrating 20-somethings when all you’re looking for is a quiet getaway?

StudentCity.com’s spring break booking system offered helpful resort descriptions that could steer a traveler away from the throngs. Oasis Cancún, for instance, was listed as Studentcity.com “HEADQUARTERS!!” in bold type and described as “the center of Cancún spring break 2010 action.” Translation: avoid this place like the plague if you are over 25. By contrast, Grand Oasis Cancún was listed as “Family/Faculty.”

Another alternative for those up to age 35: Contiki Vacations, which buys travel in bulk and passes those savings on to its customers. Different types of trips tend to draw “similar, like-minded people,” said Michelle Murray, Contiki’s marketing manager. Multicity trips, she said, draw the younger crowd while trips that focus on one country skew toward an older demographic.

Bobbie Xuereb, a librarian from San Diego who wouldn’t divulge her actual age but admits she’s “over 50,” said she was “a little bit concerned they’ll all be really young,” when she booked a two-week guided group tour with STA to Rajasthan over the New Year’s holiday.

But the 15-person group turned out to be “a really nice mix” of ages and nationalities including a college professor, older couples traveling with their college-age children and two other librarians — one from New Zealand and one from Australia. “I wasn’t even the oldest person,” she said. “At least two people were older than me.”

THE accommodations were more upscale than she expected, she added, but the group did take a public overnight train from New Delhi to Jodhpur. “I wouldn’t have done that alone,” she said. But the price — about $1,000 a person not including airfare, or roughly a third of the cost of nonstudent-oriented group tours she had researched — turned her into a loyal customer.

Ms. Xuereb traveled with her 20-year-old-son, Cody, to Rajasthan, but said she now uses STA as her primary travel agency whether it’s for purchasing travel insurance for a coming getaway or planning a trip to Australia with her 61-year-old boyfriend, as she did in 2008. Because many of the agents are young and always traveling, she said, “they’re very knowledgeable and can always say what’s good.

“That’s how I ended up in Laos.” She added, “I sort of rely on them.”