Travel

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Spring breakers go bigger than the beach

Jumping off rocks in New Zealand.
Mike Powell
Jumping off rocks in New Zealand

Unlike some of her classmates, Julia Purks never even considered going to the beach for spring break.

“I don’t know — that definitely still appeals to some people,” the Boston College junior said. “It hasn’t faded out.”

But when she thought about investing in travel, Purks said, “I wanted to go somewhere I’d remember. I didn’t want to spend the money just to get drunk and get a tan.”

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So she’s headed with two friends not to Panama City or Daytona Beach, but to Dublin.

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“I think it makes me a more worldly person than just going to the beach,” Purks said.

A lot of other college students apparently have had the same idea. For many, spring break is transforming from the bacchanal portrayed by popular culture into travel that’s creative, meaningful, and even educational.

The top destination for spring break this year? It isn’t Cozumel or Cabo, but New York City, Waltham-based student travel provider Student Universe reports. Six of the top 20 places students plan to go are in Europe. Ireland is particularly popular. Cancun barely makes the top 10.

“When students decide to invest in a spring trip, they don’t just want to go to the beach and drink piña coladas,” StudentUniverse spokeswoman Danielle Dougan said.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean volunteering or performing community service, though those have also become popular spring break options.

It does mean getting more value for their travel dollars at a time when college students face skyrocketing tuition and mounting debt — and accumulating the kinds of experiences that will set them apart after graduation, when it’s time to get a job.

Getty Images/istockphoto
The Tower of Pisa in Italy.

“They want to do something they can talk about later in a job interview,” said Dougan. “To say they backpacked around Europe for a week, that’s going to be a much better talking point than telling a recruiter that they went to the beach.”

Some of what’s behind this has been percolating for a while. First was the 2008 economic downturn, which industry insiders say dramatically affected students’ travel spending — especially considering that, while incomes stagnated, college costs continued to go up. Many spring breakers this year plan to take advantage of low gas prices and drive and not fly, stay in hostels or book through Airbnb, or bunk with friends studying abroad, as Purks will do. Some travel providers have added interest-free layaway and payment plans.

Second is another recent trend, of organized vacation trips for students in middle and high schools to enhance their college applications — a week abroad to study language or play soccer, for example — which have whetted their appetite for travel.

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“We started having students who had done those things in high school come to us and say, ‘I’d like to continue doing something like that in college over spring break,’” said Bry Roskoz, president, EF College Break, which was set up by Cambridge-based EF to respond to this demand by offering spring break tours to Europe and South America.

The third major reason spring break changed? It became a victim of its own publicity, said Carylann Assante, executive director of the Student & Youth Travel Association.

“There was so much negative media coverage of spring break for so many years,” including about scams, assaults, and even deaths, Assante said. “Many of the organizations that worked in student travel made a conscious effort to either move away from that business or to offer alternative spring breaks.”

It’s not that students don’t still want to have fun, said Roskoz. They’re just past the keg stands and wet T-shirt contests. Only 40 percent of domestic spring break bookings this year through Waltham-based StudentUniverse are to beach or warm-weather destinations.

“I think they’re looking to spend money on experiences versus things, and they’re looking for unique experiences — to do something special that maybe all of their friends haven’t already done,” Roskoz said.

Meanwhile, said Brandon Amelong, senior product manager at spring break mainstay STA Travel, students have realized that a trip to Milan or Fiji can cost the same as a week on a Mexican beach. STA Travel’s top destination, he said, is the Inca Trail in Peru.

“Price,” said Amelong, “is driving everything.”

That’s what’s likely drawing students to New York, which has encouraged them to come by tapping Taylor Swift as its “global welcome ambassador” and promoting “the new New York,” with the opening of the One World Observatory and the contemporary art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, new Broadway shows, and the expansion of the High Line, said Christopher Heywood of the official marketing organization NYC & Company.

Beside, says Heywood, for students who have never been there, “A visit to New York City is a rite of passage.” It’s also an easy place to get to from the hundreds of campuses along the East Coast. And in March, when most colleges and universities schedule vacation, is an otherwise slow time in the city, with comparatively low hotel rates.

Keeping costs down also lures some students not to the warm, but to the cold — to close-by ski resorts that dangle spring break deals. Spring break has become one of the busiest times at ski resorts, said Dave Byrd of the National Ski Areas Association.

Vermont’s Burke Mountain offers a $75-a-night spring break deal that includes lift tickets. During College Week at Stratton in Vermont, students willing to bunk four to a room pay $69 a night (not including lift tickets) and get beer specials, restaurant deals, and the occasional free wings and nachos. “It continues to grow,” said the resort’s spokeswoman, Myra Foster. “There’s no better badge of honor when you go back to class than a goggle tan.”

BC junior Will Nouse and some friends are going skiing, where they’ve booked a condo with a kitchen through Airbnb, and will cook for themselves and celebrate his 21st birthday.

“We’ll make a strategic stop in New Hampshire on the way to Vermont, which should also help keep prices down,” Nouse said.

Some students opt not for a rowdy party scene, but for the quiet of a spa. The Waldorf Astoria Spa in New Orleans has a spring break special. Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson offers a Girls Getaway Complete Retreat. “By the time you return to school you will be completely revitalized and ready to finish out the semester,” it promises.

Some people still go to the beach. “I’m not going to sit here and say our numbers have changed to the point that we’re not sending kids to Cancun,” said Amelong, at STA.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

But which warm-weather places they choose have also changed. Among the top trending spring break destinations on KAYAK, which the online travel booking company calculates using search data: Los Angeles, Miami, and Austin, Texas. Lake Havesu in Arizona is also a new hot spot.

“In someplace like LA, you can lie on the beach if you want to, but culturally there’s a lot more going on there,” said David Solomito, KAYAK’s director of brand marketing.

And in a social-media world, “You’re sharing your experience with hundreds if not thousands of — quote, unquote — friends, so there’s a chance to show, ‘Hey, look at what I did in Los Angeles,’ as opposed to the bikini-clad picture on the beach.”

Even spring breakers who choose the beach may not want to choose it every year, said Amelong. “Instead of getting drunk on the beach — you’ve done that. And now you can go to Europe or to Costa Rica or have a more meaningful experience.”

Or even an educational one. A student travel company called WorldStrides, for example, will next year launch spring break trips in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution to China, Costa Rica, and other destinations.

“They’re willing to take a tour,” Assante said, incredulous. “I never imagined students would do that. They’re actually taking tours.”

BC’s Nouse, for example, is saving up for next year, when he plans to cap off his time in college by becoming among the first Americans in more than 50 years to spend spring break in Cuba.

Some Harvard students will use their spring break this year to go to Greece alongside a like number of alumni. “There’s a hunger for civilization,” said Gregory Nagy, a professor of classical literature who will lead the trip and who likens it to the pilgrimages of ancient Greeks seeking knowledge.

And what do other faculty do on spring break? One nonprofit called the Global Exploration for Educators Organization, or GEEO, offers them a spring break trip — this year to Morocco.

“They like to check things off their bucket lists, too,” said Jesse Weisz, executive director.

It’s a good time to travel, with low air fares and smaller crowds, said Christopher Rose, assistant director for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, who has been on GEEO’s trips before and plans to go this year.

“It’s not necessarily the same thing as letting your hair down and filling up on beer, but it’s a good way to let off steam,” he said.

But he declines to give details.

“What happens on spring break,” Rose said, “stays on spring break.”

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland.
EF College Break
St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland.

Jon Marcus can be reached at jon@mysecretboston.com.