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Northeast travel agents warm to winter as vacation booking surge





By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The record-breaking winter weather that has put the U.S. Northeast in a deep freeze this month and brought mountains of snow is making most people miserable but travel agents are learning to love it.

Travel brokers from New York, Massachusetts and surrounding states have enjoyed a surge in business from weary residents looking to get out of town. Business is brisk, they say, as people scramble to book last-minute winter holidays to toasty locales such as the Bahamas, Mexico and other places far away from the chill. Others are extending their vacations rather than return to the arctic conditions back home.

"People are tired of it," said Sam Erenfeld, owner of Bler Travel in the Boston suburb of Brookline. "They want to go to nice, warm places."

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In the past two weeks, Erenfeld has fielded a 30 percent to 40 percent increase in calls from people looking to escape the Boston area, where more than 6 feet of snow has fallen this month, making for the city's snowiest February in recorded history.

Instead, customers are looking longingly at places like the Mexican resort of Playa del Carmen or the island of Jamaica, where 80 degree Fahrenheit weather is forecast in the coming days, Erenfeld said.

Unfortunately, it's hard to accommodate, at an affordable rate, such hasty requests, he said.

Some Northeasterners are looking to extend previously planned trips.

Maria Araneo, owner of New Jersey-based Metuchen Travel, recently extended a two-week Caribbean and Central America cruise vacation for a married couple by 12 days.

"They decided to do it because of the cold," Araneo said of the New Jersey couple.

In New York, where chunks of ice have clogged waterways and outdoor fountains, and icy blasts have forced authorities to close some Manhattan streets, residents are scurrying to Mexico's Riviera Maya and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

"A warm climate is a good way to go," said Michael Holtz, owner of SmartFlyer, a Manhattan luxury travel company. Holtz himself just returned from Australia, a country now in the throes of the Southern Hemisphere summer.

In the past month, SmartFlyer has experienced a doubling of clients booking last-minute travel to a warm destination.

Even though the cold temperatures can mean more business from customers seeking refuge in beach resorts, winter is not always kind to travel agencies. Too much snow, he says, can wreck havoc on travel plans when it closes airports.

"We like the snow because it's cold but we don't like too much," Holtz said.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Bill Trott)