Despite high prices, spring breakers back in town

Last March delivered South Florida’s best- ever hotel performance, with properties packed at sky-high rates. This year is shaping up to command even more money from winter-weary visitors willing to pay top dollar for hot destinations.

So what are budget-minded college students with their hearts set on a South Beach spring break to do?

In the case of Mariam Abdelwahab and three friends from the University of Pittsburgh, the answer was: Get creative.

After flying down with a small discount thanks to a family connection, the group of sophomores and a junior settled into a less-than-$140-a-night room in someone’s apartment they found on vacation rental site and headed to Publix to stock up on food.

“It’s been a really bad, cold, snowy winter, so we just wanted to go to the beach for spring break,” said Abdelwahab, 20. “Rather than Cancun or something, this is more what we’re capable of doing.”

Research from Student Monitor LLC shows that 1.7 million four-year full-time undergrads, or about 21 percent of that population, plan to go on a spring-break trip. Their estimated total spending: $1.6 billion, or an average of $914 each.

But the price tag in South Florida could be much higher, with data from travel site showing that average room rates in Miami at spring break time are around $300 a night (and airfare is approaching $500).

Visitors and hoteliers say students have many options: Like the Pittsburgh crew, spring breakers can choose alternative lodging or pack several people into a room; buy food and drinks at the store instead of pricey restaurants or bars and even combine spring break with a family trip so parents don’t mind picking up the tab.

There is always, of course, the option of heading elsewhere. shows South Florida destinations in the top 20 Spring Break spots for college students — but not at the top of the list, an honor held by Las Vegas. Panama City Beach comes in at No. 7, the highest-ranked Florida location, followed by Orlando at No. 8, Fort Lauderdale at No. 13 and Miami bringing up the rear.

“We really are seeing that pricing is a factor,” said Leslie Cafferty, Priceline’s vice president of content. “That’s why I think you see Miami is No. 20 on the list, not No. 1 on the list.”

While thousands of teenagers and college students flock to Florida — especially the Gulf Coast — every spring, most spring trips to the state are made by families, said Paul Phipps, spokesman for Visit Florida.

And this year, Phipps expects March and April to break Florida tourism records because of pent-up demand created by unusually cold and snowy weather in much of the country.

More than half the state’s spring-break visitors will head to theme parks and other attractions in Orlando. This is the third-most popular time of year to visit Orlando after summer peak and Christmastime, according to Mark Jaronski, spokesman for Visit Orlando.

In Panama City Beach, officials expect a different demographic: thousands of teens and 20-somethings. Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, expects 250,000 to 300,000 college students during March.

Those expectations are actually driving some business to South Florida.

“I heard Panama is the best place to come, so we wanted to come to Miami,” said Amanda Solone, 23, who is getting her nursing degree at Midlands Technical College in South Carolina.

“We wanted to vacation and not be crowded,” said fellow student Monique Cherry, 23.

To save money, Solone, Cherry and two other friends were staying in close quarters at the Holiday Inn in Miami Beach — “one room, double beds,” said Solone — and getting alcohol at a liquor store rather than a bar.

Just up the coast, Fort Lauderdale still gets some spring break visitors, but nothing like the crowds that used to flock there more than two decades ago. Since the city decided to shed its reputation as spring break central, the profile of visitors this time of year has changed.

Nicki Grossman, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, said 380,000 college students came to the city in March and April of 1985, spending $110 million.

Last year, by comparison, an estimated 11,000 college students were among nearly 2 million visitors who spent $1.1 billion in the same time frame.

“A great move!!!” Grossman said in an email. “Those students paid our rates and played by our rules!”

This year, at least one Fort Lauderdale hotel said it is noticing college students visiting for spring break — with parents in tow.

“I think it has something to do with the economy,” said Stephen Donahue, director of sales at B Ocean Fort Lauderdale, which is commanding rates as high as $389 a night on weekends. “They want to go on spring break, but they can’t necessarily afford it. They’re coming with Mom and Dad knowing they’ll help pitch in for hotel and airfare and pay for dinner.”

In the Florida Keys, hotels have recently been 85 to 95 percent full, with average rates between $260 and $340 depending on the day. Andy Newman, spokesman for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, said he expects those numbers to hold steady through Easter in late April.

Newman said he couldn’t say how much of the business is spring breakers, but he said the destination does not market to that group and “it is certainly not an overwhelming share of Keys-wide business.”

Miami-Dade also takes a relaxed approach to the springtime college crowd.

“We don’t have a specific spring-break strategy,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Thankfully, we don’t need one.”

For the weeks ending March 1 and 8, occupancy was about the same as last year: 88 percent, with rates up about 4 percent to an average of $235 a night. Miami Beach hotel rooms cost an average of $330 a night.

Aedo pointed out that key events this month such as Winter Music Conference, from Friday to March 30, and Ultra Music Festival, scheduled for March 28-30, tend to draw a lot of young adults and college students.

Winter Music Conference tends to push prices too high for some spring breakers, said Nathan Lieberman, partner in the 12-hotel South Beach Group, which includes some properties that charge about $200 a night. College students on break typically visit before and after the electronic music event, he said — although early March and April still don’t qualify as bargain season.

“Right now we have a lot of spring breakers, even though it’s March and it’s expensive,” Lieberman said last week.

Joshua Thomas, a senior at Howard University, acknowledged that prices in Miami were “ridiculous” but came anyway. On his second day in town, he said he had managed to be frugal — at least so far. Standing in a line that stretched down the sidewalk in front of the Ocean Drive Fat Tuesday last week, Thomas, 22, said he was paying about $100 a night to share a room with three other spring breakers at the Santa Barbara, a Miami Beach hostel.

He said he had seen about 50 other people from Howard in town as well, a sign of the destination’s popularity.

Last year, Thomas went to Panama City Beach. “That was fine when you’re a junior,” he said. “When you’re a senior, you’ve got to come here.”

This report was supplemented with information from The Associated Press.