Spring break 2005: Tap kegs? Build roads? Anything’s possible

For many Oregon college students, spring break is synonymous with cutting loose. After two terms of school and a long, dark winter, a trip to someplace sunny is just what the travel agent ordered. All the more so if it is accompanied by friends, sunshine and a good party.

"Students want to get away and have fun and be in the sun on a beach somewhere," said Sarah Parks, an agent with STA Travel.

The traditional spring break destinations continue to hold up, with vacationing students still fleeing to Cancun and Fort Lauderdale in droves. But new hot spots have surfaced, too.

Nationwide, spring bookings for the last month point to South Texas – South Padre Island, to be specific – as the newest hot spot for the college crowd. And for the student with a fatter wallet, Australia’s tropical north shore, Cairns, has become the jet set place to hang, a place where the party goes on all night. Sort of a cross between Never-Never Land and Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island.

"The Portland market is different than many others," Parks said. "Lots of Portland students head for London and Europe on spring break. The weather is less important to them than the chance to see a new city."

"March is also the cheapest time to travel to Europe," Parks explained. "Students will spend the same amount flying to London as they’d spend flying to Acapulco."

In an even greater departure from tradition, a number of students are turning to what is known as the alternative spring break. Last year, students from the University of Southern California built school furniture in Guatemala and planted trees on Isla Mujeres near Cancun. When not working, they relaxed, partied and earned college credit at the same time.

According to Break Away, a nonprofit organization based at Florida State University, 38,000 students will do volunteer work over the 2005 spring break, an increase from 23,000 only 5 years ago.

"Our overall mission is to connect campuses and communities," said Jake Brewer, executive director of Break Away. "We’re trying to facilitate an educational experience that promotes lifelong citizenship, a way of life that’s aimed at giving back to the community in a way that’s beneficial to both."

Founded in 1991, Break Away has expanded to 123 campuses nationwide. "From Maine to Hawaii and everything in between," Brewer said. Break Away helps student groups organize what it calls "alternative breaks" during holidays and weekends.

"We take students out of their comfort zone," Brewer said. "We open their eyes and give them new ways to see the world."

"I’ve got a stack of student testimonials a foot high. Any of them would tell you that you will have more fun on an alternative spring break than you will going to Cancun. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry sometimes and the experience will be life changing. It’s something you’ll never forget."

Even STA Travel, which claims to be the largest student travel agency network in the world, is getting into alt-break mode, as seen in the "alternative" area of their web site: "Hike through a volcano, volunteer in Guatemala, just do something different this Spring Break!"

Despite these attempts at changing the dominant paradigm, the most popular spring break continues to lean toward the do-it-yourself party scene, sardine-like hotel room and road trip from hell. But an increasing number of students prefer to work through travel agencies, plunking down cash for prearranged trip packages that have it all.

STA Travel was founded in 1979 and now has more than 400 outlets nationwide, all on or near college campuses. The PSU branch of STA is on the corner of Southwest Clay Street and Park Avenue.

The 2005 STA spring break catalog includes discounted trips to Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, as well as bare bones European tours.

The STA web site makes their main mission clear. Under "Beach Trips," the come-on reads, "Hang out in a tropical paradise with a drink in your hand and not a care in the world." For the student looking for a Big City Break, the site promises to "hook you up with the coolest hotels and best places to party."

"The biggest trend we see is in booking early. People start booking for the hotspots in September, October and November. By Christmas, everything’s getting full," Parks said.

Sun Splash Tours is another leader in the Student Travel industry. Their "Xtreme Tours" send thousands of collegians to the hottest Spring Break destinations in the world, including South Padre Island.

Once a barrier island populated mostly by migratory birds, South Padre has grown into a collection of high-rise hotels and expensive condominiums that is favored by waves of vacationers and college escapees.

What’s to do at South Padre? Besides the assumed partying, the island offers windsurfing, kiteboarding, fishing trips and bungee jumping.

But perhaps the most important part of South Padre’s allure is its proximity to Mexico, where the drinking age of 18 is barely enforced and a fleet of buses runs spring-breakers back and forth between Texas and Mexico.

Gang violence has led the U.S. State Department to issue a 2005 travel warning for northern Mexico. Visitors are advised to stay in groups and to confine their visit to well-known and established locations.

Does anyone really think that these warnings will stop student partiers from hopping the border into Mexico? Nope.

But South Padre is working to make their college visitors feel safe. The local Convention and Visitors Bureau web site sponsors a web page that explains the local drinking age and zero-tolerance policies and provides warnings for students under 21 who cross the border to party.

According to Parks, travel insurance is an important aspect of trip safety and should be part of every vacation plan. "Lots of students don’t think of it. It’s so much more important now to have travel insurance, with the world in the shape it’s in."

Parks estimated the cost of one week’s travel insurance at about $43, which would cover such things as medical insurance, emergency evacuation and trip interruption.

Here’s to spring break. However it’s spent, keep it sane and safe.