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Heat is on the travel industry

There are sticklers who insist that summer doesn't start until June 21, or at least until the kids get out of school. Then there is the travel industry ... Executives and researchers for the airlines and hotel chains spent much of the spring worrying about the summer. Traditionally the busiest quarter for leisure (vacation) travel, summer is no time to let the competition steal your customers.

Especially not after the disappointing revenues of 1990. Last year, travel was sharply reduced, by the recession and by fear of terrorism generated by the Persian Gulf War. Last month the airlines' chief trade organization claimed the carriers had lost $4.6-billion since August, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

What's worse, the hoped-for summer flood of vacation travel was shaping up more like a thick trickle. Airline reservations made through travel agents were up only 2 percent in April over the same month last year.

So in mid-May, a half-dozen airlines broadly cut summer fares. Nearly every major hotel and motel chain has revived or repackaged its summer discount packages.

Who's going to sleep where?

All this hubbub adds to our problems using the travel industry marketplace. Remember to compare apples to apples.

An example in most large cities: You and your spouse want to spend a long weekend in another town, but where should you stay? An all-suite hotel, with Jacuzzis in the bathrooms, is about 12 miles from downtown shopping and museums. For an extra $20 a night, you can be pampered on the concierge level at the best downtown hotel _ across the street from the festival marketplace. Or you can check out a cheaper B&B in a gentrified section of the city.

By the way, to learn about discounted room rates and packages for the chain hotels, call their toll-free number (to learn these, call Toll-Free Information, at 800 555-1212). If you arrive without a reservation but there are several lodging choices, be bold and bargain with the desk clerks.

For the armchair traveler

A couple of promising and decidedly different series on travel are about to start on Public Broadcasting System stations.

I viewed two episodes of Travels in Europe with Rick Steves and found them uneven but rewarding. In his well-regarded book Europe Through the Back Door, Steves emphasizes an economical approach to tourism for folks who want to sample other lands as visitors, not just as sight-seers.

The philosophy of his 13-part series: to show out-of-the-way places, provide tipsthat let viewers "get their fingers dirty in the culture you came to see," and to give enough historical interpretation to provide "a basis to understand those dusty treasures."

Each of the half-hour segments fairly trots through a major European city or region. The opening show, on Amsterdam and the Netherlands, is slim on sights to see but heavy on overall advice on using the series.

Steves is a conversationalist. He stays in Haarlem, 20 minutes from Amsterdam, because "it's a great pinch-me-I'm-in-Europe town." When he visits the Anne Frank House Museum, he explains, "Most of our sightseeing involves dipping into Europe's fairy-tale past. A dose of reality now and then is healthy."

He says Florence, Italy, is "the cultural summit of our trip ... It can be overwhelming, it can be a joy." He suggests staying in the southern part of the city, "Florence with training wheels."

Steves also emphasizes consumer tips _ "The notorious language barrier is about 2 feet high."

Travels in Europe begins Wednesday at 10 p.m. on WUSF-Ch. 16, and July 6 at noon on WEDU-Ch. 3, repeating on that station at noon the following Wednesdays.

Both stations will also show the more lavish Adventure series. In its fifth season, these 12, 60-minute shows trek through exotic locations. WEDU begins this series first, on June 10 at 8 p.m., with an episode following mountaineers and dog sled racers advancing on a Canadian mountain. WUSF will show the series at 8 p.m. Sundays, beginning June 23.