It's been a tough season for spring break destinations. With students and parents tightening their belts in the face of a major recession, the annual tradition of letting off steam ideally on an exotic beach, with access to plenty of cheap beer is suffering. This spring break season typically, March 16 to April 5 flights from the U.S. to the Caribbean have dropped as much as 20%, according to data compiled for TIME by the online travel agency Expedia. Meanwhile, safety concerns over Mexico's increasingly violent drug cartels may be helping keep students away from its beaches in droves; travel to the spring-break Mecca of Cancun is down 22% over last year. (See pictures of the history of Mardi Gras.)
But that doesn't mean spring break is canceled. When it comes to scaling back expenses, that's where many college students are drawing a line in the sand. Sun-drenched revelers are spending less, and service-oriented spring breakers are reaching out to communities closer to home. "For college students, spring break is really a once in a lifetime experience," says Matt Scriven, founder of spring break tour operator ParadiseParties.com. "So they're finding a way to do it." (See 50 authentic American travel experiences.)
For many, that means forgoing a far-flung trip which can cost upwards of $1,000 and soaking up some less exotic rays. According to Expedia, spring break flights to Orlando, Los Angeles and New York all jumped more than 25% this year. At ParadiseParties.com, the uptick in sales of cheaper, domestic options including a $400 party cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and a $300 trip to Panama City, Fla., where MTV films one of its spring break specials kept the overall number of bookings from dipping substantially, despite a drop in international sales. "We definitely sold a whole lot more of the affordable stuff," says Scriven.
Affordability may also help explain why service-oriented spring break trips, which can cost as little as $300, are more popular than ever this year. At St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vermont, applications doubled for trips to serve in soup kitchens or build homes around the country and abroad. Harvard's alternative spring break program recorded a 90% increase in applications. And Break Away, an organization that helps coordinate service-oriented break trips for over 150 college campuses nationwide, has tracked a 10-15% increase in participation for the sixth year in a row. "Most alternative break programs are very student-led and small-donor based, very grassroots," says Jill Piacitelli, executive director of Break Away. "Students are still willing and able to raise the $300 to go on the trip." (See TIME's Recession Special travel destinations.)
Some students, however, are less able than they used to be. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for example, sent some spring-break volunteers to Kentucky last year to help rebuild an elderly woman's home after it burned down. This year, they're offering a staycation instead: 30 students are living on campus and working at local nonprofits. The per-student tab for the week comes to $75, compared to $350 a pop for one of last year's trips. "Students were not as interested in paying that much," says Jordanna Spencer, graduate coordinator for service and volunteerism. (Read more about volunteer vacations.)
Other alternative break trips are being refocused to help people especially affected by the recession. About two dozen schools, for instance, have retooled their Habitat for Humanity-style affordable housing trips to focus on rehabilitating foreclosured homes instead, says Piacitelli. "The idea with alternative breaks is to address pressing social needs," she says. "When there's a demonstrated, clear one, the students are on to that, and plan trips around it."
There are other students, of course, who are simply staying home. Melissa Bubb, 20, a junior marketing major at Temple University, took a bus home to Brooklyn, New York, where she spent spring break visiting her grandmother and catching up with high school friends. "Honestly, I couldn't afford to go on vacation," she says. "The way the circumstances are now with the economy, you have to pick and choose." (See 10 things to do in New York City.)
For her senior year, though, Bubb has already made her decision. "It will be my last year and my last semester," she says. "I'll probably just treat myself to a trip."