Fuel Costs' Latest Victims: Youth Groups

Youth groups across the country are feeling the squeeze from record-high energy prices as they budget their annual trips around the U.S. and abroad.

In New Jersey, one youth orchestra's dilemma is typical of what faces travelers at the hands of airlines and tour operators who see no choice but to pass on their higher costs.

"[A trip to Austria] is wonderful and exciting for these kids, but it's just a huge challenge to make sure it's affordable," said Barbara Goldberg, the president of the Youth Orchestras of Essex County, which has been planning for nearly a year to perform in Austria in June 2009. "They work so hard and they deserve to have opportunities."

Despite planning far ahead – Goldberg's group has been organizing the trip since September 2007 – the recent surge in prices for everything from aviation fuel to baggage surcharges has made the going rough.

"The oil prices and airline fuel prices have shot up and now they're charging for baggage on planes, which is a real issue for us," said Goldberg, who added that in addition to suitcases for their personal belongings, all of the children will also be responsible for transporting their own instrument – some as large as a cello.

"We may have to rent [instruments] overseas," said Goldberg, who said she originally set the trip's budget at $3,300 per member, and now thinks she may need every penny of it.

"$3,000 was a ballpark figure that we set high, thinking the families would be happy when the trip was under that – but now I don't know," said Goldberg.

Goldberg plans on taking around 40 young musicians on the trip – ranging from third graders to high school seniors. Even with the fundraising the orchestra has been doing – some members play music at their local train stations during rush hour to make a few bucks – Goldberg said that there are a few families whose plans to send their children on the trip are currently "on hold."

"They just don't know where the economy is going," said Goldberg.

Travel Agents Suffer, Too

Luke Wiscombe, the national marketing director for Music Celebrations International, which is helping Goldberg plan her orchestra's trip, said that the number of cancellations has soared since the economy began to sag.

"We're being hit hard by cancellations," Wiscombe said of trips planned for 2009. Most of this year's trips have already been paid for, he said, and so customers are sticking to their plans.

Wiscombe said he expects more journeys to remain in the U.S. rather than aboard, where the dollar is weaker and the flights far more expensive with fuel surcharges in the hundreds of dollars per ticket.

"Some groups travel every other year or alternate between international and domestic trips," said Wiscombe. "Now they're making it once every three years."

Destinations like New York City and Toronto are also replacing trips abroad because groups think they can get an "international experience" without the high costs.

Owner of Youth Group Travel Robert McLaughlin told ABCNEWS.com that many of his clients – the majority of whom are youth groups or church groups – are turning sour on the idea of traveling outside of the U.S.

"Traveling is complicated and it's scary," said McLaughlin. "[High prices] are putting a damper on long distance travel, especially when it involves airfares."

We Won't See You Next Year

And while McLaughlin said that he hasn't seen too many clients backing out of trips yet, he too expects 2009 to be much worse.

"You're going to see a change in the sense that instead of flying maybe they'll get a motor coach or take the group somewhere more local," said McLaughlin, whose company is based in Nashville, Tenn. "They'll do something smaller."

But even renting buses is getting more expensive, said McLaughlin, who estimated that a one-day bus trip that would usually cost $1,000 now costs 8 to 9 percent more because of the cost of diesel.

For only the second time in its 42-year history, Bob Musiker, co-owner of a popular summer tour program for teens, says he's had to charge participants an extra $25 to combat rising fuel costs.

"It's an energy cost adjustment," said Musiker of the surcharge. "It goes toward bus trips because bus companies have given us three or four different fuel surcharges since the early spring, plus putting gas in our own vans for day trips."

Even so, Musiker told ABCNEWS.com that the extra fee doesn't "come close" to recovering the increased costs absorbed by the company.

So for now, Goldberg says she's going to remain optimistic that her young musicians get the trip they've been practicing for.

"It would be a huge disappointment [if everyone didn't go], said Goldberg. "There's a lot of excitement in the orchestra, this is a big deal for them."