Oil Spill: Should You Cancel Your Florida Vacation?

Thanks to man and nature, this has been a messy and even dangerous year for tourists and air travelers in general. The problems: ash, oil, and drug-related violence.

Oh, and did I mention that the hurricane season, which officially began Tuesday, could be a bad one? Some are calling it, a potential "Katrina year."

But we can't blame nature for everything. In March, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning on Mexico because of violent crime by drug cartels in the country's border regions. Later, the Caribbean nation of Jamaica would get its own travel alert for dangerous disturbances in Kingston.

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However, nature got in a few more swings in April, as an Icelandic volcano rained ash down over Europe to such an extent that it shut down an entire continent's airspace and stranded thousands of travelers around the globe.

A few days later, the doings of humans were back in the news with an explosion on a BP oil rig about 50 miles south of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. Few paid attention at the time. That would change.

As oil began leaking from the rig, and spreading, fishermen began fearing for their future, and the operators of tourist businesses from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida began wondering how they'd fill their beach hotels -- or entice anyone there at all.

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How bad is it? Journalists here at ABC say it's shaping up to become the "worst oil spill ever" in U.S. history, and I can show you proof in airline ticket prices: Everywhere else in the nation, airfares are rising on average about 20 percent above last year, but tickets to New Orleans are down 20 percent and we're seeing more downward trending in the Biloxi/Gulfport area.

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Cheaper airfare illustrates how one person's bad luck is often another person's boon, and here are a couple of other things you might want to file away under good things about the Florida Panhandle beaches, despite the spill:

So far, there's no oil on the beaches.

Frommer's named Florida's Panhandle beaches one of its top destinations for 2010.

Southwest launched flights to Panama City last week (and over the weekend, I saw a sample roundtrip fare from Indianapolis for less than $250).

Unfortunately, a lot of people don't seem to care about this "good" news. According to a recent survey from the Auto Club South, about four in 10 travelers said the spill would influence their future plans to visit Florida's Gulf Coast -- and not in a good way.

But tourism officials and business people in the region are not giving up: They've launched aggressive advertising campaigns (including one in Florida funded by $25 million from BP, which you might say is the least they could do).

Plus, there are deals to be had, and not just with airfare: Some hotels are giving travelers "a $200 credit if the beaches are closed because of oil" while other businesses are offering everything from free rounds of golf to restaurant vouchers, late room checkout and more.

Should you get insurance? You can try, but it may not cover a disaster of this size, and if it does, thetravel insurance might be way too expensive to be worth it (but if you do look at insurance, read the fine print, ask a million questions, and get everything in writing).

You could choose to vacation elsewhere, though it's not clear if a lot of people are doing that. However, I did notice the folks in Orlando recently touting their improved airport traffic numbers for Memorial Day weekend (though that could have more to do with a slick mouse named Mickey rather than any oil spill).

If I had been planning a visit to the potential spill area, I think I'd call the hotel and explain my concerns and see what they'd be willing to do for me and my family if the worst happened -- like tar balls despoiling those beautiful beaches. Try it; you might be pleasantly surprised.

And look at it this way: That Icelandic volcano has roused itself a time or two since the big spew, and while it's quiet for now, apparently no one can say how long that will last. And yet, people are still flying to Europe.

And some, no doubt, will still fly to the beaches in the path of the oil spill. But then, people still flock to Florida and the Caribbean at the height of hurricane season, right?

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.