A Florida vacation looks warm in a cold economy

— -- Florida is counting on chilly northern temperatures, the return of cheap gas and discounts to lure winter vacationers despite the brutal economy.

Bookings slowed in September and October, when the stock market plunged, says Nicki Grossman, chairman of Visit Florida. But with temperatures falling in the Northeast and Midwest, people are warming up to the idea of travel, she says.

"It may be curtailed or shortened or cost less, but it is not something that people are willing to give up."

Still, Florida continues to struggle with less airline capacity. A USA TODAY analysis of flight schedules shows that Florida's domestic capacity is down 11% in December vs. December 2007

But how big a hurdle it is for consumers isn't clear since fares are the same or less than last year, says Amy Ziff of Travelocity. An analysis of Travelocity's Florida bookings through Nov. 15 for travel November through February shows that fares are mostly flat or down vs. last year. Average fares to Fort Lauderdale ($334) and Miami ($371), for instance, are 7% below 2007, while the average Orlando fare ($312) is down 3%, she says.

Some people will go to Florida simply because they already paid their way. Retirees Nancy and Bob Frankhouser of Lancaster, Pa., might have skipped their annual February Naples trip had they not paid for it months in advance — before the economy collapsed.

Wednesday's stock market plunge renewed Nancy Frankhouser's sense of doubt, but "at this point it would be more expensive not to go," she says.

More factors expected to drive Florida travel this winter:

•Discounts. Hotels are on sale. Disney launched an "incredible deal" — three nights free with purchase of a four-night stay, including an on-site hotel, park passes and a $200 gift card, says Kristy Osborne, a Travel Leaders agent in Loveland, Colo. As a result, she's selling more Florida trips than last winter.

•Rewards for big spenders. Acqualina, a 2-year-old oceanfront resort in Sunny Isles where peak-season rates average $800, is offering perks such as room upgrades, says Acqualina's Deborah Yager Fleming.

•Cheaper options. The budget Red Roof Inn chain is starting to see more families booking stays at its three Orlando hotels, which can run as low as $36 a night, says Cori Rice, Red Roof's spokeswoman.

•Higher prices elsewhere. Due to the economy, some clients are choosing Florida because they can't afford pricier trips outside the USA right now, says travel agent Sara Butruff of Travel Leaders in Apple Valley, Minn.

•Cheaper gas. Grossman expects $2-a-gallon gas to prompt more people to drive from Atlanta, Nashville and New Orleans.