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VOL. 36 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 07, 2012

Need to get away? Some options

By Joe Morris

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Holiday lights and special events draw large numbers of visitors to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge each winter.

-- Gatlinburg Convention And Visitors Bureau

It’s mid-December and the holiday madness is in full swing. Despite a full calendar of plans with family and friends — or maybe because of it — the lure of a carefree couple of days out of town is just too good to resist.

But with Christmas and New Year’s Eve right around the corner, will there be any room at the inns? Happily for last-minute escapists, the answer is yes.

Gatlinburg is a three- to four-hour drive, depending on traffic, and there are plenty of hotel and motel rooms to be had, as well as packages that throw in local sightseeing destinations such as Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Privately-owned chalets and condos have also grown in size and number over the past few years, giving vacationers another lodging option. All told, the Gatlinburg area offers 14,000 spots to lay one’s head, so there’s a fair amount of choice to be had even during the busiest seasons, local tourism officials say.

gatlinburg.com has lodging and attractions information, and by calling (800) 56-VISIT, travelers can get updated information on room availability.
tunicatravel.com, or (888) 4TUNICA both can provide lodging and event information.

“Our website has a list of packages that is constantly being updated, so people who are thinking about coming can find out what the specials are,” says Jim Davis, public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“That’s where the discounts are, and people can put together a package that suits their needs.”

While the larger cabins, those with five or more bedrooms, tend to book out long before the holidays, the smaller ones with up to three bedrooms are often available right up to the holidays. The same goes for condos, as well as hotel and motel rooms, Davis says.

“We get a lot of large groups and families here through Thanksgiving, but after that rooms open up, especially for singles and couples, or even small families,’’ he says.

Bowl games and casinos

The situation’s much the same in Tunica, Miss., a few hours in the other direction on I-40. In fact, the holidays tend to be a slower period there, so the nine casinos are eager to get visitors into their 6,300 hotel rooms, says Webster Franklin, president of the Tunica Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“We will have good entertainment, and a lot of people come here to watch the bowl games and other sporting events during the holidays,” Franklin says. “But it’s slow, so all the casinos are offering some very attractive room rates, as well as packages.”

While Tunica does see some group travel, it’s more of a destination for singles and couples, so it is well-equipped with the last-minute, getaway traveler.

“We’re used to that couple, or small group of friends, who want a long weekend,” Franklin says. “We’ve got the casinos for them, of course, but also a lot of entertainment options.”

Low gas prices, special packages

Middle Tennesseans are far from being alone when it comes to hitting the road for the holidays, whether it’s a planned trip or a spur-of-the moment journey.

AAA figures show more than 43 million Americans took to the highways for journeys of 50 miles or more over the Thanksgiving holidays, a slight rise over last year. That’s in contrast to air travel, which has declined in recent years.

The same should hold true over the Christmas-New Year’s period, and will be boosted by gas prices that are holding steady and are predicted to continue dropping through year’s end.

Tennessee and Mississippi are among the 10 states with the lowest gas prices, according to GasBuddy.com.

Because leisure destinations are still clambering back from the recession, they are offering substantial room deals and package rates, AAA says, which also should spur some last-minute travel. The continued rise of Internet bookings also will keep those numbers growing, adds Gatlinburg’s Davis.

“Travel has really changed; people used to book ahead for weeks or months, but now we’re getting more walk-in traffic than ever,” Davis says. “It’s easier to travel on short notice because you can hop online and find out if there are rooms available.

“And you can book for shorter periods of time, so you can really customize that getaway. There’s just a lot more flexibility when it come to lodging now, and people are really taking advantage of that.”