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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Welcome to summer travel. It’s hell.

Is vacation supposed to be this miserable?

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
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Steve Miller thought he was one of the lucky ones. Flights out of D.C. were being canceled left and right earlier this month, and even though his departure kept getting pushed, the 25-year-old’s trip to Nashville was still scheduled.

Then his luck ran out. Just 35 minutes after taking off, the American Airlines flight turned back to D.C. because a crew member was about to reach their maximum flying time, passengers were told.

Next available flight to Nashville: two nights later, which would make him miss the birthday festivities he was traveling to join. Miller abandoned what he described as “the Fyre Festival of air travel" and opted for a 10½-hour drive the next day in a one-way rental car he scrambled to find for about $400. Thanks to good mileage but no thanks to sky-high fuel prices, gas “only” cost another $100. Before that, he had to return to the airport at 6 a.m. to collect his luggage, take a $60 Uber to Baltimore and wait two hours for the car.

“Everything ended up being funny to me just because it was getting so ridiculous,” he said.

Summer travel is chaos. Here are 8 things to know.

“Ridiculous” is one way to describe summer vacation this year, as masses of travelers venture out only to discover labor shortages, high gas prices, airport chaos, flight cancellations, lost-baggage mysteries, pricey hotels and vacation rentals, expensive airfare, extreme weather events and a persistent pandemic.

Another way to put it: “This is an extraordinarily difficult season of travel,” said Marc Casto, president of leisure brands in the Americas for Flight Centre Travel Group, a travel agency. “It’s a confluence of multiple forces all hitting at the exact same time, which has resulted in a poor experience for everybody involved.”

Many Americans thought this would be the summer for travel — casting aside memories of two years stuck inside, they could finally have a return to normal. Some have dubbed it the year of “revenge travel,” making up for experiences missed in 2020 and 2021. And they are traveling en masse: More than 2.46 million people were screened Sunday by Transportation Security Administration officers, the highest volume since Feb. 11, 2020.

“It’s pretty clear that people have been cooped up for two years and they want to travel now,” said Jason Rabinowitz, a travel analyst. “When I look at airline availability right now, I have never seen it so tight before — pretty much every flight throughout the system is going out 100 percent full.”

It hasn’t been the summer the travel industry wanted either as it struggles to hire enough workers to deal with a flood of vacationers. Leisure and hospitality employment was still down in May by 7.9 percent, or 1.3 million, compared to February of 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than 2,800 U.S. flights were canceled over the long Memorial Day weekend. During the holiday weekend that included Juneteenth and Father’s Day, roughly 5,000 flights were scuttled, with many thousands more delayed. Airlines had been preemptively trimming schedules for the summer with the idea that it’s better to cancel a flight far in advance than at the last minute.

Flight cancellations stressing weary travelers as July 4 approaches

“I view the core issue as one of a mismatch between supply and demand,” said Laurie Garrow, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and an expert in aviation and travel behavior. Airlines are still recovering after the pandemic decimated air travel and carriers encouraged workers, including pilots, to take buyouts or early retirement. “You can’t ramp up immediately to meet the surge in demand,” she said.

She said thunderstorms — more unpredictable than winter storms — have also played a role in the season’s air travel disruption.

Passengers are complaining. So are pilots. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg isn’t thrilled with the airlines, the airlines are pointing fingers at the Federal Aviation and Administration, and record inflation means everyone is paying more for the displeasure — and that’s just in the sky.

Hotel, food, alcohol and recreation prices have shot up compared to last year and pre-pandemic times. Gas prices soared to a high earlier this month before falling slightly to a national average of $4.88 a gallon, according to AAA. That is nearly 58 percent higher than a year ago.

Chaos at European airports strands travelers. Here’s why.

Travelers shouldn’t expect a reprieve anytime soon. The upcoming Fourth of July weekend is expected to see record numbers of people travel by car, despite the cost of fuel, according to AAA. And the weekend is also on track to be the most expensive July Fourth in the past five years, according to travel booking app Hopper, which said average domestic airfare is up 45 percent compared to 2019.

For all the travel nightmares for domestic travelers, many of those crossing the pond to Europe have had it worse. Crippling shortages of security officers, check-in agents and baggage handlers are causing chaos across the continent, compounded by rail and air strikes.

On a recent trip to Europe, Rabinowitz said security lines at Hamburg airport were so long he had trouble finding where one ended and another began.

Travelers should give themselves plenty of time to make a connection. But if a flight is too close for comfort, Rabinowitz said, passengers should ask to be rebooked; airlines will usually do it for no fee, he said.

Casto said travelers should avoid checking bags, pay for seat assignments and take the first flight of the day, even if that means getting to the airport at 4 a.m.

“Remove any delusions that travel is as it used to be before covid,” he said. “The experience has changed inexorably. ... It will be convoluted. It will be difficult. It will be challenging, and it is still worth it.”

The do’s and don’ts for an unpredictable summer of flying

Amy Sayles and her husband, David, who live in Atlanta, were traveling to Ireland in late May when their Delta flight from New York to Dublin was canceled. After waiting four hours in line, they were rebooked on an Aer Lingus flight the next day, but her husband’s bags never made the transfer.

Sayles, 52, said they had a fantastic time in Ireland, but they racked up $1,000 in expenses buying new clothes, toiletries and luggage. On their fifth day in Ireland, they were excited to hear they had received a bag delivery — but it turned out to be David’s golf bag.

“Remove any delusions that travel is as it used to be before covid”

Her husband’s suitcase remains missing three weeks later, and Sayles estimates she has spent 14 hours talking with both airlines to try to track it down. (Delta and Aer Lingus spokespeople apologized for Sayles’s experience and said they remain in communication with her.)

“If anyone is going to travel this summer, I strongly recommend carrying your bags," Sayles said.

How to get refunds if your flight is canceled

Miller, whose Nashville flight was canceled, continued to Colorado and then Spain during his two-week vacation. His luggage didn’t make it to Spain and will be sent back to the United States, forcing him to buy a new vacation wardrobe on the trip.

“I assume they’ll fully reimburse, but I’ve been unsuccessful in reaching them with email or phone calls," he said in an email Tuesday.

As travel writers based outside London, Omo and Eulanda Shead Osagiede are experienced in getting through European airports, but this summer’s lines caught even them off guard.

On a recent trip to Spain, “we were at the airport three hours before and it was still not enough,” Omo Osagiede said. He was still in the security line 30 minutes before take off, and only made the flight thanks to a gate agent who found him in line.

“It was absolute chaos,” Eulanda Shead Osagiede said. “It definitely causes you to rethink, do I want to go through all this pain at the airport?”

Gas prices a much bigger factor than covid for summer travel, poll finds

For travelers looking to hit the road, prices at the pump have them thinking twice. A Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 61 percent of Americans say gas prices are a “major factor” in making their summer vacation plans.

“You kind of have to pick your poison”

Caitlin Johnson, 23, who works in finance in Dallas, said it now costs her roughly $85 to fill up her Honda Accord, making her reconsider traveling at all this summer.

“You kind of have to pick your poison — whether it’s choosing to pay for gas and drive all that way, or choosing to take a flight that’s way more expensive than it typically is,” she said. “At this point, travel is just becoming really difficult overall.”

Everything to know about the Yellowstone closure

Extreme weather events such as heat waves and flooding are only complicating summer travel plans further.

For a trip to Yellowstone National Park, Danielle De Pillis booked her family’s lodging inside the park a year in advance. So when the 47-year-old yoga therapist from Minneapolis heard that flooding would potentially threaten their trip, she was “momentarily in denial.”

She soon realized there was no way the family would have the trip they had long planned: Yellowstone faced what some officials called a 1-in-500-years flooding event that swept away roads, bridges and homes. It could take years and $1 billion for the park to recover.

De Pillis said her family was able to salvage their trip by going to northern Minnesota and the South Dakota badlands. They plan to return to Yellowstone, but with a more cautious outlook on travel.

“Climate change is really going to start impacting the way we plan — can we even plan a year in advance anymore?” De Pillis said. “I’ve never even considered buying trip insurance, but as a result, I’m now thinking that I should probably consider that because we just don’t know.”

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