Travel is a crapshoot right now — here are 8 mistakes to avoid on your next trip
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Travel in the U.S. is back — in a big way. But this rebound has brought with it new potential hassles and headaches which can make the act of hitting the road or taking to the skies anything but relaxing.
Between staffing issues, long lines, limited service and shortages of some essential travel items, a getaway this summer can quickly turn from a long-awaited dream into a nightmare for vacation-starved Americans. And that doesn’t even account for ever-changing COVID-19 testing protocols in many international destinations — required before, during and after a trip in some cases.
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In short, the travel situation is a complete and total crapshoot right now, with some travelers reporting an array of frustrating problems and limited solutions yet others experiencing a nearly pain-free experience.
If you want to avoid falling into the former group, here are some of the most significant mistakes you should try to avoid as you prepare for your next trip.
Assuming all travel plans are set
In normal, non-pandemic times, many travel reservations are of the “set it and forget it” nature. Once you have an email confirmation of your flights, accommodations, tours or other bookings, you’re generally good to go. And the experience you ultimately find at your destination is almost always exactly what it was when you planned the trip.
However, the pandemic has changed this significantly.
Under normal circumstances, airline schedule changes can typically be the keys to help you change to a more desirable routing or flight time, but if those schedule adjustments happen too close to departure — as they are right now — you could be left in the lurch.
For example, Breeze Airways recently made its first round of significant schedule updates since launching operations in May — and on certain routes, they took effect within days of the announcement. This left little time for affected passengers to make alternate arrangements — not to mention the possibility of facing a huge added expense of purchasing last-minute airfare from another carrier.
In some cases, even small changes can lead to painful hiccups.
Several weeks before the return flight from my family’s fantastic trip to Twin Falls, Idaho, Delta adjusted the schedule by just a few minutes. However, despite being on the exact same type of aircraft with the exact same seating configuration, the three of us (including my 6-year-old) were somehow separated on the seat map — with no way to switch back.
Thankfully, once onboard, we found a traveler who was willing to switch seats and allow us to sit together, but if we hadn’t, that would’ve been a less-than-enjoyable family flight back to Florida.
And these unwelcome changes aren’t coming just from airlines.
With housing markets being as hot as they are, a fair number of vacation homes are being sold. As a result, some travelers have run into issues with confirmed vacation rentals suddenly being canceled this summer, just weeks or even days before arrival. This has happened twice in recent months to TPG’s Summer Hull, as separate home rentals booked in both the Colorado mountains and the Florida Panhandle were canceled when the respective owners sold the homes.
And with scarce inventory and high prices for last-minute accommodations, you could be left without a feasible alternative.
This can also be a headache for those looking to leave the country as more international borders reopen and travel restrictions begin to ease. In some cases, destinations began welcoming tourists only to shift policies shortly thereafter. For example, Iceland has adjusted its guidance multiple times — most recently adding a testing requirement as of July 27 for all tourists, regardless of vaccination status.
TPG reporter Chris Dong experienced this firsthand during a recent, nine-day trip to Portugal, where new COVID-19 testing policies actually went into effect while he was on the ground. And of course, he needed to procure a PCR test for entry back into the United States — which turned into an adventure of its own.
His recommendation? Prepare to be flexible.
Make sure to “have backup plans in place for COVID testing to return to the U.S.,” he said. “I went to a pharmacy in Porto that said they do walk-ins when I called — but when I arrived, they said they couldn’t accept walk-ins anymore that day.”
Thankfully, he had an appointment at another pharmacy — otherwise, he could’ve utilized the one at-home test accepted for entrance into the U.S. that he’d brought with him just in case.
In short, if you book an international flight more than a week in advance, there’s a high likelihood that the specific policies for entering (or touring) your destination will change to become either more or less restrictive — and your first option for securing a negative test to return to the U.S. may not work.
Tips to prevent these issues
- Log in to your flight bookings and hotel or vacation rental reservations at least once a week so you can flag (and address) any possible disruptions as far in advance as possible.
- Book a refundable hotel stay as a backup for a vacation home rental — though be sure to set a calendar reminder to cancel that reservation prior to its cancellation deadline.
- Consider a staycation or driveable destination to avoid being stranded in an unfamiliar location — without the possibility of simply turning around and driving home.
- Don’t rely solely on third-party sources, and pay close attention to formal announcements from your international destination to ensure you know what to expect prior to departure.
- If you’re traveling internationally, have at least one backup plan for getting an eligible COVID-19 test to return to the U.S.
Planning on normal lines
For anyone who took to the skies during the height of the pandemic, it was probably disconcerting to see such empty airport terminals. However, the lack of travelers did make for shorter (or nonexistent) lines to check in for flights or clear security. And while there weren’t many food options open in those early months, there usually wasn’t a mad scramble at the ones that were operating.
Those days are now largely a distant memory.
With travel demand surging — and both airlines and the Transportation Security Administration struggling to staff up appropriately — long lines are becoming more and more prevalent in airports across the country. Some airports have reported multiple-hour waits to clear security, while TPG’s Summer Hull forked over $55 for her daughter’s carry-on suitcase instead of checking it for free as an elite status perk ahead of a Spirit flight — thus avoiding a huge line in Orlando (MCO).
TPG staffers and readers have also experienced long lines at hotel check-in desks — like what news editor Clint Henderson saw on a recent trip to Hawaii and reporter Zach Griff experienced at the new Resorts World Las Vegas.
The lines to rent a car can be particularly painful in leisure destinations such as Orlando.
Tips to prevent these issues
- Plan extra time at the airport — especially if you plan to check a bag. In fact, you may want to try and avoid checking a bag if at all possible.
- Use online check-in if you’re just carrying on a bag, and print your boarding pass (or save it to your phone) to go straight to the security line.
- Consider applying for TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or Clear for expedited security (and note that The Platinum Card® from American Express now includes up to $179 in annual statement credits for Clear membership — enrollment is required).
- Check in for your hotel stay using an app, as many chains will provide you with a digital key and allow you to skip the front desk entirely.
- If you have hotel elite status, be on the lookout for a shorter elite status check-in line. You may even be eligible for hotel elite status by virtue of a credit card that’s already in your wallet.
Relying on airport or airline food services
Grabbing a bite to eat in the airport used to be simple prior to the pandemic. You either budgeted enough time for a sit-down meal — potentially at a pretty top-notch restaurant — or you could grab something from a fast-casual dining outlet to take onboard or eat at the gate or in the food court.
But this summer, don’t be surprised if neither one of these is a realistic option.
For starters, many food locations in airports haven’t yet reopened. And to make matters worse, those that are open can have exceedingly long waits or missing menu items. This has improved somewhat over the last several months, but you can no longer count on a quick grab-and-go meal — especially in smaller terminals or at peak times.
Then there’s the airport lounge situation. Many airport lounge networks have taken major strides to reopen as domestic travel demand surged, but a number still remain closed. American Airlines, for one, still has a handful of lounges that won’t reopen until August, while United still has over 20 locations that remain closed — in addition to all of its premium, Polaris-branded lounges.
Finally, if you run into long lines and need to rush to catch your flight, you may find a lackluster selection of inflight food options as well. Inflight service continues to gradually come back, but some carriers — like American and Delta — still haven’t restored buy-on-board dining options for economy passengers on longer, domestic flights.
Tips to prevent these issues
- Leave extra time if you plan to get food at the airport — and don’t be surprised if there are just a few options.
- Pack plenty of snacks for longer flights, especially when traveling with kids or if you have any special dietary needs or restrictions.
Packing everything in your checked luggage
There’s always a chance of flight delays or cancellations, but 2021 has seen a handful of well-documented operational issues that go beyond the typical. In many cases, affected passengers were unexpectedly stranded overnight — or longer. Due to full flights and higher passenger loads to many destinations across the U.S., some travelers report being unable to get home (or to their final destination) for multiple days after a canceled flight or missed connection.
This is exactly what TPG contributor Leslie Harvey encountered on the way back from a June trip to see family in Connecticut.
Her initial flight was canceled, and when she tried to rebook for her family of four, there was nothing available for two days. They tried splitting up into pairs of two travelers, and they explored every alternate airport — both in the northeast (on the front end of the trip) and California (on the back end).
“With other flights extremely full, the airline simply could not accommodate us,” she said. “We truly had zero alternatives, short of buying a walk-up ticket on an alternate airline.”
After making the most of the two additional (unexpected) days with family, they began the journey home — but the saga wasn’t done yet.
Their new flight out of New England was late due to weather, and the delay forced a missed connection on the last flight of the night. This meant an unexpected overnight in Nashville before finally arriving home the following day — three full days behind the original schedule.
Problems within an airline’s control — like aircraft maintenance — often lead the carrier to issue food and/or hotel vouchers, but weather events or air traffic control-related delays typically come with nothing other than a basic amenity kit. And the only thing worse than being forced to spend a night in an airline’s hub city, potentially at your own expense, is doing so without any of your personal items.
It’s still entirely possible that everything will go smoothly. Your initial flight will be on time, you’ll have plenty of time to make your connection and upon landing, your luggage will come out without needing to invoke an airline’s checked bag guarantee. But that’s not always the case — especially with new headaches like a jet fuel shortage out west or the runway closure at one of the biggest airports in the Northeast.
Tips to prevent these issues
- Always pack at least a change of clothes and items like contacts or toothbrushes in a carry-on bag.
- If you are stranded overnight, keep all of your receipts when purchasing necessities — you may need to submit them to either your airline or credit card company for potential reimbursement.
- Book your flights with a credit card that conveys trip protections in the event of delays, unexpected overnights and cancellations. It’s not just the super-premium cards that offer this coverage; even the $95-per-year Chase Sapphire Preferred Card has above-average travel protections when you use it to book your trips.
Not planning ahead with your rental car
We’ve covered the ongoing car rental shortage extensively here at TPG, and there’s no sign of it ending any time soon.
The combination of slimmed-down fleets and the global microchip shortage that’s slowed car assembly lines has led to high rental prices and — in especially popular locales — no availability whatsoever. One of the Hawaiian islands has even launched its own transportation website to help visitors cope with the car rental shortage.
If you don’t plan ahead, you could be left without great options. Very few travelers are interested in renting a U-Haul truck or van for their vacation — but you know what they say. Desperate times …
However, even if you do manage to snag a relatively affordable car rental, there’s the added hurdle of actually picking it up. I’ve seen multiple lines at airport car rental counters this summer with 40-plus customers “patiently” waiting for their turn to (hopefully) start their trip.
If there’s still a car left, that is.
Unfortunately, even with a confirmed reservation, there’s no guarantee that a car will actually be there when you arrive. TPG Lounge member Lindsey Jensen experienced this very phenomenon in Phoenix earlier this year. Despite calling multiple times to confirm her rental ahead of time, she was notified on the day of her scheduled pickup that there were simply no cars left. Her only option was to wait several hours for one to become available.
Also, be aware that the car you do get may be older and with more mileage on it than in the past, so temper your expectations appropriately.
Tips to prevent these issues
- Book your rental car early — potentially ahead of your flights and accommodations — to lock in a decent price and inventory.
- Add your rental details into AutoSlash, which will automatically search for better prices for you.
- Join the car rental company’s loyalty program, and see if your credit card includes elite status. This can help not only ensure there’s a car waiting for you but may also allow you you skip the line.
- If all else fails, consider a car-sharing service like Turo, explore off-airport rental locations or investigate local car dealerships in your destination — some dealers will rent out their loaner cars to the public. You could also explore getting a car through Uber or Lyft, as both companies recently launched rental services.
Speaking of which …
Relying on ride-hailing services
If you don’t want to stress about the rental car shortage or worry about parking fees, you may be inclined to use services like Uber or Lyft.
Our own editors have experienced the dreaded “no cars available” message in the Uber app, while many readers have reported hourlong waits and prices that have doubled or tripled what they typically were in pre-pandemic days.
Both Uber and Lyft blamed these trends on the slow return of drivers to their respective platforms in statements to TPG. But despite implementing incentives to woo drivers back, both providers cited modest decreases in wait times over the previous few weeks.
Tips to prevent these issues
- If one is available, consider renting a car — it may be pricey but will guarantee transportation when you need it.
- Explore traditional taxi options, which can be notably cheaper and easier to book — but are also not immune to supply issues.
- Utilize public transportation where possible, even if it means a bit more walking or changing subway lines to reach your destination.
- When you need to ensure a car is available at a certain time, splurge for higher-end car services from a company like Blacklane.
Not making reservations … for everything
Gone are the days of rolling out of bed in your hotel room, hopping in your car and spontaneously driving to a nearby national park.
Select locations — including Glacier, Yosemite and Rocky Mountain — are requiring advance reservations just to get in the park. And even those that aren’t requiring reservations ahead of time may still limit capacity, meaning an earlier-than-usual wake-up time to guarantee entry.
But planning ahead is key for not just national parks.
Both Disney World in Florida and Disneyland Resort in California are requiring reservations for all guests, and some tour providers across the U.S. are continuing to limit capacity for guests. We grabbed the last three spots for our Twin Falls kayaking adventure, despite booking nearly a week in advance. And at Glacier National Park, we’ve heard stories of kayaks, bike rentals and rafting trips being booked up for weeks this summer.
And as some locations reimpose restrictions due to the spread of the delta variant, restaurant reservations may soon become the next hot commodity for travelers.
Tips to prevent these issues
- Take the time to map out your entire trip — especially if you’re planning to visit a national park or theme park.
- Make advance reservations for tours and activities that are must-dos, and inquire about the company’s change/cancellation policies in case you need to adjust.
- Research your top restaurant choices ahead of time, and determine which ones need reservations — or consider relying on takeout. Just note that even to-go orders can hit nightly capacity limits at some restaurants, as TPG’s Summer Hull found in Jackson, Wyoming.
Believing that everything will go wrong
The final mistake you want to avoid is actually in direct opposition to everything written above.
Don’t simply believe that everything will go wrong if you decide to travel this summer and even into the early fall months. Sure, there’s a lot that can go wrong, but for every horror story about canceled flights, no rental cars and hourlong airport waits for stale chicken nuggets, there’s a competing story about things going perfectly.
My family’s trip to Twin Falls was one such example.
Our outbound and return flights departed on time — and we even arrived a bit early on the way back home. The Delta Sky Clubs in both Orlando (MCO) and Salt Lake City (SLC) were open and relatively quiet, with a nice variety of food items and beverage selections. We had no issue with our rental car, and while we flew through security thanks to TSA PreCheck, neither airport had more than a 10-minute wait for regular security — despite flying over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
In short, just because there’s a lot of messiness in the travel world right now doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to have an awful experience. It’s, in essence, a roll of the dice, and you won’t know if it’s going to work out until you’re back out there.
If you prepare for the worst, hope for the best and expect something in between, you’ll likely wind up all right — and be excited at the prospect of spreading your wings once again.
Featured photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy
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