Travel is tricky right now — here are 7 mistakes to avoid on your next trip
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Travel is back — in a big way.
Memorial Day will kickstart what’s sure to be a frenzied few months of travel. Vacation rental site Vacasa recently reported that over 63% of Americans plan to travel this summer.
Unfortunately, this summer’s high-demand, high-cost environment also promises to bring with it a host of hassles and headaches. This can make flying or hitting the road anything but relaxing.
Between staffing issues, soaring inflation rates and long lines, a getaway this summer can quickly turn from a long-awaited dream into a nightmare for vacation-starved Americans. While many international destinations have loosened or eliminated COVID-19 testing requirements, the recent spike in cases is a reminder that plans can easily be derailed; keeping track of the ever-changing testing protocols — required before, during and after a trip in some cases — will still inform our travel plans for quite some time.
The logistics of it all are mind-numbing, as is the list of possible problems that you might encounter.
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In short, the travel situation is unpredictable right now. Some travelers are reporting an array of frustrating problems and limited solutions while others are having relatively pain-free experiences.
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
Before the pandemic, many travel reservations were 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. The experience you ultimately found at your destination was 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. However, if those schedule adjustments happen too close to departure you could be left in the lurch.
Over the last year many airlines have announced network changes. When Breeze Airways made its first round of significant schedule updates, they took effect within days of the announcement. This left little time for affected passengers to make alternate arrangements. Plus, many had to face a huge added expense when purchasing last-minute airfare from another carrier.
With packed planes set to be the norm this summer, airlines will struggle to shuffle passengers onto alternate flights.
In some cases, even small schedule 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, it would’ve been a less-than-enjoyable family flight back to Florida.
These unwelcome changes aren’t coming just from airlines.
Since the housing market is hot, a fair number of vacation homes have been sold. As a result, some travelers have run into issues with sudden cancellations of confirmed vacation rentals just weeks, or even days, before arrival. This happened twice 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.
Plus, with scarce inventory and high prices for last-minute accommodations, you could be left without a feasible alternative.
Right up to their day of travel (and during), travelers need to keep updated on the entry requirements for their destinations. Even though international borders are continuing to reopen and travel restrictions have eased, keeping on top of paperwork and testing requirements remains an essential part of summer travel.
On May 1, after more than two years with its borders closed, New Zealand welcomed international visitors from visa-waiver countries like the U.S. for the first time. However, there are still plenty of hoops to jump through, including applying for a New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority visa and taking three COVID-19 tests before and during your trip.
TPG reporter Chris Dong experienced the ever-changing rules and regulations firsthand during a nine-day trip to Portugal, where new COVID-19 testing policies actually went into effect while he was on the ground. Of course, he also needed to procure a PCR test for entry back into the U.S. — which turned into an adventure of its own.
His recommendation? Prepare to be flexible.
Make sure to “have backup plans in place for COVID-19 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 still a fair chance that the specific policies for entering (or touring) your destination will change to become more or less restrictive — not to mention, 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) security and check-in lines. 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. To avoid waiting in a huge line at Orlando International Airport (MCO), Summer 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 Airlines flight.
TPG staffers and readers have also experienced long lines at hotel check-in desks.TPG news editor Clint Henderson saw this firsthand on a trip to Hawaii and TPG reporter Zach Griff experienced it at 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 $189 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.
Packing everything in your checked luggage
There’s always a chance of flight delays or cancellations. Now, 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 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 spending 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. 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. That’s not always the case, though — especially with ongoing headaches like jet fuel shortages.
Tips to prevent these issues
- Always pack at least a change of clothes as well as 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 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 while the situation is improving, you should still start the booking process early.
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 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. 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 have 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 operate 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.
Unfortunately, these have become notably unreliable as travel rebounds. In some major cities, the prices of these services are seeing marked increases. The labor shortage has hit ride-hailing companies hard, as TPG’s Caroline Tanner covered.
Our own editors have experienced the dreaded “no cars available” message in the Uber app; many readers have reported hourlong waits and prices that are double or triple 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. Despite implementing incentives to woo drivers back, both providers cited modest decreases in wait times.
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 these are also not immune to supply issues.
- Utilize public transportation where possible, even if it means a bit more walking or changing lines to reach your destination.
- When you need to ensure a car is available at a certain time, splurge on high-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 Arches national parks — require advanced reservations to enter the park, as well as permits for popular hikes. Even those that don’t require reservations ahead of time may still limit capacity, meaning an earlier-than-usual wake-up time to guarantee entry.
We grabbed the last three spots for our Twin Falls kayaking adventure, despite booking nearly a week in advance. At Glacier National Park, we’ve heard kayaks, bike rentals and rafting trips are booked up for weeks this summer.
Additionally, Disney World crowds are back in a big way. “If you show up to the parks with your day planned down to the minute, you might leave disappointed when the crowds throw you off schedule from the get-go,” TPG’s family reporter Tarah Chieffi said.
This summer sell-outs at Disney and many other theme parks will be a common occurrence. “Now, the number one rule is to make a Park Pass reservation as soon as you know your travel dates and have your tickets. Do not wait until a week or two before your trip to do this step, as it may be too late,” Chieffi advised.
Tips to prevent these issues
- Take the time to map out your entire trip — especially if you’re planning to visit a theme park or a national park.
- Make advance reservations for must-do tours and activities, 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.
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 $27 beers at the airport, there’s a competing story about things going perfectly.
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. Get excited at the prospect of spreading your wings once again.
Featured photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.
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