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A road warrior's bumpy winter, "Travel is just an absolute mess right now"

Jan. 17, 2022
10 min read
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You've probably seen news stories about the incredible number of flight cancellations, fights on airplanes and worker shortages that have been affecting travel for weeks. It's easy to say that this is all related to the omicron surge, and much of it is. Travel conditions right now are some of the worst I've seen, but they weren't great before this new variant descended upon us either.

Many parts of the travel experience are fundamentally broken right now and don't show signs of improvement anytime soon. As a road warrior who has flights scheduled on a weekly basis, this is what I'm seeing.

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Flight cancellations and delays

(Photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

Omicron is likely having the biggest impact right now on flight cancellations. When TPG is running stories about flight cancellations measured in the thousands, the impact on travel is easy to see.

Delays start the moment you arrive at the airport and can cascade through your trip. Due to a shortage of employees, the line to check a bag or speak with a ticketing agent are some of the longest I've seen in recent memory. Behind the scenes, I'm betting there are fewer baggage handlers as well.

Related: Operational meltdown Sunday as airlines cancel 2,800+ flights

On a recent travel day from my home airport of Washington-Dulles, it was amusing to note that the airport had decided to change the color for canceled flights on message boards from red to white. While it may have been more soothing on the eyes, it highlighted the massive schedule disruptions.

This specific day was impacted a bit by weather from the day before, but a closer look showed how staffing shortages were an equally significant issue.

(Photo by Ed Pizzarello for The Points Guy)

Related: 1 in 13 flights was canceled during the holidays

My first flight that day had posted an initial delay of about 40 minutes. When I arrived at the gate about an hour prior to departure there was no gate agent yet. A gate agent generally opens a flight about an hour prior to departure and manages the gate area during that time, helping customers with seat change requests and other necessary tasks. In this case, a gate agent didn't arrive until 45 minutes prior to departure. She was able to tell me that the windshield wiper motor was broken on our plane.

Related: Here’s what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

Experience told me it was time to find a new flight and I quickly hopped on the phone with the United 1K desk. What was most surprising to me was what happened next. Shortly after, the pilot made an announcement about the mechanical issue and departed for the lounge and the gate agent left the area as well.

The remaining passengers on the flight had nobody in the gate area to advise or update them, and the customer service area adjacent to the gate was shut down. In that part of the terminal, unless you could convince another gate agent to help you, the closest customer service agent was close to a 10-minute walk. Even on a light travel day, the lines at that single customer service station stretched down the concourse.

Later that day, my second flight was delayed by more than 45 minutes. Our pilot explained there was a delay loading bags. A quick peek out the window of our plane showed there wasn't actually anyone loading bags. Almost 30 minutes later a cart showed up with a single employee who started loading bags.

The flight that day was a hub-to-hub flight destined for Denver, which meant there were many onboard connections. Our late arrival led to dozens of passengers sprinting for their next flight and others finding out that the last flight to their destination that evening had already left.

As part of my research for this article, I checked flight status for each of United's hubs the day prior. Every single hub had at least one hub-to-hub flight canceled for the date I searched. Many had a hub-to-hub flight canceled to multiple hubs. For example, Denver had flights canceled from Newark, Dulles, Houston and Los Angeles.

Related: 3 things to do if your flight is delayed

Those hub-to-hub flights are critical to keeping passengers flowing as many of the passengers are connecting to a final destination. Those cancellations put further pressure on hubs to rebook passengers on already full flights to smaller airports. On one recent flight, I saw my inbound aircraft change five times prior to our departure. I can only imagine what caused those changes.

Airlines are designed to keep people moving. When the system breaks down, the problems pile up quickly. A lack of ticket agents requires passengers to show up earlier to check bags. A slower checked bag process means bags get to planes late, potentially leading to delays. The nature of COVID-19 cancellations leads to complications closer to departure. That makes it harder to find a backup crew, ensuring they have enough service time left to fulfill the remaining flights of an excluded crew. A lack of gate agents leads to longer rebooking times, which leads to customers missing earlier flights to stay on track.

Airport operations

Planes are de-iced at La Guardia Airport during a winter storm. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Flight delays and cancellations are only part of the problem when it comes to getting where you're going. Many airport concessions are still closed. Those that are open seem perpetually understaffed. The combination of these two factors lead to long lines and frequent disappointment. I've seen breakfast restaurants without eggs, concession stands without bottled water, newspapers or chips. With restaurants shut down, grab-and-go places like Hudson News frequently have empty shelves.

Related: 6 real-life things to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

The Hudson vending machine at Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR). (Photo courtesy of Hudson)

At Washington-Dulles, one of the two Starbucks in the C/D terminal has been closed for as long as I can recall, making the line at the other Starbucks unbearable. On my most recent trip, the Potbelly was closed along with one of the newsstands. Au Bon Pain wasn't making sandwiches, only offering grab-and-go with most of those options sold out. One of the other major options in this terminal is Chick-Fil-A, which always has massive lines. With that option removed on a Sunday, finding food before a flight is a real-world version of the Hunger Games.

Related: 10 ways to get through airport security faster

Another issue is inconsistent security screening hours. Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO) is one of my frequent stops for work travel. Unfortunately, in the height of ski season, the airport has significantly curtailed the hours of TSA PreCheck. The last two times I departed RNO there were no posted hours and the PreCheck line was closed. For these mid-afternoon flights, I was directed to regular security screening. Lines weren't massive, but they were far from the 5-minute wait I normally experience.

Rental cars are in short supply

Even as a Hertz President's Circle member I've found myself shut out of a rental car even when booking a few days ahead of time in certain cities. Co-workers without elite status had zero options even when booking two weeks ahead of time.

At popular destinations like Orlando and Las Vegas, the lines at discount car brands like Thrifty and Dollar are crushing, as well as endless lines for a shuttle bus. There are frequent reports online of folks who had what they believed was a guaranteed car reservation, but they had to wait hours for cars after arrival.

Long lines at rental car counters. (Photo by Ed Pizzarello for The Points Guy)

More than once, I found both the President's Circle and Gold Club lanes completely empty at Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas, and there was a line of anxious elite travelers waiting for an employee to drive a car into the lot. You get a sinking feeling when you spend most of your day flying only to find that the rental car lot is empty.

Hotels still aren't back to normal

Long lines at Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Oahu, Hawaii. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

During the height of the pandemic, a hotel stay was like being transported to a different world. While things have improved, many stays are still far from normal. Staffing is one of the biggest challenges facing hotels right now, with supply chain issues not far behind. In the past two months these are some of the observations from my hotel stays:

  • I've been asked to wait for a room at the normal check-in time for a stay at a hotel chain where I hold elite status.
  • A front desk agent told me they would be turning guests away the evening of my arrival because they didn't have enough housekeepers to clean the rooms, and she commented that the general manager was upstairs cleaning rooms.
  • Multiple complimentary hotel breakfast options were significantly reduced or eliminated.
  • Due to staffing issues, we observed folks waiting almost an hour for a breakfast table at a full-service hotel.
  • I've lost count of the number of off-brand toiletries in hotel rooms. I also received different brands of amenities on back-to-back nights in the same hotel.
  • Other than Resorts World in Las Vegas, every single one of my hotel stays in the past two months has featured some version of modified or eliminated daily housekeeping, including a few full-service hotels.

Related: We stayed at the first new casino in Vegas in a decade – and it accepts points

Bottom line

(Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

While I could rattle off dozens of things to be prepared for if you have travel scheduled, there are really just two things I recommend. First, bring plenty of patience. Tempers are flaring up all over as everyone is on edge. Take a deep breath and roll with whatever comes your way. It's way too easy to find yourself in a battle of words and willpower while traveling under these circumstances.

Second, know what your backup options are ahead of time. Take advantage of free cancellations on most flights and book backup flights, and be ready to pivot quickly. If you're stuck at a hub airport, grab a room at an airport hotel before they sell out and consider starting over in the morning.

Lastly, if you're traveling with kids, let them know ahead of time to expect curveballs. Pack them a snack and bring an extra battery for their electronics. Travel conditions will improve, but it probably won't happen anytime soon.

Featured image by Credit: Eye Candy Images / Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

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  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases