Planning a trip overseas isn’t as much fun as it was in the old days. Three major factors have placed much of the challenge and work of organizing a trip onto the lap (and laptop) of the traveler. Those factors are economics, travel security, and Mother Nature. Although some predictability and stability in these factors would be welcome, I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.
By my estimate, the cost to fly is definitely up by about 20% over last year. That increase is for the same route I flew just nine months ago from Seattle to Paris. I thought the recession might actually put some downward pressure on airfares, but fuel prices have remained high and business travel has been cut back. Business and first class travel have always been quite lucrative for the airlines, so reductions in those areas have reduced airline industry margins. And when business travelers do fly, more of them are being downgraded to coach and economy classes, adding further pressure on seat availability for vacation travelers.
Then there are the “ancillary” fees. The airlines realized almost $8 billion in revenue last year from these fees. Virtually everything has a fee: checked baggage, seats near the front, early boarding, and the squishy stuff that is called food. They all come with a tariff. Even courtesy pillows and blankets have disappeared. And I don’t think the airlines are done. In the not-too-distant future I anticipate having to pay several dollars for the three-bite-bag of compressed and heavily salted soy product of whatever it is called. Airline marketers will tell you it is a “snack.” The FDA needs to investigate, because those “snacks” are not fit for compost let alone human consumption. However, the high salt content will make you extremely thirsty. That thirst can be slaked with a $3 dollar can of diet soda you will have to buy. The combination of airline compost and the chemically treated water called diet soda is sure to actually result in weight gain, not loss.
I give credit to the TSA. They have taken a nearly impossible set of security rules and produced a marvel of an inspection system. Through no fault of the TSA, we can now all experience partial disrobing and walking on less than hygienic floors in our bare feet. It is highly recommended to wear socks to the airport, although some people still do not. It is similar to what our mothers used to warn us about: make sure you are wearing clean underwear in case you have to go to the hospital. I always thought wearing clean underwear was a good thing anyway, and I feel the same way now about wearing socks in airports. You never know when you might be inspected. And with the newest body scanners available, we have the opportunity to feel even more embarrassed.
It is possible the airline industry is missing out on another revenue opportunity. They could charge for expedited security. The fact is, the airlines offered that option not so long ago, but stopped the practice. Industry analysts are predicting its possible return. Will that cause security line riots among disenfranchised tourists? Probably not, as I’ve noticed most of my fellow travelers accept the apparent necessity of being treated like farm animals undergoing a parasite-removal dip. These security procedures are working. But in some minds the question is, “Are they working on only previously discovered threats?” There’s a saying that the offense is always at least one step ahead of the defense. Total security is very, very difficult to achieve. If you find yourself overly worried about it, I recommend you put yourself on your own “no-fly” list. The rest of us will be as vigilant as we can, accept the risks, smile more and meet a few new people who we would have otherwise missed on our journey through life.
Mom, or Mother Nature as some refer to her, has decided to enter the equation of air travel. Mom is a generous soul providing us with great heaps of bounty. But like most moms, I think she doesn’t like to be taken for granted. This is my explanation for the eruption of the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland, of all places. Combined with the prevailing winds and some overly human caution, (some even say panic) that eruption resulted in 10 million stranded passengers throughout Europe and elsewhere. The unpronounceable volcano is not really a big one as volcanoes go, but it sure knew how to put a cinder in our eye. The lesson for the traveler is simple. Like security and the vagaries of the economy, expect the unexpected. If you are a worrier, plan to stay close to home if you can. Otherwise make friends with those traveling with you. You may all be caught with your socks off, under a cloud of ash, eating mildly hydrogenated compressed soy product. Bon voyage!