– By Kelly Ragan –
I flew to Florida for Christmas with my family to spend some time on the beach and in the sun. Because my husband likes to have as full of a recovery day as possible after traveling, we booked a return flight a couple hours before the rest of my family. That seemingly small change was the difference between an easy trip and a long, exhausting nightmare.
We’re budget travelers who catch red-eye flights and stay in hostels. But thanks to a series of mishaps involving travel reward points, which we used for the first time in our lives, my husband and I got to experience first class. That morning, I ate a first-class waffle, stretched out my legs and had a good in-flight nap. It was luxurious.
We started the drive from DIA back to Greeley around 3:30 p.m. While my husband and I pulled into the driveway, excited to sleep in our warm, familiar bed after a tiring day, I got a text from my sister.
Their layover flight out of D.C. still hadn’t taken off.
My mom, dad, sister and brother-in-law sat on the plane for four hours before someone announced there was no pilot. Then the brakes froze. Between waiting for a pilot and shuffling to a working plane, they didn’t make it back to Denver until 3:30 a.m.
Holiday travel is always harder than usual, but this year, my family’s experience was more typical. Thousands of flights across multiple different airlines were canceled this past holiday season and thousands of travelers were stranded across the country. Southwest Airlines, especially, had a historically bad time getting travelers to their destinations.
Will this spring and summer be different? Travel experts say yes but also say the industry is not yet back to its pre-pandemic glory.
Dale Clarken, the founder and president of New Horizons Travel in Fort Collins, says in 2022, the travel industry started to emerge from the pandemic, but the industry also had a lot of ground to make up. Layoffs hit airlines, tour companies and hotels particularly hard. Car rental companies sold off a lot of their fleet. And yet, traveling was more in demand than ever.
“As we started to break out of the pandemic, there was a pent-up demand to travel,” he says. “People wanted to go.”
But it wasn’t like the industry could fill all the open positions with experienced employees.
Many airlines offered pilots early retirement, he says, and many pilots took it. When pandemic restrictions and hesitations lifted, they didn’t want to come back. As a result, the industry had to hire green workers, which made things a little more difficult.
From what he can tell, cruise lines and car rental companies are now operating efficiently again. He suspects airlines will take a bit longer, but he believes they’re getting there.
Some airlines, though, have deeper problems to address.
During the height of holiday travel in 2022, nearly 70% of Southwest’s flights were canceled, according the New York Times.
While weather disrupted many carriers, the meltdown at Southwest had more to do with its scheduling system.
“As far as Southwest goes, that was really a technology issue,” says Kirsten Danekind, founder of Alacrity Travel & Lifestyle.
So, what can travelers do to ensure they have a good experience?
1. Make plans in advance
This is especially true if you finally want to take that European vacation you’ve been dreaming about. Clarken predicts airline seats, hotels and tours will all be at a premium.
“Europe has been on everyone’s bucket list for a while,” Clarken says. “This summer it’s going to be very busy.”
Danekind echoed this.
“Europe is consistently staying extremely hot,” she says. “Italy and Greece have been consistently hot this whole year.”
People are planning further ahead now that some sense of certainty has returned, Danekind says. Because of that sense of security, she’s already planning trips for September, October and November.
2. Be flexible
It’s possible any number of cancelations, delays, booking errors or mistakes can happen while you’re traveling.
There are still staffing shortages in the travel and hospitality industry, and that will take time to correct. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, 87% of hotels reported staffing shortages, with 36% reporting severe shortages.
Those troubles aren’t limited to the U.S. According to a report by the World Travel & Tourism Council published in August 2022, much of the European Union is experiencing shortages as well.
And of course, unexpected issues can still crop up, Danekind says.
The key is to be patient. While shortfalls in service aren’t acceptable, she says, it’s important to focus on solutions instead of yelling and getting angry.
“We might have to fly you through Houston to get you back to Denver instead of direct, but we’ll get you there,” she says. “No need to take it out on the flight attendants.”
3. Consider alternative trips and transportation
Cruise lines got hit hard during the pandemic, but Clarken says they’ve made a comeback.
For much of last year, Alaska cruises were hard to book, Clarken says, because restrictions were still in place. But they’ve opened back up. He predicts European river cruises will be popular as well.
Danekind says she’s noticed an uptick in private or luxury jet travel, which can change the equation.
“We have clients who are willing to spend the money to have that experience,” she says.
While Europe and Mexico remain popular destinations, Danekind says trips to places like Antarctica, especially during the winter, are becoming increasingly popular.
“A lot of people are looking at transformational travel,” she says.
For some, that may look like going to a place where they are interested in learning about history and educating themselves on local culture. For others, that might mean going on a wellness retreat to learn about themselves and focus on their health.
4. Use a travel agent
Clarken and Danekind both recommend working with a travel agent or advisor. Of course, they are both interested in their own job security–but they also know how much it can help.
“We can create the most perfect itinerary, we can partner up with the best travel supplier in the world, but I’ll tell you this–some things just happen,” Danekind says. “With a travel advisor, you can be confident that if something does happen, you have backup.”
Danekind recalls a client whose flight got canceled and changed several times over while she was in Italy. The client got the notification as she and her family were about to go on a boat tour of the Island of Capri and reached out to Danekind for help.
Her client was stressed about it, Danekind says, as anyone would be. Danekind said she’d take care of it.
“I was literally on the phone for 36 hours working through the issues,” Danekind says. “My gosh, if my client had to do this by herself, she would have been on her cellphone the whole time while her husband and kids were having fun.”
5. Get travel insurance
Travel insurance can cover a range of things, from flight cancelations to medical emergencies. It can even cover travel delays and lost baggage.
According to a survey conducted by AAA Travel, Americans were 31% more likely to purchase travel insurance due to COVID-19. While trips might not be as likely to be outright canceled due to travel restrictions or lockdowns these days, the industry is still recovering.
The extra protection can help you be flexible and add to your peace of mind, Danekind says.
Best places to travel in 2023
Every year, National Geographic compiles a list of top travel destinations that are fun and rewarding for travelers with the goal of supporting local communities and ecosystems. The list this year includes places that are under the radar but sure to scratch your travel itch.
Kelly Ragan is a writer based in Greeley with bylines in The Colorado Sun, USA Today, The Greeley Tribune and the NoCo Optimist. When she’s not writing, you can usually find her on a hike or with her nose in a book.