Mad about long lines? Take a number.
More than 1 in 5 Americans will cancel their summer travel plans or find other means of transportation because of long airport lines, according to a recent study by the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group.
The lines are lengthening for a number of reasons, including a seasonal influx of air travelers, heightened terrorism concerns and staffing shortages at the Transportation Security Administration.
The prospect of facing a crowd at the airport is endlessly frustrating to travelers such as Annette Kleier, a retired accountant from Louisville, Kentucky. She has watched the finger-pointing between the TSA and Congress over who is to blame for the lines, while other guilty parties hardly get a mention.
Kleier is so weary of the blame game playing out in the media (and, ahem, in stories such as this) that she echoes the USTA’s findings: “You can always stay home.”
Vacationers who haven’t opted to ground themselves this summer are coping with lines in one of two ways – devising clever workarounds or avoiding them altogether. And, by and large, it’s working.
Kleier recently watched a family of five board a flight to Orlando, Florida, and she thinks she has found one overlooked culprit: the airlines.
“All their luggage was being carried on,” she says. “My first thought was, I was glad I was in front of them – not behind them. My second thought was, ‘Of course, they had to carry all that.’ Airfare for a family of five was likely $1,500. Baggage fees average about $30 per bag, so add another $300 to that.”
Baggage fees translate into 27 percent more carry-on bags, according to the TSA. Two U.S. senators – Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts – and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson have asked airlines to temporarily stop charging luggage fees to ease the congestion. So far, they’ve refused. The reason is obvious: Airlines collected $3.8 billion in luggage fees in 2015, statistics from the U.S. Transportation Department show.
Passengers are irritated by the standoff. “Being patient and polite is not going to change anything,” says Stephen Anderson, a frequent traveler who works as a market analyst for a nonprofit professional organization based in Bellingham, Washington. “Is it too much to ask our elected representatives to do their jobs and address such issues?”
Actually, no. Anderson had a particular request: Publish the names and email addresses of the people who can make a difference.
(No problem. Try Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger at email@example.com.)
In the meantime, travelers are doubling down on their time-saving strategies. Raghu Murali, a frequent air traveler based in Edison, New Jersey, decided to travel anyway, and on Memorial Day weekend, no less. But as an experienced road warrior, he knew where the lines were to be found. He took a transcontinental flight the Thursday before the holiday to avoid a crush of vacationers.
“I was a management consultant for many years, logging in 100-plus nights a year at hotels,” he says. “So I’ve found a number of small tricks over time that really help me while traveling.”
His first stop in Los Angeles with his two kids, ages 6 and 8, was a largely lineless Universal Studios. “Saturday through Monday are peak times,” he says. And to avoid the bumper-to-bumper Memorial Day traffic in Southern California, he drove to San Diego at night, which shaved hours off his transit time.
You don’t have to be an expert to get through any line faster. Sometimes, all it takes is a little common sense. But if you were traveling this Memorial Day weekend, you probably know that’s often in short supply. Travel businesses are doing their best to prevent congestion by offering customers important, necessary reminders.
Katherine Dayton, the director of Visions Service Adventures, a tour operator that offers community-service programs for high school and middle school students, based in Bozeman, Montana, is overlooking no detail.
“Many wait until the last minute to provide important documentation, including passports,” she says. “This can create greater waiting and lines during the programs if we don’t have all the ducks lined up in advance.”
If you want to avoid summer lines, no matter where, it helps to consult an expert. That’s according to Scott Koepf, a senior vice president of sales at Avoya Travel, a consortium of independent travel agents. “Using an agent can help travelers navigate and prepare for expected delays when traveling,” he says.
Travel agents have access to the most up-to-date information on which airlines, cruise lines, hotels and transportation companies are doing, including which ones are likely to have the longest lines. They’ll also tell you that if you fly often, you should consider applying for Global Entry, the government’s trusted traveler program, which also gives you access to the faster TSA PreCheck lines.
Oh, and pack less. A lot less.
“Carry-on luggage has a lot to do with the wait time, so checking baggage will help with the security lines,” Koepf says.
Others are reading stories such as this and making their vacation a staycation. The lost travel spending will total $4.3 billion for the three-month summer peak season, according to the USTA study. To put these figures in perspective, the USTA says, the longer airport lines are costing more than 12,000 jobs every month.
“Unfortunately, we’re well past the point when any single measure is going to provide enough relief to completely save the summer travel season,” USTA President Roger Dow said.
Dow may be right, but with just a few strategies you can avoid most of this summer’s longest lines. And that may be a good enough reason to stick with your summer plans.
Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler’s reader advocate and author of How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.