With the economy slowly rebounding, 2011 was shaping up to be the best year for travel since the recession began. Prices were expected to rise only slightly, and people were making plans to take a long-postponed vacation.
But now that the Transportation Security Administration has introduced full-body scanners at many American airports and subjected those who opt out of the machines to an enhanced pat-down, the 2011 outlook has changed, say travelers.
Im torn about whether Ill travel more next year or not, says Jeff Cohen, a stock trader from Austin, Texas. I tend to go on a couple of large trips a year and was planning a major trip for the first half of 2011, to somewhere exotic. But the recent TSA crackdown has me rethinking that.
A new Consumer Travel Alliance poll suggests other travelers are, too.
A majority (46 percent) say they will travel about the same as they did this year. Slightly less than a third (30 percent) will travel more, while just less than a quarter (23 percent) will travel less. This contradicts several earlier surveys, which had predicted a significant upswing in travel next year.
Interviews with many of the would-be travelers suggest that concerns about the new body scanning procedures have tempered their once-ambitious 2011 travel plans.
With the new TSA rules, I will probably do less travel in the U.S., says Kathy Wilhelm, a retired software engineer from Cary, N.C.
The American travel industry is worried about the negative effects of the widely criticized screening techniques. The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group for the American tourism industry, earlier this month launched a website, www.yourtravel voice.org, to give travelers a chance to sound off about appropriateness of various security policies.
We need to hear ideas and experiences from travelers to better inform our discussions with policymakers and build a screening process that maximizes security while minimizing the burden on travelers, says Roger Dow, U.S. Travels president.
The TSA insists it is listening to air travelers, and already has loosened many of its screening requirements in response to the public outcry, including exempting pilots, flight attendants and children under 12 from the body scans or enhanced pat-downs. (Children will receive a modified pat-down, but the agency declines to say how, exactly, kids will be screened.)
The government says screenings and pat-downs are necessary for most air travelers, and that it will not back down. And thats making some travelers turn down the opportunity to travel in 2011.
I am too afraid of the TSAs groping to fly at all right now, says Sommer Gentry, a college professor in Baltimore. Over the long term, I think this latest TSA outrage will change me from a 25-round-trips-per-year flyer to a far-less-frequent flier. I am desperately searching for alternatives to flying, and much of the time the alternative is going to be to simply stay home if driving or Amtrak arent reasonable options.
Indeed, many 2011 itineraries will do their best to skip the TSA body scans.
Ernest Willyard, a retiree from Lovington, N.M., plans to take a few more trips next year, but hes avoiding the States. On the itinerary are Egypt, Syria, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Germany. My big trips will be 30 days to Russia and 30 days to Iran, he says, providing the government does not prohibit it.
But the poll results could be interpreted in a different way. Its possible that the old 2011 travel forecasts simply were too optimistic and that travelers would have pulled back anyway, with or without the TSAs help.
Some travelers say security screenings arent a factor at all. Monica Lynn Kennedy, a sales manager in Stafford, Va., is brushing off TSA troubles and intends to travel more next year. Shes planning to visit Orlando for a theme park vacation, a cruise on the new Disney Dream, and a visit to Floridas Space Coast. She plans to fly at least once, when she catches the cruise.
Its only a 13-hour drive to Orlando, she says.
Travelers say they dont want to give up their long-anticipated 2011 vacations, which theyve postponed for several years because of the economy. So while some are sticking to their current plans for now, at least theyre doing their best to work around the system.
Liz Zollner, a college instructor from Tampa, plans to leave the country for her one and only vacation (just like last year, she says). That way, shell limit her exposure to the TSA.
We could go more, but we just wont, she says, adding that maybe the TSA really wants people to fly less.
Good job, she says. Its working.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.