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Expect Holiday Travel to Be Extra Chaotic This Year. Here’s Why

It's beginning to feel a lot more stressful.

It’s nerve-wracking to plan a holiday these days. You need to research the destination, look up travel restrictions and requirements, buy travel insurance and get refundable flights, and pray that you don’t get infected away from home. This holiday season, the level of difficulty will go up—traveling is likely to be more expensive and more frustrating. So, manage your expectations, think of a Plan B, and follow the news closely.

Flight Disruptions

American Airlines canceled 1,750 flights during the last weekend of October, affecting more than 130,000 passengers. Strong winds in Dallas shut three of the five runways and flights couldn’t take off—the ripple effect continued into last week as the airline tried to play catch up. In October, Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights due to bad weather and shortage. The summer was just as chaotic with passengers stranded in different parts of the country. 

If a flight gets delayed, it causes a domino effect and subsequent flights get pushed or canceled too. It’s common for flights to get disrupted due to extreme weather conditions—as happened with American—and airlines need more crew members to keep operations running smoothly. Right now, they don’t. Staffing challenges have hit businesses everywhere, and labor shortages will cause more heartache in the coming weeks. After the pandemic hit, airlines had offered buyouts to staffers or sent them on leaves, but with this surge in demand now, it has been difficult to keep up the schedules with fewer employees. 

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Airlines are hiring more staff, but another snafu is the dearth of flight simulators and instructors. Pilots need to be trained before they can take control again, or there will be mistakes. Besides, pilots have a federal flying limit, so when they’re done with their hours, then the airline needs backups to fill the spot. 

So, what should you do? Take early morning flights, fly direct, don’t check in your baggage, arrive at the airport earlier than usual, book refundable tickets, and hope that the weather stays kind to you. 

Vaccine Mandates

The federal vaccine mandate requires all federal employees to be fully vaccinated by November 22 and the deadline for federal contractors is December 8. This means, TSA agents need to receive their second dose (or J&J shot) by November 8, while airline staff will have until November 24 to get theirs.

If unvaccinated workers are kept out of line of duty, travel experts fear there will be longer queues at airport checkpoints and disruptions in flights during the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas season. 

CNN reported on October 13 that 40% of the TSA workforce are unvaccinated, but the agency hopes to avoid shortages. The White House assured that there will not be any hiccups in holiday travels due to vaccine requirements. White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said, “The requirements for federal workers and contractors will not cause disruptions to government services that people depend on. Agencies have the flexibility necessary to enforce the mandate without impacting critical operations.”

There won’t be any firings until employees go through counseling, he added. Southwest and American also stated they won’t be letting go of employees who don’t get vaccinated, and they’re positive that the mandate will not cause disruptions. 

It’s still to be seen what happens to those who don’t comply or who aren’t given medical/religious exceptions. But you should be prepared for wait time at airport screenings for one more reason—the U.S. is lifting travel bans today, so there will be an uptick in arrivals. 

There has been a rise in unruly behavior by passengers on planes and it doesn’t seem to be dying down. So, it’s possible that crowds, delays, and service issues will cause even more aggression and frustration.

Skyrocketing Prices

Everything is expensive this year, from flights and hotels to gas and toys. If you’re traveling this Thanksgiving or Christmas, you will be spending more than ever.

Jet fuel is expensive, which means flights will cost even more—there’s already a 55% increase (from 2020) in domestic airfares. Gas prices are surging, hitting a seven-year high, so taking a road trip will need more dollars. Hotels are witnessing are a surge too, and given that people have been booking Christmas travels since July, some are already booked out.

If you haven’t booked your accommodation yet, there’s a chance that you might not get your preferred location or room, and you may have to pay extra to get there, stay there, and get around.

Car Rental Shortages

Remember when the price of a car rental hit $700 this summer? There was a huge demand for rentals as travel peaked, which caused availability issues. 

Companies had sold off their fleet during the pandemic and buying new cars became a problem due to a global computer chip shortage. The automobile industry couldn’t manufacture cars due to supply issues and rental companies were unable to meet the growing demand without adding to their downsized fleets. 

As a result, rental companies started purchasing used cars and extending life cycle of their vehicles (which meant handing off older vehicles to customers), and it still wasn’t enough. People had to wait in lines, pay exorbitant amounts, and still got the short end of the stick when their preferred car was unavailable.

Turns out, it’s not over yet. Chip shortage will last a year or two and manufacturers will struggle till 2022 to get new cars on the road. The supply-chain issue has also caused the prices of used cars to skyrocket (they are $6,500 more expensive this year). Consequently, car rentals will cost dearly this holiday season when the demand surges. According to Hopper, the car rentals are costing 78% more this year. Adding to this, staffing issues will also be a pain point for customers. 

If you need to rent a car this winter, make sure you book way in advance, but don’t be surprised if you get a pre-owned vehicle with a good amount of mileage on it. You may still have to pay a higher price than 2019, so budget it as a big expense.

sameer_kr November 9, 2021

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