Ask Suzy Bennett how she’s approaching the 2009 holiday travel season, and she’ll tell you she isn’t.
“We’re staying home,” says Bennett, who works for a water treatment company in Linwood, Kan. “Or we’re driving.”
Why? Like many other travelers, Bennett is tired of the nonexistent customer service that seems to be the standard these days, and which only gets worse as the inevitable crush of passengers descends on every airport, bus station and train terminal between now and New Year’s Day.
Like a tie for dad, a kitchen appliance for mom, or socks for the kids, there’s no shortage of holiday gift clichés for travelers. Wheeled luggage, ticket holders and inflatable pillows come to mind.
Shopping for someone who’s on the go isn’t easy. Travelers — especially frequent travelers — can be particular about their likes and dislikes. They wouldn’t be caught dead with a certain headset, phone, or piece of luggage.
I can’t read your loved one’s mind for you (if I could, do you think I’d be writing travel columns for a living?) but I can give you options the traveler in your life might like.
You can’t talk about the worst holiday travel experiences without mentioning the movie “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.”
The 1987 comedy, starring Steve Martin and John Candy, is about one frazzled business traveler’s struggle to get home in time for Thanksgiving. It’s a textbook holiday travel nightmare, featuring snowstorms, flight diversions and almost every imaginable delay.
Art has a way of imitating life. Or is it the other way around?
Perhaps our fascination and how closely many of us relate with the iconic ’80s flick says something important about us. We expect to have an incredibly negative experience, whether it’s being held hostage by a blizzard or trapped in a taxi that’s taking the scenic route.
What have we learned in the two decades since “Planes,” and what does it say about this year’s holidays?
Learning from our mistakes
One of the worst holiday air travel experiences in recent memory happened in early 1999. About 3,700 Northwest Airlines passengers returning to work after the New Year were trapped on parked planes at Detroit Metropolitan Airport for hours in a blizzard. The planes couldn’t take off or return to the gate, and travelers reportedly suffered inconveniences such as overflowing toilets and running out of food and water.
Some of the passengers sued Northwest and in a 2001 settlement, the airline agreed to pay each passenger an average of $1,300 as compensation. Sadly, the industry didn’t learn back then that trapping passengers on a plane was bad for business. They’ve done it time and again, including JetBlue’s infamous Valentine’s Day meltdown in New York and American Airlines’ stranding of passengers in Austin in early 2007, which led to the latest passenger rights revolution.
Weather turns nasty, roads get dangerous
Many of the worst traffic accidents on American roads happen during the winter holiday travel period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Like the 99-car pileup on December 11, 1990, on Interstate 75 near Calhoun, Tenn., which was triggered when a tractor-trailer in the southbound lanes rear-ended another semi in the fog. In the ensuing pile-up, 12 people were killed and 42 injured. Other notable collisions include a 127-car pile-up in San Antonio, Texas(Dec. 2, 1994) and a 100-car pile-up in Central Michigan (Dec. 31, 1998).
Multiple-car accidents can happen any time of the year, but they seem particularly prevalent during the winter holiday period, when the weather turns bad and motorists get blitzed on eggnog before getting behind the wheel.
All the more reason to drive carefully — or not at all.
Holiday headaches on the high seas
True, the biggest cruise ship catastrophe in recent memory happened last April, when 1,200 passengers and a crew of 400 had to be evacuated from the Sea Diamond after she apparently hit a rock near the Greek island of Santorini — and eventually sunk.
But the winter holidays aren’t particularly kind to cruisers, either. On Nov. 23 of that year, more than 150 passengers and crew aboard Norwegian cruise ship MS Nordnorge had to be rescued near Antarctica when their ship is thought to have collided with an iceberg. And who can forget the Seabourn Spirit’s close call with pirates back in 2005? The buccaneers opened fire on the luxury liner with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Fortunately, the attack was successfully repelled.
I’m not saying you should avoid cruising over the holidays. I am saying things happen. Mind the icebergs — and pirates.
Ask for a room on the ground floor
There have been few notable hotel accidents or disasters in the past, oh, 60 years. However, two of the deadliest hotel fires in U.S. history — one at the MGM Grand in 1980 and another at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta in 1947 — broke out during the winter holiday period. I know, both happened more than two decades ago, but you might consider staying on the ground floor during your holiday stay.
A review of the major railway disasters in the United States since the turn of the century suggests that statistically speaking, catching the train probably is your safest bet during the holidays.
The worst accidents tend to happen at other times of the year, although there are notable exceptions, such as the head-on collision on Nov. 29, 2004 of two CSX freight trains in Zephyrhills, Fla., which killed one person and injured three. But those were freight trains, so they don’t really count. Lesson learned? The train may be slow, but it’ll get you there in one piece.
Take the forecasts with a grain of salt
Be wary when studying the Thanksgiving travel forecasts — and those issued just before Christmas and New Year’s Day, for that matter. The best-known of the lot is done by AAA (and was released Tuesday), which last year predicted a “modest increase” in the number of Thanksgiving travelers. Nothing against AAA, or any of the other travel companies with predictions and polls, but it’s almost impossible to verify any of their claims. For example, AAA expected 31.2 million people to travel by car last Thanksgiving. Did they? Nobody knows. Truth is, no one counts how many motorists were on the road during the holiday weekend. What’s the point of making a forecast when no one will ever know if it is true? And will the forecasts stop people from making the trip to Grandma’s house? Unlikely.
So what does all of this mean? I think it means that our collective expectation that holiday travel will be a negative experience is both true — and untrue.
Yes, historically the holidays are a difficult time to be on the road. I haven’t even mentioned the long lines at the airport, the delays, the cranky fellow travelers, and, of course, the traffic. But this year may be different, as I recently predicted.
In fact, these holidays may be among the best in recent memory. Airlines, hotels and other travel companies are trying to coax travelers to open their wallets by offering attractive prices. If you’re diligent and flexible, you could find your best deal in years.
I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before. At the press screening of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” I told director John Hughes he should consider a sequel to his cult classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” (I was a know-it-all college film critic back then, and that’s what know-it-all college film critics do. They tell Hollywood directors what to film.)
“Might be interesting,” he said.
Interesting, yes. But unnecessary — just like a sequel to holiday horrors we seem to endure every year at this time. Maybe we’ll get a break in 2008.