Just days after returning from Rome we’ve already begun planning for our next trip to Europe. I remember twenty-five years ago planning trips to Africa and Asia, doing the “hard travel” while I was young, and intentionally leaving Europe for when I was older. Now that time has arrived, and I am determined to enjoy staying in comfortable places, leaving the nights spent on the decks of lake steamers or in kimchi dens and nomiya as memories.
But in some ways travel has gotten harder. Sure the destinations we are picking like Ireland and Rome are much more suited for middle class, middle aged folk like us, but getting there is almost tougher today than traveling to Dar es Salaam was 25 years ago. And in surprising ways.
Take for example booking a flight. Today with the Internet and dozens of travel websites booking a flight should be easy, and it is – if cost or time aren’t issues. In 1991 I exchanged emails with a travel agent that specialized in Japanese air tickets. I spent about 30 minutes total and had a round trip ticket booked from San Diego to Osaka for $630.
This past weekend the Wife spent about 2 hours bouncing from one travel site or airline website to another, trying to find flights to Europe that didn’t break the bank or involve 16 hour layovers in Chicago for less than $1300. When she did find something, she looked at the available seats and discovered the fare was only for seats in the middle of the plane. Aisle seats and window seats were $60 more each leg of the trip. Adding that up for the two us made our tickets to Ireland from the East Coast close to $1,500 each. The ex-Navy enlisted Wife let out a string of sailor “language” that could peel paint, ending with the plaintive cry “How can the airlines get away with that?”
Competition, I said, or lack thereof. While the international market is relatively deregulated, American law prevents foreign carriers from flying domestic routes. This situation is made worse by the creation-by-merger of three mega-carriers within the USA. The result of that lack of competition is a textbook example of what happens when monopolies appear: prices rise and service declines. US carriers like that of course, which is why they have fought the European push to open the US market. Yes, the “Euroweenie socialists” are pushing the “capitalist running dog Americans” to free our markets. Of course the crony capitalists like United and American airlines won’t give up so easily, so until they do we will suffer with rude airline attendants, overpriced flights and shrinking seats. But maybe it’s time to forget our “freedom fries” (and honestly, after what happened in Paris, it definitely is time) and support our European cousins to save us from the American carriers (suggested American Airlines motto: “We suck but we don’t care.”)
The Byzantine booking systems on the Internet have resurrected a dying profession: travel agents. In fact for the first time in about 20 years we plan to visit one to book our next vacation. We’ll gladly pay someone to find us the flights that fit our needs and our budget and skip the frustration.