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Tips to make travel bearable on Memorial Day and beyond


This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and many of us have the same thing on our mind - travel. People are headed to the beach, the mountains, the country, the city. It is go time.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Memorial Day weekend kicks off what's expected to be the busiest summer travel season on record.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The TSA expects to screen more than 18 million passengers.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Airlines will be put to the test during this weekend's unofficial start to the summer travel season.

DETROW: AAA projects that this Memorial Day weekend will have the highest number of travelers in nearly two decades. Maybe you are listening to us right now in the car. If so, I hope that car is moving forward. But whether you find it a hassle to hit the road or you love to travel, you know that things do not always go as planned. We asked some of our colleagues around NPR about travel nightmares.


MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: My name is Marc Rivers. I'm a producer with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and the Consider This podcast.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: I'm Ari Shapiro. I'm one of the hosts of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Hey, it's Rachel Martin. I'm the host of Wild Card on NPR.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: This is Juana Summers. I'm one of the hosts of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And I will never forget - I had just moved to the East Coast from Missouri, and I was flying back home for the holidays for one of the first times.

SHAPIRO: Right after college, my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I were planning a trip to Florence, Italy for summer vacation. We flew to Rome and our flight to Florence was canceled. So there was talk of - they were going to get a bus for us and bus us to Florence.

RIVERS: A long layover in Brussels became an even longer layover when, without warning, Brussels Airlines canceled my flight - no advance notice, no nothing.

MARTIN: We're starting to accelerate, and then we're slowing down. And the pilot comes on and says in this very cheerful voice, I'm so sorry, but we have to go back to the gate.

SHAPIRO: While we were waiting, along with everybody else who was supposed to be on the flight, for hours and hours and hours with no information and nowhere to sit, this man in - I don't know what the accent was, but it has evolved over time to be a French accent in my memory - he said, (imitating French accent) I'm not a dog that you sit on the floor.

RIVERS: I had to wait a few more hours just to get a hotel booked - all my clothes in a checked bag that no one could help me find.

SUMMERS: I remember standing in the Baltimore airport and finding out on Christmas Eve that my flight was canceled, that I would be stuck in a Baltimore hotel and that I would not make it home until the end of the day on Christmas Day. I was pretty heartbroken.

RIVERS: Luckily, once I did get to the hotel, one of the staff members was kind enough to loan me some hotel staff clothes that I wore for the rest of that day.

SHAPIRO: Many years later, my husband and I still occasionally, whenever we have reason to sit on the floor, say to each other, (imitating French accent) I'm not a dog that you sit on the floor.

MARTIN: Travel experiences are sort of like giving birth. If you do it once, your body is built to forget the experience so that you will procreate again. And I think it's like travel.

DETROW: To help you have a travel experience you will want to remember, we asked a travel pro for tips on making the best of your summer vacation. Hannah Sampson covers travel news for The Washington Post, so we called her up to talk about the summer travel season and how to best survive it. Welcome.

HANNAH SAMPSON: Thank you for having me.

DETROW: What do you make of the fact that this is the highest number in two decades, estimated? What's really going on here?

SAMPSON: Yeah, I would say it's not actually that surprising that the numbers are going to be so record-approaching or record-breaking this year because really, pre-COVID most years, barring some great disruption, we would see, like, slightly more people traveling year after year.

DETROW: So is there still a tie to post-COVID trends here? - because I feel like it's been four years. I feel like a lot of people think, like, well, we're back in our regular habits. But it seems like in a lot of areas like travel, there is still a little bit of a pre- and post-COVID conversation going on.

SAMPSON: Yeah, I think what's happening is that people paused for so long and they prioritized traveling in the future during that downtime, so it does seem like some people are still kind of catching up on lost time. But also, the airlines went through a big shock to the system. So they've kind of been - they were fluctuating in the capacity that they were able to bring back online and the staffing that they were able to have ready. Those things are pretty much normalizing. They actually have a lot more seats to fill this summer. And so that's, in part, why you see the increase because the airlines are recovering the amount that they're able to fly people. And that's been a - you know, a yearslong process. So I think there is some kind of COVID hangover going on. But for a lot of the traveling public, it does feel, you know, very much like normal.

DETROW: You just mentioned seats to fill on airlines. That's something you wrote about as well. Does that mean that airlines have added flights here and that possibly this increased travel doesn't necessarily mean insane bottlenecking at the airport?

SAMPSON: There will be more flights. Sometimes it's a bigger plane. Sometimes it's new routes altogether. But, I mean, all those people have to start and end somewhere. So I do think you're still going to be seeing probably long lines at the airport and bottlenecks. So all of those annoyances that we're used to at the airport, I think, unfortunately are still going to be there this summer.

DETROW: I mean, there have been so many wild swings in air travel in recent years. I'm wondering if any of it has shaken some of the basic ways that we think about gaming the system or think about saving money, you know? Like, you know, if you want a really good airfare rate, you need to book early. Is that generally still the best advice? Are there ways that the way that we think about air travel has changed over the last four years or so?

SAMPSON: You know, there really are sweet spots for when you should book airfare. But I think a thing that a lot of savvy travelers do is set up airfare alerts so that if there's a flight that they're looking at, they can get an email or a ping of some sort when the route that they're looking at drops in price. So you can kind of get a heads up and pounce when it's cheaper. And then on some airlines you can actually keep watching. And if that flight gets cheaper over time after you booked, you can cancel and rebook and get a credit for the difference. I know people here at work who do this religiously, and they just are filling their travel bank with more and more credits for their next flights. You know...

DETROW: I don't know. That seems really stressful, even though I see the savings there.

SAMPSON: They thrive on it. But you might have to be, like, a certain kind of person to really enjoy that. On that point, though, I think there are a lot of people who are really interested in almost, like, gamifying the act of booking travel and playing the points games and converting the points and the miles into the best deal on a trip. And that gets a little bit beyond what I have time to do. But I definitely see people trying to kind of squeeze as much as they can out of the airlines, really, and get the best deal on their travel.

DETROW: We're talking a lot about air travel, but I feel like a lot of trips people are flying for are probably planned already. I feel like summer is often, for a lot of people, for a lot of families, a season of spur-of-the-moment trips and car trips, things like that. What sort of strategies should people be thinking about if, you know, they wake up on a holiday weekend and think, you know what, I want to go somewhere? What should I think about?

SAMPSON: If you're thinking about going somewhere and staying somewhere, there are these last-minute hotel booking sites that - where you can often kind of find a good deal, like Hotel Tonight, that will show you the available last-minute inventory. So that's a tool that I like to check out even sometimes when I'm not traveling, just kind of out of curiosity about what's out there. There are websites called - I believe it's GasBuddy, where you can check for gas prices and find out where there are cheaper gas stations. So you can kind of plan your refills around that.

In terms of driving, I just think that, you know, AAA is really calling for a lot more people on the road. So it really is the wisest thing to do to try to figure out when that off-peak driving time is and hit that sweet spot so you're not just joining this crowd and being on the road for a four-hour traffic jam. I think that's kind of the worst way to spend a holiday weekend. I've done it. You know, drive at night if you can or drive a day before everybody else is going to be driving just so you don't waste your weekend stuck on the road.

DETROW: I have many fond hours driving to and from the beach, not moving in a car for hours on end.

SAMPSON: (Laughter) Exactly. Don't do that, people. Learn from us.

DETROW: Hannah Sampson writes about travel news for The Washington Post. Thank you so much.

SAMPSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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