Is the travel experience really getting worse?

The world is going to hell in a handbasket, as my dad used to say.

Or is it?

Consider the overall travel experience, which I write about every day, and which my readers experience every day. It’s easy to assume that companies are getting more aggressive about pushing their ridiculous fees, surcharges and other scams on the masses.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb. Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

But then I hear from Jeff James, a reader from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, about an experience he had a few years ago when he rented a car from National in Denver.

When he returned the vehicle, a representative claimed there was a dent on the bumper.

“I couldn’t see it,” he says. “After arguing with the guy for a few minutes, he suggested if I paid him $20 that he could take care of the problem. I gave him a $20 bill and rushed to catch my flight. I never rented from National again.”

I checked with National, which was understandably concerned about this obvious scam, and learned that the alleged incident took place more than a few years ago. In fact, it happened in 2001.

And that got me thinking: Do we just assume that the travel experience is getting worse?

Is it possible that the “good old days” were actually the bad old days, when it comes to the quality of travel?


I spent an hour on the phone with an airline publicist yesterday, who tried to convince me that the flying experience had actually never been better. She raved about her carrier’s new lie-flat seats in business class and new aircraft, both of which undoubtedly make for a superior air travel experience.

It’s true, too, that airline tickets are cheap — maybe too cheap for even the airline industry’s own good. (I mean $9 fares? C’mon.)

But the argument that flying is getting better for all of us is absolutely preposterous. For the card-carrying elite-level passengers lucky enough to be sitting in the lie-flat seats, it might be improving. For the rest of us wedged into the steerage-class seats in the back of the plane? Definitely not.

With some travel industry sectors, it’s really hard to figure out if the experience is any better. Hotels are a prime example. A decade ago, many unscrupulous properties were padding their pockets with “energy” fees (a court forced them to stop). Dial it back another few years, and properties were charging outrageous fees to use their in-room phones (thank goodness for cell phones!).

And while hotels have added lots of amenities, like new beds, pillow menus and flat-screen TVs, they’ve made relatively few innovations in the area of customer service and hospitality in recent years. Maybe they think we’ll be wowed by the amenities and not mind if the guy at the front desk just doesn’t care if we’re having a good stay.

And car rental companies? Well, you can rent a late model, low-mileage vehicle the next time you need a car, but it would be a stretch to call the experience “better.” Car rental companies have perfected the art of passing along fees to you, which effectively double or triple the actual rate you pay.

Oh, and that $20 ding scam? It’s been taken to a whole new level by some car rental companies, as regular readers of this column know. Now, instead of pocketing a twenty, they send you a bill for $500, which just happens to be the amount of your insurance deductible. And they don’t even show you proof that the car was fixed or evidence to support their daily “loss of use” fee.


I want to be optimistic. Heck, I’ve even been ordered to be more optimistic. A few years ago, an editor commissioned a story that argued these were the glory days of air travel. It was a journalistic low point for me, and I stopped writing for that news organization shortly after that.

But the longer I cover this industry, the more I wonder if my dad was right.

Maybe this world really is going to hell in a handbasket. And maybe the only thing standing between you and a complete rip-off are a few government bureaucrats and the last consumer advocates remaining.

98 thoughts on “Is the travel experience really getting worse?

  1. Legacy air travel = definitely worse. Less room, more fees, crappier food.
    Budget airlines = good deals can still be had if you’re willing to forego all the perks
    Hotels = worse across the board. Hotel rates seem to have gone up exponentially. So much harder to find a great deal nowadays.

    But for world travelers, I think the experience is better. More far flung places are becoming accessible, and the internet means consumers can be much better informed. Living in Asia but traveling the world, I still find travel rewarding. Can’t live without it!

  2. Sorry, but I have to disagree that the folks in lie flat seats are in them because they are lucky. This was a hard one to vote on because of all the variables. Hotel fees drive me crazy, but the bedding in particular is way better than the good ole days. Airlines, don’t get me started. If I ran my business like most of the airlines run theirs, I’d be bankrupt. Oh wait, most of the airlines are or have been at one time…….. never mind.  

    1. larry–I’m gonna disagree on one of your points.  The folks in the lie-flat seats are NOT lucky.  They are loyal and frequent or pay the full fare, not lucky.

    2. The airline experience is a reflection of the general trend in American society.  As the middle class disappears, the relatively few ‘wealthy’ are enjoying far greater wealth whilst the rest are actually suffering income adjusted declines.

      Now, the airline industry reflects that.  Better amenities for the ‘wealthy’ — business and first class.  Worse for the ‘average joe.’  The airline industry is simply reflecting and responding to a general trend in American society — the bifurcation into rich and struggling, and the disappearance of the middle class.

      Oh, before the hate mail starts to fly, this isn’t an opinion as to whether such trends are good or bad, just an observation of what is happening.

      1. I’m with you on the observation of society as a whole,  but don’t think it really applies to the airline industry as you are trying to portray it.

        The infrequent flyer makes up a big percentage of the total and they have no loyalty to any airline beyond price. That’s the group I’m in. I’ll pay extra for a direct flight or if the time happens to be far superior for my schedule, but if I buy by price I can generally save enough for one of our tickets to be free, which I really like.  That means the airline knows the coach seats will be full if their price is competitive and, conversely, they also know that even if they put extra dollars and effort into making the flight more enjoyable they’d still lose most of those passengers on a future flight if somebody else had a cheaper fare.

        Business and first class are quite literally the best customers. They either pay more outright for the tickets or they’re frequent flyers who get upgrades because of the volume of business they bring to the airline. Next time you fly, check out the front of the plane. You won’t see many people who are obviously rich, you’ll see lots of people enjoying the perks of spending a whole lot of time on airplanes, usually because of their demanding jobs.

        The biggest thing to change air travel is Sept. 11. The increased security including the nonsense with plastic bags, taking off shoes, etc. makes everything about the experience feel worse. Yes, food is pretty much completely gone from airplanes, but people ridiculed airplane food back when you got complete meals with real silverware on the plane. And tickets were way more expensive back in those days.

        1. Next time you fly, check out the front of the plane. You won’t see many people who are obviously rich, you’ll see lots of people enjoying the perks of spending a whole lot of time on airplanes, usually because of their demanding jobs.

          I agree. Lots of people in the front want to “feel” rich. Many of the real rich fly private jets or netjets. They do not want to sit with the wannabees.

          For the most of us, lie-flat are irrelevant. The cost or sacrifice is too high to bear.

  3. If the airline rep was so pleased with her company’s lie flat seats, why didn’t you question why they haven’t improved seat pitch/width for the “normal” people?

    Also, what about their policies on selling “premium economy” seats that they can’t deliver?

    And finally…how do they plan to handle the XXL pax who take up two economy seats, but buy one and make everyone else miserable?

    These are the questions that should be asked of the airlines. Please, cut through the spin the next time you talk to them.

  4. “For the card-carrying elite-level passengers lucky enough to be sitting in the lie-flat seats, it might be improving.”
    Not so much.  I am a card carrying elite.  I have to pay for a higher fare just to be eligible for an upgrade, and still end up flying in the back.  After doing the walk of shame knowing I just paid $500 more out of my own pocket for a coach seat to get an upgradable fare, I decided to just pay for a non-upgradable fare and expect to ride in coach so that I won’t be disappointed.  Some of my co-workers on full-fare (They are higher level and allowed to buy such) still don’t get upgraded.  Lie-flat seats, mean less seats in business and first, which means even less of a chance of an upgrade.  So the experience may be better, but only for the super-rich. 

      1. Problem is AA does not fly [non stop] from a lot of origin and destinations. And, AA has its own nightmares, too. My last flight JFK-ROM and back had inedible [so-called] food. I hope it is the last.

  5. Are the declines just a reflection of our society? We demand cheap goods. Retailers have done away with service in the name of cheap prices. Just try to get advice on paint at K-Mart. Air travel, hotels and car rentals are available to the masses and the masses tend to pick price over quality. 

    1. I have read this before – that the consumers got what they asked for. We don’t want lower prices because we’re cheap. We NEED lower prices for all sorts of things to be able to pay for what we need. For my family, travel doesn’t fall into that category, unfortunately, and I haven’t been able to see my family on the other coast in years. I really wish I could book a flight to visit, but I just can’t afford it, even with the “cheap” fares.

      1. I believe this kind of illustrates my point.

        Not knowing your origin and destination it’s hard to estimate a fare, but NYC to LAX are around $300 round trip. How cheap would the fare need to go? 

        Would you accept a more crowded plane and less “free” services in order to snag a cheaper ticket? The masses will and have. 

        1. I’m not jikinn but I live in the Seattle area (so fly out of SeaTac. My family lives in the Adirondack Mtns of NY State so the closest airport is either ALB or BTV. RT tickets generally run $370-$450 or so, depending. I have to rent a car, so that adds about $120 to the cost. Add in a hotel for $200 for the week (at least-depending on the time of year-the area is a resort so hotels rooms can run a lot higher). Add in the cost of gas and food (yes, I can eat some meals with family but not all) and I am looking at around $900. Might be cheap for some people but with two chronic medical conditions and only so-so insurance, much of my income ends up going to medical expenses.

          I’m lucky. I can pay my bills and have enough left over to stick into savings to build up for my emergency fund. But with both parents passing away over the past two years in the winter, I had to make 4 trips back East (once for the funeral and once for the burial each time), any extra trip funds are depleted for now.

      2. This begs the question – is air travel more affordable nowadays?

        While an airline can always re-invent itself by going through bankruptcy (and reboot labor costs), the high cost of oil and CEOs is unavoidable.

        That said, the cost of airfare in highly competitive routes and during off-season is quite cheap. And note, if it ain’t affordable then how come the flights are almost always full?

        Unfortunately if you live in a place like Little Rock, Arkansas; you will pay twice the fare to go to the East Coast compared to one who is flying out of LAX to go to NYC. Supply and Demand, I guess.

    2. I couldn’t have said it better myself!
      It’s annoying that people demand to pay the least, and then complain about the cheap quality.  It’s like the Wall Mart effect.  I used it live in a small town, under 30K people.  Wall Mart came in and everyone flocked there for the low prices, meanwhile all of the local business went out of business, and then people lost their jobs, and then no one had money, even for Wall Mart.
      People often argue that they can’t afford to pay more, and that’s why they shop at Wall Mart, but I think its self-fulfilling, by shopping ta Wall Mart, they put the local companies out of business, the economy suffers, they make less money, and then can’t afford as much. They could afford other stores before Wall Mart came.
      I have a friend who always says, “Higher price or buy it twice.”  It’s so true, when I buy the lowest cost items it is usually inferior quality and breaks really quickly. 
      This also spills over into travel.  LCC come along, and people only care about the lowest price, and airlines cannot longer afford to provide quality service.  Hotels too!
      I think some of these problems also comes from the Now! Now! Attitude in the US.  People can go to Wall Mart and buy a fancy TV for $299 on their credit card, and 4 months later when it breaks they buy another.  Back in the day, people would save up for a long time to buy a TV, and get a more expensive one because the cheap one didn’t exist.  The more expensive one was much higher quality, and it lasted much longer.
      If people demand cheap, they are hurting themselves and hurting the industry.  But that’s how society has become, and that’s why people want the world. Or at least a refund of the world over a small nit pick.

      1. You are SO right about Walmart. I worked there in college. The way they treat their employees is truly disgusting. And the now, now, now, me, me, me attitude of the majority of customers just perpetuates the problem. There is a large percentage of the population that seems to think they don’t need to work for a living and have learned to scam the system. And my favorite, the “trip and fall” scams where people pretended to hurt themselves to try to “get a settlement.” The one thing that suprised me, however, were the large proportion of Walmart employees that were busy trying to claim to get hurt at work and sue, not just the customers!

        1. I lived in the South in the 80’s and can remember shopping at Walmarts in Arkansas because they had good quality “Made in America” goods. Yup, they proudly displayed that sign.

          Today, in my Walmart in Connecticut, you’ll be lucky communicating with a clerk in English. Also, it is disgusting when many customers buy stuff (like toys) and toss the packaging out the car window as they drive out of Walmart. It’s not just the workers, it’s also the customer that are pathetic.

          America needs a reboot!

          1. I saw the same thing in the small town I lived in, people would throw the packaging right out the window while leaving Wallmarts.  I thought it was Isolated to Indiana.  They would also through fast food bags out the window and the chains put the mom and pop restaurants out of business too. Very sad state of affairs.

    3. Having been in the travel industry for 3 decades, I think you are correct that there has been a dumbing down in the travel experience.  Why shouldn’t checked luggage be a part of the airline ticket cost?  Why shouldn’t maid service be a part of the hotel stay?  Why shouldn’t a clean car be expected? Are you getting more by booking online at the assumed low price? NO! With all this comes the not so happy employee of the travel component company. They have to deal with the less than polite traveler who wants it all for next to nothing. My family couldn’t afford air travel when I was growing up so I never experienced it personally, but I do remember taking friends and neighbors to SFO for their flights. People were happy to fly, dress nicely and treated the employess with respect. The dumbing down of travel brings out the worst in travelers now as you can see from you own experiences and with travel corporations always looking for cuts, they don’t have the happiest of employees. I’d pay for for a clean plane(this is a pet peeve of mine), checked luggage included in my ticket price, snacks provided on board at no charge, music/movies to help pass the time and happy employees. I would pay more for my hotel stay for a clean room (doesn’t matter the quality of the hotel this is a place cuts are obvious), good service and happy employees. I would pay more for my rental car if I can get a car that isn’t banged up when they give it to me (I don’t know about you but I don’t drive a wreck at home), know it was looked at/serviced before placing it out for the next rental, it is cleaned between rentals and happy employees.

      1. I remember the flight experience from the 70s.  What I remember is that my family could fly exactly once a year. Sure, I wore a suit to fly, as did my father. I remember the happy employees and getting “free” playing cards, meals, snacks etc.  But it was hella expensive to fly and in my entire time growing up, I flew twice a year exactly once.

        I too am happy to pay for for good quality and service.  I’m not sure what the problem is.  At least within the hotel and car industry, that option is available to you.  You can book a chain that has clearer rooms.  I won’t stay at a hotel that uses bedspreads instread.  After repeated bad experiences, I don’t rent from Alamo or National.

        As far as booking online, you don’t have to book the cheapest room/flight/car.  I regularly book a higher airfare that comes with flexibility when traveling for business when my schedule requires flexibility.

        At the LAX airport where I frequent, Alama, budget, and National have lower prices.  But I choose Hertz because it has a better customer service experience, particularly then the others.

        So travelers aren’t stupid or naive.  They vote with their wallets based upon their values.

        1. This isn’t necessarily voting by your wallet, it is the dumbing down of the industry with cuts they claim they have made to be competitive.  Hotel housekeeping and maintence in 5 star hotels isn’t what it should be and at $300-$500 a night you have higher expectations than at $70 at Motel 6. On Sheraton resort is giving a nightly discount if you don’t have daily maid service. Do they make up on that cleaning later on? Based on my experience lately, I don’t think so. I am a Hertz Gold member and the car conditions have been going down hill. In ANC the car was filthy. In downtown ORD, we were given a car with expired license plates, which we caught after we picked the car up and had to give up our time to go back and get it taken care of. In PHL this past summer I was given a car that reeked of cigarette smoke and I have in my profile a nonsmoking car. The flights I have taken on various US carriers are filthy, economy class, business or first class, it doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t want to go back to you having to wear a suit, but I also don’t enjoy looking at bare midriffs, butt cracks and crotches in pants down to the knees.

          1. We have had very different experiences.  I”ve had nothing except great service and cars from Hertz.  Granted, I am a President’s Circle which may account for the different experiences.  I’ve stayed in 5 star hotels with immaculate cleaning.

        1. Bingo! I’ve tried to explain that to people many times and always get the response “I will pay more for quality.” I had a friend who said he would never fly Spirit, yet he did several months later. Reason? He could save $100 per ticket and there were 5 of them traveling. He was fine “putting up” with reduced service levels to save $500.

          1. Since it is a commodity, people are free to make as many mistakes as they can. Interesting that with REAL commodities (i.e. corn, soybeans, etc.) you still need a broker (an agent) to do your trades. For travel all you need is a vending machine to score tickets, hotels, cruises, tours, etc.

          2. I dealt in commodities. I got better service in that business then than I do from most companies today! (Not just travel.)

          3.  @mikegun:disqus Price a ticket from Chicago (ORD) to Las Vegas (LAS) for a short weekend stay. If you don’t take Spirit (despite paying all the irritating fees) you’ll likely pay shell out a hundred bucks more. Spirit has a place in the map whether we or consumer advocates like it or not.

        2. Yes it is!  When I go on vacation and spend $400 for a room, the last thing I want to do is clean the mold from the bathroom ceiling and wipe down the dirty light switches.  I complained to the manager, by email, when I got home, gave him the room number and he immediately went and checked out my concerns. He called me back in less than 1 hour and was shocked at the condition of the room. He gave me upgrades for another stay, which we used. We were given a suite and again I was cleaning the mold off the bathroom ceiling the $500 a night suite and cleaning the counter around the sink before we could even use it. At a 5 star hotel in Waikiki, we were given a room lower in acceptability than a Motel 6. It was disgusting. Some had been spilled on the dresser where the TV was and had been there for quite some time. The trim around all doors were chipped and dented. This room sold for over $300 a night at rack rate. The hotel has since been totatally renovated. As someone who would sell these properties, I would be very upset to have a client report back with what we have experienced. There is no way a housekeeping supervisor had checked the rooms at these 2 5 star resorts. Cut backs? Lack of care?

  6.  Travel is neither better or worse. Rather its about the individual experience, and this article is trying to oversimplify a complex equation.

    It’s all about managing expectations… If you’re expecting to pay $9 fares and be treated like royalty, then you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re expecting rock bottom prices, but then nit pick about how your room didn’t have a whirlpool tub, balcony, view or was too small, then you are also going to be disappointed.

    Overall, I think travel is better for the following reasons:
    1) Virtually all flights are “non-smoking” now
    2) Improvement of flight options means (yes, the dreaded hub model) has improved accessibility
    3) Cost, when adjusted for inflation, makes virtually all travel products (flights, hotels, etc) available to the masses
    4) Availability of online resources, that allows travelers to do their own research on previously unknown or exotic destinations

    Unfortunately, the world is also changing. Areas that were once safe, are not so safe anymore (ie Kabul, parts of Mexico), but new opportunities are opening up. Did anyone actually visit China or Tibet 20 years ago as a tourist?

    Frankly, I would like to rephrase the question : “Is the traveling public better or worse?” I believe that travelers were more respectful and civilized in the past. Some of the behavior that routinely makes the news would have never occurred in the past. You would never see travelers complain of tacky, irrelevant complaints demanding a full refund or the whole solar system as compensation.

    Personally, for me, travel is better. My wife and I are in a phase of our life where we have both time off and financial resources to do travel. When there is a will, there is a way and we truly enjoy our trips!

  7. My two cents:  I had to travel from the Midwest to the Southeast in late December with my husband and father-in-law.  My father-in-law used to travel a lot; hasn’t flown in a decade, nor rented a car in that time.  He was very surprised in the changes in both experiences and not in a good way.  From his perspective, travel has gotten to be less enjoyable.  My mother had to fly a couple of years ago, after not having flown since before 9/11.  She won’t fly any more.

    It was easy to answer the poll when I put myself in a previous generation’s shoes.

    1. This is sad. Can you tell us what your in-laws liked the least. What change did they find least enjoyable? TSA, cost of flights, crazy ticket shopping experience, over-crowded airports, obnoxious fellow passengers, airline employees who couldn’t care less, Darwinian boarding schemes, Baggage and ancillary fees, anything else?

      1. Both my mother and my f-i-l disliked the TSA experience, mostly because it was more like being processing cattle than being made secure.  It’s hard balancing to take off shoes, swing up carry ones, getting everything out of pockets, following shouted, incoherent instructions and harder if you’re elderly or have mobility issues, like my mother.  Both disliked the cattle car mentality of the airlines and the general lack of concern for their customers, remembering days gone by where the meals were served on real plates, with real tableware. 
        My f-i-l especially hated the uncertainty of our seating arrangements, where the price advertised was $X, but you couldn’t get a seat unless you paid for a premium seat, for all 3 legs, for all 3 passengers.  (Seating chart showed all seats full except premium seats.)  Flight delays and gate changes were not well communicated at any point on the trip; my husband and I used our smartphones to keep informed.  We watched a gate agent in ORD scream at an older Indian man who didn’t hear/understand the announcement.  Another gate agent refused to call the connecting flight to let them know we were on our way after arriving almost 2 hours late.  We watched our scheduled plane sit at the gate for 20 minutes after we arrived.  The gate agents at that gate said that they would have postponed closing the door if they’d known we were running the length of the Charlotte airport to get there.
        My f-i-l was appalled that I couldn’t notify the Hertz agent at our destination airport that we were arriving on the next flight by us calling Hertz National, since we’d used Hotwire.  Hotwire put me on hold for 45 minutes and told me it everything was fine when they came on.  Hotwire didn’t notify the rental agent at our destination – she was on her lunch HOUR at 8:30 at night when we arrived, since no other customers were scheduled to come in.  I and another customer waited more than an hour for her to come off her break.  Then we had to go through the rigmarole of pulling the car under a light, photographing the car, and marking down damages before we drove off.
        There’s more, but this is laundry list already.  The change from customer to commodity, and the concurrent shift in customer service attitudes are the main complaints.  Thanks for asking.

        1. Oh my goodness, this is horrible. There is something really strange happening with the whole TRAVEL industry. Instead of things getting  SIMPLER it has become a lot more COMPLICATED. Instead of being a wonderful experience, travel is becoming more aggravating. Yet, the amount to travel keeps on increasing worldwide. Amazing.

  8. Hotels – generally better.  There’s more decent competition out there and I find the room conditions/amenities are superior than in years’ past.

    Airlines – far, far worse.  Between the TSA molestation inspections to the cramped cattle cars to the poor attitudes of many flight attendants to not even being fed or getting a drink to the constant lies about why flights are canceled and so on and so forth, airline travel is a much poorer experience than it was 15-20 years ago.

    Car Rentals – About the same.  The fake-damage-insurance-scam was around 20 years ago.

  9. As soon as you factor price into your argument (for flights at least), travel is getting better. Even with the oil prices as they are, for the most part, fares are very low. Adjusted for inflation, ticket prices are much lower than 10-20 years ago, and since the primary goal of air travel is to get you from A to B, I’d say that low prices counts as a huge benefit. And again, passengers have shown airlines that low prices is pretty much all they care about, and the airlines have met those demands.
    And that is the reason that service ‘suffers’ if you want to argue that. There are still plenty of improvements too, such as airlines installing personal TVs on long-haul flights, being able to do almost everything with your booking online (time saved, convenience), as well as many airports getting improvements.

  10. I think that I get the travel that I am willing to pay for. The experience at an airport is a little worse due to the security requirements but you can’t blame the airlines for that. Other than the mandatory resort fees I am generally happy with hotels. I always get a clean room at a price I am willing to pay. As for car rentals I consider myself lucky, I have never been subjected to the ‘dent found after you left’ issue. I always make sure that I inspect the car completely when I take it and hand in the insopection sheet before I leave. It is usually pretty filled out.

      1.  I completely disagree. The government took away security from the airlines/airports after 9/11. So this is NOT a subsidy to the airlines as the article is saying. The airlines/airports could do it themselves if needed (and they can charge passengers for it, too). Just go overseas and find out.

        1. I’m not saying the airlines are completely to blame.  But they appar to have derived some economic benefit from the heinousness that is TSA.

          Considering that Congress slapped down the “Oh, you can switch to private security if you want to” loophole pretty quickly once airports started going in that direction, I’m guessing the airlines would probably happily pay for private security again with the lack of support for TSA.  
          But the airlines don’t really seem to be pushing back, either.  The staff are usually quite sympathetic when you mention you had a bad security experience, but it’s not like the higher ups appear to be doing anything effective in working with DHS to make things more sensible (as it is overseas).Honestly?  I think it’s a case of who has better lobbyists at this point.  DHS appears to win that battle.

          1. No airline is stupid enough to fight the DHS/TSA. That said, I doubt they are in a hurry to take back (privatize) airport security anytime soon unless they are forced to.

            Remember that DHS also took control of checking the  Expanded no-fly (WATCH) list when Secure Flight was created. The Gov’t could not trust the airlines with those expanded lists. Airlines CANNOT BOARD a passenger without clearance from DHS.

            People forget that it’s not just the patting or scanning that’s going on. There’s also a lot of data and computer matching that is happening. The system is now SO BIG that airlines and airports cannot afford to run them on their own. (The budget of sky marshals alone is about $1B a year.)

  11. I think traveling is worse, but not because of airlines, rental cars, etc.  I think it’s the traveling public that makes us all cringe.  Unclean people and people dressed in pajamas boarding flights and rudeness just make me want to drive everywhere. 
    Granted we don’t like the little seats and the crowded overhead and all the fees, but we get to see the world now.  What a blessing.

    1.  @Kotch11:disqus  Since 1960s-70s, I was already able to see the World. Airline jet travel (and rental cars and hotels)  is not new. What is new is the extreme rudeness [or selfishness] of people and the lengths they would go to finagle a way to game the system.

  12. “I want to be optimistic. Heck, I’ve even been ordered to be more optimistic.”

    Okay, Chris, you’ve made a valiant effort here so your superiors should be content for at least a while!  BUT if they accuse you of usually being unduly negative (which incidentally I don’t think you are), you can just remind them of three little letters, which completely encapsulate the sheer misery that travelling in/out of the US has now become:


  13. I feel so badly for my passengers that have to sit in cramped seats for 5, 6, 7, even 14 hours with minimal amenities available.  It’s not good!

  14. If we are simply talking experience (and not price or value), then it’s worse. With more and more travelers and without larger and newer airplanes and airports we overuse or compete for the same amount of resources – making travel less comfortable.

    To me the mere perception of TSA security lines are so dreadful that it detracts from the positive experience of traveling.

    To some extent, the Internet has had (negative) unintended consequences on travel. There is too much hype and over-marketing of travel products (i.e. hotel, cruises, tours, etc.) that unseasoned travelers (especially American Prince and Princesses) expect too much.

    I have traveled to many corners of the world. If you really expect a stay in foreign city to be as comfortable as your room or couch, then you have the wrong assumption. We spend a lot of money and go through a lot of hassle to go to a place where we have friends and family or to see a place as say “Wow, I wish you were here”. So worse or not, I’ll still travel.

  15. Air travel used to be special, and passengers were treated accordingly. On the luxury side, the private roomettes and dining rooms on the Clippers flown by Pan American World Airways have never been surpassed. But through the 1970s, coach travel buy air was a special experience, perhaps because the carriers realized that passengers have many viable alternatives to flying. But today, commercial aviation is so routine, and most passengers will not consider any alternatives, that indignities can be hurled at passengers, told to enjoy them, and the carriers can exploit their de facto monopoly over long-distance transportation. I gave up commercial air travel a decade ago, and since then I now travel by railroad, ocean liner, and motor bus. Although not always perfect, most often I am treated with dignity and respect, and my journeys are pleasant and comfortable.

  16. The international carriers, especially to Asia and the Middle East, are as good or better than they ever were. On the other hand the domestic airlines are much worse. I’d trade all the TV, WiFi etc. for a seat with decent pitch and width, an occasional drink or snack and a pleasant attitude. I think those who think travel, or least airline travel, is better, never flew in the days before it became a form of airborne mass transit.

    1. Totally agreed, I try to book on Asian or European when flying internationally. Nevertheless, american airlines try hard to catch up on Asian and European routes. I was pleasantly surprised by First Class United New Seat, Food Menu and Service on ORD-NRT and CDG-ORD route, I can tell it match international standard. Of course it’s very hard to beat SQ, TG or CX on first class services. Now we have other Middle-East airlines do the good job even better than the Asian and European: Qatar, Ethiad, Emirates and Turkish Airlines… but I just don’t like a stop in the Middle-East.

  17. Totally agree. Before Year 2000, the journey to destination were also a pleasure with the Airlines, the Inflight Foods served … or the Trucks Stop Diners on the highways… Now the US Airports is worse than the Soviet Stalinist era. The taxes and the Airport fees were rarely more than 5% of the ticket, now it’s 200% of the ticket price and if you flight to London LHR it’s at least 300% the ticket price. And lot of destination are plagued with violence, by drug problems or religion war related conflicts: Mexico, Bali, and now even Bangkok
    I wonder if any of you old enough to travel to the Soviet Union in the 80’s, it was irrationally paranoiac like the US Airport today (the Soviets thought everybody are Spy, today Americans thought everybody are terrorists). Today, make a trip to Cuba or Vietnam, it’s the total reverse, it’s take less than 10 seconds to pass Immigration and Customs.

  18. New planes making things better? Bleaugh! One of the reasons I switched from American is that they are dumping the old MD-80s, which have a decent exit-row seat, for 737s, in which the exit rows feel like a restraint chair. So what few decent seats us frequent fliers could nab, are gone. If only they’d go back to 34″ seat pitch and raise the ticket prices a few bucks to cover the lost revenue! This is why, when I fly for leisure, I spend my own money on Jet Blue. I’m willing to pay extra for a seat that’s suitable for human occupancy.

  19. Travel for the richest regular travelers is getting better in all ways except car rentals. After 3,000,000 miles 40+ cruises, 1,000 hotel nights, I feel that for the average custom, that “hell in a handbasket” would be a real improvment. Watch Pan AM on Sundays just to feel what it truly was at the prime time of the airline industry. Watch re-runs of Hotel, to see what the average person could have had in the past, and even google OJ and see what Hertz wanted to do for its customers. Travel is hideous when you begin your trip with John Q Moron at TSA, and it does not get better.

  20. My take on a lot of this is that you use to be treated like a guest, especially on a filght.  When you have a guest in your home, you do extra for them to make sure they are enjoying their stay.  You don’t expect them to buy their own food and make their own meals.  You don’t expect them to clean up your house because they are staying with your for a few days.  You do expect them to repect your home….ever look at a flight as you are deplaning and see how trashed it is?  You don’t charge them to wash their clothes.  If you lend them your car for a day, I would hope you make sure it is clean, safe to drive and has gas in it.  I would hope they bring it back in one piece, fill the tank up and tidy it up.  The respect goes both ways!

  21. As miserable all this has become, my angst starts at security given it’s such a crap shoot as to what kind of TSA agent you’ll get.

    I just started a new medication for my RA yesterday that is a syringe I will need to carry in a small hand-held cooler with an ice pack.  This is a really expensive drug that would appeal to someone who couldn’t be bothered to read the labeling that it’s not a narcotic.  Packing it in my suitcase leaves it open to theft (and a hard explanation to my insurance company as to why it was in my checked bag) so I didn’t have to explain it all to a minimum wage TSA agent.  Carrying it with me in my computer bag now has me spending more time that should be necessary because they’ll want to take away the ice pack (which is necessary so the medicine stays cold).

    I’m so used to the fees it doesn’t even surprise me any more and it started with the government showing all the businesses and corporations they could do it and do it successfully.

  22. AMTRAK: the last “great” travel experience…friendly and efficient phone service, pleasant train staff, best scenery in the country! (OK, admittedly better if you’re not on a rigid schedule…but that’s really the fault of the “host” railroads)

  23. There are many factors that go into a subjective topic such as this one, and different people see it differently.

    Yes, air travel is more affordable now.  But that means the entire travel experience has dropped.  Planes are crowded, passengers and employees (to a lesser extent) are more uncivil, the food — when it can be found — is much worse (believe it or not, once upon a time airline food was good, but I can say that because I’ve been flying longer than most readers of this column seem to).

    Then there’s TSA, which is now starting to insinuate itself in other forms of transportation.  ‘Nuff said on that one!

    The problem stems partly — and I emphasize partly — from our (Americans’) feeling of entitlement to do whatever we want whenever we want for whatever we want to pay.  But there is no constitutional right to affordable air travel for the masses.  If you can’t afford it, you don’t do it.  That’s the way it’s always been, but now people call a $300 coast-to-coast flight expensive.  Come on, you can’t even drive for that, unless you have a half-dozen or so passengers over which to allocate the costs!

    Another part of the problem is that the airlines (a) don’t want to compete with each other, (b) don’t understand that there are more than two types of passengers, and (c) despite (b), try to be all things to all people.  I’ve long maintained there is a market somewhere between first class and steerage, but as far as the airlines are considered the only difference among back-of-the-plane travelers is whether they want a refundable ticket.

    Then there’s the problem of our national transportation policy (which is basically unchanged regardless of which party is in power; this is not a comment aimed at anyone in particular).  The government “invests” in highways, the government “invests” in air travel infrastructure, but the government “subsidizes” rail travel.  I wonder what kind of return the government gets on its “investments” in the first two modes!

    Sorry for the long-winded post, but this is a highly complex subject.

  24. I am a “Super Elite” (Star Gold) Member of Air Canada & have been so since Frequent Flier Programs started. I refer to this as “Super Abused” now.
    AC used to allow SE Members to Upgrade, regardless of the Fare paid. Last September, they changed the policy (Unannounced of course). When buying their “Lowest Fare” Tickets now, one only gets 50% of the miles credited to one’s account.

    Earlier this month I returned to Tampa from Lyon (France) via London, thru Totonto. I use BA from Lyon to Heathrow. BA refused to check my bag thru as I was using AC from London to Toronto & onto Tampa. I had to clear UK Customs, retrieve my bag & go thru the process of checking in again. It will be a long time before I use BA again, for any flights.

    In Toronto, one must retrieve their baggage to go thru US Customs/Immigration. I had 90 minutes to catch my Tampa Flight. It took AC Baggage handlers 70 minutes to get my bag from the incoming flight to the Baggage Carousel. It was only because I have a Nexus Card that I was able to clear Customs/Immigration quickly. I dropped my bag off & then, thanks to the understanding of other passengers in the Security Line who allowed me to go to the front of the line, I was able to catch my flight as the last passenger boarded.
    No help at all from AC !!!Better or worse??? Worse by a long shot.

    1. I’m sorry but being “Super Elite” does not mean that you can dispose of “Common Sense”. Why would anyone cross or mix Airline Alliances to travel between Tampa an Lyon, France? All you are going to get is misery (like you did).

      Next time choose to travel within ONE alliance only. A “Super Elite” in AC should stay with the Star Alliance, and this is the default flight routing from Lyon to Tampa via Toronto.

      1  #AC9407  LYSMUC- 900A1020A   0
      2  #AC 847    YYZ-1150A 255P   0
      3  #AC 904   TPA- 430P 722P   0 16.22

      YYZ on AC allows CAN Customs Bypass and you MIGHT be able to pre-clear US Customs there also.

      1. I think fedupgerry’s comment above illustrates part of the modern problem with travel:  People expect way more from the system than they used to. A few decades ago, travelers would have looked at an itinerary like that and automatically expected there might be some problems and delays. Things often went better than expected because expectations were tempered to begin with. Today, the problems start before anything really goes wrong. fedupgerry was on edge the moment they were told the bag couldn’t be checked all the way through. And when was clearing customs ever an easy, enjoyable experience?

        1. @Joe_D_Messina:disqus  We don’t know if he had a separate BA ticket from LYS to LHR. If so, BA will really refuse to check through his luggage.

          Nevertheless, BA is not stupid. Int’l Baggage conventions require that LOSS/DELAY COMPENSATION is the responsibility of the carrier that TAGS the bag. So, in this case if BA tags the bag to YYZ or all the way to TPA, if the bag is lost/delayed/pilfered, BA will have to pay. Is BA that stupid, if the only fare it got was for a measly LYS-LHR segment? Who is he kidding?

          Sorry but this passenger needs some training. I wonder how he got to Super Elite level without knowing some basic travel dos and don’ts. Maybe next time he should use a good travel agent. S/he will educate him.

          IMO fedupgerry was expecting too much of DIFFERENT airlines.

          1. I would not be surprised if Fedupgerry chose that routing and non-alliance combo because it was cheaper than other options.

          2.  I think so, too. I suspect that either:
            (1) the LYS to MUC/FRA/BRU flights on LH and SN were sold out; or
            (2) it was cheaper to hop on AC from London –
            So he flew to LHR on BA first.

            I do 99% international air ticketing so I see this insanity on a daily basis. Some people push their luck too far and then complain when they don’t get their way.

  25. In general, it’s clearly worse.

    I’ve wasted many, many hours waiting in line at airport security over the past year.  Security delays were never this bad in the pre-TSA days.

    Direct flights from the two local airports I’m able to use are way down — it seems like my friends at United are hell-bent on making every single US traveler fly through Chicago.  Has anyone in their management team ever tried to make a 45 minute connection from gate F19 to the C terminal?  It’s do-able, but just barely.  God help us if there’s a thunderstorm or some snow/ice in Chicago.  I envy my friends that live in major cities who don’t have to endure the rush to change planes in over-crowded hub airports.

    The rental car I’m currently driving has 62,000 miles and has moderate/severe hail damage on the roof and hood.  Of course, I had to take the time to go back to the terminal and get the damage-slip marked, then take the time to move the car to a sunny area to photograph the damage. 

  26. I think there are so many variables at play that it’s hard to say whether “the travel experience” is getting better, worse, or staying the same. I think one also needs to separate aspects of the travel experience that are the creation of travel companies (like resort fees and charging for checked bags) and those that are the creation of the government (the TSA and room/rental car taxes that can be a huge percentage of the rate).

    I think one aspect of travel that has gotten better is hotels. Frankly, the level of comfort that’s expected nowadays in a standard Holiday Inn Express/Courtyard by Marriott type of room is pretty impressive. And while I’m as big a complainer about mandatory resort fees and other “gotchas”, I don’t find that it’s hard to avoid them depending on where you choose to stay. I also think things have gotten a lot better for the budget traveler thanks to the online review sites that help you separate the good deals from the fleabags – I’ve stayed at Super 8s and Motel 6s for well under $50 a night and found some of their properties to be great deals. (Dollar for dollar, one of my best room purchases ever was a $24.99 a night rate at Motel 6 in a newly renovated property that was clean, safe, and perfectly adequate for my needs). The caveat with the budget chains is that some of their properties are awful, but online reviews help travelers determine which ones are worth risking.

    As for flying, there are certainly plenty of things to complain about but given how cheap it is to fly across the country these days (and how historically cheap – prices from 30-40 years ago were often higher in real dollars, and much higher when adjusted for inflation), price needs to be factored in, too. I just went from ORD-LAS a couple weeks ago for $198 w/taxes round-trip on United, and am going ORD-SFO next month for $297 round-trip. Do I wish the seats were larger and more comfortable? Absolutely. Would I want to pay twice as much or more? Nope. (I would like to see more of an effort to create an affordable upgrade, similar to United’s Economy Plus but perhaps with more width as well as extra legroom. If Economy Plus had one fewer seat per row – and I realize it would have to cost more if it did – that would be pretty good to me).

  27. Sadly, travel is no worse than other general aspects of life.  People are less civil.  They are more self-centered.  They have lost common courtesies.  

    A passenger was barking yesterday upon entering a MIA-LAX flight that the flight attendant must tell a customer to move, because her injured mother needed to sit next to her, doctor’s orders.

    Flight attendant said she would try and ask.  Passenger said, “Just tell them.”  Attendant very politely asked the passenger, when he arrived, if he would move to an equivalent seat because of the obviously injured passenger.  Of course, the passenger readily agreed.  FA said to barker, “See what happens when you are nice and ask politely?”  No comment back from barker.

    “Please, excuse me, may I, pardon and I’m sorry” are disappearing in common discourse.  Instead many just are just rude.  So this is not an attitude problem just in travel.  It is a daily problem of dealing with others.  It is as if people are speaking as they text, and the result is simply uncivil.


      It is as if people are speaking as they text

      I like this comment. For some reason, we [myself included] forget that people have feelings. We treat our pets better than strangers. I am guilty! My (old) parents are not like this. They are very gracious. Civility changed with the baby boomer generation and has gone down ever since. Maybe it is consumerism since you need to be more and more selfish to consume more. How to fix this?

      1. I am 57–towards the end of the baby boomers.  I use good manners everywhere I go.  I find I get treated much better that way.  But the lack of manners I see all around me is appalling. 

        1. I’m 48. My parents brought me up to say please, thank you, excuse me, and Ma’am and Sir to strangers. They also taught me to hold doors open for others and move out of the way for people. If they had ever caught me not doing these things, I got a lecture. It is so ingrained, I still do all of them.

          And the looks I get when I hold the door open for people? It’s like I am some sort of weirdo. I shrug, smile and tell them to have a nice day.

          Politeness costs nothing and gives everything.

      2. I don’t think it is the baby boomer generation that is rude and uncivil. Most baby boomers were taught good manners by their parent. At least I was, and the 2 other posters here, as well. I think it is the generation after baby boomers (Gen X?) that has worse manners. I am 56.

        1. Sorry if I offended 3 other baby boomers. I am slightly older than you so that includes me as a baby boomer. I (and my other siblings) am not as polite as my parents. I observe that many in my generation are whiners. I certainly agree that the next [younger] generation is worse. I must remind everyone that the baby boomers are the ones that blew up the economy. That does not make me feel good.

    2. Exactly. I was on a flight recently where a man was sitting next to me in a middle seat and his wife was supposed to sit in the window seat directly in front of mine. She politely asked if I’d mind switching, and I was very happy to do it. I’ll always switch to an equivalent seat if I’m asked nicely. And karma must have been on my side, because when the door shut and the guy in the middle seat next to my new seat saw that the row in front of us had two empty seats, he moved up and I had extra legroom for the four hour flight. 🙂

  28. Chris,
    It seems that in the World of Travel, there are a lot of buckets.  You also probably need to clarify the Better/Worse a little bit more.  Are you referring to Price, Service, or total package?

    Airlines – I think over-all, everyone would agree that Prices have come down a lot, but the service has too.  Back in the Old days of flying, it cost an arm and a leg to fly, but the service was impecable.

    Rental Cars – The Taxes and Fees have gotten more then rediculous for rental cars.  Throw in the occasional false Damage Claim, and the pricing for rental cars has gotten worse.  From a service side though, there have been several improvements.  Quicker Check-In and Check-Out for advance reservation customers. 

    Hotels – Over-all, I think most hotels have imporved significantly in the ammenities offered.  Price wise, the Resort Fees, or the Safe Fees are rediculous.  Though you still can find some pretty good nightly rates…

    Cruises – Most of the complaints I’ve seen around Cruises is either A) Person forgot some piece of paperwork and the cruise wouldn’t budge on it’s policy or B)A Mass case of Noravirus struck the ship.  Many cruiselines have upped the amenities on their ships.  Cruise Pricing tends to be easier to understand.

    Trains – Pricing really hasn’t dramatically changed recently.  But the Quality of the trains has been brought inot the spot light in recent articles.

    The industry as a whole seems to have gone to a sort of “Economy” pricing.  They offer a Cheaper rate, with few ammenities because they are catering to the masses.

  29. I’ve been traveling regularly since 1974. There were really bad times around 1999-2000, but today, passengers are a commodity. Flat beds in first? Who can afford first? It’s a cattle car. The Internet booking companies level the playing field a bit, but some of them are plainly put together by drunken elves. 

    I travel domestically and internationally, regularly. A few airlines try to make a difference, but they’re often sucked up by larger ones. Each trip now requires two days out of commission, one going, and one coming back, because destinations aren’t on time, flights are arbitrarily canceled, tarmac delays are hideous, airports are full of shopping centers with long, crazy security lines, and it’s now a mile from one gate to another. Then you’re packed into a cattle car, carry-on storage maxed, attendants overworked and occasionally surly, with no food, and at best, soft drinks to tide you over on your flight. On a lucky day, you get an upgrade, maybe 2x a year at best. 

    In two days, I travel to the EU, where there are transportation strikes planned. Oh, joy. I needed some exercise anyway. The one thing about domestic travel that’s nice is that strikes are less than 24hrs at best. Beyond that, the airlines are mightily in the pocket of the Congress, and the FAA might as well be the Airline CEOs club for all it’s good for in thinking of passengers. 

  30. I think travel, like all things, is getting better and worse at the same time. Travel is more accessible these days but companies seem more willing to nickel and dime you. 

  31. So is travel getting better or worse? Been doing it for 25 years now and i’d vote (as indeed I did on the poll!) that it has got better. Planes are newer, seem to travel more on time than before, airports are cleaner and smaller airports like my own (ok i have to admit an interest here!) London City, make the experience better indeed. However, one thing that doesnt seem to have improved, or at least is not consistent, is customer service. The ‘have a nice day’ mentality seems to cover customer service but when delivered with a funeral expression and a coldness of heart, one wonders why bother? So yes many improvements BUT this is where the English can learn from you American’s and start to complain more loudly and coherently….and then hope for the best?

  32. I guess it all depends on what you call “the good old days”.
    To me, that means the days before deregulation. I remember flying all around the world on huge 747 jets that makes today’s airplanes look like toys…I remember as a child, in Coach class, sitting on the floor in front of my parents seat and not even touching the seat in front of me, playing with the tons of toys I managed to bring onboard. I remember the rare times when we were invited to dinner in the upstairs dining lounge on some trans-Atlantic flights. I remember being invited to visit the cockpit and being awed by the buttons, dials and wanting to be a pilot one day! I remember the stewardess’ (yes, they were called that back then) the wonderful, beautiful, glamorous flying women of the sky (yes, we flew Pan Am exclusively) and being greeted by smiles and gloved waving hands. I remember getting coloring books, flight pins, sticker books and other passengers smiling and interacting with us children…”my what a lovely family…” I remember gate agents actually holding the plane while my family, late (probably because of me) for a connecting flight, so we could make it onboard.
    When’s the last time you’ve ever seen any of what I described above?

  33. I voted better – but only because more and more exotic locales are opening up every day, more air, hotel and tour options are readily available today which were nonexistant in the past, and pricing is making travel more affordable then ever before.  Now, the flight experience……..

  34. This conversation starts and ends with TSA.  Strangers barking at you, dosing you with radiation, separating you from your belongings, sexually humiliating and degrading you, and putting their hands down your pants does not make for an enjoyable travel experience.  Witnessing this police state garbage and the pathetically submissive attitude of the masses puts me in a bad mood for a week. 

  35. Some things are getting better, for example, lower fares in real terms  and better airports in some places (flying Sydney to London is much better via Singapore now than it was via Bangkok and Baghdad in the 1970s). 

    Other things are worse, for example, arriving at the airport hours before a flight because of check-in and security requirements, having smaller seats on planes. Some of our better trains in Australia used to advertise they had ‘aircraft style seating’ – nowadays that slogan would be laughed at. 

  36. It isn’t only the on board experience that has deteriorated, the landside portion has gotten much worse, long waiting times, security delays mediocre customer service from both the airlines and the airport.

  37. Since we first started seeing cheap flights on the market something inside of us said, wait a minute, surely this is not possible? How could it be cheaper to travel from London to Cyprus than it is to take a bus from the capital to the nearest city? Airlines now charge the earth for additional services and it’s hard to see how much longer the offer of dirt cheap flights can last. You get what you pay for… and what’s annoying is the people who expect travel to cost £12 and then complain at the quality… 

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