POSTED ON MAY 5, 2010:
Fear and Loathing on The Road
"Getting There" isn't really all that much fun anymore. So if you're planning a summer vacation, be ready for just about anything
Jeff Rodrequez was traveling with his wife back to Tulsa from California. The pair, he a client services manager for Steve Boyle & Associates Inc., was boarding their flight when Rodrequez realized that they didn't have boarding passes.
They had only received a seating request, as this was a connecting flight to their home. Without the boarding pass, their seats had been given to stand-by passengers.
"I could never get a clear answer from them as to the whys and hows (of what happened)," Rodrequez said. "Best I could tell, because we only had the seat confirmation and not the actual assignment, they assumed we were a no-show for our flight and gave away the seats."
Horror stories like these are more common than not, especially in recent years, when the cost of flying has rapidly increased, but the airlines' level of service and care has seemed only to worsen.
It's almost enough to make you want to stay home this summer. Almost.
As teachers and students count down the last weeks of school; as men stock up on charcoal and tune their barbecue grills; and as women feverishly attempt to jog off those last five pounds of winter, they've all got one thing on their minds: summer.
And with those thoughts are probably also plans for travel. Be it for work or play or because the thought of spending three months cooped up indoors with their kids scares the living bejeesus out of them, they've got plans to escape their hometowns for summer vacation.
But, in anticipating the many potential hazards of travel, summer vacation can be dreaded as much as anticipated.
It used to be that people only had to worry about the basics: the attractions they want to see, reserving and finalizing travel plans, and making sure that the house, pets and other problems were resolved before heading to Tahiti. It's not that simple anymore.
Now, travelers must consider how much luggage to take on a flight, not only for the worry that the luggage could be lost but because it costs as much as $35 per checked bag. In planning to travel to other countries, passports are an obvious necessity.
But the difficulties don't cease because you decide to drive rather than fly. There are a number of potential hazards on the roadways -- from distracted driving because you're texting or talking on the cell to other drivers' road rage -- for those fun, annual family road trips.
So which is the lesser of the two seeming evils? And how can you avoid -- or at least deal with -- the perils of travel without wanting to turn around and take everyone home?
Life on the Highway
While flying might be the faster way to get to a specific destination, the summer travel months also bring a great deal of cars on the road, too.
That doesn't make it the best or safest way to travel either. Just like flying, driving has its hazards, too.
"Driving has never been as complicated or challenging as it has today," said Chuck Mai, vice president of public affairs for Oklahoma's AAA.
In 2008, the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety's Highway Safety Report recorded 72,667 crashes with 751 fatalities. Of that year, July and August posted very high accident occurrence numbers with 5,968 and 6,228, respectively; however, it was a considerable drop from 2007, as that year posted numbers as high as 6,096 and 6,602.
Those accidents didn't occur by circumstance as often as people might consider them to be.
Hazards exist inside the car -- distracted driving, eating/drinking and drowsiness -- as well as outside of the car -- road rage, other drivers, road construction even the sun.
For inside of the car, Mai describes the hazards and dangers as "the four deadly D's": driving drunk, driving drowsy, driving detached and driving distracted.
Mai feels that part of the problem that has complicated driving is the number of distractions that could amount while driving. For example, texting or talking on the phone while driving has been at the root of a number of accidents.
"Motor vehicle crashes can be prevented in most cases," Mai said. "We need to be decreasing the level of distractions, but it seems to an increasing number of electronics vying for our attention."
In 2008, 673 fatal crashes were reported. Of those crashes, 26 percent of the 1,014 drivers were in an alcohol-related state. On the flip side of the coin, 13 fatal crashes involved a distracted driver with an electronic device, and 19 others involved a distracted driver without an electronic device.
Distracted driving doesn't just involve taking your eyes off of the road, either. One of the biggest storylines that seems to pop up year-round, but dominates through the summer, is road rage.
Road rage, as described by the participants in the 2009 AutoVantage survey, is "aggressive driving, including cutting into lanes, tailgating, speeding and honking" by "angry drivers, including drivers who overreact and lose their tempers."
Mai said that road rage is stimulated by three factors -- distractions, frustration and anxiety.
"Road rage refers to an act of violence," Mai said. "The last thing you want to do is to confront an aggressive driver." He continued to say that in a confrontation with a person, it could be a mother who's at her wits end from screaming children in the car, or someone who carries a gun underneath the front of their seat. At any rate, a person can never know.
One of the major factors that can be attributed to road rage is running late or hurrying to a destination. "Today's society is always in a hurry it seems," Mai said.
There are also those dangers that are not fully affiliated with driving either, such as hitchhiking or kidnappings.
Everyone has seen a movie -- such as 2007's The Hitcher -- or heard horror stories about hitchhikers, but who knows what's true and what's false.
"Fifty years ago, it was an acceptable means of transportation," Mai said. "Now, it could be a wolf in sheep's clothing looking for a victim."
The victim can also become a sitting duck if it's someone that's broken down by the side of the road. "That situation provides something for a bad guy that's quick and easy," he said.
In those situations, Mai advises that people stay in the car with locked doors and windows until help arrives or until a police officer or someone else that you trust arrives.
Driving or travel by train might be a good sight-seeing way to get to your final destination this summer, but the fastest way -- that many consumers use daily -- is flight, more specifically airplanes.
Flying High -- and Low
For cost-saving reasons or just to piss their patrons off, airlines have been changing policies and pricing on small luxuries that used to be free -- blankets, pillows and sodas for example. For checked baggage, most major airlines charge $25 for the first bag and as much as $35 for the second bag, and small carrier Spirit Airlines announced last month that they would begin charging, after August 1, as much as $45 for checked baggage.
Recent survey findings appear to have some good news about airlines, though.
Last month, the 2010 Airline Quality Ratings Survey, which is produced and released by Dr. Dean Headley of Wichita State University, as well as Dr. Brent Bowen of Purdue University, showed that the airline industry has been improving as far as being on time, lost baggage and consumer complaints. All of those percentages decreased from the previous year's numbers.
"I find it laughable that they say that the lost luggage, less customer complaints for airlines has decreased," said Chrissy Rust, travel agent and self-described "fulfiller of dreams" at Warren Travel Agency. "But we are hoping that, now that they are charging passengers for their luggage, they take better care of it and get it where it's supposed to go."
Rodrequez, on the other hand, believes that it's not necessarily the airlines making a strong effort to accommodate passengers; instead, it's more of the passengers' doing.
"There is probably a lot of things factoring into it," he said. "There are a lot less people traveling ... Airlines have started charging for checked luggage, so there are lots of people less guarded about flying. There's a lot less luggage to be routed in the system."
Even what seems to be the most convenient way to travel, though, causes problems for people.
Time and having proper documentation are two prominent problems that clog the airline travel system for people.
"Tulsa isn't as big as other cities, but there are still delays," Rust said.
According to the Bureau of Transportation statistics, in 2009, more than one million departure delays for airlines as well as more than 85,000 flights were cancelled nationally. For our own airport, Tulsa International, more than 2,500 flights were delayed for departure while 359 flights were cancelled.
Rust said that it's very common that travelers will not call ahead of time to ensure that there are no flight delays or cancellations; however, she advises that airplane travelers check their flights 24 hours ahead of time to ensure that everything is running smoothly for your plans.
As with Rodrequez's previous case, having proper documentation can also cause problems for travelers.
"Have as much information about your schedule, flight, seats and have it readily available," Rodrequez said.
As always with traveling by plane, proper identification (driver's license, state ID card, etc.) are essential for boarding passes, tickets and more.
The same can be said for international travelers and their passports and visas. Almost everyone knows that you need a passport to travel outside of the country, and waiting until the week of your trip is not an ideal situation to be in when you're trying to go outside of the country.
"Waiting to the last minute (to apply for a passport) is not a good idea," Rust said. "Make sure that you know that the process in getting a passport is two to six weeks."
Losing a passport can prove problematic in a foreign country, too.
"If you don't have a copy, and your passport is lost or stolen, it just takes longer than if you can get a copy to the Embassy," Rust said. "It just saves a lot of time and stress (to have copies handy)."
Losing your passport while on vacation is not a pleasant experience, but neither is reconfiguring your money in international travel.
"Travel is not more difficult, it's just a little more time-consuming," Rust said.
By that, she means that travelers have to take more pre-cautions and care in preparing for travel.
Road Less Traveled
As many problems that reside in traveling and preparing for it, there are solutions and places to easily resolve them.
For example, a lot of things could be easily avoidable if they're planned accurately.
"Fulfiller of dreams" Rust said that the more time a person has to plan a vacation or trip, the better.
"The longer you have to plan, the better," she said. "Spring Break planning starts in August, not January. (However), it isn't too late to start planning for summer, though, especially in domestic travel -- unless you're going to Alaska."
Rust said that one easy way to ensure a smooth plan would be to hire a travel agent who does it all for you.
However, if you're looking to go the DIY route, Rust said that many people make the mistake of waiting for airline fares to decrease as the time draws closer, but they'll soon realize that's not the best way to plan.
"Everything is starting to go up," she said. "Cruise rates are going up and waiting too long is a hazard. You could end up paying double (what you could have)."
Rust advises that for a trip that you need three to 10 months out from the date you're planning.
As far as getting a passport for that international trip, you also need time -- two to six weeks to be exact -- but there are other alternatives.
Instead of getting a regular passport, some travelers might opt for a passport card. There's not a great deal of difference in the passport book and passport card, but it also depends on their intended purpose.
According to the U.S. Department of State website, the passport card is less expensive -- $45 -- and it lasts as long as the regular passport book, which is 10 years. However, the passport card can only be used for entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbeanand Bermuda at land border crossings or sea ports-of-entry. Therefore, if you're traveling by air to another country or trying to re-enter the United States by a passport card at an airport, you're going to have a very hard time.
Rust isn't too fond of the passport card.
"I personally think the passport cards are a waste of time," Rust said. "Just get the book. You will need it, (eventually)."
So, if you're heading out of North American range, then the passport book would still be your best bet; however, you might want to look at getting it soon as the Department of State has plans to increase the fee from the current $100 to $135 and renewals would go from $75 to $110.
The mounting problems surrounding travel might also be easily solved with the help of travel insurance.
"Having travel insurance could become a big savior in hiccups that might come along in travel plans," Rust said. "What happens if your flight is delayed, you have to get a hotel room and the airline won't pay for it? The travel insurance would help as, upon your return, they would reimburse you for any out-of-pocket expenses occurred from the hotel room."
One of the leading travel insurance companies, Travel Guard, has been helping travelers with selecting the best insurance plan for them. Several of their plans cover things from cancelled trip or interruption to medical expenses and coverage.
Rust said that many times, it would be a fraction of the cost of your trip. In addition, with the turbulence of the economy, the insurance could put concerns and worries to rest if finances suddenly get bumpy.
"If people are putting up X number of dollars for a trip, then they want to be reassured that if something comes up, they have an option of recouping their money," Rust said. "Not many of us have expendable income anymore to be able to take that type of financial hit."
Travel insurance might not be the answer in planning road trips, but there are ways to get prepared for a vacation on the road.
"It's a lot about prevention," Mai said. "There's no trouble like car trouble."
Before hitting the road for a summertime adventure, Mai advises that travelers pack a cell phone, a charger adapter, jumper cables and a first aid kit.
Even before packing up the car with those supplies, there are some other car procedures to be done first and foremost.
When preparing for a road trip, Mai stressed that it's important to put their car in order for the mileage, which means checking oil, checking the car's fluids -- from transmission to windshield fluids -- checking the tread on your tires as well as checking your battery.
"You have to make sure your car is ready for travel," Mai said.
No matter how prepared you make your car, though, you can't prevent accidents caused by other drivers. You can, on the other hand, take measures to prevent an accident caused by you.
"Cars are being made safer, now we need to make drivers safer," Mai said.
For road rage, Mai said drivers need to take measures to keep a cool, calm head when driving.
"Take it easy, play smooth music," Mai said. "Give other drivers a break ... it may be someone who is hell-bent on getting where they're going."
Mai also said that if being in a hurry is part of what's causing the aggressive driving, start leaving earlier in order to get where you're going.
Overall, preparation is the key to getting a smooth vacation underway. Rodrequez has had his share of travel stumbles and bumbles, but he has -- and advises others -- to have a back-up plan when traveling.
Rodrequez said that you never know what might happen when traveling, but he said that you should plan to have an alternative route, know of other possible flights or have some sort of plan in case of problems or emergencies.
For him, he carries a Blackberry that allows him to check for other flights, hotel arrangements, etc. if he needs it.
"I can do a lot more to get myself out of situations than ever before (with my Blackberry)," he said.
No travel plans or vacation goes off without some sort of hitch, but there's plenty of solutions to ensure that those bumps become smoother along the way.
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