Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter, March 12, 2013
Although it may be weeks before the full effects of the government sequester are felt, many travelers say that they're prepared for whatever's coming down the road.
A mandatory 3 percent cut in the federal budget, which would translate into a 9 percent reduction in the nation's nondefense discretionary budget for the rest of 2013, could see cutbacks in a wide range of government services, from air traffic controllers to airport security screening.
"The sequester will have a very serious impact on the transportation services that are critical to the traveling public and to the nation's economy," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared before the sequester took effect on March 1.
Among the casualties: The "vast majority" of the Federal Aviation Administration's nearly 47,000 employees will be furloughed for approximately one day per pay period until the end of the fiscal year, according to the secretary. That could translate into flight delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours between major cities. "These are harmful cuts with real-world consequences," said LaHood.
But as the negotiations to resolve the budget deadlock imploded at the end of February, air travelers recalled previous slowdowns and work stoppages that they've survived. And still others pointed out a fact that seems to be missing from the media coverage of the budget negotiations, at least when it comes to travel: Most Americans still drive to their destinations, and America's roads will remain open. Cuts to the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration would probably have no meaningful consequences for motorists.
Tedd Evers, who runs a Washington-based travel site, is prepared with his favorite strategy: "When life presents immovable objects, sometimes it's better to do like Monty Python's Sir Robin and run away in the opposite direction."
He encountered an immovable object recently in the form of a "bloqueo" in Costa Rica, a truckers' strike in which large tractor-trailers created a blockade on all roads going into the capital, San Jose. "We tried every local road imaginable, using broken Spanish to ask locals the way to the airport," he recalls. "No way in."
So he decided to bypass San Jose altogether and extend his trip. He canceled his flight and caught a ferry to Malpais, a less developed part of the coast known for its surfing and postcard-perfect beaches. It ended up being his favorite part of the adventure.
If air traffic controllers are furloughed, passengers such as Jill Kraatz won't be overly concerned. During the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981, she was headed to Disney World in Orlando with her parents. "When we got to Logan Airport, the strike was in full swing," remembers Kraatz, an event planner from Oceanside, Calif. "We got to the ticket counter and were informed that our flight was going to have a long delay, and they couldn't tell us when we could expect to depart. I burst into tears because - well, I was 9, and had spent the entire summer waiting for this trip and now I wasn't sure I would ever get there."
As the sobbing girl and her parents walked away from the gate, an agent called them back. Turns out that the early-morning flight to Orlando, which should have left five hours earlier, was still at the gate. If they ran, they could make it. Thanks to the kindness of a gate agent, they arrived in Orlando earlier than expected. "Their strike allowed us an extra few hours of vacation," she recalls.
Even when there's no apparent silver lining to a lengthy delay, there's still a lesson to be learned, says Carol Howell, a homemaker who lives in Phoenix. She recalls returning from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Phoenix a few years ago when the airline's computer reservation systems froze, grounding all flights. "No one was going anywhere," she remembers. For 12 hours, she and her family camped out on the floor of the airport, finding food wherever they could and passing the time by watching the departures board, which never showed more than a two-hour delay.
"Moral of the story?" she asks. "Pack snacks and drinks. Just because you're stuck in an airport doesn't mean that there's food. Be patient. And have cash for vending machines, if you're lucky enough to find them."
For most experienced passengers, that's already baked into the travel planning cake. Anthony Lepore, a Washington lawyer and a frequent flier, says that he never leaves home without the three "Ps": protein-rich foods such as walnuts or granola bars, extra power for his devices and patience.
"I travel enough to know alternate scenarios available and to have access to the phone numbers of the people I'll need to reach to re-book my flight, if necessary," he says. "It helps me avoid the special-service lines."
And when all else fails, travelers such as Anne Levy say that you should learn to take everything in stride. "Make the best of it," advises the retired university teacher, who lives in Brighton, Mich. She recalls a catering strike on British Airways a few years ago. When she checked in for her flight from London to Minneapolis, a gate agent handed her a voucher for 100 pounds and told her to buy food for the eight-hour flight.
"We had about 30 minutes to race around buying sandwiches, cookies, cakes and candy," she remembers. "Any money left on the voucher would be useless, so we really loaded up as much as we could carry. I do recall that Cadbury made a mint on that shopping trip."
Ah, chocolate. Perhaps the single greatest coping strategy known to travelers.
It's too soon to tell whether and when air travelers will be affected by the sequester. It probably won't happen this month. My Southwest Airlines flight from Orlando to Denver the day after the sequester went into effect departed on time, and we experienced no delays at the TSA screening area.
That could change in April, when the anticipated cuts will be in full swing. But if a deal is reached, it may never happen. More reassuring, perhaps, is that most travelers -- those traveling by car -- won't see any significant change in the way they get to their destination.
For the rest of us, a little planning and preparation will get us through. And if that fails, there's always chocolate.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at [email protected]. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)