Shelley Hunter says she had a meltdown before a recent flight from Reno, Nevada, to San Diego. The reason? She had forgotten one of the basic travel requirements: a picture ID.
“While I was in the security line, I could not find my wallet,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘That’s it, I can’t go.’”
Hunter is one of perhaps hundreds of thousands of travelers relearning travel essentials this summer. After enduring shutdowns and travel bans, Americans are vacationing again. Along the way, they’re discovering that they’ve forgotten things they used to know — and that there are some new things they need to know but don’t.
I get it. I’ve overlooked so many basic travel practices in the past few months, it’s embarrassing. I’ve forgotten to check in for a flight, neglected to print out my hotel confirmation and returned a rental car without filling the tank first.
So did Hunter make her flight? She phoned her daughter, who remembered that the Transportation Security Administration would accept several forms of ID. “I had my Costco card,” says Hunter, an innkeeper from Quincy, California. That worked. “I got on the flight with my Costco card.” (Your mileage may vary; the TSA’s website does not list a Costco card as a valid form of identification, but you may still be allowed to fly if your identity can be confirmed by a TSA officer.)
She notes, though, that it wasn’t a pleasant experience. A TSA agent searched her belongings and gave her a pat-down before she could get through security. And she almost missed the flight.
She’s not alone. Kimberly Davis says her clients’ travel skills have deteriorated dramatically during the pandemic. “I have had to walk clients through some of the most basic travel questions,” says Davis, founder and CEO of the travel agency Trouvaille Travel International. “I now insist on seeing their passports before working on a trip with them. That’s because of the number of lost, expired or close-to-expiring passports I’ve encountered.”
Her customers have basic questions about changing money, packing, getting through immigration and booking tickets. “And those are the experienced travelers,” she says. “It’s like everyone is starting over.”
One of the most common things travelers overlook: visa and passport requirements.
Christina Tunnah, general manager of the Americas for travel insurance company World Nomads, says people are forgetting to check their passport renewal dates. “With many passports sitting idle for years due to border closures, travelers haven’t noticed they’ve expired,” she says.
Even Steffanie Rivers, a veteran flight attendant, neglected to look up the visa rules when she recently flew to Dubai with her mother.
“Before takeoff, I got a text from a company with a name that appeared to be from the Dubai government that said I needed a visa,” recalls Rivers, author of “The Do’s and Don’ts Of Flying: A Flight Attendant’s Guide To Airline Travel Secrets.” “So I scrambled to pay upward of $500 for my mother and me to have the visas they told me I’d need.”
It turns out she didn’t need a visa, which a quick look at the State Department site would have verified. Rivers tried to dispute her credit card charges but was unsuccessful.
Why are people becoming travel-illiterate?
“We’ve been out of the travel flow for so long that it was easy to forget certain things that would ensure we were at the top of our travel game,” says Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. Working from home didn’t help either, Plante says. Americans “lost step with their day-to-day preparedness and sense of timing.”
But it’s not enough to relearn the old travel rules, experts say, because there are a few new ones, too.
“Although travel is back, it is not back to normal,” says Helen Prochilo, owner of the travel agency Promal Vacations. “This summer, we’re seeing cruises canceled at the last minute because there are not enough staff on board. We’re seeing slow service at resorts and restaurants. And we’re seeing massive airline cancellations.”
Industry watchers such as Alan Fyall say people have a lot of new information to remember. “Travelers are on information overload, with changing coronavirus test requirements, local mask mandates, flight schedule changes,” says Fyall, associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “They have too much to think about.”
Consider what happened to one of Marissa Prejean’s clients, who recently tried to enter the Dominican Republic. At the time, the country required a QR code as part of a traveler’s customs declaration.
“Authorities denied her entrance into the Dominican Republic because she didn’t submit her documents into their online customs declaration portal that generates a QR code,” recalls Prejean, owner of Castles and Cruises Travel Company. “She had not thoroughly read her travel documents before she left.”
Prejean sent her customer a link, and she completed the form while she waited in the customs area at Punta Cana International Airport.
How do you get back into the groove? Make a packing list. Check your document requirements. Double-check to make sure you have all of your essentials, including documents, IDs, visas and chargers. Assume nothing. And don’t be overconfident about your travel skills.
Even experts have lost some of their travel mojo during the pandemic.
“I have gotten out of practice,” admits Harshvardhan Joshi, a mountaineer from Vasai, India. “Particularly in packing.” On a recent excursion, he left his iPhone charger at home. “Without the charger, my phone would be dead,” he recalls. “And without the phone, I would have no money, since I only use digital currencies and also keep all my documents on the phone.”
The solution: He borrowed someone else’s charger. Then he ordered a new one online and overnighted it to his location.
Joshi shouldn’t feel bad. As I wrapped up this story, I received an urgent text message from my wireless company. My SIM card expired, and now I’m in a foreign country without a phone connection.
Oops. Maybe I’d better work on my travel skills.