‘Smooth Sailing Is a Thing of the Past’: Readers’ Summer Travel Stories

If 2020 was the year travel stopped, 2021 was when it lurched erratically and veered sideways, like a teenager behind the wheel of a bumper car.

Summer travel was particularly chaotic, as travelers were emboldened by vaccines, looser restrictions and cheap airfares. For many, their trips turned into one headache after another: Airlines schedules were in chaos, extreme weather pummeled the country and international destinations flip-flopped on Covid rules as the Delta variant surged.

Nancy Newhouse, a former editor of The Times’s Travel section, traveled this summer from Albuquerque to New York on American Airlines, with what was meant to be a brief stopover to change planes at Dallas-Fort Worth. Instead, she sat on the tarmac for two hours upon arriving in Texas, had her next flight canceled and stood in line for hours trying to rebook. Her connecting flight was rebooked and canceled four times before she got to LaGuardia two days later — without her baggage, which the airline left behind and then charged her $40 to deliver.

“Although I was a travel editor for many years and of course will continue to travel, my assumptions have changed since the trauma of the pandemic,” she wrote to The Times. “Smooth sailing is a thing of the past.”

Her story inspired our call out to readers asking for their chaotic stories of travel from the summer, to help us capture the highs and lows of the moment. Read a selection of responses here, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The early-bird special

I was staying at a hotel outside Port Antonio, Jamaica. I was told about the restaurant on the grounds and the free breakfast, but nobody mentioned the Covid curfew. When I showed up around 7:30 p.m. for dinner, I was told that curfew was 6 p.m., and the restaurant staff had left long ago! However, the bar was open, so I had a strawberry daiquiri for dinner!

— Alice Mathis, Madison, Wis.

One day in paradise

The bucket-list trip to Greenland I planned for my 80-something-year-old parents was canceled — for the second time — less than a month in advance. My parents had worked hard to get strong for the trip, so I was thrilled to find availability on a Tahitian cruise in August instead. With testing before the flight’s departure, upon arrival and dockside, I kept telling friends I wouldn’t breathe easy until we were on the boat. No dice: After a wonderful first day on the island of Moorea, Tahiti entered lockdown. The ship quickly returned to Papeete, the capital, while I spent hours trying to rebook; we then sat at the dock for three days, unable to disembark until our flight. I feel guilty that we went at all, but it’s so hard to know what to do: Local Covid cases spiked dramatically in just two weeks. Grateful we are all healthy and so sorry for the people of Tahiti.

— Elaine Chen, New York

Traveling a little too light

I took my first flight in 18 months to see my family. On my way back, I breezed through T.S.A. PreCheck, made a joke to the T.S.A. agent about not being used to travel (I forgot about putting all my belongings in the security bins) and then headed to my gate. Right before I got there I realized I didn’t have my suitcase! I had left it in my sister’s car when she dropped me off. After a minute of hysterically laughing to myself (luckily my flight was delayed), I called her and, in a best-case scenario, she was nearby — my 2-year-old niece had wanted a smoothie. Five minutes later I had my bag. The T.S.A. agent checking IDs and I had a pretty good laugh when I told her why I was back.

— Rebecca Perlmutter, Boston

Credit…Tallulah Fontaine

It’s always wine o’clock in quarantine

Upon testing positive for a breakthrough case of Covid-19 in the Azores, the Portuguese archipelago, my wife and I were taken by ambulance, complete with a hazmat-suited driver, to a less-than-appealing hotel in Ponta Delgada. We were taken to a room via service elevator. Heartbroken and shocked upon seeing our confinement quarters for the next two weeks, we wandered onto the balcony — at least we’d have that. We were then greeted by our quarantine neighbors who, upon seeing the look on our faces, immediately passed over a near-full bottle of delicious Portuguese red wine. Surely there are so many worse quarantine experiences than the time we spent embedded among this lovely family who helped make it all so much more tolerable. It’s also nice to now have friends in Lisbon to visit one day.

— Tim Jones, Boston

Clean? It’s a loose definition

My husband and I flew to Bozeman, Mont., to see our children in July. All the airlines had been touting their cleaning protocols, and we thought we’d be fine. As we were leaving, our flight and another flight at a nearby gate were delayed and it was chaotic. The gate agent tried to keep everyone calm. When our plane finally came in, the agent announced that he was the cleaning crew — and its only member. We watched him enter the gangway and then return five minutes later. The flight carried nearly 200 people to and from Bozeman. You can’t even clean three tiny bathrooms in that time. It was a sobering reality.

— Gro Flatebo, Yarmouth, Maine

Credit…Tallulah Fontaine

A fish explosion

My family and I rented cabins and drove to Yellowstone, which was magnificent. Every flight I took this summer was a complete disaster, though — delays for every possible reason, including a container of fish bursting open in the cargo hold with the fish barring the cargo door shut. It was ultimately pried open by very limited numbers of staff on the tarmac. There was another night when I was stranded on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and contemplated driving back to Maryland since it would be faster than flying — except all of the rental cars were already booked.

— Deepa Galaiya, Baltimore

Bait and switch

We live about half the year in Tuscany, and half in Florida, so we’re used to flying back and forth. This summer, American Airlines pulled a fast one on us (yet again) by scheduling and reconfiguring whole blocks of international flights on a whim. A couple of days before our Rome to Philadelphia flight, we were notified that we were being sent to Philly from Rome, by way of Dallas! They refused our request to exchange the ticket for a flight to a different destination nearby, such as J.F.K. in New York, instead treating it as an opportunity for an upsell, with us incurring a fare increase to avoid this new, unexpected stopover: salt in the wound!

— Russell Maulitz, Tuscany and Philadelphia

Credit…Tallulah Fontaine

Avoid uncertainty, make pizza instead

I started my summer travels in Greece in early July. I was supposed to go to Malta next, but they changed their policy, effective two days before I was to fly there. They required proof of vaccination, and I had my card with me, but they weren’t accepting Americans because our cards can be easily forged. I scrambled and decided to go to Naples instead. A few days later, Malta decided they would accept U.S. vaccination cards after all. But by then I was enrolled in a pizza-making workshop at the school where pizzaioli train. Oh well. Malta will still be there later, and I got to up my pizza game.

— Stacy Kissel, Somerville, Mass.

The eagle has not landed

I wanted to see the rock band the Eagles who were touring in 2020 but American cities were super expensive and England’s Wembley Stadium was cheap. So I built a whole European trip (my first) around that show. Covid canceled it. I rescheduled everything, along with the concert, to 2021. Three weeks before departing for England, the Eagles canceled that show, too (Covid again). I took a safety cue from them and canceled my entire Europe trip. In order to still see the concert I scheduled a trip to New York to see them. Five minutes after arriving in New York City in the pouring rain, I received a text that the New York show was canceled because of hurricane Henri. Everything else in New York was canceled for the one day I was there, too, so I ended up spending 48 hours in a hotel with only bad Chinese food.

— Patricia Crawford, Craftsbury, Vt.

When the chaos is daily

I didn’t get to travel this summer, because, brace for it, I am a customer service supervisor for a major airline, and, with a labor shortage and stressed-out work force, I needed to be at work for the inundation of a return to travel. From where I stand, everyone was on a Vegas vacation. Not literally, but figuratively, just trying to make up for lost time and do what they want no matter whether it was right or not. And often it was not. I’ve never had a more difficult summer at work, and I’ve been at it for 16 years. People forgot how to act and how to treat each other. And that we were there helping them reclaim their lost time with family or adventure.

— Kristie Boles, Portland, Ore.

The smell of desperation

I had to fly to Pennsylvania to visit a sick relative, but I was terrified of getting a breakthrough infection and passing it to them. I arrived at LAX at 8 p.m. on a Saturday and got to Scranton at noon on Monday. My initial flight sat on the tarmac for over three hours and was unable to find crew to load the luggage on the plane. Once they started, they were pulled away with half the luggage onboard. An hour later, the crew finally gave up. The next flight kept getting pushed back. I was still in LAX 18 hours after I arrived. I spent most of that time double masked and I eventually learned to go to the dog run to get some outside air that smelled like dog urine and jet fuel, but it was a huge improvement to the environment indoors.

— Leonard Smith, Pasadena, Calif.

Credit…Tallulah Fontaine

Cows at a funeral

We drove to Montana from California for the pandemically postponed funeral of my mother-in-law, and then flew to the East Coast to see my 97-year-old mother, who we hadn’t seen in almost two years. We were saddened by the number of businesses we had enjoyed in past trips that were now closed, probably permanently, but heartened by the hardworking service industry employees we met along the way who were terrific despite facing supply delays and understaffing. We were lucky to have experienced no delays on either trip — except for the cattle drive of several hundred red cows that intervened in the middle of my mother-in-law’s eulogy. Even these bovine seemed to be among the happy-to-be-moving-again crowd.

Denize Springer, Mill Valley, Calif.

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