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Sun June 17, 2012
Business

Land, Air And Rail — Summer Travel Has Its Hiccups

Originally published on Sun June 17, 2012 7:05 pm

Across the U.S., temperatures are creeping higher, kids are out of school and the days are longer. This can only mean that summer is upon us.

For many, summer also means travel season. Whether you're traveling by plane, train or automobile for that vacation, you're likely to feel the pinch of rising travel costs.

If you've checked air travel recently, you will surely have noticed the increase in prices and fees even for domestic trips. The rising costs are mostly for all the usual reasons: fluctuating fuel costs and decreased domestic capacity. But according to Nicholas Kralev, author of the book Decoding Air Travel, airlines charge such fares for a simple reason.

"Because they can," Kralev tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Jacki Lyden. "Airfare is now based on demand and supply ... very often if you fly very short distances, you do end paying a lot of money."

This is because airlines can afford to bump up the prices, Kralev says, as supply is limited.

According to industry trade publication Airlines For America, average ticket prices are actually lower than they were in the 1970s when adjusted for inflation. But Kralev says this is misleading since published fares don't include the taxes, fees and extra costs associated with air travel.

"[A] second bag to go to Europe is $100," he says. "How is that cheaper?"

Kralev says summer travelers can try and combat these costs by subscribing to fare alerts to inform them of price drops. They can also look for flights that might include out-of-the-way routes. It might take a little longer to get to your destination, he says, but those flights can sometimes cost half as much.

Hitting The Road

If higher airfare costs have you turned off from traveling by air, you might be thinking about packing up the car and taking to the open highways.

While it's certainly cheaper than air travel, you'll still have the higher prices at the gas pump to contend with (though the average price of gas is nearly 20 cents less than a month ago). But that's not the only thing to consider when planning your road trip.

Congress remains deadlocked over a new highway bill and there's a faint hope it will reach an agreement before the current bill funding transportation projects expires at the end of the month. With no agreement, highway projects across the nation will grind to a halt this summer.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, it wasn't too long ago that the highway bill was something all lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats – could agree on. That was before the "bridge to nowhere" gave earmarks a bad name and some conservatives started questioning whether the federal government should even be in the infrastructure business.

Now, the highway bill is stalled, putting projects like road repaving and bridge restorations on hold in many states.

The Senate has passed a two-year, $109 billion measure, but the House was unable to agree on bill. Republican leaders refuse to bring the Senate version to the floor.

If lawmakers can't agree on a bill by the end of the month, as seems likely, congressional leaders are expected to pass another temporary measure in order to fund projects until after the November election.

Riding The Rails

So if the roads are too bumpy, why not get off the road and go by rail. Unfortunately, rail travel is simply not what it used to be.

To understand what's happened to rail travel, you have to go back a bit to the National Railroad Passenger Corp. It was established under President Nixon when it looked like the golden days of U.S. railroads were fading.

Essentially, it was a government takeover of what was left of the passenger rail industry. It was quickly rebranded though to what we now know as Amtrak.

"It was an attempt by the federal government to make sure that the passenger rail network, which was very robust in the years before World War II, but which was facing steady decline, was still available in many metropolitan areas," says Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Amtrak was supposed to be a short-term fix, Puentes says. Rail travel was basically on life support at the time, with 75 percent of passenger-train mileage having disappeared between 1958 and the early 1970s.

Amtrak still runs most of the rail travel in the U.S., but improvements to speed and new destinations has been slow going.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama praised investment in the nation's high-speed rail program. But newly elected governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin all rejected funds for high-speed rail projects, putting the future of rail travel in those states on indefinite hold.

Improving Infrastructure

Much of the travel infrastructure in the U.S. was built at a time when the population was about 50 million people less than it is today. One needs only to travel during a holiday to see how congested both the roadways and airlines have become.

All is not lost, however. Puentes tells NPR's Lyden that though movement in Washington has slowed, state governments and metropolitan areas are taking steps to improve travel at the local level.

"You do see a lot of innovation," he says. "Governors in Michigan and Virginia and in other states ... are starting to look very differently at their transportation network [and] starting to see investments in transit and some other technological innovations."

If successful at the local level, he says, perhaps the federal government will follow their lead.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz.

And let me recreate an experience I had a few weeks ago that perhaps you've had as well this summer. You check in on one of those travel websites like KAYAK or Orbitz or Priceline. And let's look up DCA to Milwaukee, MKE.

On every segment, I'm getting over $200. That means a $400 roundtrip ticket. For two people, that's $800. Then we have to pay extra for our bags. Figured 25 bucks apiece, that's another 50. Both ways, now it's 100 - $900, and that doesn't even include taxes on the airfare or perhaps, you know, we're going to take the metro to save money, right? You know, it's 1,000 bucks just to go home to Milwaukee. So you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to get in the car.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TRAVELIN'")

WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) I've been hittin' some hard travelin', I thought you knowed.

LYDEN: Which raises the question: Why is the cost of travel, economic and psychic, seem higher than ever? We're going to talk planes and trains in a moment. But if you're like me, you're hitting the road this summer, good luck with those potholes - they're not getting any smaller.

Congress remains deadlocked over a new highway bill, and there's a faint hope that they'll reach an agreement before the current bill funding transportation project expires at the end of the month.

Without an agreement, highway projects across the nation will grind to a halt this summer, idling thousands of workers. NPR's Brian Naylor has more.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Back in the not-too-distant past, the highway bill was something that all lawmakers - senators and Congress people, Republicans and Democrats - could agree on. After all, what was not to like about the prospect of bringing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars back to your district or state to repave a bumpy highway, fix a crumbling bridge or build a new bike path?

But that was before the bridge to nowhere gave earmarks a bad name and some conservatives started questioning whether the federal government should even be in the infrastructure business. Now, the highway bill is stalled, as the headline writers are fond of saying. The Senate has passed a $109 billion two-year measure, the House was unable to agree on a bill, and Republican leaders there won't bring the Senate version to the floor. This week, a consortium of construction interests began running ads in some congressmen's districts, urging listeners to urge their lawmakers to act.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Look out the window. More than 600 bridges in the Oklahoma City area needs significant repairs. But time is running out. Federal investment for Oklahoma's transportation programs ends on June 30th unless Congress acts now. Will Congressman James Lankford be part of the problem or part of Oklahoma's transportation solution?

NAYLOR: Oklahoma Republican James Lankford was unmoved. He told reporters his office had received as many as three calls as a result of the ad.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES LANKFORD: And I've yet to have a person that didn't hang up the phone and say stick to your guns. So these ads that they're running telling us to try to get something done have actually, I think, backfired on them to solidify our base.

NAYLOR: Hence, Republicans are insisting that elimination of some environmental reviews and approval of the Keystone Pipeline be included in the measure. Democrats call those demands extremist. If, as seems likely, lawmakers can't agree on a bill by the end of the month, congressional leaders are expected to try to pass another temporary measure to fund projects until after the November election. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TRAVELIN'")

GUTHRIE: (Singing) I've been walking that Lincoln highway, I thought you knowed.

LYDEN: Well, even though highways might not be in great shape, a road trip can, as we mentioned, be cheaper than flying. That's for all the usual reasons - fluctuating fuel costs, decreased domestic capacity - but in other ways, it's much more simple.

I put this question to airfare savant Nicholas Kralev. He's the author of the book "Decoding Air Travel." We asked him, why do airlines charge such high fees?

NICHOLAS KRALEV: Because they can.

LYDEN: I was afraid of that.

KRALEV: Airfare is now based on demand and supply because the airline industry hasn't been regulated since the 1970s. And so very often if you fly very short distances, you do end up paying a lot of money because the airlines can afford to bump up the prices because supply is just so limited.

LYDEN: Now, it seems as if airfare is more expensive - and if you would (unintelligible) for today's dollars, you know, it's relatively cheap. According to a trade magazine, Airlines for America, if the average fare in 1979 had kept pace with inflation, an average ticket today would cost $625. It actually cost an average of $365 last year. So should we think we're getting things cheap?

KRALEV: To be honest, I don't like these average things and generalizations because how does it affect you? Yes, fares that are published may be relatively lower, but there are all these extra fees now for luggage. The second bag to go to Europe, for example, is $100. How is that cheaper? I mean, it's not.

LYDEN: Nicholas Kralev, you travel all over the world, and you spend a lot of time outside the U.S. looking at travel. How are we doing with our infrastructure, would you say, for transport compared to these other countries?

KRALEV: For a first world country and the world's most powerful country and the largest economy, not too well. It was interesting that particularly in the '90s, the American Airlines decided that they would focus on quantity rather than quality.

And so you see packed planes, you see cutbacks in service, and it sounds ridiculous when people don't even expect to get pretzels on the plane. But if you ask a frequent traveler, particularly business traveler, would you choose first class on a U.S. airline or an Asian airline? Of course, the answer would be Asian airline.

LYDEN: So if airlines can charge what they do simply because they can, what alternative do we have?

KRALEV: There are a couple of things we can do. And the first one is to subscribe to fare alerts. There are actually websites you can program - and I explain that in the book - how to, every time a fare drops, receive an email. And if you know you're going to go to that place more than once, get more than one ticket.

I once got a fare of $36 to Phoenix from Washington. That is something that you should not be missed, and I bought two or three tickets that time. That sort of a peculiar routing might save you money. For example, if you need to go to Milwaukee, nobody will think about going through Las Vegas because it's way out of the way, right?

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

KRALEV: But if your fare to Milwaukee is 800 or $1,000, what if going through Vegas cut that price in half and you don't have to buy two separate tickets? And one last thing - sometimes I've noticed that shockingly, it may be cheaper to fly first class than coach. I know it doesn't make sense. But this past week, there was a fare from Orlando to Chicago, $200 first class. Well, guess what? The last minute, economy available was $300 each way. But who thinks of searching first class? We think it's outlandish, right? Well, sometimes it's not.

LYDEN: Nicholas Kralev. More tips are found in his book "Decoding Air Travel: A Guide to Saving on Airfare and Flying in Luxury."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: To the rails now, the story of why rail travel isn't what it used to be is just that simple: It isn't what it used to be. Let's explain. Ever heard of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation?

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: East or west, north or south, past farm and village, through town and city, the railroads make America move.

LYDEN: The National Railroad Passenger Corporation was established under President Nixon in 1971 when it looked like the golden days of U.S. railroads were fading. It was essentially a government takeover of what was left of the passenger rail industry. It was quickly rebranded, though.

ROBERT PUENTES: Amtrak - and it was an attempt by the federal government to make sure that passenger rail network, which was very robust in the years before World War II, but which was facing steady decline, was still available in many metropolitan areas.

LYDEN: Robert Puentes is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. It was supposed to be a short-term fix. Rail travel was essentially on life support at the time - 75 percent of passenger-train mileage have disappeared between 1958 and the early '70s.

PUENTES: You know, there probably was some kind of feeling that the passenger rail network was...

LYDEN: Passe.

PUENTES: ...passe. Well, just really was not the gleaming new technological transportation investments that were being made all across the United States at the time.

LYDEN: Let's fast forward to 2010 with a clip from Barack Obama's first State of the Union address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products. Tomorrow, I'll visit Tampa, Florida, where workers will soon break ground on a new high-speed railroad funded by the Recovery Act. There are projects like that all across this country that will create jobs and help move our nation's goods, services, and information.

LYDEN: That sounds pretty good, Robert Puentes. What happened?

PUENTES: Clearly, the national economic challenges kind of overwhelmed everything. But the important thing to remember is the way that the high-speed rail program came together is this money was actually held and was put into a competition so states in particular had to apply for the funds.

LYDEN: In fact, let me give you a couple of examples. Rick Scott in Florida, governor, rejects high-speed rail as does John Kasich in Ohio, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, all these newly elected governors - the fall after the president's State of the Union remarks - all replaced governors who'd lobbied for hundreds of millions of dollars in high-speed rail funds.

PUENTES: Yeah. But each of those states, it's important to remember, actually applied for the funds. So I think that the way that it was framed, that the federal government was trying to shove money into these places that didn't want it was - is disingenuous.

LYDEN: I want to ask you another question. You're an expert on infrastructure, and we're a country whose core infrastructure was built at a time when our population was, what, 250 million? We're over 300 million now. You only have to get out there to know that things are congested. We have a problem whether it's trains, planes or automobiles. But politically, there's no movement. When could we see that change?

PUENTES: There's no doubt there's little movement here in Washington. But when you leave Washington and you look at what's happening in states in metropolitan areas, you do see a lot of innovation. You see governors in Michigan and in Virginia and in other states that are starting to look very differently at their transportation network. You're starting to see investments in transit and some other technological innovations that may not be as sexy but squeeze so much out of the system.

So I think the federal government still has a lot of work to do, and I think they're ready to do that work probably past the election. But I think the federal government is going to recognize what's happening in states and metropolitan areas and capitalize on all the innovations out there.

LYDEN: Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TRAVELIN'")

GUTHRIE: (Singing) I've been hitting some hard travelin', I thought you knowed.

LYDEN: And a correction from our cover story yesterday in which we reported on the decline in union membership. We got some of our numbers wrong. We said that 12 percent of today's workforce belongs to private unions. In fact, that number refers to both private and public sector workers with just 7 percent of private sector workers belonging to unions.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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