Image: Checking the status
Frank Franklin Ii  /  AP
Flight delays created headaches for thousands of air travelers this summer.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/12/2007 9:59:33 AM ET 2007-09-12T13:59:33

Congratulations, you’ve survived the summer of 2007 — the worst summer for travel in modern history. No, wait, make that since the invention of the wheel.

Or was it? Well, no.

Despite what you may have read, heard or seen on TV, the summer of 2007 was pretty average for travelers. That’s according to an online poll of more than 100 readers that I ran last week, and a bigger survey of travelers released at the end of August by insurance company Access America.

One in ten respondents to my poll described the summer as “better than average,” and 54 percent said it had been “average.” About two in ten readers though it was worse than average. And get this: five percent even called it the “best ever.”

No one should be shocked by these results. We journalists are fixated on anything that flies: big jets, executive jets and private planes. And for air travelers, it’s been a rough couple of months. But factor in cars — which is how most of us get around — trains and other mass transit, plus hotels, and you get … average.

Even though it was a so-so summer, it was also pretty memorable in other respects. Here are seven takeaways from the busy travel season:

Always apply for your passport early. On Jan. 23, the U.S. government began requiring citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda to present a passport to enter the United States when arriving by air from any part of the western hemisphere.

Suddenly, everyone wanted a passport. Result: a massive backlog of applications and months-long delays. At its worst, during late May and early June, dozens of despondent travelers were contacting me every day for help with their paperwork. Thousands of vacations were postponed or canceled, even after the State Department eased its rules.

Lesson learned: This might be a good time to get that passport for your 2008 vacation.

Air travel isn’t as bad as they say. It’s probably worse. You’ve seen the stories about how this is supposedly the worst summer for air travel since the Wright Brothers took to the skies. Don’t believe everything you read. In some respects, it’s one of the best summers. Fares are low and the industry’s safety record is excellent.

But when it comes to delays, cancellations and customer service, it’s been awful. The worst summer ever? No. If you take a hard look at the numbers, whether they’re released by the government or Flightstats.com, a far more troubling trend emerges. This is shaping up to be the worst year for commercial air travel. Ever.

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Lesson learned: Next summer, drive.

The grass isn’t greener over there — especially if “over there” is Europe. Your mama was right when she told you the grass wasn’t greener over there. Or was it your kindergarten teacher who said that? Anyone who thought they could escape to Europe was sorely mistaken this summer. The dollar hit a 120-day high of 1.38 against the euro on July 20, at the height of tourist season. European airlines lost luggage at a record-setting pace in June, with 19 of every 1,000 bags “delayed,” according to the Association of European Airlines. And if that’s not enough, I have just one word for you: Heathrow .

Lesson learned: On second thought, maybe we don’t have it so bad after all.

The roads may be safer than ever, but mind the bridges. This summer, we learned that the nation’s highways have never been safer. The Transportation Department reported the lowest highway fatality rate ever recorded in 2006 and the largest drop in total deaths in 15 years. That came as welcome news to summer travelers, most of whom get to their vacations by car.

But then the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi collapsed in Minneapolis Aug. 1 and the safety statistics didn’t seem relevant — particularly to the motorists who survived and the families of those who didn’t.

Lesson learned: Travel is risky, no matter how you get there.

The “s” in TSA doesn’t stand for security. It was some summer for the Transportation Security Administration. When the federal agency wasn’t busy busting toddlers for carrying unauthorized sippy cups through a checkpoint or stopping four-year-old “terrorists” from boarding a flight, it was issuing indecipherable press releases, like this one about its latest Secure Flight initiative, in an apparent effort to bore would-be hijackers into surrender.

Most passengers couldn’t be bothered by the implications of Secure Flight or know there was a 9/11 commission, but for those who do care, it basically means the end of our civil liberties as we know them. Oh, but what do I know? Maybe it just means we’ll be hassled even more when we try to board a plane.

Lesson learned: None.

It takes more than high gas prices to ruin a vacation. Remember all the talk about $4-a-gallon gas prices that awaited us last summer? At least one survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted disastrous implications on the American vacation, specifically on the hotel industry. That was back in early June, and fuel prices have taken a sharp downturn since then, tumbling from a peak of around $3.20 per gallon to around $2.80.

We’ll never know if the analysts were right because the price of gas headed south. Oh sure, they were annoyed by it — the Access America survey singled out fuel prices as the No. 1 travel annoyance this summer, with about 8 in 10 travelers complaining about them. But in conversations I’ve had with vacationers, it was obvious that they weren’t going to let gas prices get in their way of having a good time. Maybe they would stay with friends instead of checking into a hotel, but by golly, they were going to take their hard-earned three days of vacation.

Lesson learned: “Green travel” is a great idea, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your vacation.

The weather is a great excuse for … anything. This summer seemed to be a continuous meteorological event, from storms that stranded tens of thousands of airline passengers on runways to Hurricane Dean . Travelers know how unpredictable the weather can be, but this summer they also learned that travel companies — especially airlines — love to invoke weather as an excuse for their shortcomings.

So you were stuck on a plane for eight hours without food or water? Blame the weather. Missed your connection? It’s the weather. Flight canceled? Weather!

It is often impossible to prove the weather, or what the travel industry likes to call an “Act of God” — had anything to do with your trip interruption. So when a travel company pulls the weather card, you almost have to become an amateur meteorologist to prove them wrong and get them to take responsibility for your ruined vacation.

Lesson learned: When your airline blames the weather, question it.

I’d like to be optimistic about next summer, but every time I try, the words of reader Stephen Doggette haunt me: “This will all get worse before it ever gets better.”

I’ll be taking a close look at what makes the travel business tick in this column that appears here every Monday. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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