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Travel News: TSA Staffing Woes, Kayak Gives Diners a New Reason to Hit the Road, and Eurail Reaches a Milestone

By The Budget Travel Editors
January 27, 2022
Security lines at airport
Arinahabich08/Dreamstime
There’s a great big world out there, and our latest “news you can use” may inspire a trip you never knew you needed.

From the latest on how the government shutdown is affecting the airport experience to Eurail’s 60th anniversary celebration, plus a new way to use your OpenTable rewards points, this week’s travel news has you covered.

TSA Worker Absences On the Rise

As the government shutdown rolls on, airports continue to struggle with staffing and security concerns. The Transportation Security Administration announced today that “many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations”—not surprising, given that they’re going on 27 days without pay. The TSA released data for Wednesday travel showing that unscheduled worker absences were up 22% from the same date last year, and the agency tells The Washington Post that the trend will only continue. “The number of people calling out because of financial concerns is increasing,” Michael Bilello, TSA’s assistant administrator for public affairs, told the paper. “As we go further and further away from having a missed paycheck and going into unknowns...people will have to make a decision: ‘Can I afford to go to work today?’”

Air traffic controllers are facing the same financial strain, and with a federal judge denying a request by the air controllers’ union, among others, that aimed to force the government to pay them during the shutdown, the situation doesn’t look likely to improve. Though there were reports earlier in the week of wait times stretching to two and three hours in some locations, the TSA says that national averages are on par with the usual standards. Wednesday’s max was only 39 minutes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport—the country’s busiest. But with major events like the Women’s March and Super Bowl on the horizon, it remains to be seen just how our nation’s transportation organizations will respond to the heavy crowds that are expected with limited personnel.

Kayak's New Dining Deal

As of today, OpenTable devotees have a fresh way to earn rewards. The dining-reservations platform is teaming with booking site Kayak to allow its users to put their hard-earned loyalty points toward hotel stays, both at home and abroad. U.S. diners with 2,000 points or more can now receive discounts of up to $200 at some 400,000 participating hotels, the first in a series of new redemption options the two platforms’ parent company plans to roll out in the coming days. “OpenTable diners are avid travelers, so we are excited to offer a Dining Reward that will help them save on their next trip,” said Kayak CEO Steve Hafner. “Creating shared value for our respective users—diners that love to travel and travelers that need to eat—is a priority.” (opentable.com)

Eurail's 60th Anniversary

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, airplanes are a modern miracle. (If only Christopher Columbus knew how long it takes us to travel the distance he covered in a lifetime!) But for travelers with more wanderlust and the luxury of time, railroads are the way to go, and with Eurail, a network of dozens of train systems—including high-speed, international, and smaller regional lines—in 31 different countries throughout the continent, you can design a European vacation for the ages. Eurail offers unparalleled flexibility and an extensive menu of travel packages that lets you make your decision based on factors like the length of time of your trip, seating preferences, and more. And on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, the company is proving that it's only getting better with age. Its roster includes three new destinations—Macedonia, Lithuania, and Great Britain—and five new carriers that will give travelers even more route options. As an added bonus, they've introduced new lower prices on Global and One Country passes as well as passes for seniors (60 years and older) and youth (under 27 years), and they're now offering a 2nd Class option too, making it possible to see more of Europe for less in 2019. (eurail.com)

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Travel News: Top 5 Gen Z Travel Destinations, Liftopia Gives Skiers a Lift to the Lifts, and a Special Offer for New Southwest Cardmembers

From slightly off-the-beaten-path cities that are attracting travelers who are 24 and younger, to the most convenient way to get to popular ski resorts this winter, plus a limited-time offer from Southwest that frequent fliers may want to jump on, this week’s travel news is very much aimed at shaking off the winter blues and getting you out and about. Top Gen Z Travel Destinations If you’re a member of Gen Z, born roughly between the mid-’90s and the mid-’00s, 24 years old or younger, the new HomeAway 2019 Trend Report predicts that you’re more likely to travel with friends than with family or alone, and that you prefer to spend your vacation time in cities. In fact, vacation rental company HomeAway is seeing increased demand for some wonderful cities that are sometimes overshadowed by more famous neighbors. With vacation rentals starting at well under $100/night in some destinations, these five spots should be calling your name: Pittsburgh, PA Budapest, Hungary San Antonio, TX Genoa, Italy San Sebastian, Spain Liftopia Will Give Skiers a Lift to the Lifts Do you love skiing—or have a yearning to learn—but dread the hassle of driving to the mountains in winter weather? Liftopia, the largest online and mobile marketplace for ski-lift tickets, has big news for skiers and snowboarders and other fans of mountain activities. Liftopia Experiences are hosted bus trips that can get you to 20 popular resorts in 26 major ski regions across the U.S., including transportation in luxury coaches, lift tickets, ski and snowboard trips, lessons, visits to local breweries, tubing trips, and more. Trips from major cities including New York City, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles start at $89 per person. “Liftopia has always been about improving accessibility to the mountains, and Liftopia Experiences is our next step to decrease friction for customers looking to enjoy more time outside in the winter,” said Liftopia CEO Evan Reece. “These trips take the guesswork out of getting to the mountains.” A Special Offer for New Southwest Cardmembers When we gave Southwest the 2018 Budget Travel Award for value airline, it was an acknowledgment of how the company goes the extra mile in terms of fare transparency and customer service. A special offer for new cardmembers underscores all that we admire about Southwest: New cardmembers who open an account by February 11 will earn a Companion Pass (which allows you to designate a companion to fly free on any Southwest flight anytime you fly through December 31) and 30,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $4,000 in the first three months of your membership. The offer is for Southwest’s Plus, Premier and Priority consumer credit cards (southwest.com).

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Travel News: Meet the New TSA Dogs, a New Money-Saving Airline Trend, and Monty Python’s Michael Palin Is Now an Actual Knight

From a cute new development in the seldom-cute world of transportation safety to the latest noteworthy developments among major airlines, plus a knighthood for an iconoclastic British comic and travel advocate, this week’s travel news is a quirky way to start the new year. MEET THE NEW TSA DOGS The Transportation Security Administration is all ears, at least where its canine team is concerned. In an effort to make its dogs less intimidating to travelers, the TSA is increasingly turning to floppy-eared dogs to patrol its passenger-screening lines. The new dogs, such as Labs and golden retrievers, are considered more friendly-looking than their pointy-eared cousins like German shepherds, which are being reserved for other, less visible, assignments. "You'll see parents kind of pull their kids away from a dog with pointy ears because, I think, we as a culture recognize that as a tactical dog or a police dog," TSA Assistant Administrator Michael Bilello told ABC News. That said, the agency’s focus is on ensuring that its dogs are healthy and well-trained, regardless of their ears. “No dogs will be pulled off because they have pointy ears. All the dogs are good—as long as they pass the test,” TSA spokesman James Gregory told The Washington Post. “At the end of the day, the dog’s going to be out there because they’re qualified, not because of their breed." The TSA’s floppy-eared pivot comes on the heels of the news that the first certified third-party canine team began screening air cargo at the end of December, expanding the agency’s network of explosives detection canines even further. A MONEY-SAVING AIRLINE TREND We appreciated the recent piece by Skift’s Jay Shabat about noteworthy airline developments over the past year. Among the cool new trends, there is one that will particularly please Budget Travelers: United, American, Alaska, JetBlue, Air Canada, and WestJet are following Delta’s lead and will soon be offering basic economy fares aimed at fliers just like you seeking ultra-bargains. This trend is part of a larger effort by airlines to cater to specific segments of their customer base, and while that “segmentation” often targets luxury and long-haul fliers, basic economy fares target folks just like us. And, even better, the new fares most likely won’t be just for domestic flights but will include budget fares to Europe as well. MONTY PYTHON’S MICHAEL PALIN IS NOW AN ACTUAL KNIGHT Michael Palin became world-famous in the late 1960s for his offbeat sense of humor as a comedy writer and performer on the BBC’s mind-bendingly bizarre Monty Python’s Flying Circus television series (perhaps best known for the “Dead Parrot Sketch,” written and performed by Palin and partner John Cleese). In 1975, Palin portrayed Sir Galahad the Pure and other characters in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, an extremely unorthodox retelling of the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Now, in a delicious turn of events for fans of the ultra-irreverent Pythons, Palin has received an actual knighthood for his subsequent career as a travel writer and travel-focused television personality, most notably in the 10-part documentary series Full Circle with Michael Palin.

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TSA “Sick Outs”: Will Reduced Staff Mean Longer Lines and Delays?

Some people are calling it the “blue flu,” the increase in unpaid Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees, whose familiar uniforms include blue shirts, calling in sick rather than work without pay during the partial federal government shutdown. A THREAT TO SECURITY AND EFFICIENCY? Due to their essential role in screening passengers and baggage before planes take off, TSA employees are required to work without pay during the shutdown. But, as CNN and other news sources have reported over the past few days, hundreds of TSA employees have been calling in sick from at least four major U.S. airports, raising concerns that, with reduced staff, air travel could become less secure—or the screening process could take much longer, leading to long lines and flight complications. Hydrick Thomas, president of the national TSA employees union, told CNN that as many as 170 TSA employees per day have called out this week at New York City’s sprawling John F. Kennedy International Airport. There have reportedly been similar increases in call outs at Dallas-Fort Worth, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham. Although union leaders have made it clear that the call outs are not an organized union action, they also note that, once TSA employees miss a paycheck, some must decide between working for no pay or finding paying work, possibly canceling daycare for their children, and other necessary actions that may interfere with their TSA duties. With no end to the shutdown in sight, the TSA may face no-win decisions in the coming week, such as: (a) Streamline airport screening with fewer random pat-downs, more passengers diverted to express PreCheck lines, and expedited checked baggage screening, or (b) maintain normal screening standards with reduced staff, leading inevitably to longer lines and passenger delays. However, at press time, the TSA has not announced any of these hypothetical options. HOW TO PREPARE FOR POSSIBLE DELAYS Here, our best tips for giving yourself plenty of time to get through security: Arrive early. Plan to arrive at the airport two hours before your scheduled domestic departure and three hours before an international departure. Know before you go. If your airport provides approximate security waiting times, access them online before you leave for the airport, but always bear in mind that these are estimates subject to change. Pack your carry-ons to make inspection easy. Pack clothing on the bottom and toiletries and electronics, typically more carefully scrutinized by TSA agents, on top, with electrical cords neatly gathered in a ziploc bag. Limit your liquids. Liquids, gels, and sprays should be in travel-size, 3.4-ounce containers packed in a bag no bigger than 1 quart. Be ready when it’s your turn. As you get near the front of the security line, remove big electronics, like laptops, from your bag, empty your pockets, and, if asked, remove your shoes. Don’t pack prohibited items. To make sure you’re not flying with a prohibited item, visit tsa.gov’s “Can I Bring My…?” page. Be kind. Always. We want you to be not only the smartest traveler at the airport but also the nicest. Those overworked and currently unpaid TSA employees deserve your respect and thanks

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Travel News: Don’t Drink In-Flight Coffee, New High-Speed Trains May Be Coming to the U.S., and REI Expands Its Rental Program

From breaking health news about the quality of airline coffee (and drinking water in general) to a potential breakthrough in American train travel, plus great news for outdoors enthusiasts (and we count ourselves among them) about REI’s gear rentals, this week’s travel news is all about being the smartest traveler in 2019 and beyond. DON’T DRINK IN-FLIGHT COFFEE! The next time a flight attendant comes through the cabin offering coffee or tea, you might want to opt for tomato juice or beer instead. A study released in November by Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center warns “it’s probably best to avoid drinking water from the tap on a plane, which also means staying away from coffee and tea.” Right now, airlines operate under the 2009 Airline Drinking Water Rule, which is regulated by the EPA, FDA, and FAA and requires disinfection and flushing one to four times a year. But even with maintenance of the aircraft system, other factors can contribute to contamination, like trucks, carts, hoses and other equipment used to transfer water at airports.“You would think they’d be emptied and cleaned at least once a day,” Dr. Charles Platkin, executive director of the Food Policy Center, wrote in the study, referring to that transport equipment. “But this is not so. So water is just sitting for long periods of time in what appear to be not-so-clean tanks.” It’s logical to think that because coffee and tea are made with hot water, the heat would kill any contaminants. Not so fast. According to the New York State Department of Health, boiling typically causes pasteurization, not sterilization, which would kill all present organisms. Moreover, tea and coffee on flights isn’t typically made with water that reaches boiling point and even if it was, it wouldn’t boil for long enough to have the desired effect. Happily, there haven’t been any reports of illness, but in the meantime, prevention is the best cure, so grab a bottle of iced coffee once you’re close to your gate. Just make sure to you wash your hands before you board. Those security bins are a veritable petri dish of germs. NEW HIGH-SPEED TRAINS MAY BE COMING TO THE U.S. The East Coast has Amtrak’s Acela express service, and next year, if Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has his way, Florida and southern California will have something similar. In November, the brand announced a strategic partnership with a private railroad called Brightline, which has been operating high-speed trains between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach since May. In early 2019, Brightline will rebrand as Virgin Trains USA and look to ring in the new year with expanded service: Routes to Orlando and Tampa are in the works, and construction will begin on a new line connecting Los Angeles to Las Vegas, approvals permitting. If all goes according to plan, a trip from Miami to Orlando could take just a few stress-free hours, and the travelers who make some 50 million trips between Vegas and Southern California each year will have an alternative to a pricey flight or a traffic-filled drive. The takeaway? An escape from L.A. may soon be easier than ever, and leaving Las Vegas looks like it’s going to be a piece of cake, too. REI EXPANDS ITS RENTAL PROGRAM One of the most common new year’s resolutions is getting in shape and being more active. It appears that REI, the Seattle-based purveyor of activewear and outdoor gear, wants to make it easier for America to fulfill that commitment. Just in time for the new year, the company, recognized as the country’s largest consumer co-op, announced that they’re expanding their popular rental program, adding snowshoes to their inventory of rental gear at 70 of their 154 stores (rei.com/stores/rentals). Yes, you read that right. The popular store operates a large and growing rental program. (You don’t have to be a co-op member to rent equipment, but you do receive a discount if you are.) And the company, aware that price and storage space can get in the way of taking up outdoor activities, works to make it easier to get outside. So whether you’re looking to dabble in a new sport without committing to buying equipment or you’re a seasoned outdoorsperson nearly ready to make a purchase but want to take advantage of the try-before-you-buy opportunity, they’ve got you covered.cBut it gets even better: at the end of each season, gently used rental equipment is sold through REI's used gear program (rei.com/used).

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