The travel industry at large speaks eagerly and often about creating positive experiences for travelers. This contrasts heavily, though, with the fears and anxieties experienced by real travelers from diverse backgrounds.
Skift launched the latest edition of our magazine, Travel in an Age of Permanxiety, at Skift Global Forum in New York City in September. This article is part of our look into the current state of the traveler mindset through the lens of the pervasive state of anxiety felt worldwide.
Absent a heart monitor, anxiety is nearly impossible to capture in a chart or graph. It’s about how we feel in relation to the world around us and the challenges that appear to be coming our way. Anxiety’s impact, though, can be measured in the choices we make because we are anxious or fearful. We stay at home instead of going out. Or we don’t vacation in the U.S. because of Trump or avoid Paris because of ISIS or scratch Russia off the list because of unreasonable visa requirements or skip the Caribbean because of Zika. The impact on travel is significant.
The following five stories look at travelers’ permanxiety from a variety of perspectives to better understand what we think about when we visit an airport, check in to a hotel, or visit a new destination. These are similar to conversations that many of us have with friends and family, as well as how we think about things in our own heads. No matter your background, we think you’ll recognize something in these stories from your own experience.
Peter Slatin, as told to Deanna Ting
Peter Slatin travels far and wide in his role as the founder and president of Slatin Group, a company that helps businesses better understand how to deliver customer services to customers with special needs.
I’m blind, and I use a guide dog most of the time when I’m traveling. Sometimes I use my white cane, but most of the time I’ll use a guide dog.
What prompted me to start the Slatin Group was all the kinds of experiences I’ve had — the miscommunication, misunderstanding, and just difficult and challenging service experiences, some of which can be dangerous, and some of which are just annoying and insulting.
At the Airport
The two points that create the most anxiety are the entry to the airport and when I’m waiting to board. When I arrive at an airport, very often, I have a bad experience.
Airport design has changed from a time when you would walk in and the check-in counter would be pretty much straight ahead. A lot of times, it’s off to the side or they’re just kiosks, and the check-in counters are far away, so I rely on someone. I’m hoping that someone from the airline or the airport will find me and guide me to check-in and that’s what I rely on, but most the time that doesn’t happen.
There are also queues that have been set up with the mobile straps and expansions so people can queue up for tickets or to check their luggage. Each airline may have a different setup, and security will be here or there. There are just so many places where it’s really hard to know where to go and what’s happening around you. Once you get to the concourse or your gate concourse, at least again, that’s relatively straightforward. People go in generally two directions, although there are stores and restaurants, and people are streaming in and out of those.
If you have a disability, if you need assistance, first, the airline will help you get your boarding pass, which I usually do at the airport rather than online ahead of time because I try to get placed in a seat that’s advantageous for me and my guide dog where the guide dog has room. Sometimes they’ll block out an extra seat. These are things where things go well, but once I get my ticket, they will guide me to a waiting area. It’s a holding pen for people with disabilities, so I’ll be there, and there’ll be people with wheelchairs and elderly people, senior citizens. We’re just all waiting for someone to take us to our gate, and it’s just an odd kind of encampment of people who need assistance.
The people who come and provide that assistance are a huge mix of people who are extremely competent, kind, and smart, and people who are none of the above. There are people who are well-trained, but no one’s usually well-trained. People usually just do what they can, and you kind of train them on the spot.
You trust them to get you to your gate. Once that gets going, I always engage them in conversation because that puts them at ease. If they’re not up for that or into it, then that’s fine, but most of the time we talk about where they’re from, because they’re almost always from overseas somewhere. Some have been in the country a very short time, and this is a job they just found.
I find the greatest challenge is usually in the lobby. Lobbies, like airport terminals, are diverse in design. They’re all very different in design unless you’re in a very simple, limited-service hotel with the check-in counter straight ahead and one person and that’s it, but if you’re in anything that has a lobby lounge or just a little more variation in design, it’s really hard to know what’s what.
I think it’s less of a thing today, but there used to be so-called lobby ambassadors, which are really helpful, who are there. Their role is to spot someone, whether they have a disability or not, who’s looking for assistance, who seems to need assistance, and that’s their job, or sometimes just to welcome people past the doorman. I know it impinges on ROI, and that’s a terrible thing, but I think that’s really helpful, and something more hotels should have.
I’d say the vast majority of encounters that go wrong are not because of ill intention. They are because of fear and unfamiliarity and uncertainty and awkwardness and just lack of information, lack of education, lack of training, and also clear guidance from the top about what that means. How do you extend service to this or any population of people you’re unfamiliar with?
Hotels where someone, whether it’s been someone in management or on the staff, has very early on in my stay said, “I’m going to watch out for you, and I’m going to make sure you are taken care of,” without being obsequious or overbearing but instead to be, “I’m going to watch out for you.” They’ve just been there. If they see me, they come and say hello. They introduce themselves. They make sure that my experience is good. I don’t know. I couldn’t say it’s because I’m blind. I could say it’s just because they saw it as their role.
What I’d Want to Say to the Travel Industry
I understand the challenge of this, but amid all the requirements that you face and the juggling you face of your own personnel, and competing with all of your competition and everything that changes around you, just keep your eye on the service ball. Because service is not a cliché, it’s real. Without it, no one wants any part of what you have to offer.
You’re a conduit, from point A to point B, or you’re a place to stay, but if someone wants just that, they will go to Airbnb or they’ll rent a car or what have you. You’re there because people really value what you have to offer, and that really includes the service as much as it includes the décor and the food, all of which can be spoiled by bad service. As long as you keep your eye on that and remember that service is the biggest thing you offer, then you’re in good shape.
Neil Miller, as told to Dennis Schaal
Neil Miller, 65, owns an insurance agency in Trumbull, Conn. that he runs with his wife Esther. He has Gold status in the American Airlines AAdvantage program. The couple has traveled everywhere from Japan to Paris and Jordan over the last 17 years, and usually takes about a month-long vacation annually.
We’ve been traveling a lot, and in recent years we’ve been doing more of the exotic types of stuff. We used to go to the Caribbean and lay on the beach for a week. But around 2005 we decided we thought we’d expand our horizons.
So we don’t vacation anymore, we travel.
For about 95 percent of our trips we go on Tauck tours. We don’t have time to plan our vacations and with Tauck pretty much 95 percent of the trip is set up for you. So even when you land, there’s someone waiting for you, taking you to the hotel or wherever you are going.
We already have a trip planning for next June where we are going to fly to Vancouver and then go by train. You sleep one night on the train and wake up in the middle of the Canadian Rockies.
We’re not interested in going to Europe right now; we’ve been so many times I’m personally getting a little bored. And the truth of the matter is because of the state of the world today, we said, “Let’s go to Canada.”
We went to Europe two years ago so we flew to Brussels. And the year after that the airport in Belgium was blown to smithereens. So we said, “forget that.”
We’ve been to a lot of places where there eventually has been trouble such as a train station in Madrid, where they had those bombings in 2004.
My family is not crazy about going to Europe right now. God forbid, if something happens and I’m in Canada, I can still rent a car and come home.
And then there’s President Trump. My wife Esther says she’s “not interested in going to Europe and have them turn around and start yelling, your president is an asshole.”
I can guess what the sentiment is about Trump in Canada, but I’m not worried about the Canadians.
We’ve done things to make the airport experience easier for ourselves. I have Gold status in AAdvantage, and I got the American Airlines Citibank Executive card about four years ago. So we always fly American because I have so many miles and we get to use their Admirals Clubs. We have PreCheck through the Global Entry Program, which we got through the Executive card.
Esther says she’s never leaving our marriage. “I’m staying with him for the miles,” she says.
Having adequate Wi-Fi is a concern when we travel because we work a bit while we travel, even if it’s only five minutes or an hour per day. I usually buy an international phone package and we try to stay in places where hopefully we’ll get Wi-Fi.
We don’t care at all about social media. I have a Facebook account and I don’t really know how to use it and Esther checks it every once in awhile if she’s online and has nothing else to do. I see people so focused on Facebook and sharing their new pictures. My attitude is: find something better to do on vacation or stay home.
In fact, my wife’s daughter gave me a selfie stick for my birthday one year. I told her, “take it back.”
One concern I’ve been having is getting through airport security because I wore braces on my bad knees for several years before my knee-replacement surgery last year. In May we were leaving San Francisco and the titanium set off the TSA scanning machine. I was searched for a long time, and it was really screwed up. It was embarrassing. The TSA guy was touching my “stuff” and it was weird.
In Asia, we’ve traveled to Japan. We were on a ship, and the cabotage regulations meant we had to sail to South Korea. And then that asshole, Kim Jong-un shot off a missile.
“So you can’t even go there now,” says Esther, meaning Asia. “Where can you go? Canada.”
Jeremy Swift, as told to Sarah Enelow
Jeremy Swift is a 34-year-old African-American actor, who was born in Oklahoma and has been living in New York for five years. Swift went to South Korea in 2017 as a performer in Dreamgirls.
My friend and I went to Japan after performing in Korea and I bought a ninja star. I stuck it in my bag, they gift wrapped it and everything. My friend told me to make sure I put it in my checked baggage before we got to the airport.
We go through security. My bag goes through, and I’m thinking that they’re not going to let me take a bottle of Listerine I forgot. So they push it through and say, “We need to check that one more time.” So it goes through again. I’m still thinking about the Listerine. I’m mad, but you know, it was $5; I’m cheap.
I asked them what they were looking for and the security agent wants to know, is there “metal or something” in my bag? I was telling him that I had remembered to take my laptop out just as he pulls out the ninja star.
My friend started screaming and I literally just threw up my hands. I’m certain I’m going to jail or at the least I’m going to get cavity searched. I’m sure I turned red, white, orange, and purple. My friend just kept saying, “Oh my God, oh my God.” She goes, “He didn’t mean it, he didn’t do it on purpose.”
The Japanese agent is much cooler than us. “You can’t have this. Have a nice day,” he says. My friend asks if I can put it in my checked bag and the agent helpfully says, “Let me make a phone call.” He calls the counter and then walks me back through security with the ninja star.
Of course, I’m thinking that if this was America, I probably would have been shot in the face, twice. This just doesn’t fly. I was so shocked at how understanding they were. My friend tells me that in America they would have said, “Take it all off. We are searching every crack you have.”
That was one the scariest moments I’ve had.
On the other end of the trip, it’s a different story. The second we get off the plane in America, this six foot five, 300-pound black man starts yelling in this tourist’s face because she didn’t have her paperwork straight, or something like that. And I was thinking why are people in America not nice? He was literally screaming at her. She was stammering while the man barked orders at her.
Like, I’m sure it’s in her bag, calm down.
I’m a goofball. I’ll sing in the airport security line, dance in line, I’ll rap your name, I’ll just do weird stuff because sometimes flying is stressful. Some TSA agents will look at me like they are going to put me on the no-fly list. And some will join in and dance with me. It just makes things a little lighter. Sometimes I get some nice people. Other times I get ones who I know are thinking, “I have been on this shift since 1974. Shut up.”
Joshua Robinson, as told to Sarah Enelow
Joshua Robinson is a 31-year-old designer of Chilean descent who was raised in Sydney, Australia. He now lives in New York City with his American husband.
I hate security and going through the process of immigration. It’s just scary. I guess I have nothing to fear. I’ve got the correct papers, so why would it be scary?
I’m just scared that they’re going to say, “You can’t come in.”
The first time that I came into the U.S. as an adult was with a J-1 visa. They totally grilled me at that time, but then the next couple of times, once I had the green card, they just looked at the document and they’d write, stamp — so there’s nothing to fear.
What do they do with all those documents? Is it processed at the time? Or is it processed later?
You think that you have everything in order, but what if you don’t? Going through the green card process, you do that with a lawyer so I always know that that’s a backup plan.
I always wonder, would they question my marriage for some reason? My husband advocates for me, plus he’s white. When he’s with me I’m fine.
The media coverage and the facts of the immigration ban contribute to paranoia. And it’s the fact that people had gone and done their research and got their papers correct and then came here and then a certain few were questioned and sent back.
I definitely feel like being Australian we have a close alliance with the U.S.
I didn’t realize how Americans are perceived by some different nations compared to Australia. Australia is friendly. We don’t have really any conflicts with anyone.
My husband Matt and I recently came back from Mexico. I’m in a transition period with my green card where I have a temporary one while they put me onto the 10-year green card. Because my actual card is expired, I have a letter from the government saying that it has been renewed for one year. I just felt like this flimsy letter feels like a letter from your parents to the teacher, it’s like, “Yeah, he’s fine,” but there was just this paranoia of my actual card having an expiring date. But it was fine — we went to the officer and she was like, “Great. Stamp. Next.”
I was just thinking of stories from friends. Some of them have misdemeanors. One of them — every time she comes through immigration — she gets escorted to the little room where they just double check everything.
My friend who’s from Saudi Arabia has no criminal history. Zero.
Whenever he comes to Australia, he’s always escorted into the room, no matter what.
Ping Chan, as told to Andrew Sheivachman
Ping Chan is a 27-year-old Asian-American graphic designer at Skift, who was born in China and has been living in the U.S. for 11 years. Chan is currently a resident of the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
When I first came to the U.S., it was 11 years ago, not long after 9/11 so the authorities were really serious about who was entering the country. My Dad looks really dark-skinned so Customs officers pulled us into a room and interviewed us for 30 minutes, basically asking us why we were here.
I told them I was here to travel. But they found a letter in my bag from a friend telling me to have fun in school. They said I was lying, I was so scared, and then they pulled my Dad away to interview us separately.
Everything is kind of a blur now, but then they let us pass anyway. They only left me with a month to stay, even though my parents had longer visas, and I became illegal because my parents didn’t bother to change my status. The high school had accepted me; I could have switched to a student visa and avoided this. I don’t know whether my parents didn’t care, or messed something up, or what.
The first five years, I really wanted to go back to China, but then I accepted my fate. Skype and all that makes life easier. Honestly before I got my DACA, I couldn’t travel anywhere. I was basically illegal. I was so scared; I was about 15 years old when I came here with my parents, I didn’t know anything about how visas work.
Anywhere I would go, I wouldn’t go to the airport and fly. I would take the bus, even from Indiana to New York which is like a ten-hour bus ride. I would rather take the bus. I thought the bus was the only option. Now I’ve got my DACA, and I can go to the airport. I only fly domestic of course. I would like to visit a place like Cuba, for instance, but can’t. When I travel the country I visit places like Austin and the furthest I’ve gone is Palm Springs in California.
I really want to go to Hawaii, it’s been a part of my childhood dream. It’s the furthest state away from the mainland U.S., and closest to Asia. Even with that, I feel like I have to be really careful and look up whether I can go there without a passport or something else. Even though Hawaii is a part of the U.S., I have second thoughts. Am I really allowed to go? Will I be allowed to come back? I have to do a lot of research on it if I want to go.
I’m worried now because of the Trump Administration repealing DACA. The news came out on my birthday, and it was very upsetting. I don’t know what I can do, it’s very confusing.
Photo credit: Travel anxiety affects people of all backgrounds. Bing Qing Ye / Skift