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Land, Air And Rail — Summer Travel Has Its Hiccups

Summer travelers face higher gas prices and what seems like ever-increasing airfares.
Don Ryan
Summer travelers face higher gas prices and what seems like ever-increasing airfares.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.