Commercial airliner flies into the sunset

Flights taking off into the sunset on an overnight flight to an exotic destination should mark the start of a dream vacation. But on too many occasions this summer flights don’t take off at all, leaving disappointed passengers frustrated.

Gone are summer plans to compare fado music in Lisbon vs. Coimbra, walk stations of the cross in sacred Fatima and discover the nuances of port wines in Porto.

Instead of getting acquainted with Portugal, I settled for the intimacy of small-town charms in the foreign land of Iowa, a mere four-hour drive from my Midwest U.S. home.

Count me among the droves of disappointed travelers whose flight plans were devastated by airline snafus during this please-get-me-back-to-normal year. With the easing of pandemic fears came a huge eagerness to resume travel, especially to faraway lands.

Add the reward of a strong U.S. dollar: If you can get to Europe this summer, take advantage of the weakened euro and splurge. Book a roomy hotel suite, treat yourself to a pricey bottle of wine, and take home Italian leather or Bohemian crystal.

“A high willingness to travel abroad persists,” reports the International Air Transport Association, whose airline members comprise 83 percent of global air traffic. The 2022 demand for air travel is expected to reach 82.7 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and capacity should hit 90 percent.

Covid mutations continue to annoy, if not threaten, but that no longer universally inhibits travelers. My partner and I scheduled our second vaccine booster so immunity would peak in Portugal, our first international trip since the virus sequestered much of the world in 2019.

What we didn’t anticipate was an aerial crapshoot that can sour even the most patient globetrotter.

Summer of Lost Luggage

The pent-up demand for travel has lengthened airport check-in, security and rebooking lines. Surges in fuel costs mean higher-priced tickets to ride, plus more nickel-diming with extra fees to seat companions together or take checked luggage abroad.

Ongoing labor shortages adversely affect all aspects of air travel and tempt workers – pilots to baggage handlers – to strike. More flights are delayed or canceled. Fewer flights mean more overbookings and rebookings, even in picture-perfect weather.

lost luggage at Portland International Airport

Nobody in authority at Portland International Airport knows if this luggage is lost, misplaced or unclaimed. So it sits abandoned on an unmoving carousel awaiting the lost owners. Photo by Bill Weiss

That’s a lot of turbulence to add to already-tense times as the effects of war, inflation, and contagious viruses already weigh heavily on the consumer’s psyche.

Although up to one-third of U.S. flights have been canceled on summer holiday weekends, shortcomings are a global issue. After almost 2,000 flights for one summer week were canceled at major airports in Europe, including Schiphol in the Netherlands and Heathrow in London, daily limits were imposed until September on the number of outbound passengers.

“Lines for security at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport have been so long this summer that many passengers have been arriving more than five hours before boarding time,” the Associated Press reported.

Passengers should expect a less-than-satisfactory experience, Michael O’Leary of Ryanair (the budget airlines and Europe’s biggest carrier) told Sky News. FlightAware.com data showed at least 25,000 flight delays and 3,100 cancellations globally on a single day in mid-July.

Sitting Here in Limbo

For me, complications began during our initial leg of American Airlines travel from Chicago to Philadelphia. We boarded, then disembarked because of an engine problem and watched our three-hour window to catch a connecting flight to Lisbon slowly vanish.

So we never left Chicago, and American used its app to automatically rebook us on flights three days later, which we found unacceptable but couldn’t change on our own. We had no luck trying to rebook by phone and waited hours to see an agent at the airport.

Casa Del Mar

All that is enough to shorten anybody’s emotional fuse, but the outburst of one guy in line went too far. When he spouted loudly about blowing away something or somebody, security magically appeared to double-team and escort him away.

More typical: quiet sullenness or commiseration within the sea of dejection that widened as the number of problem flights grew. The sad stories of strangers tempered our own steaming misery about a vacation gone awry.

We would not miss a funeral or wedding because of this frustrating day. We were not a chaperone with six boys, split from friends en route to Rome for a field trip. Or parents on the way to Croatia, to watch their daughter compete as a synchronized swimmer.

A Canceled Flight’s Stages of Grief

Those parents eventually left the queue because their travel agent called with a rebooking solution. It would take around seven hours before American rebooked us on United and Air Portugal flights the next day (and issued taxi/lodging/meal vouchers, which neither phone agents nor the app allowed electronically).

How foolish of us to allow hope to return. The next day, we couldn’t check in for the rebooked flights because we were on a waitlist – news to us! – for our second leg of travel. No one could tell us how we ranked on that standby list.

The only thing which seemed probable was our odds of getting stuck in the Newark, New Jersey, airport at 11 p.m. – without seats to fly further. Unacceptable, we decided again, in refusing the revised flight plan and a rebooking option for the following day. Our group tour would have already begun.

The tour operator, Indus Travels in Canada, provided no rebooking assistance and could not even confirm that transport from the Lisbon airport to our hotel would be arranged, much less help us catch up to the tour group after it left Lisbon.

The good news: Generali travel insurance reimbursed us in full, merely two weeks after a claim was filed. We remain sour toward air travel and have decided to temporarily opt for stress-free road trips to pleasant, new-to-us destinations that aren’t known for being overrun with tourists.

Iowa to the Rescue

Which brings us back to Iowa.

Worth your attention is Clear Lake, population 7,687 and in the northcentral part of the state. On either side of the city is a modest, lakeshore state park. Free downtown is a clean, sandy and roomy beach.

Clear Lake, Iowa

It’s not Saint-Tropez, Santorini or Palma de Mallorca, but Clear Lake, Iowa has plenty of warm, clean water, uncrowded beaches and prices that might ease the memory of your airport nightmare. Photo by Mary Bergin

It’s the kind of community where movies are shown outdoors during summer, at a downtown park with food trucks selling wine slushies and pulled pork sandwiches. But Clear Lake is best known for the well-preserved Surf Ballroom, which doubles as a music museum and is the last place where Buddy Holly performed.

The rock ‘n’ roll pioneer was killed in a plane crash shortly after his February 1959 show, and the annual Winter Dance Party still draws an international crowd. All year, fans walk to a modest shrine at the crash site, between cornfields and off a gravel road. A giant pair of horned rim glasses marks the spot, six miles out of town.

Ten miles east is Mason City, population 27,338, known for its Frank Lloyd Wright affection and historic preservation. The Historic Park Hotel, which he designed as a prototype for Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, is boutique lodging today.

Many of the Prairie-style homes in the Rock Crest/Rock Glen Historic District were designed by Wright-minded associates. Explore on your own or a guided tour.

Stockman House, Mason City, Iowa

The George and Eleanor Stockman House in Mason City, IA. typifies the Prairie School of Architecture pioneered by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Over the course of a 70-year career, Wright designed more than 1,000 structures, many of which are historic monuments. Fame and wealth did not destroy his sense of humor. “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines,” Wright noted. Photo courtesy of pinterest.com

What else? Music Man Square illustrates the impact of native son Meredith Willson, best known for composing “The Music Man,” a 1957 musical based on “River City,” his hometown. Broadway revivals opened in 1965, 1980, 2000 and 2021 (with Hugh Jackman as the lead).

Fields of Dreams

For more Americana: Head to Dyersville, population 4,477 and 150 miles southeast of Clear Lake. The rural movie site for the 1989 “Field of Dreams” draws families and busloads. Baseball lovers pack a glove to play catch or hit a few balls.

One field over is a new stadium where the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds play on Aug. 11.

Five miles from the film site is the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, one of only two basilicas in Iowa. The medieval gothic building is open from sunrise to sunset. dyersville.org

Consider it all a gentle balm to ease the congested and sometimes confusing re-entry into this steps-backward world.

Mary Bergin of Madison, Wisconsin, is a three-time Lowell Thomas Award winner who covers the U.S. Midwest. Her earlier articles for the EWNS looked at Detroit’s renovation and the commercialization of sports stadiums.