Ask travelers about the partial government shutdown, and you may get a dismissive answer. After all, most flights are still running on time, many national parks remain open and passports are being processed.
“Shutdown?” says Chris Luth, a sales manager based in Ozark, Missouri. “What shutdown?”
Luth says he hasn’t noticed a “single change” in his travels since the lapse in government funding that began Dec. 22. That includes a recent trip from Dallas to Mexico City, where he passed through the TSA PreCheck line in 30 seconds, and a return flight to Dallas, where he made it through immigration in 45 seconds, thanks to his Global Entry card. “Both flights were perfectly on time,” he says.
But the worst may be yet to come. Even if the partial shutdown ends soon, it could have a ripple effect that’s felt into the busy spring-break-travel season and beyond. It threatens to touch every aspect of travel, including hotels and restaurants. Now is the time to prepare for it.
The shutdown is costing the tourism industry more than $100 million a day, according to an analysis by the U.S. Travel Association. It includes nearly $50 million a day in direct domestic travel spending and more than $50 million in indirect and induced travel-related output, according to the trade group. Delta Air Lines says the shutdown will cost it $25 million this month. Often, these costs are passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices.
“The government shutdown is causing a domino effect on the hospitality industry,” says Mahmood Khan, a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “Restaurants, hotels, theme parks, attractions and the airlines are all interrelated and impacted directly or indirectly.”
There have been scattered reports of disruptions. In the past week, air travelers reported longer screening lines in Atlanta and Houston. In response, the Transportation Security Administration issued a rare statement with internally reported screening times, which showed 99 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes to clear security on a recent Monday.
Mikah Meyer contacted me before boarding a flight to Guam to visit the War in the Pacific National Historical Park. It’s part of his attempt to become the youngest person to visit all 418 National Park Service sites.
“I’ve been in contact with local tourism officials, but no one has yet been able to confirm to me if I’ll be able to access the parkland or not,” he says. “I’m pretty terrified of landing later this month and the government not being open.”
Pam Ivey, who runs an international retreat company in Wasaga Beach, Ontario, says the shutdown ended her efforts to join Global Entry, a system that allows pre-approved travelers to enter the United States faster. Just before her final interview, she received an email saying that because of the shutdown, “there will be no U.S. officers present to finalize their portion of the interview.” All Global Entry interviews, it added, “have been canceled for the foreseeable future.”
But among travelers, there seems to be a consensus that the shutdown has had little or no effect – yet.
John Sousa, who works for a financial services firm in Farmington, Connecticut, reports that the Delta terminal in Hartford was a “ghost town” on a Monday earlier this month, with no lines at the TSA screening area.
“The only line was at Dunkin’ Donuts,” says Sousa, who was flying to Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I spoke with a TSA agent, who told me he has never seen such a quiet Monday morning.”
Patricia Schultz, an author and frequent air traveler, flew from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Chicago last weekend. She arrived at the terminal three hours ahead, expecting “the worst.” Instead, she found TSA wait times were about the same. Same thing for her return flight – everything normal. “Surprised on both ends,” she says.
Carolyn Brown flew from Philadelphia to Miami on a recent Friday. “Absolutely no wait in either PreCheck or regular line,” says Brown, who edits a travel website. “Shocked,” she says.
But the real shock may be just ahead. January is typically the slowest time of the year for almost any type of travel in the United States. So a few TSA agents calling in sick are unlikely to affect the overall speed of screenings. Experts say the effects of the shutdown might be felt when the busy spring-break-travel season begins.
Gordon Gray, the director of fiscal policy of the American Action Forum, a nonprofit think tank that has calculated the costs of the shutdown, warns of a scenario in which thousands of TSA agents quit their jobs and find new work. Even if the shutdown ends quickly, the agency would be short-staffed.
“We could find ourselves at the end of February with not enough TSA staff to do screenings,” he says.
Add more travelers to the equation and you have a recipe for gridlock on the ground.
That’s not all. Take the Smithsonian museums and zoo and the national parks. After the shutdown ends, it could take weeks before some of these facilities are fully operational. That could affect spring trips to national parks and to Washington, D.C.
Khan, the tourism professor, says there are other aspects of the shutdown that few visitors consider. They include reduced food-safety inspections, which could affect restaurants. Several large meetings and conferences could lose federal funding and federal participants, which might hurt businesses that depend on tourists and other travelers.
“Hotels are suffering across the country due to lack of business travelers,” Khan says. “Since attractions are closed, many food service and restaurant operators will suffer. For example, food trucks depend on office employees and tourist attractions for business. In many cases, their operation is the primary source of income for families.”
It’s difficult to prepare for the ripple effects. Most travelers are doing nothing more than worrying, which is not an effective strategy. Gray, the fiscal policy expert, says travelers will have to go the “extra mile” during and after the shutdown.
Any time your trip touches the federal system – whether you’re being screened at the airport, applying for a passport or Global Entry credentials, or passing through customs – Gray advises that you expect delays.
Those are the easy ones to anticipate. Knowing how the shutdown will affect the rest of your travel experience may be impossible – until you start your journey.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.