Recession tales: The world gets a little smaller

Survey after survey confirms what you and I already know: Staycations are stupid. You and I don't just hate the stupid word, which was dreamed up by opportunistic marketing departments to sell old things in a new way. We also hate the idea of them, and as soon as the money starts flowing again, we're outta here.

But there's also no doubt that more of us are staying closer to home right now. Due both to a downturn in personal spending and a cutback in business travel expenses, America's hotels and airlines are dramatically less full nowadays than they were three years ago.

The urge to explore, being an inherent and eternal quality of mankind, hasn't left us; only the means to explore have. Still, it's also true that the longer this mess persists, the more travel will be changed forever. Some shifts have already been cemented into place.

After 9/11, travel prices dropped, but they popped up again soon enough. Not this time. The recession has left an indelible mark on the airlines.

When things got tough, they got dirty, and they implemented extra fees. Those aren't going away when times get rosier. They've become an essential part of the structure of the airlines' profits. From now on, whenever you pay $20 to check a bag, when you fight rude passengers determined to hog the overhead compartment to avoid paying for luggage, when your stomach grumbles three hours into a five-hour flight -- you will have the recession of the Zero Years to thank.

USA Today recently announced that domestic airfares are currently near levels they were at way back in 1998, which caused some less-discerning wags in the travel industry to profess pleasure and shock.

In fact, those numbers are misleading. Base airfares may match the rates of more than a decade ago, but we no longer pay only the base airfare. We pay another $40 in baggage fees, another $15 for seat assignments, another $10 to eat, and so on. Sometimes, there are also fuel surcharges. So in truth, for most of us rates are nowhere near where they were in the '90s.

Because of the recession, it's time for us all to recalibrate how we calculate airfares. The price you see is no longer the price you pay.

Finding out about travel got harder, too. Compare the size of the travel section in your local newspaper to the one that was published three years ago. That is, if there's still a travel section there. Or even a local paper at all. Likewise, where the TV news stations used to round out their coverage with travel stories, now they tell tales of economic woe and tribulation.

While we focus on our own fight, the rest of the world fades even further into the background. Even if you have a few bucks left at the end of the month, it's harder to find inspiration or temptation to travel in this climate.

Is staycationing doomed? No, although hopefully the term is. Taking vacations within driving distance of your home is nothing new. Almost every major vacation playground in the country has its origins as a drive-in destination, so to assume they are newly out of reach because air travel is expensive is to be guilty of lazy history.

And let's not forget that one of the most iconic books about the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, is essentially about a cross-country road trip. Travel will always be a part of our lives.

But it is also true that people are making a conscious choice to spend less on their time off. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It would behoove all of us to explore our own home states the way we treat a foreign country when we travel, and get to know it for its attractions, stories, and people. If someone from Los Angeles has learned to fall in love with Big Bear or people from Houston are newly digging the Gulf of Mexico, it enriches them and their home area alike.

However, it's America's legendary insularity that is most at risk of being solidified. As many Americans who travel abroad regularly can tell you, it's a persistent and not inaccurate stereotype that Americans know precious little about the rest of the world, and that we barely care. The election of Barack Obama was perceived abroad as a sign we were waking from a kind of nationalistic slumber, and it helped soothe many non-Americans, ease tensions, and probably even helped Obama win that Nobel Peace Prize.

But until Americans can afford to leap oceans again and rejoin the world society on a mass scale, we risk slipping back into a position in which our reputation as selfish and disconnected people is allowed to persist unchallenged.

Let's just hope that international travel hasn't been curtailed for good. Plenty of people have still been going abroad -- there are cheap ways to do it, so you don't have to eliminate it completely -- and there are signs it will rebound. It was during the recession, for example, that American ownership of passports shot up in response to new paperwork requirements at neighboring border crossings.

In the early years of this decade, around 7 million passports a year were dispensed by the State Department, but for the past three fiscal years, the number jumped to between 13.5 and 18 million a year. After the recession subsides, all those passports will be in circulation, ready to be taken abroad. The seeds of a new American thirst for international exploration may have been planted, ironically, during the desert of a tough recession.

Not to wave the flag too unabashedly here, but as Americans, it's our profound right to travel wherever we want. Our freedom to travel wherever we like is one of the things that our forefathers fought for, and regardless of economic circumstances, we're free to go where we like (well, except for Cuba, but let's not talk about the irony of pressing for their freedoms by stripping Americans of theirs).

The world has changed, and it's no longer appropriate for a leading player in the modern global society to reflexively gaze inward. Our insularity was made worse by economic necessity -- it costs a lot to leave this this continent and see the world -- but the intelligence and future vitality of our people depend on our ability to mix with and understand the people of the rest of the world.

Maybe the recession shaped our travel industry, but it doesn't have to shape us. The United States won't be an effective player on the world stage if most of its citizens' contact with China comes from the products on the shelves at Walmart.
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