The agony index and the end of travel

I travelled constantly as an analyst. Now I hardly travel at all.

Not traveling is better.

I’m not a newbie. I’m Platinum for Life on American Airlines. It took me 20 years get that. It’s not worth much to me now.

I don’t miss:

  • Planning. The late lamented Hipmunk travel planning tool scored flights on an “agony index” based on price, waiting around, chances that you’d miss a connection, hours wasted, and who knows what else, but the idea that there even was an “agony index” should tell you everything you need to know.
  • Corporate travel policies designed to ramp up your discomfort to save a few bucks.
  • Packing. Knowing that the one thing you really need, whether it’s a garment or a cable or a pill, is sitting in your house at home because it is the one thing that you forgot.
  • Wasting time going to, parking in, and waiting around in airports.
  • Security. Waiting in long lines to tread on filthy floors in your socks and then getting singled out because you didn’t set aside four ounces of mouthwash.
  • Airports in general — ownerless spaces full of bad seating, unhappy people, and horrible food “choices.”
  • Unpredictable, inexplicable, and demoralizing travel delays — as if a pilot sneezing in Kankakee after being hit by a raindrop ends up causing a flight of 200 people going from Chicago to LA to be two hours and fifteen minutes late.
  • Being squeezed into small spaces with random annoying strangers with terrible food and flaky, slow, expensive internet. My knees hurt just thinking about it, and I’m less than six feet tall.
  • Fighting for space in an overhead bin, as if those four cubic feet were precious territory to be defended from barbarians.
  • Taxis. Ride shares. Trusting some stranger who drives like an idiot to get you where you want to go.
  • Taxi lines. That’s the definition of toxic ennui.
  • Taking a shuttle to a parking lot to get in a rented car that smells like Febreze and trying to figure out how not to sideswipe somebody as you adjust the mirrors and puzzle out the seat controls.
  • A hotel room that somebody else just slept in, and probably left bedbugs. Searching for outlets. Choosing between generic, expensive room service and going out to some place that Yelp said was less than awful than some other place.
  • Expense reports. Filling out a form that forces you to relive your recent travel experience one crumpled receipt at a time, and then hoping some accountant won’t force you to pay your own money for that awful experience.

If you’re reading this and saying, “Well, you’re doing it wrong,” just know that I did it right for decades. How much of your brain is dedicated to optimizing your belongings and your habits for the convenience of an industry that, face it, sees you as cargo with a credit card? Is that really what you want to spend your time on? Is being good at travel a worthwhile skill, or just a way for you to keep score on how much better you can squeeze down the agony than the next poor slob?

The good things that you remember are just a momentary respite from the bad things

When you travel a lot, you get perks.

You have a bag packed and ready with your essentials. That’s just making the reduction of your life to a suitcase more efficient.

You wait in travel lounges with free not-so-awful food, more space, and fewer random people.

You get upgrades on flights and hotels so you have the superior feeling of having slightly less tiny spaces to occupy.

I’ve even flown private jets. That’s a hell of an experience — they wait for you to arrive, you have lots of room, and they treat you like royalty. But you’re still stuck in a restricted space for too long to be comfortable. And you’re emitting a crapload of carbon to feel somewhat less uncomfortable.

When you get down to it, the reason travel sucks is that nameless corporations take as much of your money as they can get away with to force you to share space with other people that you didn’t choose to be around. All the perks are just them rewarding you for spending more with them by allowing you a tiny bit more space, and a tiny bit less awful sustenance, with a class of people who feel superior because they, too, suffer on a more regular basis.

There’s a reason frequent traveler programs are called “clubs.” They focus on the tiers of exclusivity and fetishize the tiny rewards. They should be called “slightly reduced suffering programs.” I’d like to see them try to market that!

What’s good about travel?

I like seeing new places. I like meeting new people. I like immersing myself in other cultures. This is what makes travel awesome.

I love exploring and discovering. I am no homebody.

Being someplace new is thrilling.

Getting someplace new hardly ever is.

Travel isn’t coming back

I don’t mean that travel is gone for good.

I mean that the industry is going to stay smaller than it used to be for a good long while. Now that we’ve gotten a taste of virtual connections, we’ll use them whenever we can.

My business — helping authors and giving corporate writing workshops — is completely virtual now. I’ve just completed my best year-and-a-half ever. And I get to sleep in my own bed.

I’ll get on a plane or drive a few hundred miles in a car to see family. I’ll even fly to see a client if I think it will help.

But most of what I want to do, I can do without traveling. And I suspect that’s true of many of us now.

The planet will be better off.

Go ahead. Turn your nose up at me, the former frequent traveler. But while you’re squeezed into seat 24B between a sumo wrestler and busybody as you go from JFK to Dallas after a 46-minute flight delay, I’ll be teaching a few dozen people at once from an ergonomic seat in my comfy office and then having dinner with my wife. I like my wife, and she enjoys having me around.

Thunderstorms won’t stop me, I rarely have mechanical problems, and the smells are familiar.

Safe travels. I hope you get that upgrade, my friend.

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  1. The time wasted is the worst part about traveling to me. Arrive 1-2 hours early for a 2-3 hour flight. It can often take an hour (or more) from the wheels touching the ground to actually exit the airport. My only flight since the start of Covid, took an extra two days because I couldn’t secure the cross-border PCR test I needed. Unless it’s for family, I’ll opt out, thanks.

  2. It is baffling to me how no one in the travel industry can break out and offer an experience unlike all the others. Why hasn’t someone reimagined the airport experience? Why hasn’t someone reimagined the airline industry (around something other than price)? Why hasn’t someone redesigned the whole taxi/uber/rental car pickup model? I am sure there are smart minds out there with better ideas on how travel can improve. My guess is there is no ROI in being the unicorn.