Thursday, July 25, 2024
HomeVacationsSummer travel is getting harder. Fall vacations are the answer.

Summer travel is getting harder. Fall vacations are the answer.

This is part of Airplane Mode, a series on the business—and pleasure—of travel right now.
This summer seemed like the end of something. Maybe it was the pine-scented haze of Canadian wildfire smoke that canceled over half of my favorite June-to-August frisbee league. Maybe it was the constant burnt-orange temperature notification on my laptop’s weather app, as distracting as a mosquito bite. Or maybe it was just seeing the meme of the bread-baking Texas grandmother—who (turns out) didn’t actually bake a loaf in her mailbox, but did have to use oven mitts to open it up and retrieve her mail—all over my timeline. Over the past few summers, and especially this hellacious season, I’ve realized that among the many effects of climate change and warming temperatures will be the end of summer vacations. And I, for one, am glad about that.
Not glad about the end of vacations, to be clear. In a country like the U.S., where so few people take or are allowed vacations, more time off should be allowed and encouraged. The issue is the summer in summer vacation. Due to climate change, the summer season is increasingly an exhausting, unhealthy, and scorching experience. No matter your vacation ideal, it’s becoming too boiling to enjoy. Crowds at Disney World are shrinking as Florida endures 100-plus-degree heat, five people have died since June during record-breaking heat waves at national parks, and the cultured destinations of Florence, Rome, and Athens all spent stretches of the summer sweltering in heat that forces comparisons to hounds out of Hades.
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To me, summer vacations were always overrated. When I was a kid, my family would pack into a car and drive three hours to the beach in North Carolina. I would be stuffed in the back seat of our car with my younger brother, who was just then mastering (and often failing at) the art of using deodorant. We would inevitably be stuck in traffic, with only lonely tobacco fields staring back at us. Once we got to the beach, we would start a desultory routine of sitting out on the sand in the morning, then waiting in line at fish camps in the evenings. This pattern was sometimes broken up by brotherly fights over putt-putt golf games as the sun stared down at us like a disapproving father, while my actual disapproving father riffled through the pockets of his cargo shorts for a Swiss Army knife to help remove a splinter in my mom’s big toe.
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All of the background discomfort that has always characterized the summer vacation for me is now amplifying, in subtle and obvious ways that are, frankly, kind of creepy. In Leave the World Behind, an unsettling 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam about a vacation gone apocalyptically wrong, a New York City family heads out to Long Island by the beach. As they arrive at their expensive rental house with dreams of pool time and cookouts, Alam has one of the characters reflect that “vacation was for being returned to your body.” But their hoped-for idyll is interrupted by unexpected visitors, a sudden blackout, an approaching “storm of the century” hurricane, and an oddly watchful gathering of deer. Alam artfully crafts a world in which events conspire to turn the utopian promise of summer into a nightmare.
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That book got widespread praise for capturing the vibes of the first pandemic year, but it’s also perfect for understanding why summer 2023 has felt so terrible. Who would want to be “returned to your body” now, as summer becomes a threat and not a comfort? The weather is alternatively swampy and dangerous, travelers face crowded roads and literally baking planes, and being at the beach or in the woods means encountering a swelling crop of ticks. Even as we, in the real world, know that climate change is behind these events, it can still feel like the vibe so frighteningly depicted in Alam’s novel: a mysterious, unknown force turning idyllic months into an ongoing nightmare.
As we approach the change in seasons this Labor Day, the No. 1 lesson of summer 2023 is the need to throw everything we can at slowing down climate change. In the meantime, we need to find ways to adjust and cope. For those of us, like me, who treasure their time off, autumn is now the best time for a vacation. The crowds are thinner and the weather is cooler. With the sun setting earlier but not too early, you don’t feel the low-grade mix of dehydration and exhaustion so characteristic of a July or August day. Bike rides are better in crisp weather; beaches and lakes are scenic, not stews of simmering bacteria. Fall colors offer just as much vibrancy for nature lovers as the greens and blues of high summer, and lines dissipate at museums like waves receding at low tide. Even the sunlight is better in the fall, like a blanket of honey and gold woven together—much more comforting than the insistent fluorescence of summer’s rays.
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A few years ago, my boyfriend’s work schedule forced us to take time off in October. We planned to go to Burgundy and soak in its wine culture. When we got there, I was surprised. I was expecting to be crushed by fellow tourists in the walled and cobblestoned French village where we were staying, but the streets were empty of everything but locals running errands. I insisted on waking up early to get to the bike rental shop before it sold out of bikes for our cycling tour of the area. The store owner seemed happy that we were there—indeed, happy that anyone was there, as he told us no one else had booked any bikes for the day and we were his only customers. It was on the véloroute through the vineyards, wearing a jacket and with not a drop of sweat on me, that I realized there was no going back. Fall was where it was at.
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So far, it’s mainly retirees and people without children who have gotten to experience the delight of the fall vacation. But the pent-up travel demand and increased flexibility of the post-COVID world is changing things. The travel industry expects the general surge in travel to continue into the fall as Americans make trips to autumn weddings, sporting events, and food festivals, and yes, participate in the ongoing economic stimulus to U.S. cities that is Taylor Swift concerts. Perhaps we truly are in our Autumn Era?
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Certainly, many families don’t currently have the option to take fall vacations because of school calendars. But schools—and jobs and camps and sports leagues—should, and will, have to rethink what their schedules look like in the coming years. Some school systems over the past few decades have moved to a year-round calendar, offering shorter summer breaks and more fall and winter breaks. The jury is out on whether this kind of schedule actually helps with learning, but some districts hope that scattering breaks throughout the year might assist with teacher retention. Soon, it will also make sense to make the climate a priority when deciding on academic calendars. Schools that have air conditioning (right now not enough of them) might choose to keep students inside, in an air-conditioned space, rather than out in the summer heat.
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Even with the increased numbers of travelers of late, going on vacation in autumn is like entering a hushed and luxurious train car after having been in a stuffed summer subway pressed against perspiring commuters. As temperatures continue to boil and more travelers start to see the benefits of autumnal trips, an increasing number of people will surely adopt this vacation choice. I’m not saying that pumpkin spice lattes will fully replace margaritas as the drink of the hammock-swinging vacationer. But whether we like it or not, summer is packing its bags and on the way out. Fall, on the other hand, is just arriving.

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