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Google Moves Into Online Travel Business

USA TodayGoogle, the world's most popular search engine, is expanding its reach in the lucrative online travel business. In March, Google added hotel links to its Maps application, listing hotels with room rates available to some users.

Google also is reportedly in talks to pay $1 billion to acquire ITA Software, which develops fare-shopping software for online travel agencies, airlines and fare-search-only sites, such as Bing Travel and Kayak.

Incorporating fares into Google search results would keep customers more engaged in its applications while they plan for travel, a prospect that could unnerve other fare sites. Users would be able to type in their destination and travel dates, and see flights and prices.

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Checking Out Early? It'll Cost You

New York Times |  The airlines have been doing it. Expect the hotels to follow suit. Over the last few years, the airlines have been adding and increasing fees on checked bags, exit row seats and more, much to the benefit of their bottom lines. And for similar reasons, hotels are likely to add more fees and more stringently enforce or even raise existing charges for cutting a stay short, for example, or for storing luggage.

A new study by Bjorn Hanson, clinical professor at the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality Tourism and Sports Management at New York University, found that while total fees and surcharges collected by hotels in the United States declined to $1.55 billion in last year’s faltering economy, they will rise this year. Mr. Hanson said he expected hotel surcharges to climb back up to $1.7 billion this year as a result of an expected rise of 3 to 4 percent in occupied hotel rooms, broader adoption of fees and more aggressive enforcement of and increases in existing fees.

The fees and surcharges were initially charged by high-end hotel brands in the late 1990s for access to resort amenities like the swimming pool, putting greens and tennis courts.

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United-Continental Deal: Birth of a Behemoth

New York TimesUnited Airlines and Continental Airlines on Monday announced a $3 billion merger that would create the world’s biggest airline.

The all-stock deal would form a coast-to-coast American behemoth with a leading presence in the top domestic markets, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, along with an extended network to Asia, Latin America and Europe.

The deal was completed in a remarkably short three weeks, and would give the airlines the muscle to fend off low-cost rivals at home and to take on foreign carriers abroad. United is buying Continental, and the combined company will keep the United name and be based in Chicago. It will, however, keep the Continental logo, livery and colors and maintain a large presence in Houston.

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United, Continental Could Announce Merger Monday

USA TodayUnited and Continental airlines have reached the precipice of a merger agreement that their executives hope to announce on Monday, a source involved in the negotiations said Friday.

The announcement hinges on the boards of both airlines approving the deal, said the source, who is not authorized to speak for the airlines and requested anonymity. The board of United's parent, UAL, is to meet today. Continental's board is supposed to meet today and Sunday.

A union between Chicago-based United, the third-largest U.S. carrier, and No. 5 Continental, based in Houston, would create the biggest airline in the world. Based on passenger miles flown in 2009, the combination would be about 10% larger than the current world leader, Delta Air Lines.

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Denver Debuts Nation's First City Bike-Share Program

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The last time I visited Denver I fell in love with Little Man Ice Cream (or, rather, its banana chocolate chip frozen custard, with a dollop of hot fudge). Now that the city is offering up 500 red Trek cycles in its bike-sharing program, I’ll pedal there myself, and order up a double scoop to celebrate the calories I’ve burned.

Riding on the heels (or wheels?) of similar initiatives in Montreal and Mexico City, Denver B-Cycle is the nation’s first citywide bike-share, and incredibly cheap (it was sponsored by various big-money partners, including Kaiser Permanente). Purchase a 24-hour membership for $5 with your credit card at any of 40 ubiquitous B-cycle stations (above, see map here), and soon enough you’ll be free-wheelin’ it throughout the Mile High City. Legs getting sore? Just return your bike to its hub (stations are everywhere from the Denver Art Museum to the Highlands, the nabe Little Man Ice Cream calls home).

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Spirit Air Announces "No Recline" Seats

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I just flew in from Ft. Lauderdale to New York, and, boy, am I tired! No, seriously though, I am. Because Spirit Airways has decided to change out their old seats for a new “lightweight, leather” model that doesn’t recline at all, I didn’t doze one bit on my 7 a.m. jaunt up the coast.

Just last week, Spirit released an absurd statement (one rivaled in ridiculous spin only by the airline’s own proud announcement in March that it would begin charging for carry-ons) that touted its new paralyzed seatbacks as a positive development for passengers. The claim:

1. The seats offer comfort throughout the entire flight, since you don’t need to put them in their full upright position during take-off and landing (right, because the lean-forward, lean-back thing is such an exhausting part of travel).

2. Customers appreciate that “there is no longer interference from the seat in front of you moving up and down throughout the flight.”

Yes, the inconsiderate gent in 14B sprawling back just as you dig into your chicken-flavored Cup-O’-Noodles is annoying. But not being able to recline at all? That’s plain infuriating. And, on any flight over two hours, as I can attest, terribly uncomfortable.

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FAA Opening Commercial Spaceflight Center

Network World |  The Federal Aviation Administration this week took a step closer to setting up a central hub for the development of key commercial space transportation technologies such as space launch and traffic management applications and setting orbital safety standards.

The hub, known as the Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation would have a $1 million yearly budget and tie together universities, industry players and the government for cost-sharing research and development. The FAA expects the center to be up and running this year.

The new center would be an offshoot of other FAA Centers for Excellence that through myriad partnerships develop and set all manner of aviation standards from aircraft noise and emissions to airport systems. According to the FAA the center's purpose is to create a world-class consortium that will identify solutions for existing and anticipated commercial space transportation problems.

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La Dolce Vita: Gelato Tours in Rome

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Come June, author, blogger, and all-around sweet tooth David Lebovitz is heading to Rome to hunt down the best gelato in town—if not the world. For anyone interested in joining him, the author of the ice cream bible The Perfect Scoop will lead an Out of Context three-hour guided tour to the eternal city’s best gelato and granita ($86/person).

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Is the Best Restaurant in the World Closing?

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Yes, it’s true. For those of you who haven’t heard, El Bulli—chef and molecular gastronomist Ferran Adria’s inimitable restaurant on Spain’s Costa Brava, considered by many to be the finest in the world—is closing. This summer season, which begins on June 15th, will be its second-to-last.

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As a restaurante, that is. Despite rumors that the place was gone for good, a press release has confirmed that El Bulli will indeed close in 2012—but reopen in 2014 as a culinary foundation. The not-for-profit institute will serve as a “think tank for creativity in gastronomy,” offering 20 to 25 yearlong fellowships for chefs to experiment in Adria’s famous taller, and compiling an exhaustive encyclopedia on contemporary cooking.

Adria, meanwhile, will try out his talents on a different dining public: the students Harvard University. He has signed on to teach a fall 2010 undergraduate course in culinary physics.

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Amtrak Redefines the Cattle Car

okdot.jpgOn its daily four-hour trip across a swath of southwest oil country Tuesday, Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer was blazing a new trail of sorts: one fueled by biodiesel.  The run marks the Earth Week inauguration of a 12-month test of alternative fuels along the 206-mile route.  

The fuel, a blend of 80% diesel and 20% beef by–product (if the train industry is shunning Texas oilmen, at least they’re tossing a shank bone to region’s cattle industry), performed well in lab test.  Carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions were reduced by 10%, particulates by 15%, and sulfates by 20%, so hopes are high for the track test. 

And, no, the fuel does not smell like burgers.

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