The Biggest Travel Stories of 2015
It’s been a big year for travelers. We’ve seen emerging destinations, improved in-flight experiences (hi, Netflix), and giant hotel mergers literally change the face of the travel industry—affecting where we want to go and how we plan our trips there.
Nearly every piece of the puzzle has been rethought: things like hotel booking and ordering room service can now happen over social media, the start-up world has identified (and fixed!) the many pain points associated with finding a good flight, and (thank goodness) selfie sticks finally fell out of favor. But 2015 offered the world—and travelers—a new deck of challenges, including increased legal struggles for the sharing economy, geopolitical tensions, financial crises, and concerns about safety in the wake of terrorism.
To many, it was a surprise that travelers showed a resolve to get out, explore the world, and keep collecting experiences, even in the face of tragedy. If anything, 2015 proved the importance of travel as a means of making the world a smaller and more interconnected place. It taught us yet again that when places, people, and things (and yes, even wild animals) are close to our hearts, we’re more readily inspired to take action and become stewards for a better world. Cheesy but true.
With that, here’s our roundup of the year’s most noteworthy moments in the travel industry—the good, the bad, the innovative, and everything in between.
Gas Prices Went Down—And Eventually, Airfares Followed
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, jet fuel prices were down more than 40 percent this year compared to last, but for most of 2015, that didn’t translate to cheaper airfares. Instead, American carriers like Delta and Southwest saved upwards of $2 billion on their fuel costs, and used that money to grow their businesses—which eventually served to drive up competition and drive down prices. The net result: airfares were projected to be 17 percent cheaper for the last quarter of 2015, compared to the same period a year ago.
The Biggest Hotel Company In The World Was Born
In November, Marriott announced that it would buy Starwood Hotels and Resorts—putting to bed rumors that Hyatt or Intercontinental Hotels Group would purchase the ten-brand hotel group. Combined, they form the world’s biggest hotel brand, and likely its most powerful loyalty program—though details about the latter have yet to be revealed.
Airbnb Dominated Headlines
The pioneer of the sharing economy has grown up from indie darling to corporate behemoth, with 60 million hosted stays and a newly minted $25 billion valuation. But it’s also gotten its fair share of bad press this year, with lawsuits in San Francisco, a study that found half of listings illegal in New York City, and rare-but-salient tragedies spanning from rapes to deaths in host homes. No matter: this company is unstoppable, and all signs point towards continued growth (including talk of a massive expansion of guest services and amenities) in 2016.
Flight Booking Became Faster, Easier, and Cheaper
It used to be that your best bets for affordable airfares were Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz, and Hipmunk, but this year, a group of savvy start-ups shook up the scene—to the benefit of consumers everywhere. See here for T+L’s favorite newcomers. Also useful: a new array of airfare price predicting tools, which serve as a safety net for budget-conscious travelers.
Need we say more? The off-limits destination became open to American travelers after President Obama resumed diplomatic relations and lifted restrictions on travel. Instantly, the island rose to the top of Americans’ bucket lists—everyone wants to get to Havana before it changes. As a result, the Cuban government is preparing to welcome 10 million annual tourists. (Here’s how to plan your trip.)
Hostels Became Cool Again
This year in Europe, Generator—a brand of hip hostels—opened locations in Rome, Amsterdam, and Paris, representing more than 1,000 hotel beds priced below $150. (They’re all styled by Toronto’s acclaimed The Design Agency, which explains the good looks.) Meanwhile, the U.S. is seeing the expansion of Freehand, with its sought-after locations in Miami Beach and Chicago, and soon, downtown Los Angeles. Plenty more independents have sprung up in cities far and wide—find our favorites here.
Airplanes Got an Upgrade
Just last week, Boeing announced an eco-savvy update to its legendary 737, the 737 MAX, which is estimated to save 250 million pounds of fuel a year (per 100 aircraft). Also this year, Airbus launched its extra wide body A350, with roomier rows, better air quality, and extra-large windows. The one-year-old Dreamliner also saw a flurry of purchase orders and is now part of 23 carriers’ fleets (for a total of 128 routes), offering yet another option for comfort in the skies—even in economy.
Mobile Keycards Went Mainstream
Late in 2014, Starwood introduced mobile key cards, which let guests unlock their door by hovering their smartphone over the lock. But the year-old technology gained serious traction in 2015. This year, Starwood grew the program from 10 properties to 140 (including all of its W, Element, and Aloft locations worldwide); Hilton introduced its own version called Digital Key to 24 domestic hotels; and Caesars began experimenting with mobile entry at its new boutique spot, The Cromwell, in Las Vegas.
So Did Robotic Butlers… Sort Of?
In March, the robotics company Savoike completed a test run with its autonomous butler and started the long uphill climb towards making them a ubiquitous part of the guest experience. Aloft was first to bite with an R2D2-like prototype that made its debut last summer; this year six more hotels, including select Crown Plaza locations, have gained so-called “botlrs” (as Aloft has dubbed them) or “Dashes” (the preferred Crown Plaza moniker). CEO Steve Cousins says the robots have a 99 percent success rate when it comes to delivering items like extra towels or toothbrushes to hotel guests on-demand, and expects “hundreds” to be deployed at hotels around the world in the not-so-distant future.
Tragedy Hit Paris
In January, a terrorist rampage against the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo sent Paris into mourning. And then again, on November 13, the world stood still as the unthinkable unfolded: a series of ISIS-coordinated attacks at a concert hall, soccer stadium, and several restaurants left 130 dead throughout the City of Light. A state of emergency was declared, museums closed for several days, and travelers faced additional security measures while social media lit up with prayers and peace signs. Reports suggest that the city has mostly bounced back, but tragedies like these have an undeniable economic impact on the travel industry: in the last month alone, AirFrance has suffered a loss of $54 million in revenue as a result of cancelled flights.
Virtual Reality Became a Legitimate Way to Travel
It seemed like a futurist vision or geek obsession until recently, but Virtual Reality has arrived in full force—allowing travelers to scope out their vacations in 360-degrees before actually booking. Apps that run virtual tours on the Samsung Gear and Oculus Rift headsets include YouVisit (for destinations at large) and WoofbertVR (for museums); we’re hedging our bets on hotel tours via VR in 2016. Until then, you can also try out the Samsung systems at Marriott Hotels, which added virtual travel to its amenity list in September, or download destination-themed content (like these tours of British Columbia or the Shard, in London) on your own Google Cardboard unit.
Entertainment In The Sky Got Way More Entertaining
Chances are you’ve been stashing an iPad in your carry on for years now, but a slew of airline innovations this year transformed the way we think about in-flight entertainment. JetBlue, for instance, struck several content partnerships that let passengers stream from Amazon or read the Wall Street Journal mid-flight (among others). AirFrance offers access to 30-plus publications right from travelers’ tablets. On Virgin America, you can get connect to your Netflix account without a GoGo day pass. And with more airlines thinking about ripping out seatback screens to reduce the weight of their aircraft (and save on fuel), the trend is on the rise.
Los Cabos Bounced Back
Only a few months after Mexico’s Baja peninsula was decimated by Hurricane Odile (a category 4 storm), Cabo San Lucas pulled itself up by the bootstraps for an epic comeback season. Nearly all of its hotels and resorts (including T+L reader favorites The Resort at Pedregal, One & Only Palmilla, and Auberge’s Esperanza) reopened with new looks or new amenities, splashy openings like Thompson’s The Cape added edge (and an Enrique Olvera restaurant) to the scene, and another dozen-plus hotels broken ground for end-of-year or 2016 debuts (including the lovely new JW Marriott and Mar Adentro). Somehow, the already-epic destination has outdone itself—while rebuilding almost from scratch—in under one year.
Tons of new hotel brands opened their doors…
'Do Not Disturb' Signs Became the Obsession of Every Hotel Designer
Is it just us, or is this once overlooked detail suddenly the object of affection for quirky hoteliers? As T+L trotted the globe this year, we noticed versions with cheeky declarations (“I’m naked!”), ones were so subtly beautiful we wanted to take them home (a hand-sewn ornament to hang off the knob), and ones that were downright practical (a bucket of herbs that you could use for tea, or simply leave in front of your door).
Aviation Crises Gave Everyone A Small Fear of Flying
A total of 26 aviation accidents were recorded in 2015—that’s one every two weeks. But that number represents helicopter and military incidents that rarely register with (and shouldn’t worry) travelers. That said, nobody will soon forget the Delta plane that nearly crashed into the river when it missed the runway in New York’s LGA, the British Airways plane that caught fire in Las Vegas, the TransAsia flight that clipped a highway before crashing into a river in Taipei, or the tragic Germanwings crash that left 144 passengers dead in the Alps. These are still rare exceptions to the rule—flying has always been, and remains, safe. But if this year rattled you, there are steps you can take to make sure your airline has a solid safety record.
Emoji Room Service Became A Thing
Another quirky innovation that only Aloft could come up with: Emoji room service. At select properties, a dedicated menu tells guests what they can order—and which emojis to use when they text the concierge. Options include “The Munchies” (ordered with the chocolate bar, lollipop, and cookie emojis) or “The Hangover” (a cheeky combo of the tear drop, pill capsule, and banana icons).
Cecil the Lion Put the Spotlight on Conservation in Africa
With so many humanitarian issues making headlines, the killing of a beloved lion in Zimbabwe—who was collared as part of a research study—became one of the 2015’s most polarizing topics of conversation. And aside from making thousands of people want to take a safari (or donate to a conservation organization), the illegal hunt led several airlines to ban the shipment of trophy heads—inspiring a debate about whether the economic impact of hunting is more beneficial to conservation than protecting each and every herd member. (You can read our take on the issue here.)
Smart Luggage Took The Market By Storm
Want a bag that can weigh itself, send you GPS coordinates if it gets lost, and also charge your gadgets? Turns out you now have several brands to choose from. The big names to consider: BlueSmart, Trunkster, and Away, a Warby Parker luggage spinoff that’s builds in fewer tech features but loads more style.
Financial Crises Doubled as Golden Opportunities
Places like Greece and Japan may have suffered from near-financial collapse this year, but for travelers, the economic downturn translated into affordable travel. High prices have historically been an obstacle for travelers to Japan, so a favorable exchange rates there caused peak-season tourism to nearly double; even in politically unstable Greece, all signs pointed towards lower hotel rates and increased bookings.
Conrad Introduced Instagram-Based Hotel Bookings
Booking a hotel on Twitter is so 2013. This year, Conrad Hotels became the first travel brand to turn Instagram into a legitimate sales tool, thanks to a new technology called Like2Buy. But the process is still a bit cumbersome: you have to follow a link in Conrad’s profile to find a gallery of bookable photos. Click on any of them and you’ll automatically be redirected to the corresponding booking page.
Selfie Sticks Took A Hard Hit
After last year’s holiday season—which saw the sale of more than 100,000 selfie sticks—2015 was all about selfie stick backlash. Among the destinations and attractions that banned the potentially destructive device: Museums far and wide (including London’s National Gallery and New York’s Guggenheim), Walt Disney World and Six Flags amusement parks, Versailles, the music fest circuit (including Lollapalooza and Coachella), the Colisseum in Rome, the Hermitage in Amsterdam, and dozens of sporting venues.
The Hotel Okura Took a Bow
It’s not often that the world mourns a hotel, but it did when Tokyo’s legendary Hotel Okura closed its doors this August. The famously low-rise hotel, with its iconic 1960’s style lobby, was an ode to mid-century Japanese art and design. But its rooms were outdated and its infrastructure wasn’t up to code—new standards in earthquake-proof design left it badly in need of structural updating—so five decades into its history, the Okura said goodbye. Japanophiles, take heart: Yoshio Taniguchi, the son of Okura’s original designer and the man behind New York’s MoMA, has been given a $1 billion budget to rebuild the hotel ahead of the 2022 Olympic games.
JetBlue Started Charging For Checked Bags—Marking the End Of An Era
The most democratic airline of all started to move away from its one-size-fits-all approach last year when it introduced a premium cabin class called Mint. This June, it also added baggage fees and different ticket types for those of us who still swear by good ol’ economy. Now, passengers can buy Blue, Blue Plus, or Blue Flex tickets—all of which offer different cost structures for checked bags, ticket changes, and cancellations. Only those who book Blue Flex tickets get to check two bags for free (and for that privilege, they’ll pay about $85 more per ticket), while Blue Plus tickets come with an average premium of $15 and one free bag. Sticking to straight-up Blue tickets? You can now expect to pay $20 for your first bag if you pay in advance, or $25 at the counter.
Iconic Sights Got A Clean Up Worth Crying Over
Couples who put locks on Paris’ Pont des Arts were in for a sad realization this summer when the City of Light decided to take down the iconic symbols of love. As it turns out, having thousands of locks on a single bridge is enough to threaten its infrastructural integrity. Meanwhile, in Seattle, the gum wall at Pike Place Market was scraped clean for the first time in 20 years, triggering a serious bout of nostalgia for locals and visitors alike.
The Apple Watch Put Boarding Passes on Travelers’ Wrists
It seems like we’ve been talking about it for ages now, but Apple’s first smartwatch only hit shelves this April. Despite mixed reviews, travelers found much to gain—including access to boarding passes, Starwood room keys, and on-the-go translation right from their wrists. If you haven’t bought one yet, sit tight: there are already rumors swirling for a 2.0 version in 2016.