Top Travel News Stories of 2012
T+L looks back at the trends that have transformed the travel experience in 2012 and the events that made headlines.
In 2012, blogger Scott Shetler has found that he can be much more spontaneous when he travels.
Thanks to a smartphone, “I do a lot less advance research about destinations, and rely more on apps to find fun places after I arrive,” says the author of Quirky Travel Guy. The liberating pace has just one limitation: “I just have to make sure I’m never far from an outlet, so I can keep the phone charged.”
Between advances in travel-related technology and seemingly less anxiety about the economy, good news mostly dominated the top travel stories of 2012. At the very least, more people used their passports: according to the United Nations World Travel Organization, the number of international visits is set to exceed an impressive one billion by the end of the year.
In the U.S., business was particularly good by some standards. “In July, U.S. hotels booked the most rooms, ever, for a single month,” says Jan Freitag, senior vice president of travel data firm Smith Travel Research. The year-end totals for booked rooms, he adds, also look to break the record. Companies are sending more business travelers out on the road, and hotel rates—though higher by about 5 percent since 2011—still remain competitive compared to peak levels in 2007.
There are other fresh incentives to travel, too: airports are boasting fewer delays; London is basking in a post-Olympics glow, with plenty of cool new attractions; Myanmar has adventurous travelers buzzing; U.S. national parks are less crowded; and you can enjoy wine over dinner, for the first time, at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World.
For a lot of travelers, however, the biggest triumph may come from being able to get through airport security faster, whether it’s thanks to their age or their enrollment in the TSA’s expanding PreCheck program.
“Gone is the 30-minute wait in security lines and accompanying hand-wringing about whether you’re going to miss your flight,” says Pete Meyers, vice president of EuroCheapo.com. “Add to that a slightly ridiculous but undeniable sense of travel superiority—and you have yourself a winner.”
The TSA Eased Rules for Some Travelers
At 35 U.S. airports, select frequent travelers can now participate in PreCheck, a prescreening program that lets you keep your shoes, belt, and jacket on, and offers perks such as getting to leave your laptop in its bag, and packing liquids in your carry-on. Travelers on either end of the age spectrum are getting some relief, too: kids 12 and under, and folks 75 and over, don’t have to take off their shoes or jackets anymore. For everyone else, keep in mind that you can at least estimate your security waiting time by entering your time of day and airport checkpoint at ifly.com.
Crowd-Sourcing Got Hotter
The old-fashioned premise that the best tips often come from your friends (or at least kindred spirits) has driven the growth of social travel start-ups, such as Traverie, Trippy, and Jetpac, which let you browse travel photos or build bucket-trip itineraries, based on your established networks on Facebook. But they do a lot more than let you dream. Gogobot—whose user base more than doubled in 2012—lets you book hotels or restaurants by way of Kayak or OpenTable, as well as see which other nights might be cheaper for your chosen hotel, or scope out its neighborhood with Google-powered street views. The Planely app (and similar services created by KLM and Malaysia Airlines) gets even more personal, letting you connect in advance with potential flight seatmates.
National Parks Slumped
Defying conventional wisdom that recessions inspire an uptick in visits to National Parks, the NPS reports that visits are down by 10 million people since 1998. Worse yet, these national treasures are on the edge of the fiscal cliff and at risk of huge cuts, and funded only up until late March 2013—if the budget crisis is not resolved. The upside: parks that are lesser known to international visitors (such as Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Teton) are great bets. The lighter crowds are also a good excuse to dig into the parks’ Civil War history: the NPS has launched a site that invites you to explore the most important sites during the Civil War’s ongoing 150th anniversary.
Myanmar Got Travelers Buzzing
President Obama made a historic visit to Myanmar in November 2012, a striking boost for the nation formerly known as Burma, which is transitioning into democracy after years of repressive military rule. The Southeast Asian country has become the latest get-there-first destination for adventurous travelers: Intrepid Travel introduced trips to Burma in 2012 in response to demand, and the nation is poised to upgrade its airport and add more hotels in 2013.
Booking Services Enabled Travel on the Fly
A new crop of apps empowers travelers to book a hotel room—for a few hours from now. HotelTonight, Room 77, and Jetsetter Now, for instance, make the most of the brisk hotel market with last-minute bookings at big discounts. Not to be left behind, the online booking giants (Kayak, Priceline, Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia) have also introduced last-minute apps that use GPS to find available hotel rooms near you.
Goodbye, Jersey Shore?
A submerged rollercoaster off the coast of Seaside Heights said it all: the iconic stretch of New Jersey coastline took a brutal hit during Hurricane Sandy. The reality-show-inspiring boardwalk towns bring in $38 billion a year to New Jersey tourism. The state is vowing to start rebuilding, but the kitschy shore of yore could be, in many ways, a thing of the past. Such disasters, of course, often bring out the best in us. In the wake of the storm, hotels offered discounts to stranded travelers, and users of vacation rental site Airbnb even offered free places to stay to displaced residents. Weeks later, Atlantic City was trying to get back to normal, and launched a five-year public art project, ARTLANTIC, in the casino area’s vacant lots. Sandy was also a reminder that there are some concrete strategies to help weather-proof your trip—and that the best way to support destinations after the waters recede is to go visit and spend some money.
Brand USA Attracted More Visitors
Getting though customs in the U.S. got easier in 2012, thanks to the expansion of Global Entry, which allows prescreened travelers to check in at a kiosk rather than waiting in line to see a customs agent. In early 2012, the State Department also streamlined the visa process for tourists from China and Brazil, and expanded upon the Brand USA campaign, the first-ever marketing effort to draw international visitors to the U.S. It’s not hard to see why Chinese travelers are especially attractive: the average Chinese tourist spends $6,000 on a trip to the U.S., compared to $4,000 by other international travelers, and hotels increasingly cater to their tastes. The efforts seem to be working. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, international travel to the U.S. was up by 8 percent in the first half of 2012.
Cruising Industry Weathered Rough Waters
The Titanic sinking passed its 100th anniversary this spring, and with a tragic sort of timing: it was just a few months after Costa’s Concordia hit rocks off the coast of Italy and sunk. In its wake, the cruise industry faced questions about passenger safety, and lines are reportedly now being more stringent about attendance at safety briefing drills. Cruising remains, statistically, an extremely safe way to travel, and this year’s hot new ships include the Oceania Riviera (with a Napa-worthy wine cellar and cooking classes) and the Carnival Breeze (with a 4-D interactive movie theater and a comedy club). In late 2016, a high-tech replica of the Titanic, funded by an Australian billionaire, is slated to set sail along the same route.
Magic Kingdom Introduced Adult Drinks
It may not have inspired quite as much national outrage as the Twinkie crisis, but alcohol was served for the first time at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando this fall at the new French-themed Be Our Guest restaurant. While a few swigs of wine or beer may calm the nerves of frazzled parents, the shift is also a nod to the fact that plenty of grown-ups book romantic Disney getaways. And even though some Disneyphiles have said that Uncle Walt would not approve of booze in the Happiest Place on Earth, there were already a few adult-beverage-friendly spots among the Disney parks, such as Epcot, Anaheim’s Club 33, and, mais oui, Disneyland Paris.
American Airlines Was on the Skids
Seats fell loose, pilots called in sick amid labor disputes, and there were hundreds of delays and cancellations as the mega-airline ambled though bankruptcy proceedings. (At one point in September, 40 percent of American’s flights were late). A proposed merger with U.S. Airways may help right its course, but many travelers currently see the airline giant with a jaundiced eye.
It Became Cooler to Travel Alone
Travel pros say that more people have embraced traveling on their own: Google searches for “solo travel destinations” are up by 60 percent, while tour operator Abercrombie & Kent says it has had a 29 percent increase in the number of solo travelers this year compared with 2011. One potential downside of solo travel, of course, is paying the dreaded single supplement charged by many tour operators and cruises lines, but that is increasingly being lowered (or even waived) if you travel during shoulder- or off-season.
London Took the Gold
Many vacationers stayed away from London last summer to avoid Olympic-size crowds, but the people who did come more than made up for them. According to the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, 590,000 people came for the Olympics, and each spent an average of about $2,000 during their visit, about twice as much as other visitors to the city. London may enjoy a long victory lap after the Olympics, too. The build-up of new attractions—from the green Olympic Park to speedboat tours on the Thames and the ongoing expansion of the Tate Modern—will benefit visitors (and the city) for years.
Airport Delays Declined
Believe it or not, your odds of languishing at the gate went down in 2012. According to the DOT, 83 percent of all flights took off within 15 minutes of schedule, the highest level since 2003. One disappointing reason: fewer planes are in the air. But to their credit, many airlines have been working to mitigate delays—which, these days, are often exacerbated by more folks carrying their bags on board to avoid baggage fees. Flying out of the right airport makes a difference, too: Salt Lake City averages a 90 percent on-time rate, while Newark offers a 76 percent chance of taking off on time.
Hipster Hotels Were on the Upswing
While grande dame hotels such as the Hong Kong Peninsula and New York’s Algonquin were busy getting facelifts, many new hotels aimed for a more affordable version of luxury, often with mod and minimalistic aesthetics. Starwood’s Aloft hotel brand, with its promise of “style at a steal,” has continued to expand, as have boutique hotels with a decidedly hipster vibe, such as Chicago’s Longman & Eagle. European hotel chain Citizen M, meanwhile, plans to open two of its trim, sleek hotels in NYC over the next two years.