In 2016, new companies, products, and trends will alter the way we fly, drive, and stay—mostly for the better. Here are eight ways your travel experience is about to get shaken up.

By Sara Clemence
January 11, 2016
Credit: Matt Murphy

You'll Get to New Destinations Direct

Big new planes like the Airbus A350 and A380 and Boeing’s Dreamliner are allowing carriers to explore their long-haul possibilities. “Assuming we have no new geopolitical crises,” Harteveldt says, “you’ll probably see a lot of new routes introduced in 2016.”

Some of these will be boons for business travelers—Air India is talking about shuttling between the tech capitals of San Francisco and Bangalore, India, for instance. But they’ll also create direct opportunities where none existed before. Turkish Airlines is launching a flight between Atlanta and Istanbul in 2016, which will be the only nonstop from the Southern hub to that region. British Airways will be jetting between London and San Jose— both California’s and Costa Rica’s. Singapore Airlines will put its new A350s to work cruising to and from its home base and Amsterdam. And United Airlines is taking Dreamliners from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, Auckland, and Xi’an, China.

Change is Coming
Credit: Matt Murphy

Small Airlines Will Have Their Day

Sometimes it seems like airline news is all about large carriers merging into even larger ones. But the next couple of years will be about the rise of niche airlines—new regional networks, commuter carriers, and even flying clubs. Their main focus is on business travelers, but vacationers who live far from the huge hubs can benefit, too. Expect airline service to come back to cities that have lost it, and the introduction of new commercial flights between some locations for the first time, says Henry Harteveldt, founder of the travel advisory firm Atmosphere Research Group. Last April, OneJet began taking on medium-size cities in the Midwest and South, with direct routes from Indianapolis to Nashville, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Memphis, on Hawker 400 jets that seat seven passengers. A one-way Pittsburgh-to-Minneapolis flight went for around $300 in November; for that price, the company brags, you get to board as little as five minutes before departure. In the fall, 15-year-old Tradewind Aviation, whose business is built on shuttles in the Northeast, launched new schedules from Westchester, New York, to Boston and Stowe, Vermont. Newcomer Beacon zips between Westchester and Boston, too; members can fly as much as they want for $1,750 a month. And there’s Glo Airlines, which at press time planned to start serving Southeastern cities in November, flying between New Orleans and Little Rock, Memphis, and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Booking Sites Will Cost More

Airlines, hotels, and other travel companies have been battling it out with online travel agencies such as Expedia and—and travelers could be both winners and losers. The OTAs charge travel companies big commissions for bookings and also saddle them with the cost of providing data about flights, rooms, and cars. Which is why you will start finding the cheapest fares and rates on the hotels’ and airlines’ own sites. One recent example: in September, Lufthansa imposed a $17 fee on flights bought through third parties. And like other brands that are trying to incentivize you to buy straight from them, Hilton is offering special advantages to guests who book direct, letting them choose specific rooms and check in over the phone. Expect more penalties and perks to come.

Lobbies Will Get Loungier

On your next visit to a favorite hotel, you may wonder where the front desk went. The new entryway is sexier and younger—the kind of place a millennial might enjoy camping out with a laptop and a cup of cold-brewed coffee. And that traditional chest-high check-in desk has probably been swapped out for something less formal (and sometimes more confusing). “It’s, what would look cool on Instagram?” says Bjorn Hanson of New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality & Tourism. In September the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, unveiled its updated lobby, which now has a seven-foot-tall tequila cabinet that is opened nightly. The Palace Hotel in San Francisco, which was also refreshed in 2015, turned part of its very proper Garden Court into a tea lounge with low velvet sofas; the space will also host live music performances. “I’m convinced that lobby renovations are at an all-time high,” Hanson says.

Change is Coming
Credit: Matt Murphy

There Will be More Hotel Fees

Hotels may be pulling in only a fraction of the $38.1 billion in fees that airlines scored in 2014. But they’re doing their best to catch up. U.S. properties are expected to have made a record $2.47 billion in 2015 by tacking extra charges onto their room rates, according to a report by Hanson. He predicts they’ll top that in 2016. We’re not just talking about resort fees—charges for amenities such as swimming pools and tennis courts that have been around for a couple of decades. These days hotels are trying to ding guests for everything from nonsmoking rooms to hair dryers.

Want to get into your room a couple of hours early? In the past hotels would have handed over the key for free, if everything was ready. “Now, even though your room might be available, they might charge you $30 or $50,” Hanson says. At MGM Resorts’ Mirage Las Vegas, guests can pay an “express” fee to bypass the check-in desk and access a room early. At the nearby Bellagio, you can request a nonsmoking (or smoking) room, but it won’t be guaranteed unless you pay a $30-a-night surcharge. On the budget end of the spectrum, don’t be surprised to see more hotels that take à la carte to the extreme. Malaysian hotel group Tune, for instance, which has locations in the U.K., Australia, Indonesia, and India, charges as little as $100 a night for a room in central London. But that doesn’t include television, daily maid service, or towels—all available for extra fees.

First Class Will Be Smaller (But Better)

For several years airlines have been shrinking—and in some cases, discarding—their first-class sections in favor of business-class seats, a trend that will reach a peak in the coming months. Corporate fliers pulled back on first-class travel in the last recession and never really returned, says Rick Seaney, CEO of flight-data firm FareCompare. “And individuals who would pay full price are choosing private jets.”

Lufthansa is slashing the percentage of flights with first-class cabins from 90% to 75%. Qatar Airways will keep first class only in its 10 new double-decker A380s. Cathay Pacific is leaving the fanciest seats out of the 26 Airbus A350-1000s it will start putting into service in 2016. Even Singapore Airlines, one of the first carriers to offer suites, is halving the first-class seats on its 777-300ERs, which make up almost a fourth of its fleet. Now there will only be one row of four.

Meanwhile, other carriers are making their premium seats swankier— and charging north of $10,000 for them. In early 2015, Air France unveiled its La Première cabin, with food by high-profile chefs and fold-flat seats that can be curtained off for privacy. British Airways debuted an elegant first-class cabin in October for its 787 Dreamliners. The eight seats per plane (versus the usual 14) have 23-inch screens, leather upholstery, and personal lockers. Emirates just completed a redo of its first-class offerings, too, with a focus on privacy. First class isn’t dead, just richer and thinner.

Upgrades Will Be Easier to Get

Frequent fliers rejoice—in 2016 it will get easier to get bumped from coach to premium economy, and from premium economy to business class. One reason: because business-class seats are smaller than first-class seats, those former first-class cabins will have more inventory, which will probably lead to discounts in business class, too, says FareCompare’s Rick Seaney.

Change is Coming
Credit: Matt Murphy

Car-Rental Customers Will Get New Options

Long lines, loads of paperwork, and hard-to-reach locations are challenges even for travelers with premium status at auto-rental firms. A handful of upstarts aim to take some pain out of the process. Los Angeles–based Skurt lets drivers book a rental car with a smartphone app, and it will even deliver the ride to them. It is available in L.A. and plans to head to San Francisco, New York, and Miami in 2016. Silvercar launched in 2013 with just one model of car—a silver Audi—that can also be booked through an app, generally for less than $100 a day. The company is at some of the country’s biggest airports, including Chicago’s O’Hare and Dallas–Fort Worth, and will expand to new markets in the next 12 months. Zipcar has quietly and quickly been beefing up its airport presence. The Avis-owned company is in more than 50 U.S. and four European hubs. You just swipe your card to unlock a vehicle and go—gas and insurance included.