As everyone gets ready for the annual year-end holiday travel stretch, a solid 16-day haul this year, here is a look back at some of the biggest stories and most compelling trends in travel for 2005. Happy Holidays, see you next year!
Five of the major airlines in bankruptcy simultaneously
In mid-September, Delta and Northwest declared bankruptcy within 30 minutes of one another, putting five of the eight major U.S. airlines in Chapter 11 protection simultaneously (the others were United, US Airways and ATA). As a result, domestic flights were flown by a bankrupt airline.
For more on this issue, check the article Bankruptcy Built for Two.
Granted, the big airlines were up against some huge shifts in the industry, including high fuel costs, formidable competition from the discount airlines at which they once scoffed, and their own lumbering style of business. But the fact is that the rest of the industry is doing just fine - airlines like Southwest and JetBlue are truly thriving, as is the rest of the world - check out this article that shows the global airline industry will lose $6 billion this year - mainly due to US airlines losing $10 billion: IATA sees airlines losing $10.2 billion in 2005-06.
Will it get better? It's hard to say - particularly since the people who made the mess in the first place are not only sticking around, but they'll be rewarded for their efforts; check out Anger over $285m stake for bosses of United Airlines.
Loyalty programs became a one-way street
You can faithfully fly your preferred airline, buy into credit card offers, stockpile miles, and often still get stonewalled when you try to cash in for a free ticket or upgrade. With the supply of award seats and upgrades at an all-time low, and demand increasing with every holiday gift credit card purchase, redeeming miles is harder than ever.
When I wrote about the topic in two parts this summer (Airlines Miles, Use Them or Lose Them? and Airline Miles: Useless? Part Two), I received a heap of mail on the topic, split about 50-50 between those who had the same experience I did, and others who redeemed their miles without problem. However, in most cases, those who could redeem their miles did so on very low-priced flights, which seems to me a waste of miles, or on trips planned months in advance - in at least three cases the full 330 days ahead of time (airlines only sell flights a maximum of 330 days in advance). This tactic reads to me like those Black Friday mall stampedes you see on the 10 o'clock news; if I have to wake up at midnight 330 days before travel to redeem some of my gazillion miles, I still say something is amiss.
The aggregators are here
A few years back, the booking engine sites (Expedia / Travelocity / Orbitz) were the hot new entrants; then it was the bid and name-your-price sites. In 2005, the aggregator sites rose to the top, assumed the mantle, took the prize; see The Aggregators are Coming. These sites are getting better all the time. Sidestep previously required you to download their software.
This is no longer the case, and the companies are making deals with travel providers all the time, firing up RSS feeds and personalized notification services. Recently, Kayak.com added a multi-city flight search function to its list of capabilities. See our article What's the Deal: Multi-City Flight Searches to see how the various sites stack up on this front.
Less than 10 years ago, pricing for travel services was a complete and utter mystery; now it is one of the most transparent markets in the world.
The return and education of the holiday traveler
The summer of 2000 was notoriously gnarly season for travel; the economy was still booming, airfares were at rock bottom, and millions of people took to the air every day. The holidays were astounding and brutal times to travel; every holiday brought new record volume, and the airlines seemed anything but up to the challenge. September 11, 2001 changed all that.
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Over the past 14 months the annual "record-setting holiday weekend" has returned to the news after a solid three year hiatus. Recent volume increases are relatively modest - AAA expects an increase of less than 2% this year - but more importantly, it's starting to look like travelers are wising up to and working around the issue. This past Thanksgiving - a record weekend - was one of the least stressful holiday weekends in some time, largely because travelers started taking all the advice that is flying around out there to travel off-peak, early in the day, on odd days, etc.
While we're on the topic, some tips for the season:
The people weigh in
It took a while, but the Amazon user-review model has finally made inroads in the travel market. By posting largely unedited customer product reviews, Amazon.com tapped deeply into the many-to-many potential of the Web for consumer items. The travel industry is slowly getting into the act as hotel, cruise, and service reviews begin to populate booking sites. As we demonstrated in Star Quality: What's In A Hotel Rating? , the reviews can vary depending on several slippery factors, but overall it has never been easier to know what to expect upon arriving at your destination.
Wifi goes wide
Just a few days ago, JiWire.com announced they currently list 92,474 hotspots worldwide. Wireless access is becoming almost routinely available in hotels, airports, cafes, cruise ships, and more, and this is just the beginning. Both the public and private sectors enterprise are angling to "unwire" entire neighborhoods, cities and regions with both paid and free wireless broadband access. This trend is only likely to accelerate; soon the Internet will be an "anywhere, anytime" presence in our traveling world.
For more on this trend, see Tips for Better Wi-Fi on the Road.
Air rage returns
Yes, it is getting ugly up there - again. The most recent DOT Air Travel Consumer Report reports that airline complaints are up 29% this year, outrunning fuel prices as a growth industry. If you think that's bad, wait until you have to sit through a sales call going down 18" from your ear when (if?) cellphones are permitted on planes, oof: Cell phones in Air: Yay or Nay?
Travel prices are indeed higher
As a result of shrinking route maps, recovering consumer demand, high fuel prices, and the troubled financial state of the airlines, which inspires them to wring every dollar they can from every seat sold, airfare prices are up 11% this holiday season.
You'll find the same when checking hotel prices; AAA's Leisure Travel index finds that holiday hotel rates are up 14%. And of course the cost of fuel to drive anywhere is way up (average gas prices are up 31 cents nationally compared to last year at this time). One bright spot on pricing; rental car rates are down on average about 2 percent from their peak prices last Christmas.
Never before have so many high-profile tourist areas been devastated by severe weather. Beginning with the tsunami in Southeast Asia (and arguably before with the Florida hurricanes), tourist destinations in particular endured an astonishing string of natural disasters.
From a series of earthquakes to the savage Category 5 Hurricane Katrina, which all but obliterated one of our famous and historical cities, the weather has been a major factor in the travel industry this year.
TSA's poor timing
I mention this last because it hasn't happened yet, so it's too early to judge - but who in any other industry schedules a major policy change to take effect on one of the busiest days of the year?
As we reported two weeks ago, big changes at the security checkpoint will be enacted by the TSA on December 22; pretty much the official full-blown start of the extended holiday travel season, just two days before this year's confluence of Christmas and the start of Hanukkah on the same day.
Of course Hanukkah starts on a different day every year, but it sure isn't possible that someone could have forgotten that Christmas falls on December 25 - everyone knows that a whole heap of people will be traveling 12/22; they do every year.
Who decided this one? Mid-September and early December are classic "dead weeks" of travel, when the airways and airports are less crowded than at almost any other time - why not introduce the new procedures two weeks ago, work out the bugs, and let folks have a happy holiday travel season?
Here's hoping travelers figure it out for themselves, like they seemed to have done this past Thanksgiving. To the TSA, we say: thanks for the coal in the stocking!
The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.