By all accounts, 2009 has been the "year of the travel deal," with hotels, airlines and tour operators slashing prices to lure the cash-strapped to vacation - often at the last minute.
Indeed, average daily hotel rates in Las Vegas dropped to a mere $84 - 26 percent lower that 2008 prices, according to Orbitz.com statistics. Hotels in New York, Chicago and San Francisco also made significant reductions.
Meanwhile, airline baggage fees soared, with almost all major carriers now charging passengers about $20 each way to check their first piece of luggage on domestic flights. Rental car rates were also slightly higher, averaging $45 per day, up from $42 in 2008, according to AAA/IHS Global Insight findings.
What's ahead for 2010?
From up-and-coming hot spots to a virtual explosion of travel-related technology innovations, here's a look at what experts are predicting to be the most popular travel trends next year.
DESTINATIONS TO WATCH
Iceland is more accessible than ever, says Anna Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel .com - especially for New Yorkers, who can get there on a six-hour flight.
Reykjavik, the capital, is "very hip," with a surprisingly robust nightlife scene. Natural wonders abound outside the city. Swimming in the bath-warm waters of the Blue Lagoon as snow falls from the winter skies is surreal.
And now is the time to plan a trip - a massive economic crisis there has sent traditionally expensive hotel rates and other travel costs plummeting. Come June, a new low-cost carrier, Iceland Express, will begin daily nonstop service between Newark International and Reykjavik, giving travelers yet another way to shave costs.
"It's exotic and it's unknown," says Debra Kalsmith-Sternberg, a senior agent at Liberty Travel in Bay Shore. She's seen a recent spike of interest from her Long Island clients, who are taking trips to experience the urban culture in Bangkok and Chiang Mai or the world-class beaches in Koh Samui and Phuket - all at a very favorable exchange rate.
Named one of three "European Cultural Capitals" for 2010, the city of Essen and the surrounding Ruhr region are awash in celebrations, festivals and new attractions that are expected to draw lots of tourists to Germany. It all comes on the heels of this year's celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's coming down. What's more, Continental Airlines begins new daily nonstop service from Newark to Munich in March.
4. Las Vegas
Super-low hotel rates should continue into 2010, says Orbitz .com spokeswoman Jeanenne Tornatore. Sweetening the pot is the opening of CityCenter, a large complex on the Strip with several hotels, high-end shopping and entertainment. "It's really a city within a city," says Tornatore. "It's going to attract a whole new crowd."
Swine flu fears may have wreaked havoc on the country's image this year, but Cancun still topped Orbitz.com's most popular international destinations for 2009 (the Riviera Maya region and Los Cabos also ranked in the top eight). "You forget how big Mexico is," says Robert Reid, a travel editor at Lonely Planet. He points out that cities visited most frequently by tourists actually had fewer reported cases of the H1N1 virus than many U.S. locations. Several new resorts are opening in 2010, and others have attractive deals.
HOW TRAVEL IS CHANGING
It seems like traveling has never been so easy, what with trip-planning Web sites, iPhone applications and wireless memory cards for digital cameras. But experts say how - and why - we are traveling these days are changing with the times, too.
1. 'Conscious' travel
Several experts say they are seeing a rise in more mindful, "conscious" trips, with travelers making an effort to choose eco-friendly hotels and support the destination's local economy.
"There's more interest in authenticity," says Nancy Novogrod, editor of Travel + Leisure magazine. Travelers are dodging tourist traps, seeking real experiences they can remember. "People are looking for the little jewels," she says. That might mean dining at the best authentic barbecue joint in Nashville or taking a walk to a local cupcake shop in Los Angeles.
2. Adventure travel
On Long Island, more travelers are going for experience-type trips in 2010 - namely African safaris, says Debra Kalsmith-Sternberg. In keeping with the trend of cultural enrichment, some locals are choosing Kenya, which affords opportunities to see the animals but also allows visitors to spend time in native villages.
Will 2010 be the year of widespread in-flight Internet access and cell phone use? This holiday season, Delta, American, United and Air-Tran offered fliers some form of free wireless service aboard certain flights. Aircell's GoGo in-flight service is selling access on certain airlines and routes at prices from $4.95 for a single flight (up to 90 minutes) to $24.95 for a 30-day pass. Whether fliers will pay remains to be seen.
As for in-flight cell phone usage, British Airways recently launched mobile phone service aboard business-class trans-Atlantic flights between London and New York. Other overseas airlines permit various degrees of mobile phone use, from text messaging to browsing the Internet.
"In 2009 the deals were amazing," says Jeanenne Tornatore, with prices for four- or five-night cruises dipping as low as $200 a person. Cruise lines unveiled several new liners this year - some with never-seen-before amenities that she says are bound to pique loyal cruisers' interest for 2010 trips. But since these monster-size ships can carry many more passengers, there are going to be more cabins than ever for cruise lines to fill. Experts say prices should continue to be attractive.
Virtually gone are the days of planning a trip nine or even six months ahead of time, says Anna Banas, who predicts last-minute trips will be even more popular next year. "That's where all the bargains are," she says.
As the U.S. economy weathers the slump, she's seeing steeply discounted deals to big-ticket destinations - including Hawaii. Says Banas, "If you have a dream trip, it might be a good time to take it."
TOP 3 2010 DESTINATIONS
With major happenings and new attractions come international interest. Here are the top three destinations expected to generate lots of enthusiasm with travelers throughout 2010:
WHEN Feb. 12-28
WHERE Vancouver, Canada
All eyes will be on British Columbia in February as athletes from around the world descend on the Pacific Rim metropolis, which has been named among the most attractive (and expensive) places to live.
2. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
WHEN Spring 2010
The hotly anticipated wing of the Florida amusement park is to be based on J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. Details are hush-hush, but plans include a Hogwarts castle, several theme rides and a cafe serving Cauldron Cakes and Butterbeer.
WHEN June 11-July 11
WHERE South Africa
"Football," as soccer is called in other parts of the world, takes center stage in the summer. Cape Town, Johannesburg and other cities have spruced up their facilities in anticipation of hosting the sport's premier tournament.
2010'S 'BEST VALUE DESTINATIONS'
SOURCE: Lonely Planet's "Best in Travel 2010" ($14.99)