Bedbugs, body scans, ballooning fees - 2010 was a traumatic year for travelers.
In April, a volcanic eruption in Iceland sent thick plumes of ash into the skies, grounding thousands of flights to and from much of Europe for several days. Over the summer, Spirit Airlines boldly became the first carrier to charge fliers for using overhead bin space, introducing fees of $30 to $45. Rampant reports of bedbug infestations across the United States had travelers sleeping with one eye open.
The Transportation Security Administration, meanwhile, introduced controversial pat downs and digital body scans.
But the news wasn't all bad.
Hoteliers around the world grew even hungrier in 2010, slashing already-reduced rates deeper into bargain territory. In a boon for passenger rights, the U.S. government enacted new legislation to curb long delays on airport tarmacs - threatening fines of up to $27,500 per passenger for airlines that hold fliers onboard for more than three hours. Most promising, industry experts say, are signs that Americans are warming back up to the idea of spending money on vacations.
"People haven't really traveled in two years," says John T. Peters, of Tripology, an online travel service affiliated with Rand McNally. Although great deals were easy to come by, "not everyone felt comfortable, economically," taking advantage of them.
Such restraint has led to a "pent-up need to travel," says Terence Baker, editor of AAA New York's Car & Travel magazine, based in Garden City.
Indeed, a recent TripAdvisor.com survey of 3,000 travelers, found that 69 percent are planning international trips this year, while 75 percent will visit a U.S. city. But recession-weary travelers are still very conscious of cost.
Here's what's shaping up for the travel industry in 2011.
5 HOT DESTINATIONS
Long a favored European destination for Americans, London's panache has already catapulted with buzz of the April 29 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton at London's Westminster Abbey. The long holiday weekend will draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to the city. "It's a really rare instance," says TripAdvisor spokeswoman Brooke Ferencsik. People will want to participate in the festivities in some way, even if from "barely eyesight" distance.
Playing host to the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics is a big deal, so plenty of projects to improve facilities and infrastructure already are under way. But there's more to Brazil than glitzy Rio de Janeiro and flashy Carnival festivities, says Robert Reid of Lonely Planet. As a gateway to the Amazon, the South American country affords visitors access to the "amazingly diverse" frontier whose rainforests can be hiked or explored by boat. Late last year, several airlines increased service to Brazil. Says Reid, "It's getting hotter and hotter."
Sin City has always had wide appeal and the recent openings of the glittery CityCenter and Cosmopolitan resorts have only added more reasons to visit - and increased competition among hotels along the famed Strip. The result, says Travelzoo's Saglie, is "jaw-dropping" deals. "Rates are as rock-bottom as they've ever been," he says, citing prices as low as $19 a night and offers that include 2-for-1 deals on show tickets. Saglie predicts the bargains will continue into 2011. His advice: Use the city as a springboard - take advantage of the low rates to stay a few extra days and explore Death Valley, the Hoover Dam and Red Rock Canyon, among other outlying attractions.
Plagued in recent years by the outbreak of the swine flu and lingering concern about violence in the border towns, Mexico has a serious image problem to overcome, says Saglie. The good news: The country offers "amazing value" for Americans, with affordable direct flights and aggressive deals at four- and five-star resorts. Among them: The Ritz-Carlton in Cancun, for example, offered rooms for $769 a night that included a $500 daily credit for meals, drinks, spa treatments, cooking classes and such. Such steep perks become hard to resist.
"People will chase deals," says Robert Reid of Lonely Planet. Beyond the usual resort areas, he encourages visitors to push inland a bit and explore Colonial silver cities to experience the true culture in the form of fiestas and open-air taco stands. "It's very, very fun to go to these places."
The country's debt crisis has made headlines around the world. Such turmoil, Travelzoo's Gabe Saglie says, leads to reduced prices for airfare and hotels. Visitors can tool around the mainland to see the ruins in Athens or hop among small islands with pristine beaches and spectacular sites. In December, the country's government announced intentions to woo tourists in 2011 with a series of special events. Says Tripology's John T. Peters, "There are some amazing values out there.
3 TRENDS TO WATCH
Airfare and hotels will generally be more expensive in 2011, although not by much, experts say, and are more likely to be felt in key destinations such as New York City and Miami that attract tourists no matter what. Such hikes are not expected to impact the availability of travel deals. Says AAA's Terence Baker, "There always will be bargains out there."
The airline industry collected a staggering $2.56 billion in checked baggage fees during the first nine months of 2010. Such a windfall will surely inspire others in the industry to rethink what travelers might be willing to pay extra for, says Tripology's John T. Peters. Case in point: An uptick in hotels collecting daily "resort fees" or charging customers for routine services such as room cleaning - "all the stuff you used to get for free."
With hotel rates on the rise, travelers will be seeking value-added alternatives - TripAdvisor's annual survey indicates 47 percent of respondents are considering renting a vacation home, up from 39 percent last year. "It's a great opportunity for large groups of families that are planning to stay for longer periods of time," particularly in family-friendly destinations such as Myrtle Beach and Destin, Fla., says Brooke Ferencsik.