For travelers, 2011 was the year of the shake-up. Old certainties were challenged; former ways of doing things, rethought. Travelers saw Southwest merge with AirTran. Deal-a-day site Groupon gave online travel agencies their first serious competition in ages. The year's other online travel sensation, Airbnb—a site that offers lodging in people's homes—dealt with news that one renter had trashed and robbed a site member's home, renewing questions about the kindness of strangers.
Looking abroad, the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East shifted travel patterns—most dramatically in Cairo, where famous museum halls echoed emptily for months. Cruise lines suspended stops at a couple of Mexican ports, prompting local officials to introduce measures to better protect passengers. Meanwhile, some international travelers took advantage of opportunities to fly the new, high-tech Dreamliner 787 from Boeing.
Back at home, the government tested new ideas in airport security and permitted Americans to visit Cuba as part of licensed educational tour groups. Finally, officials opened Manhattan's oft-debated memorial to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Here, a chance to cap off 2011 and learn (or remember, in some cases) the biggest stories of the year that affect how we travel and see the world now—and in years to come.
Flying Started to Get More Comfortable
Anyone who swears that it's just about the journey, and not the destination, has never logged hours crammed into an economy-class seat on an airplane that feels as dry as the Sahara. But a new era in comfier cabins dawned in 2011, thanks to the debut of a high-tech aircraft design. In October, Boeing's latest jumbo jet, the 787 Dreamliner, took its inaugural flight. The 787's cabins maintain higher humidity levels than traditional ones, sparing passengers from dry eyes and mouths. The 787s also pressurize their cabins to a more earth-like level than older planes, avoiding the altitude sickness some fliers feel in the air. They're quieter machines, too, and sound like you're riding in a hybrid car instead of a gas-powered one. The first airlines to use the aircraft are in Asia; United will bring the plane into U.S. service next year. Boeing's aerospace rival Airbus plans to launch similarly designed planes, dubbed the A350 series, within a year or two. It looks like high-tech cabins will soon be commonplace. Sure, no matter what a plane is made of, flights remain nasty, brutish, and not short enough. But we applaud every aircraft improvement travelers can get.
Cruise Lines Become Wary of Mexico
Mention Mexico, and some Americans think of violence linked to a government crackdown on drug trafficking and turf battles between various narcos. Case in point: In Mazatlán, two visitors were shot in the parking lot of a hotel frequented by foreign tourists, prompting cruise lines to suspend port calls. In the first half of 2011, the number of cruise-ship passengers to Mexico dropped from about 500,000 to 58,000. Puerto Vallarta faced similar security concerns after incidents there. Yet nearly all of the violence has taken place far from cruise ports. Cancún, for instance, has remained safe, except for an attack in August on a bar in an outlying residential area. At Mazatlán, officials have put into place additional security measures, too, such as beefed-up police patrols and strict supervision of tour buses as passengers board them for day excursions. So expect more cruise lines to return to full itineraries soon. Princess Cruises Lines, for one, will begin calling on Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta again in 2012.
The Arab Spring Causes Unrest in Popular Tourist Destinations
Nothing prepared us for what happened across the Arab world this year, with uprisings toppling repressive regimes in Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya and protests continuing in Bahrain. But it was the revolution in Egypt that set off the biggest political shockwaves — and prompted the largest travel industry shake-up, too. Egypt is thought to have drawn only 10 million international visitors in 2011, down from 14.8 million a year earlier. Experts note that not a single tourist has suffered a scratch because of the turmoil to date. But the ongoing political uncertainty concerns many, and understandably so. Here's hoping that the country's commitment to keeping travelers safe remains solid during Egypt's continuing march to democracy.
9/11 Memorial Opens in NYC
No one in America—or, perhaps, the world—was left untouched by the events of September 11, 2001, so it’s understandable that erecting a memorial to such a monumental event would be difficult. How does one pay tribute to each and every person affected by that tragedy? Ten years to the day after the 9/11 attacks, the United States finally opened its much-debated commemorative site (911memorial.org), which consists of a pair of recessed pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Around the pools' edges, bronze plates bear the names of all 2,983 victims in New York, Washington, D.C., and Somerset County, PA. The memorial has received much praise, instantly becoming a must-see memorial of equal power as those along Washington, D.C.'s National Mall. Its next-door neighbor the 9/11 Museum is set to open next year.
Southwest Stopped Being a Budget Carrier
Formerly nicknamed The Love Airline, Southwest Airlines was once a scrappy discounter, bedeviling its larger rivals. Yet this year, it swallowed up AirTran, one of the last low-cost competitors. Now tickets booked on Southwest a couple of weeks in advance often seem little different from fares touted by United, Delta, and other giants. Salting the wound for budget-minded travelers, Southwest also revamped its loyalty program in March, requiring the typical vacationer to fly 10 round trips—up from a former eight—to earn a free ticket.
To be fair, Southwest is still a traveler's best friend when it comes to keeping fees to a minimum, such as with its free checked-bags program. It's also great at offering (comparatively) reasonable fares for tickets booked at the eleventh hour. That said, while Southwest's stock symbol is LUV, fewer budget-conscious travelers are feeling the love from it these days.
Airlines Made Tracking Lost Luggage a Priority
Know how FedEx and other shipping services allow you to track the location of your package in real-time online? This year, Air France and Delta proved that airlines could provide passengers with similar high-tech tracking for similar precious cargo: luggage. Since February, Air France has invited fliers to sign up for its free Connect service during booking to receive updates via email or text message about changes to their trip, including alerts whenever a bag has gone missing. Earlier in the year, Delta created a page on its website where passengers can punch in the code on their bag tag to learn the status of their luggage. The airline also added this tool to its apps for iPhone and Android.
Neither Delta nor Air France are providing quite the same level of detail as FedEx-style services do about shipments, but every bit of progress helps. In the meantime, given how airlines keep piling on the fees for checking luggage, you may want to hand your bag over to FedEx for domestic delivery in the first place and skip the uncertainty.
Deal-a-Day Sites Took the World by Storm
In July, 2011's biggest shopping phenom—the daily-deal site Groupon—teamed up with the largest online travel agency, Expedia, to create Groupon Getaways, a site devoted to e-coupons for travel. Discounts typically range from 30 to 80 percent off list prices. A recent example is a weeklong stay at one of hundreds of vacation rentals for $399 (valid for travel within the next year). The competition among daily-deal sites keeps growing, though, with companies like TripAlertz jockeying for dollars, too. At the same time, the discounts tend to be unprofitable for the companies providing them, and Groupon itself has just started turning a profit. At year-end, some critics wondered if the daily-deal sites might themselves expire soon. That's all the more reason for travelers to nab bargains while the going's good.
¡¡Bienvenidos a Cuba!!
The headline of a Budget Travel blog post from July says it all: "We Can Now Travel to Cuba!" But there's a catch: You still can't hop a plane to Havana all by yourself and wander freely along the concrete seashore, puffing on Sancho Panzas–brand cigars. No, unlike Canadians, Europeans, and other nationalities, los yanquis have to travel as part of an educational tour group run by a handful of licensed companies—Insight Cuba, for example. Government rules require that the tours be packed with a "full-time schedule of educational exchange activities," such as meeting with local art gallery owners or children in orphanages. To our ears, these tours sound interesting. So we're not surprised that tour demand is strong. Here’s hoping the U.S. government licenses more companies to meet that demand soon.
The TSA Tests "Chat Downs"
In August, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began testing a new type of inspection technique at Boston's Logan Airport: "behavioral profiling." Specially trained officers quiz passengers about their journey. If anything seems suspicious, a passenger may be subjected to additional screening. In October, this trial expanded to Detroit. In the same month, the TSA invited a select group of fliers to volunteer information about themselves—such as their home addresses and phone numbers—in advance of their trips, in exchange for a chance to zip through speedier screening lanes, which wouldn't require them to remove their shoes or jackets. This experiment is currently still taking place in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, and Miami and includes selected travelers in American and Delta airlines' frequent-flier programs. Critics of both experiments remain concerned that the new wave of security may squash some people's privacy rights without boosting safety.
The "Airbnb Robbery" Highlighted the Risks of Peer-to-Peer Rentals
Travel-site sensation Airbnb broke new records this year, announcing that it had helped travelers rent places to stay (homes, rooms within homes, even boats) from ordinary homeowners more than 1 million times. Quite the achievement. But then the company raced into the public-relations equivalent of a 12-car pileup, when a San Francisco homeowner reported that her place had been trashed by an Airbnb renter.
The company responded by rolling out an automatic $50,000 property guarantee to all hosts. It also introduced more thorough vetting of its site members, such as allowing hosts to screen out potential guests whose phone numbers haven't been verified, among other safety checks. (See "How Is Airbnb Dealing With the Robbery That Rocked the Vacation Rental World?")
Renting from ordinary persons, rather than from companies, is part of a trend called peer-to-peer travel. The risks of such travel—for both renter and rentee—aren't confined to any one website, though. When it comes to free or cheap lodging, users of Crashpadder, Roomorama, Couchsurfing, and other sites are all taking small gambles. Yet given that there's been only one sensational incident reported during a time with more than a million happy rentals and swaps, the odds of enjoying a good experience remain solid. Believing in the essential goodness of humanity remains a winning proposition to travel by.
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