This is the first year since the Lehman Brothers collapse that travel has seemed "normal” again, but it's a different "normal" than before.
We travelers are looking at weary, wounded wallets at the end of 2012. The U.S. travel economy picked up speed in 2011, with both domestic and foreign travelers pouring into U.S. hotels, so prices went up.
That’s the biggest trend in a year that saw destinations crank up their competitive efforts, especially where social media was concerned. Everybody wants to be liked, liked, liked. And, apparently, everybody is.
“It was a very good year,” says Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, the umbrella organization for all things travel, adding that international visitors came to the U.S. at record rates, nearly 12 percent above last year. Furthermore, he says, the travel industry created jobs this year 17 percent faster than other industries.
So, against that sunny backdrop, here’s a look at this year’s trends and what we’re likely to see as we plan our travel in 2013:
Hotel prices: U.S. hotel stays cost about 4 percent more the first half of 2012. No figures are in yet, but my own experience indicates rates were up even more for the second half.
Hotel rates saw their biggest drop since the depression in 2009, but now they’ve regained that ground and more in most cities. One of the biggest hotel rate jumps was in San Francisco, where some rooms that went for $150 two years ago hover around $300 now.
I think we might be near the bubble on hotel rates, so don’t look for huge rises in 2013. Some might even back off a bit, based on the rates I’m seeing on travelocity.com. But your best bet is still to travel in the off-season — choose May instead of June, if you can, for that summer trip, and if you’re doing a three-day trip, avoid weekends. Unless you’re going to Houston, which empties out on weekends.
And watch out for fees (resort fees, mandatory tipping for the staff, etc.). If you’re handed something to sign when you check in, read it carefully. It might not just be about smoking. My daughter’s London hotel added a 10-pound fee for checking in before 3 p.m. That’s a new one on me.
Hotel amenities: A lot of older properties are renovating, now that loan money’s becoming available. New rooms tend to feature showers instead of tubs. One-cup coffee makers are, alas, now the norm. Good news: More rooms, even in high-end hotels, are offering free Wi-Fi. Hotels are becoming aware of how crabby it makes us to pay for Wi-Fi.
Room renovations tended to go more contemporary, even at historic properties, with the white bed being the standard (with a little color tossed at the end with a blanket). The white thing might be psychological, given more consumer awareness of cleanliness. I stayed at a Hampton Inn recently that had signs all over the place letting me know the duvet cover was washed daily. This is clearly a response to the bedbug epidemic (although, somehow, I still haven’t managed to encounter a bedbug in my travels). It is a comforting comforter strategy.
Hotel technology: Many hotels fell in love with iPads, making people use them for check-in and room service. Is the TV remote still the biggest spreader of germs? I’m not sure any more. On the good side: Technology is finally arriving in the elevator world. San Antonio’s Hilton Palacio del Rio has smart elevators, where before you get on the elevator, you select a floor on a keypad. You’re assigned a specific elevator, which goes directly to your floor. Those who hop on at the last minute are left jabbing at an empty wall.
Hotel marketing: The biggest theme? Fifty shades of this, that and everything. Let’s hope everybody’s over it in the new year. The biggest effort: Social media. Pleas to “like” Facebook pages waxed frantic, and Facebook contests were rampant. But from the traveler’s perspective, it was a better bet to follow destinations, airlines and hotels on Twitter, where they routinely posted one-day specials. Look for more of that in 2013 as everybody realizes Twitter’s the better marketing tool, especially now that Facebook is weeding out commercial pages on users’ news feeds.
Airfares: They’re up. But they’re also up and down and very confusing. Seasonal fare sales make air travel still one of the best bargains around for major U.S. destinations. Unlike hotel rates, airfares to San Francisco from Austin are some of the best, typically just over $200 round trip. Denver’s the top bargain from Austin, though — sometimes less than $200 — because of competition.
Because not all airlines participate in some of the aggregation sites, it’s hard to compare fares. Use a standard comparison portal such as kayak.com, then research Southwest and JetBlue separately, taking into account that they let you check a bag free. This month American Airlines also began offering fee bundles, further confusing the issue. And Southwest is getting ready to add a fee for no-showing without canceling.
As always, you’ll get the best fare by avoiding weekends, spring break and summer — the very times you want to travel.
Air amenities: What amenities? Seats are getting closer together, even on Southwest’s newest planes (which also feature seatback pockets so stingy you can’t even get a water bottle in there). Look for less in 2013. That’s the safest thing I’ve said all day.
(c)2012 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by MCT Information Services.