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As we close out 2015, it is worth looking at how travel can be improved as we come into the New Year. It’s also worth recognizing and calling out some of the best travel experiences of the year, in the hopes that they multiply and grow.
First, a few things that can be improved:
1. U.S. Domestic Boarding Chaos
Boarding continues to be an undignified scrum at US airports for a multitude of factors including staff that don’t appear to care or orchestrate in the least, as well as convoluted boarding schemes that seem to jam in every possible level of pre-boarding, frequent flier status, not-so-special credit card holders, etc. It is unnecessarily chaotic, especially the virulent breed of “gate lice” that don’t seem to die. Board a plane in Germany or Japan and see how it can work when staff care and manners exist.
2. UX Headaches in Booking
The design of most travel booking sites doesn’t appear to have evolved from 2002. There’s no emphasis on design, searchability, or any semblance of experience. Some upstarts are tackling this nicely, such as the Hitlist app, but you still generally have to finish your transaction on one of the main travel aggregators — or worse, on one of the airline sites. Most can be attributed to letting conversion marketers run amok with customer experience. As Skift CEO Rafat Ali called out earlier this year, it’s hate selling at its finest and needs to stop.
3. “First Thought” Social Strategies
In a recent interview with Creative Review, Tyler Brûlé calls out a lot of travel brands for what I consider to be a “first thought” social/content strategy: making guests feel like locals, etc. Digital concierges and so forth. On occasion, this can be done exceptionally well (the Standard), but most efforts feel flat and uninspired. Maybe hotels should focus down on the basics of hospitality and less on their style and culture blogger overdose.
4. Eviscerating Top-Tier Loyalty and the Rise of the Business Traveler “Free Agent”
I understand the pressure that U.S. airlines have been under over the past 10 years. But as oil prices continue to drop and airlines return to profitability, it remains to be seen if this strategy of “eviscerate top-tier loyalty benefits” makes sense. Top tier members of most carriers are spending more than 15-20,000 dollars a year and are seeing points devalued, upgrade awards cut (American recently reduced their Executive Platinum awards by half), and harder to redeem tickets.
It’s a game of chicken and I would expect to see many business travelers turn into free agents with the abundance of competing products and better prices. For example, you can fly round trip from JFK to SFO in Jet Blue’s Business “Mint” Class for $1600 return if you book early enough, and fly round trip to London from New York on La Companie for $2500. Compare this to the rates that American and British charge on those routes — or any other carrier — and tell me a reckoning isn’t coming soon. Cutting benefits and scrappy upstarts equals danger for incumbents.
5. Why Fuel Surcharges?
To the above point, why are fuel surcharges still being added to tickets? As Ben Schlappig points points out, BA is still behaving as if oil is $200 a barrel.
“For example, take a ~$900 roundtrip ticket between New York and London. The base fare is $220, the surcharges are $458, and the rest are the taxes.”
6. Cute In-flight Videos
There’s a cold war among airlines about who can make the cutest, most high-concept in-flight safety video. This needs to stop. While some may be funny on first viewing, ask travelers who are flying that airline 2x a week and see how they feel.
7. Checkout Surveys
In a world of mobile, being emailed a rickety old survey by chains like the Hyatt a few days after I check out of a hotel is tiresome and needs a rethink. Also, what’s the incentive?
8. Lack of a Good San Francisco Hotel
Can an inspired hotelier create a perfect boutique in San Francisco? Think the Gault in Montreal in terms of size and charm. Even the good hotels are terrible in that town.
That said, here are some of the more inspiring things I’ve noticed in the past year on the road:
1. The Return of Japan Airlines
Post bankruptcy, the entire JAL brand feels tight. Excellent hospitality, excellent food options and the premium cabins on the 777 service are top class: down to the choice of hard or soft mattress in First.
2. Cathay’s New Ilse Crawford-Designed First Lounge in Hong Kong
There’s no shortage of good Cathay lounges at HKG, but Ilse Crawford’s redesign of the Pier lounge is incredibly well done. Due to the lower traffic, she opted for a subdued residential feel with perfect lighting, nice wood, a beautiful bar and good pre-flight food, including the classic Cathay noodle bar. Worth a visit.
3. Tablet Hotels
I may have decried the state of booking above, but Tablet Hotels continues to be a good resource in finding sharp boutiques, independently run hotels, as well as trustworthy chains in most cities. If you don’t have a pre-existing hotel you like, generally speaking their worldview is on the mark.
4. La Valise in Mexico City
Mexico City is a frequent stop, and accolades from friends are rolling in about this new boutique in La Roma. Designed by Emmanuel Picault, its a small hotel above a design boutique. Bonus is room service is offered by one of my favorite restaurants, Rosetta.
5. Roads and Kingdoms
Some of the best contemporary travel writing out there. They really had a strong 2015, propelled by investment from Anthony Bourdain, and is one to watch and check in on regularly.
6. The Travel Almanac
Hopping over to the print side of the equation, the Travel Almanac is edited by John Roberts (also a noted Berlin-based electronic musician) is a smart mix of interviews, reportage and hotel writing. Plus they had a dapper Bryan Ferry on a recent cover, so bonus points.
I visited their recently opened Kioskafe close to London’s Paddington station and walked out inspired. It’s a small, nicely curated selection of the best magazines and newspapers in the world. Also, there’s a perfect espresso bar and it’s two minutes away from the Heathrow Express and right across from the Frontline Club. A great idea for those of us who love a pre-flight reading stock up.
The brand has been building out their radio offering nicely this year (The Stack and The Entrepreneurs are must-listens) and the print edition still feels like the gold standard when it comes to small business, entrepreneurship and travel. Kudos to Andrew Tuck and the team there.
8. The Old Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong
While there’s a flashier new(ish) sister down the road in Central with the Landmark, the old Mandarin Oriental is a Hong Kong institution, perfectly located, and timeless. Worth the money.
Undoubtedly the highlight of travel for me this year, an unforgettable country with a range of architecture, topography, great hotels and Omani hospitality. Put it on your list for 2016.