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Skift Travel News Blog

Short stories and posts about the daily news happenings around the travel industry.

Tourism

Indians May Have to Wait Till 2024 to Secure U.S. Visa Appointments

1 month ago

Indians wanting to visit the U.S., may have a long wait ahead of them as appointment slots for visas are not available anytime sooner than 2024. You heard that right — almost a two-year wait for visa appointments!

A backlog of visa applications at the U.S. embassy coupled with consular staffing gaps created by the pandemic have led to the increased waiting time.

Skift accessed the website of the U.S. State Department on Thursday and discovered that the average wait time for visa appointments for a tourist visa was around 1.5 years across all five consulates in India.

At the consulate’s New Delhi and Hyderabad offices the waiting time for a tourist visa appointent was more than 600 days while the wait for a student visa appointment was 458 days for both cities.

In Mumbai and Kolkata the visitor visa waiting period is a little under 600 days, while the waiting period would be more than 450 days for those seeking student visa appontment from these cities.

The tourist visa appointment wait was the shortest in Chennai — 491 days, while for student visa applicants the wait time was 465 days.

And if that wasn’t enough the website went on to note that while the estimated wait time for an interview appointment can change weekly, the estimates do not guarantee the availability of an appointment.

An earlier Skift interview had noted how the time being taken to process visas is creating a problem for travel agents and tour operators.

The U.S. embassy in India in a statement noted that efforts are being made to reduce wait times and backlogs by onboarding and training new employees. “The U.S. State Department has doubled consular hiring of US officers this fiscal year over last year, and newly trained employees are making their way to overseas consular adjudicator positions, including in India,” read the statement.

Airlines

U.S. Unveils New Airline Customer Service Portal

1 month ago

Air travelers in the U.S. now have a one-stop shop when it comes to knowing what airlines will provide them with in the event of a lengthy flight delay or cancellation.

The new Airline Customer Service Dashboard by the Department of Transportation is designed to “ensure the traveling public has easy access” to airline commitments in the event of a disrupted trip, the regulator said Thursday. The commitments, which are largely a list of existing airline policies compiled together in one place, only apply to “controllable” events, or one where the airline is at fault, for example staff shortages.

(DOT)

“Passengers deserve transparency and clarity on what to expect from an airline when there is a cancelation or disruption,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said. “This dashboard collects that information in one place so travelers can easily understand their rights, compare airline practices, and make informed decisions.”

For example, if a travelers flight is delayed more than three hours due to a mechanical problem with the aircraft, the dashboard shows that they are guaranteed a meal voucher on almost all major airlines except Allegiant Air. However, if their flight is cancelled, only American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and United Airlines will rebook them on another carrier.

“Carriers welcome opportunities to simplify travel policies, clarify existing practices and increase transparency for travelers,” a spokesperson for trade group Airlines for America said.

The new dashboard follows a spike in flight delays and cancellations earlier this year that resulted in a blame game between airlines and authorities. While acknowledging their own staffing issues, airlines have claimed that air traffic control staffing has exacerbated the situation while the DOT has argued that the situation is primarily the fault airlines and weather. Whatever the reason, the regulator has moved to improve airline passenger protections, including a new rule that would guarantee cash refunds.

View the Airline Customer Service Dashboard

Online Travel

FareHarbor Acting CEO Ted Clements to Step Down

1 month ago

Ted Clements, FareHarbor’s acting CEO who served as chief operating officer for the last three years, will step down from these positions in September, Skift has learned.

A small group tour of the Vatican. Source: Viator

Staff was informed of the move Tuesday, and no replacement has been named. Clements plans to stay in Amsterdam, headquarters for sister company Booking.com, and may pursue new opportunities, according to the announcement.

Rob Ransom, senior vice president, global strategy and business development for Booking Holdings, made the internal announcement, and said he would play a more active role in FareHarbor.

FareHarbor more than doubled its revenue during the years Clements served as chief operating officer, according to the announcement.

Tours and activities are key to Booking Holdings’ connected trip strategy, which aims to provide a hassle-free travel experience throughout the journey.

Booking Holdings acquired FareHarbor, a tours and activities technology and distribution platform, in 2018 for $139 milliion net of cash acquired and $110 million in stock.

FareHarbor co-founders Lawrence Hester and brother Zachary Hester left Booking Holdings in July 2021. Max Valverde, who served as FareHarbor CEO from 2019 to 2021, likewise left Booking at that time.

FareHarbor’s strategy has evolved over the last few years, evolving from an exclusively build-your-own strategy model in the early days under Booking Holdings to include FareHarbor outsourcing some of that work to partners such as TUI’s Musement and Viator in recent years.

The changing of the guard at FareHarbor comes as Google is getting more aggressive in building its own “things to do” business with an emphasis on big attractions. Booking engines such as FareHarbor and Peek participate in Google’s offering.

Watch out for updates.

Airlines

Five Years of Google Airfare Data Show Weekday Getaways Are a Bargain

1 month ago

When travelers plan weekend getaways, they are generally booking more expensive flights than if they departed on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, five years’ worth of Google Flights airfare data show.

American Airlines and JetBlue planes. Source: Sean Davis, Flickr.com https://flic.kr/p/2n6E6sk

In fact, it has been 12 percent cheaper to book getaway flights on these weekdays than over a weekend, and it’s 20 percent more frugal when when just considering U.S. domestic flights, Google found. Sundays has averaged the most expensive day to fly.

Google published these nuggets about airfares Wednesday, as well as others, including:

  • There’s really no one cheapest day to book flights, although certain weekdays have been a bit cheaper to book flights than weekends. Urban legend destroyed. Google found that over the past five years, booking flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays have averaged 1.9 percent cheaper than on the weekends. So that $1,000 flight booked on a Saturday might be available for $981 on a Thursday.
  • On average, the lowest prices for U.S. domestic flights have occurred 44 days before departure. U.S. domestic flights tend to be the lowest price 21 to 60 days before takeoff.
  • It’s not a big surprise, but flights with layovers on average are cheaper than nonstops. Flights with stops, or layovers, averaged 20 percent cheaper than direct flights with no stops, Google found.
  • “For trips to Europe from the U.S., prior trends suggest you’ll want to book on the earlier side,” Google stated. “The best deals were usually found 129 days before departure and prices tend to be lower anywhere between 50 and 179 days out.”

Rail

Eurostar to Suspend Disneyland Paris Trains

1 month ago

Britons will not be able to grab a direct train to Disneyland Paris next summer. High-speed rail operator Eurostar will suspend service between London and the theme park on the outskirts of Paris on June 5, 2023, it told travel agents Wednesday.

Eurostar, which is owned by French rail operator SNCF, said it needs to “focus on our core routes to stabilize our operations” for the decision to suspend trains the European outpost of the Magic Kingdom. The railroad also mentioned financial commitments, and new entry and exit requirements between the UK and EU.

In a bit of good news, Eurostar said it would “review” its operations for 2024, leaving open the door for a possible resumption of train service to Disneyland Paris.

(Joe JABRE/Flickr)

During the first six months of the year, Eurostar said business travel on its core London-Paris route had recovered to 70 percent of 2019 levels without providing exact numbers; it operated roughly 75 percent of its pre-pandemic schedule. SNCF Voyageurs, which includes Eurostar as well as SNCF’s other passenger train services, has reported a strong rebound in passenger numbers on its trains during the first half of the year, particularly from March.

SNCF received approval from European authorities to merge Eurostar and Thalys, which operates high-speed passenger trains in Belgium and the Netherlands, into the new Eurostar Group in March. The new company plans to grow ridership to 30 million people by 2030 from 19 million in 2019.

Tourism

South Korea to Lift Pre-Arrival Testing for Inbound Travelers This Week

1 month ago

South Korea will be lifting its requirement for a pre-arrival Covid test to enter the country from Saturday, according to local media reports.

The scrapping of pre-arrival tests would be for all arrivals into South Korea, regardless of their vaccination status or the country of departure. However, incoming travelers would still need to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) within 24 hours of their arrival into the country.

Currently, all inbound travelers to South Korea are required to submit the results of a polymerase chain reaction test taken within two days of traveling to the country or a rapid test taken within 24 hours. After arriving into the country, travelers are required to undergo a polymerase chain reaction test within 24 hours.

On Monday, South Korea’s advisory committee on infectious diseases, under the office of the prime minister, had advised the government to lift the mandatory pre-travel polymerase chain reaction test for inbound travelers.

“All inbound travelers, whether nationals or foreigners, arriving aboard a plane or ship will not need to hand in a negative polymerase chain reaction test starting midnight of September 3,” second vice health minister, Lee Ki-il, was quoted saying in a virus response meeting.

Japan and South Korea are some of the few countries that still ask for a pre-arrival Covid test from incoming travelers. Last week, Japan announced it would waive pre-departure Covid-19 tests for vaccinated travelers from September 7.

On Wednesday, South Korea reported around 104,000 new Covid cases, which brings the country’s total tally up to more than 23 million.

Airlines

United Airlines and Emirates Tease New Partnership

1 month ago

United Airlines and Emirates appear poised to unveil a wide-ranging new partnership that could see the two global airlines offer travelers significantly more flight options.

The carriers sent invites Tuesday for a joint “special event” in Washington, D.C., on September 14. The invites came hours after The Air Current reported that United and Emirates were near a new codeshare partnership. Such a pact would allow each airline to sell tickets on certain flights operated by the other that would give travelers broad connectivity across the airlines’ respective route networks. United would likely gain new markets in Africa, the Middle East, and India, and Emirates significantly more access to the U.S. market.

(Paul Sullivan/Flickr)

A partnership would represent a dramatic warming of relations between United and Emirates. In 2015, United, American Airlines, and Delta Air Lines launched an all-out campaign to limit the growth of the Gulf carriers, including Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways, to the U.S. arguing that they were essentially dumping capacity in the market with the financial backing of their respective governments. As The Air Current reported Tuesday, in 2017 United’s then-CEO Oscar Munoz called the Gulf airlines “international branding vehicles” for the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

But tensions have eased in recent years. American and Qatar Airways unveiled a broad partnership in 2020 that saw the former add flights to Doha — its first ever nonstop the Gulf — in June. If the United-Emirates pact comes to pass, only Delta would be left without a partner in the Gulf.

For now, we have to wait until September 14 to find out what United and Emirates are up too.

Business Travel

Flight Centre Travel Group Plays Down Rumors It’s Buying U.S. Agency Altour

1 month ago

Flight Centre Travel Group has rebuked “media M&A speculation” that it is poised to buy U.S. travel management company Altour.

“Flight Centre Travel Group (FLT or Company) is aware of media speculation in The Australian newspaper claiming FLT is considering the potential acquisition of a corporate travel business in the USA,” it said in a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange on Aug. 30.

“While it is company policy to not respond to media speculation, the company has had, and continues to have, various discussions with a number of parties regarding strategic opportunities.”

Last week the group boasted its FCM Travel division was the only global alternative to the legacy travel management companies. However, the intention to consider acquisition opportunities to complement organic growth was outlined in the company’s recent results, where it reported a loss of $127 million for 2022.

A U.S. division would make sense to expand its footprint. Australia’s Corporate Travel Management, for example, said it reaped the benefits of its own U.S. acquisition, Travel and Transport, in its most recent results that saw it record a full-year profit of $41.4 million.

Altour is part of the Internova Travel Group, which is owned by Certares, which is also an investor in American Express Global Business Travel, via a group of investors it leads. Amex GBT listed on the New York Stock Exchange in May this year.

Skift contacted Internova for comment.

Airlines

Emirates Calls Travelers to ‘Fly Better’ With Its Gerry The Goose Campaign

1 month ago

After Hollywood celebrities Jennifer Anniston and Chris Hemsworth, Gerry the Goose is winging it as the newest brand ambassador for Dubai-based carrier Emirates. The brand campaign featuring Gerry, a Canadian goose, will run in 25 countries for one month, starting August 30.

As part of its ‘Fly Better’ campaign, Emirates said it “is inviting customers to take a gander at the benefits and services of the airline.”

Created through computer-generated imagery, Gerry the Goose is shown onboard an Emirates flight enjoying the finer things in life while watching “The Goose (enough of the puns, already!), The Bad and The Ugly.” Right outside the plane window, his tired friends are shown make their “monumental journey” through wind and rain from one continent to the other.

As Gerry remarks, “If you’re going to fly, you may as well fly better.”

“In terms of the qualities and profile we look for in our brand ambassadors — we are spreading our wings,” said Richard Billington, senior vice president of marketing and brand at Emirates. 

Earlier this month, Emirates announced that it would be investing over $2 billion to enhance its inflight customer experience, including a massive programme to retrofit over 120 aircraft with the latest interiors, plus an array of other service improvements across all cabins.

Through the pandemic we’ve continued to launch new services and initiatives to ensure our customers travel with the assurance and ease, including digital initiatives to improve customer experiences on the ground, said Tim Clark, president of Emirates. “Now we’re rolling out a series of intensive programmes to take Emirates’ signature inflight experiences to the next level.”

For the eleventh consecutive year, Emirates also returns as the official airline of the ongoing US Open Tennis Championships.

Emirates has been building up connectivity in response to growing customer demand on the back of rising travel confidence and the easing of international travel protocols. In an earlier forecast Clark had said that the airline would return to profitability by next year.

Short-Term Rentals

Google Is NOT Going to Kill Airbnb

1 month ago

“Google will kill Airbnb,” tweeted Nick Huber, who writes about business and real estate, owns a self-storage company, and has 247,000 followers on Twitter.

Two people independently messaged me about the tweet, which has generated a few thousand “likes,” and hundreds of retweets since Sunday.

One Skift colleague said of the tweet: “Everything this guy says in his tweet thread is wrong.”

Conversely, a superhost in Europe messaged me about Huber’s tweet: “I would have to agree. Everybody loves a direct booking (both hosts and guests), with no whopping service charges.”

A Tripadvisor vacation rental in Miami listed in Google Vacation Rentals. Source: Google

If only it were that simple.

Huber argues that hosts and guests can avoid Airbnb’s substantial fees, and both can save money with direct bookings. Actually, he claimed that Airbnb takes 25 percent of the transaction, mostly from guests, in the form of fees, which seems excessively off the mark.

After this story posted, travel industry veteran Drew Patterson tweeted that Airbnb revenue was only 13 percent of gross bookings in 2021.

One of the silliest things Huber tweets is, “All it takes is folks putting a little link to their software in the Google listing. Management co manages that directly. Way more revenue to owner and less cost to guests.”

Alas, graveyards full of startup companies from Palo Alto to Madrid and Mexico City are testimony to the fact that you can’t merely put a link on a Google business listing, and expect millions upon millions of customers to discover it, and then use it. It takes a mammoth amount of resources to attract direct bookings and for a vacation rental business to build their own brands.

Hey, direct bookings would be mostly great for hosts and, to a lesser extent, guests, but how can property owners and managers attract them?

If you look at the global hotel industry, it has done an admirable job over the last few years, spending huge sums in advertising to urge customers to book directly on their own websites, where they have the lowest rates, instead of using online travel agencies.

Hotels have made significant strides in this regard in attracting direct bookings, but the vast majority of them still rely on online travel agencies to attract price-conscious consumers who care little about whether they are staying in a Marriott or a Sofitel.

Hotel direct bookings haven’t killed Expedia or Booking.com. Travel, it is often said, isn’t a zero-sum game. There is ample room for multiple winners.

Property owners use Airbnb for a reason: Airbnb has a great brand, and attracts legions of guests who start searching for places to stay on Airbnb instead of beginning their trip-planning on Google.

How does the host with one or a handful of properties compete with that kind of market power?

Direct Bookings Have Risks, Too

And although guests can avoid Airbnb’s fees by booking direct with the host, they run the risk of having no one to turn to if the host or property turn out to be a nightmare. Whether or not they work as well as advertised, Airbnb has some insurance protections in place for both hosts and guests.

Airbnb critics will be quick to say that Airbnb’s customer service for guests can be challenging, but it’s often better than dealing with hosts who have no brand or track record to stand behind them.

On the question of Google “killing” Airbnb, the latter has for the past couple of years been able to grow while keeping the percentage of the revenue it spends on marketing — and Google — relatively low and stable.

In fact, Google’s travel vertical has a vacation rentals feature, and it hasn’t really distinguished itself or put much of a dent in Airbnb’s growth precisely because Airbnb, and other big vacation rental brands, have shunned offering their homes and apartments through Google vacation rentals. So Google is hardly usurping Airbnb on that front.

Google has certainly damaged the businesses of innumerable travel companies because of its near-monopoly in search and the way it preferences its own travel advertising features. Curiously, although most of the far-out theories about Google taking over the travel industry tend to say that Google will transition from an advertising to a booking platform and would become an online travel agency — a switch that Google has shown little appetite for — Huber isn’t even making that argument.

Instead, he’s arguing that Google will serve as a listing platform, and build advertising around it, and that hosts, with an assist perhaps from property managers, would see direct bookings flow like lava down a hillside because these offers are inherently the best and cheapest deals for both hosts and guests.

Both Google and Airbnb Face Headwinds

Google killing Airbnb begs the question of which of the two has momentum versus the other. Both face big antitrust or regulatory challenges, and it’s hard to choose which one has the more daunting obstacles.

A little deeper into his twitter thread, Huber retreats a bit from his Google killing Airbnb opener, and pleads for “nuance.”

“Of course Airbnb will always have users,” he tweeted. “But over time many guests will go on google, find a vacation rental in an ideal location, click through to that website & book w/o paying hundreds in fees. 20 yrs from now ABNB will be a glorified lead generator.”

When it comes to predicting the future of companies two decades from now, I’ll pass on that one, considering it is difficult to look even two or three years ahead to see what the business world would look like.

So, alas, in Huber’s view, his talk of Airbnb’s death was apparently bombast.

When a twitter user tells Huber he downplayed the importance of factors like trust and reliability when considering direct bookings versus reservations through Airbnb, Huber retreats a bit further, tweeting:

“I think there will be an increased number of guests going directly. You can do all of those things without giving a huge chunk to Airbnb.”

Finally, that’s something we can agree with: There are many hosts doing everything they can to generate direct bookings, and they’ll likely have a degree of success. But I don’t believe “Google will kill Airbnb,” or that Airbnb will close shop anytime soon.

Note: This story has been updated to include additional information on Airbnb’s take rate. It also clarified Google’s role in the travel industry.