With the New Year just a few weeks away, it's time for our annual look at some of the trends that will shape where, when and how we travel in 2016 and beyond. And, of course, we have our picks for destinations we think will see spikes in popularity for American travelers.
- Low-cost carriers are adding competitive heat to the domestic and international markets. Witness American Airlines jumping on the bandwagon with the addition of no-frill fares, the success of Norwegian Air, which just started serving Las Vegas and the international airfare wars driven by the growth of WOW Air, which recently added transatlantic flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to its lineup and has announced plans for service from Toronto and Montreal. This is a welcome balance to the consolidation that has shaped the North American market recently.
- The dropping price of oil, of course, has helped keep airfare competition alive and likely allowed for the pace of expansion of these international low-cost carriers. It's also fueling the return of the extreme long-haul flights. Emirates will launch a 17-hour, 35-minute flight from Dubai to Panama City starting Feb 1., and Singapore Airlines has plans for a 19-hour flight from Singapore to New York, starting in 2018.
- Aircraft design innovations also play a role in flight routes, as well as playing a major part in the storylines of passenger comfort and, relatedly, luggage capacity. While there has been a flurry of patents set to re-engineer the entire approach to passenger seating and cabin configurations, the more immediate changes will be a bit more practical. Look for innovations like a charging pad and tablet holder alongside your tray table, and the addition of occasional extra wide seats to accommodate larger passengers or car seats for kids.
- Traveling with kids will also see some change. But, more specifically, traveling without kids is where the most changes are afoot. Airlines have started to add tracking technology for unaccompanied minors. This allows parents to follow their child's journey every step of the way. Grown-ups traveling without kids will keep lobbying for "child-free zones" on planes. While, so far, no North American airlines have rolled out such a thing, expect the movement to get more attention this year.
- In an era where 57 percent of Americans make it a mission to travel with only carry-on baggage, you can bet new approaches to luggage will be a big area of focus for travelers and airlines alike. Alaska Airlines is leading the pack, signing up to put Boeing/Boeing's 737 "Space Bins" into service with plans to have the more spacious overhead bins in use on half of its fleet by 2017.
- Passengers can adopt new luggage technologies faster than airlines, of course. In 2016, traveling trendsetters will be sporting a mix of cool new bags. Some will feature their own compression technology to fit more into less space. Others will charge electronics on the go, and many will be self-tracking with either built-in smart technology or just smart owners who have packed a tracking beacon alongside their socks and pajamas.
- Speaking of new technologies, there seems to be a renewed dream of supersonic flying. It will be a long time before we reach the reality of a 90-minute flight from New York to London, but with industry leaders, like Airbus and Lockheed Martin, and up and comers, like Skreemr, working on designs, maybe the future isn't that far away.
Hot destinations for 2016
Always a vacation favorite, Hawaii is far from an emerging travel hot spot. Nonetheless, 2016 is a milestone year as Dec. 7 will mark the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Plans are well underway to honor this important event, with documentaries in the making, restoration efforts planned for historic structures at the site and a mass marching band performance drawing from schools across the U.S. and Japan on tap. The sun seekers and golfers who regularly head to this Pacific paradise will be joined by a building flow of travelers interested in history, with the biggest wave arriving, of course, in early December.
A dream destination for many, New Zealand may be getting a bit more attainable in 2016. American Airlines has announced non-stop service from Los Angeles to Auckland starting in June. Air New Zealand, which already serves that route, responded with an immediate fare cut and United has also announced plans to provide service from San Francisco starting in July, adding more competition and downward pricing pressure. Add in the buying power of the U.S. dollar in New Zealand, and it's easy to see why we expect to see a surge in Americans making the long-haul journey this year.
Tourist travel to Cuba is still officially banned, but the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in early 2015 has cracked open the door for visitors. And signs point to more and more of an infrastructure for Americans to gain access to Cuba. Discussions are underway for allowing regularly scheduled flights from the U.S., and Mastercard has partnered with a Florida bank to make debit and ATM card transactions work in Cuba. There has already been a notable upswing in Americans traveling to Cuba and, as travel to and within the country gets easier, interest will grow even faster.
Rio de Janeiro is getting ready for its close-up. The world will tune in for the 2016 Olympics in August, and Brazil is getting ready to play host. While a trip to the Olympic Games is a dream for many, we expect to see a steady stream of visitors before and, especially, after the competition. This budget-savvy approach is a more affordable way to catch the excitement or just see Brazil in its finest hour. And the Paralympic Games, slated for September, offer their own style of inspiration. Brazil has already waived the usual visa requirements for Americans in this Olympic year, and the buying power of the U.S. dollar is extremely high. Two more reasons this is (or should be) a banner year for travel to Brazil.
Our neighbors to the north make a return to the list this year for the simple reason that it's accessible and affordable. 2015 was a high-profile year for Canada with the FIFA Women's World Cup and Pan American Games, and there is no shortage of skiing, shopping, dining and year-round outdoor adventure. The continued extremely favorable currency conditions will keep a steady stream of Americans headed north for vacation in 2016.