Because "hope springs eternal," I'm going to inaugurate the New Year with a recitation of promising developments over the past decade in travel — a list split into two successive columns in which I sing about the "good" in travel. Here are six promising developments that have greatly improved matters in the world of travel and vacations:
• First, the Internet has finally developed to the point where it enables us, effectively, to spot the lowest fares: I'm talking about the rise of the "aggregators" — Kayak.com, Farechase.com, Sidestep.com, Momondo.com, Mobissimo.com and others — that impartially survey all the Web sites and then disclose them to us in order of the best price.
• The "vacation exchange" has become an easily used method of using your own home or apartment as a means of enjoying a free-of-charge stay in someone else's home or apartment. Because the transmission of e-mail is instantaneous, it has enabled vacation-exchange clubs or vacation-exchange organizations to offer instantly accessed opportunities all over the world; in a few moments, you ascertain what's available and transmit your request to make use of someone else's home.
• Elderhostel has opened itself up to less-than-elderly people: No longer need you be 55 or older to make use of the remarkable learning vacations that the distinguished Elderhostel offers in such large quantities and at reasonable prices. As the newly dubbed "Exploritas," Elderhostel has eliminated the minimum age requirement (although it doesn't accept children), and has become a vast, non-profit service for intellectually curious people to enjoy vital vacations.
• The "small-group adventure tour" permits you to travel in a group, and with an experienced escort, without suffering the indignities of a 45-passenger motorcoach. Such "adventure tour" companies (the word "adventure" referring to exotic, remote destinations, not to death-defying feats) as GAP Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Djoser Vacations and others, limit their groups to 12-or-so people, make use of locally owned small lodgings and of public transportation for getting around, and thus provide a reasonable alternative for those dignified, intellectually curious Americans who would like to visit such lightly touristed places as Honduras or Borneo, not on an entirely independent, pioneering basis, but with a small group led by an experienced guide.
• There's been a surge in the number of low-cost hostels for people of all ages: In a great many major cities, you now encounter not simply a single "official" youth hostel belonging to the international movement, but several (and sometimes 10 or 20) "private" hostels for people of all ages launched by commercial entrepreneurs. Transforming failed hotels into low-cost lodgings (often by simply placing multiple double-deckers in what used to be double rooms), and sometimes even building a brand-new, dormitory-filled structure from the ground up, these profit-seeking benefactors have vastly expanded the amount of reliable low-cost lodgings and created the product for a dozen specialist Web sites — Hostelworld.com, Hostels.com, Hostelbookers.com, Hostelmania.com, Hostelplanet.com, EuropeanHostels.com and more — which enable us to quickly discover and book these havens for unpretentious travelers.
• Amtrak is no longer declining but perhaps expanding — and thriving. Aided by an appropriation of $8 billion in the recent economic stimulus legislation, Amtrak has at long last embarked on a large-scale improvement of its facilities to permit the operation of more and better high-speed trains. Opposition to such expansion appears to be waning, and conditions have never seemed better for the adoption of successive, annual, large-scale appropriations for this valuable part of our transportation network.
Next week: Six more "good" developments in the world of travel.