One of the perquisites of a newspaper column is the ability to afflict one's readers with pretentious predictions about the year ahead. (Need I point out that you can easily turn the page and avoid the exercise?) For the masochists among our readers, here's what I expect to happen in 2011:
A greatly increased use of apartments and vacation homes in place of standard hotels. It's the most pronounced trend in travel, and companies like Homeaway.com, VRBO.com, Rentalo.com and hundreds of local real estate brokers are flourishing because of the skyrocketing popularity of such alternative accommodations. Large segments of the traveling public are today convinced (and they're right, in my view) that apartment or home rentals cost much less than hotels and improve the quality of the stay.
A surge in travel to Central America. It's one of the few areas of the world to which airfares have remained low and prices for accommodations, food and sightseeing remain similarly low. For just a few hundred dollars from almost anywhere in North America, one goes round-trip to Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica, each one of which (except Costa Rica) remains relatively undiscovered and authentic.
A continuing increase in the use of the Internet for travel planning, at the expense of travel agents. Throughout the past year, we've witnessed remarkable improvements in the ability of the Internet to discover the best options for travel. We now have not simply a highly effective group of "aggregators" for airfares, surveying all the prices available to us (momondo.com, kayak.com and many more), but "aggregators" for car rentals, ferreting out bargains in every city (autoslash.com, breezenet.com); and aggregators for best hotel prices (hotelcombined.com, hotelly.com, kayak.com, momondo.com); and companies resembling aggregators for cruise prices (cruisecompete.com, vacationstogo.com). Can any travel agent do better than these? I don't think so.
A deliberate reduction in the size of tour groups: The undeniable success this past year of the various operators of "small group adventure tours" — gapadventures.com, djoser.com, intrepidtravel.com, adventurecenter.com, smartours.com — has prompted several other standard operators of group motorcoach tours to announce that they will now be limiting their groups to no more than 24 passengers (thus, Brendan Vacations has placed such a limit on several of its tours of Ireland). I sense dissatisfaction with the standard 48-passenger motorcoach tours and a growing movement toward an insistence on smaller groups by people who nevertheless want to travel in an escorted group.
A further decline in the quality of the cruise experience: This next prediction obviously is based on my own subjective reaction to the effort by nearly all major cruise lines to transform the cruise ship into an amusement park. Despite my own loud protests, it appears that the new, giant ships, with their bowling alleys, boxing rings, water chutes, carnival rides and itineraries spending most of the time either at sea or at phony private beaches or artificial villages, are apparently doing well.
I base that surmise on the higher cabin prices charged by such behemoths as Oasis of the Seas and Norwegian Epic, and by the orders that have now been placed for construction of more large ships. Increasingly, people seeking a foreign travel experience via cruising, or looking for quiet conversation, interaction with their fellow travelers, calm and repose, will have to book the upscale ships still offering those features, or else stay away from cruising.
And a final prediction — a discouraging hike in airfares: Seems to me that my final depressing prediction is inevitable. The price of oil has reached $80 a barrel; the possibility of "peak oil" (the exhaustion of major oil fields) and the increasing use of oil by China and India, lead me to believe that airfares will continue to soar in the months ahead. The response of cost-conscious travelers?
We all must place greater emphasis on reducing the price of our accommodations, meals and sightseeing when we travel because we must continue to travel.
So there you have predictions for travel in the year ahead, good and bad, promising and not.
My very best wishes for a happy new year!