Looking back, I’d conclude that 2013 wasn’t a great year for travel, but it wasn’t a bad one, either. Here are some of the highlights:
Senior deals remained marginal. Travelers age 60 or over didn’t find much in the way of deals this year. Yes, you could still find discounts – typically in the 10 percent range – at midpriced and budget hotels, but members of AAA and other mass associations got the same deals. I saw two remaining deals good for seniors:
• Car rentals through AARP, which provided modest discounts but superior insurance and some extra benefits; minimum age 50.
• Seniors 65 or over (lower age in a few places) got roughly 50 percent off regular public transit fares in many big U.S. cities, and they rode free in Pennsylvania.
In general, European and Asian hotels and transit systems didn’t offer senior deals. The best senior deals in Europe were on British and French rail passes and, with paid annual senior cards, discounts on all trains.
Airfares remained high. The big U.S. airlines finally achieved “control over pricing,” which translates to the ability to charge high fares consistently. That’s not entirely bad for consumers; after all, if airlines can’t make money, they can’t survive for long. But those days of under-$300 transcontinental fares are gone and likely not to return. And the American-US Airways merger will strengthen the ability of the big lines to keep fares where they want them.
Airline front-rear spread worsened. As with the economy, generally, the rich gained and the poor lost: As service and comfort in the exorbitant front cabins kept getting better, service and comfort in the rear coach/economy cabins kept getting worse. Up front, lie-flat seats became the new standard for long-haul international business class, and United introduced it on its blue-ribbon transcontinental nonstops from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Front cabin service, too, now outdoes what was first-class service just a few years ago. Meanwhile, folks in the back were squeezed even more, with reductions in legroom and most airlines taking their newly delivered 777s with tight 10-across seating rather than the original standard and roomier nine-across; similarly, most airlines took their 787 with tight nine-across seating. And airlines kept adding new fees and hiking the prices of old ones. Yes, those folks up front pay up to 10 times what you pay in the back, but the back kept getting worse.
Hotel scam spread. Hotels in more areas adopted the “resort fee” scam: That’s where they carve out a portion of the real price, feature the phony reduced price and then add the mandatory “fee” back in later. Once confined to Las Vegas and Hawaii, you saw it infiltrate other leisure destinations. The problem with this deception, of course, is that it fouls up your ability to make accurate price comparisons. And, sadly, the Federal Trade Commission failed to insist on real reform.
Resurgent bus travel. Quietly, long-haul bus travel improved its product and started to fill the ground transport gap left by the shrinking rail system. Megabus moved back into the California-Nevada market, Greyhound expanded its limited-stop “Express” network, and lots of operators continued to ply routes between Boston and Washington, many with updated buses featuring extra legroom, onboard Wi-Fi and at-seat power ports. RedCoach even introduced “business” and “first class” options in its Florida system.
More high-speed rail. The fast train networks in several areas – especially China and Spain, but also in Benelux, France and Italy – expanded. But here in North America, we got bupkes.
Mobile devices rule. Use of smartphones and tablets rapidly added travel-related applications – and users to use them. More than ever, if you weren’t connected, you didn’t get the information or the deals.