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Coming Soon? Nine Predictions for Travel in 2012

2012 beachMaking predictions about the coming year in travel can be an exercise in futility; for example, very few could have predicted the Arab Spring, but easily could have encouraged visits to the Great Pyramids in May. The following predictions are mostly already in motion, so might be a little more reliable than mere guesses, but only time will tell -- that's why they call it the future.

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1. TSA reform comes creeping.
The TSA turned 10 years old last month, and the agency doesn't seem to be aging all that gracefully. Particularly in the past 14 months (since they started patting down passengers last November), the TSA has been accused (or caught in the act) of everything from stealing to assaulting, irradiating and groping Americans. Personally, I have no doubt that the unpredictable mess at the security checkpoints likely discouraged at least a few bad guys (not necessarily ideologically motivated terrorists, but perhaps instead just some very unstable people), but often at the cost of harassing regular folk to an extent that doesn't seem to fit our sense of who we are as Americans.

However, there is some evidence that not only regular travelers, but also elected officials, have seen enough abuses at the hands of the TSA. Just last week, two congressmen from New York proposed the addition of a passenger advocate person at every airport nationwide. Meanwhile, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura attempted to sue the TSA, and presidential candidate Ron Paul has said he would abolish the agency altogether if elected.

For an organization with some 70,000 employees who interact with the public on a daily basis, the addition to the TSA of someone charged with seeing and advocating for the passenger's point of view seems pretty reasonable.

Add to this the TSA's encouraging response to privacy concerns about its body scanners, and we could actually see some improvement at the security checkpoint for the first time in a decade.

If U.S. airports take their cues from those overseas, we may see them get involved in the act as well -- because let's face it, having a reputation as an airport with a horrible security checkpoint is not great for business. London's Gatwick Airport is taking a close look at this now (with a goal to reduce some reported wait times of up to an hour to no more than five minutes), and other airports are almost sure to follow.

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2. Additional passenger rights should kick in, including transparent pricing and better flight status notifications.
As I wrote last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation postponed a few elements of its passenger rights program until January 24, 2012. These include the following:

- "Airlines will ... have to prominently disclose all potential fees on their [Web sites], including but not limited to fees for baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, or advanced or upgraded seating. In addition, airlines and ticket agents will be required to refer passengers both before and after purchase to up-to-date baggage fee information, and to include all government taxes and fees in every advertised price. Previously, government taxes and fees were not required to be included in the up-front fare quotation."
- Airlines must "allow reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or canceled without penalty, for at least 24 hours after the reservation is made, if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight's departure date."

- Airlines must promptly notify consumers of delays of more than 30 minutes, as well as cancellations and diversions. This notification must take place in the boarding gate area, on a carrier's telephone reservation system and on its Web site.

- Post-purchase fare increases will be banned unless they are due to government-imposed taxes or fees, and only if the passenger is notified of and agrees to the potential increase at the time of sale.

I think it remains to be seen how these will play out; the laws of unintended consequences almost always play to the airlines' hand, it seems.

3. Europe becomes affordable again.
veniceThe dire and dramatic economic woes of the European Union may actually result in better travel conditions for Americans visiting the Old World. The dollar may not necessarily strengthen too much more against the euro than it has recently, but the widespread economic problems will result in a decline in demand that will drive prices down at many destinations.

Airfares may not follow this trend, however. If a lot of Americans start flying to Europe, U.S. airlines will drive prices up in response -- so you will have to look for savings on lodging, meals, attractions and the like. For help, see Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel.

4. The Olympic Games will affect mid-summer travel prices.
Historically, many of the most affordable flight itineraries to Europe end up being routed through London by way of a connection in Heathrow or Gatwick. This summer, until the Olympic Games end in early August, airfares will be pushed upward by the volume of spectators, media, athletes, staff and others headed to the Games. This will start to kick in as early as June, when advance teams start heading to London in larger numbers.

5. 787 becomes reality.
It seems to have taken forever, but the fuel-efficient and passenger-friendly carbon fiber Boeing 787 Dreamliner will soon land at an airport near you, with more than 800 orders placed by airlines to date. With the world's largest airliner, the Airbus 380, also launching recently, long-haul flights in particular may become more comfortable and even less expensive (for the airlines, at least) on a per-flight basis. For passengers, most of the likely seating configurations have at least one additional inch of width and one additional inch of seat pitch. A bit more esoterically, internal cabin pressure will be increased to simulate the equivalent of 6,000 feet of altitude, as opposed to the old more typical 8,000 feet of altitude, which is expected to increase cabin comfort significantly.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

6. Hotel prices may go up if demand increases even slightly.
Sadly, these types of predictions remind me of real estate agents a couple of years ago who were insisting people buy homes because the market was going to rebound any minute -- part wishful thinking, part, ah, hogwash.

In this case, there are a couple of reasons this could actually come to pass. First, hotels have been holding down rates for some time, and will pounce on any opportunity to increase them (or at least try to do so). Second, as the article notes, very few new hotels are being built, so inventory is flat, and any increase in volume will be accompanied by a bump in prices.

That said, rates are so low almost everywhere that a slight uptick will be barely noticeable. Hotel rooms at very nice hotels in attractive areas have dipped under $100 a night in many places; if they go up even 5 - 10 percent from there, you are still getting a pretty good deal.

7. Taking vacation pictures may get dicey.
A very unexpected trend not only worldwide, but also in the United States, is an official backlash against the massive proliferation of digital cameras of every stripe, whether they be "pro-sumer" SLR cameras with price points accessible to many travelers, or simply the high-grade cameras built into newer smartphones. Recently, cameras were banned by the London Tube managers from tours of a U.K. subway station due to the "combination of high quality sensor and high resolution" -- though they later backpedaled to the position that professional tripods slowed down tours.

Closer to home, amateur and credentialed photographers alike have been prohibited from taking pictures at protests such as those near Wall Street, even though the law is pretty clear that folks are allowed to take pictures of public events. Additionally, many of the encounters with the TSA that ended up on YouTube feature explicit threats that the person taking photos or video of the encounter can be arrested for doing so; see TSA Controversy: Traveler Protests Airport Security Screening and The War on Cameras Continues.

Even Stephen Colbert got into the act:

The issue seems to show up in the news almost daily of late, and travelers may want to have a plan on how to react if they are confronted while taking pictures in public places.

7 Best Photo Apps for Your Phone

8. Global protests may disrupt travel again in 2012.
The "Arab Spring" had the unexpected but certainly logical side effect of derailing tourism in affected regions, with cruise lines steering away from areas of unrest, and even Disney dropping Tunisia from its roster of destinations. As unrest under unpopular and totalitarian regimes continues and expands, it is likely that travel to these and other, unknown regions will be very powerfully affected.

If and when stability returns to these regions, however, expect tourism to boom, with tremendous opportunities for early visitors. Some pundits even predict a boom in "war chic travel" -- yeesh.

9. New tech will make a splash.
What will be the traveler's must-have accessory in 2012? Maybe the iPhone 5? The iPad 3? The Kindle Fire? It is always hard to predict future tech, but these devices will become more ubiquitous on the road all the time, for better or worse. If nothing else, Wi-Fi will remain one of the most important amenities for many travelers.

Have a 10th prediction of your own that we missed? Agree? Disagree? Let us know on our message boards. Happy New Year!

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

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