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Top Travel Trends for 2013

2013 beachNow that another potential doomsday has passed and the world has lived on -- why is it that modern societies think ancient societies like the Mayans had any more of a clue about the future than we do? -- we can celebrate the fact that 2013 has arrived, and that we've survived to travel another day. Although I don't purport to know the future any better than the Mayans, I'd like to share a few educated guesses on what travel might hold for all of us in this fresh new year.

1. You will be able to finish your e-books in flight.
While pilots, flight attendants and air traffic controllers all have FAA approval to use tablet computers in the actual piloting of planes on the ground and in the air, we lowly folks who are paying the bills still have to turn off "anything with a battery" for long stretches of every flight. Why isn't what is good for the pilots good for the passengers? Do they think we're dummies?

This headline says it all: Even the FCC Thinks It's Dumb That We Have to Turn Off Electronic Devices During Takeoff. It is just a matter of time before we are allowed to finish our e-books and our games of Angry Birds onboard.

For the record, I wrote way back in 1997 that the FCC knew that cell phones don't really cause any problems in flight, but didn't allow them onboard in part due to the fact that phone companies didn't want us connecting to cell towers from the air. It's only taken them 15 years to come around -- and if you suspect now that the change of heart is due in part to electronic device manufacturing lobbies, I won't argue with you.

2. In response, onboard Wi-Fi will become more ubiquitous (if not affordable).
Although many airlines now offer Wi-Fi, two serious problems have kept large numbers of travelers from using it:

- Unless you are in first class (even business class can be a problem), the space between aircraft rows simply does not allow for comfortable operation of a laptop computer. You can't see the screen or have the elbow room to type -- even when the person in front of you does not recline his or her seatback.

- The requirement of turning everything off for an hour or more all told cuts dramatically into your potential Wi-Fi connection time. It might be worth it to pay for access on a cross-country or overseas flight, but on shorter flights you lose so much time to takeoff and landing that the cost per hour skyrockets.

The space needed to operate a tablet, however, is much less -- and if you recover the hour or two you lose to the "devices off" policy, paying for Wi-Fi might seem more palatable for larger numbers of travelers.

Given that the FCC and FAA will need to allow the operation of tablets and smartphone devices first, this may end up being a 2014 trend -- but it is coming.

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3. Mobile travel booking will improve markedly.
If there is one large sector of the economy that should be cutting-edge in mobile technology, it is the travel industry. Heck, "mobilize" is in the thesaurus entry for "travel."

This is already somewhat underway, but there are plenty of big players in the industry whose mobile presence leaves a lot to be desired. And it's not because travelers don't want it; according to one study, the percentage of business travelers using mobile devices to plan travel has doubled in the past four years, while the percentage of leisure travelers has more than quadrupled.

Despite the rapid growth in the sector, there is still room for a lot more, and it is not just for kicks: One out of every two mobile travel queries results in a purchase at present. Whether the big guys get it together, or new folks move in aggressively, it is certain that within a year's time, the travel industry should have embraced mobile computing almost en toto.

4. Alternative lodging options will become mainstream.
The popularity and growth of "older" online property listing services like VRBO.com, and the arrival of new and innovative services like Airbnb.com, are combining to offer travelers very attractive and workable alternatives to traditional hotels. Problems remain -- a few high profile episodes of renters run amok made headlines this year, and in my own experience, there can be user-friendliness issues such as pricey "cleaning fees" and off-putting rules -- but in many cases these properties offer locations and experiences that a hotel simply can't.

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And that may be just the beginning of "disruption" in hotel booking. Consider the new Tingo.com, which helps you get money back when prices drop on already booked hotels, and same-day booking services like Hotel Tonight and Priceline's Tonight-Only Deal app that simplify extreme last-minute bookings. These types of services are being embraced in growing numbers, and may become nearly routine for many travelers over the next few months.

5. Car rentals will follow suit, if a bit more slowly.
In the same way that VRBO and Airbnb allow travelers to book lodging directly from homeowners, sites like Getaround.com and Lyft.me allow folks to rent their cars to each other. Also, Zipcar still resides in between the big rental companies and the consumer-to-consumer efforts (though we'll have to keep an eye on it after its recent acquisition by Avis). And FlightCar is another service on the horizon that will let travelers rent cars from each other at a limited number of airports.

This segment of the market is not evolving as quickly as the home rental industry. Given the tremendous price competition in car rentals at present, the price to rent a car from the major rental companies is often very low; travelers also appreciate the convenience of picking a car up at the airport, which is not yet widely available from all the new services. But the changes are still apparent and should continue in the coming year.

6. Planes will continue to be packed.
I see no end to the trend toward fully packed planes. In fact, as recently merged airlines less resemble kindergarten recess in their org charts, they will coalesce into much more integrated companies, and further route and flight frequency consolidation should be expected. The airlines have been merciless in this regard; this is not going to change any time soon.

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7. Travelers and businesses will start to measure non-financial costs of travel.
By non-financial cost of travel, I really mean "hassles." More corporate outfits will measure this in terms of stress levels and opportunity costs exacted by connections, delays and the nearly inhuman ordeal that travel (especially air travel) presents these days.

airport departure screens woman checking watchFor individuals, the stress of travel has many folks thinking well beyond price to consider how difficult any given trip might be. In corporate offices, folks are trying to choose travel that reduces lost productivity and has less of a negative impact on worker morale.

To that end, Carlson Wagonlit Travel is developing an algorithm to measure the stress cost of any given trip. With full planes, security inefficiencies, overbooking woes, seat choice fees and more, weighing the "stress cost" of any given itinerary is an interesting idea whose time has certainly come, both for business and leisure travelers. Certainly many of us know veteran travelers who simply refuse any longer to travel around New Year's, or to take a flight with multiple connections, or to book itineraries that include short stays in layover cities that would require an extra trip through security -- all things that a few years ago they would have swallowed, if not enjoyed.

8. Extra fees will continue to expand.
Airlines will continue to dig up and heap on extra fees, travelers will continue to be ambushed by and complain vociferously about them, and legislators will continue to debate whether airlines and other providers are obligated to reveal all of these fees up front. The potent mix of consumer angst, corporate greed, and legislative influence and sluggishness will keep this in the mix for months to come.

New fees can show up anywhere, and are changing all the time: witness AA's latest baggage fee revamp experiment, or Frontier charging fees if you book anywhere but its site.

As we always say: Caveat emptor!

9. Kids-free policies will continue to evolve.
The travel war on kids came to a much sharper point this past year as airlines started offering kid-free zones on airplanes, while hotels followed suit with kids-free sections of hotels, adults-only pools and more.

I went on the record a few weeks back in support not so much of a kids-free zone on airplanes, as a truly dedicated family zone, so I may not be the right person to express outrage over these policies. To me, as long as families have good and reliable options, it's no big deal.

The unfortunate thing here is that some of the impetus for this trend is to justify charging higher prices on all sides of the argument -- either you'll pay to be with your own kids, or pay more to be kept away from other people's kids. I've been traveling heavily for 30 years, and can count on one hand the number of times a kid really caused me much misery -- but whatever, I get it.

The airlines have promised that the new fees will never force a family apart, but when it comes down to it, there are too many moving parts for them to keep that promise. And here we go: Airline seat fees separate mom from 5-year-old twins. Expect this topic to rattle around quite a bit in 2013.

10. Bucket list travel to environmentally threatened places will be on the rise.
This list is about trends, not destinations, but some of the effects of global environment change may have arrived much closer to home for a lot of folks in the past few years. In response, many travelers will be inclined to book travel to environmentally threatened places, and even "disappearing" places, in hopes of seeing them before it is no longer possible to do so. Ambitious trips to the Arctic Circle, rain forest regions, vanishing coral reefs and areas where animal species are facing extinction are dominating the plans of many devoted travelers.

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11. Civil war travel will spike.
Coming on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the most critical year of the Civil War, the movie "Lincoln" will conspire with the anniversary to send folks to many of the most important Civil War sites. The re-enactor community is well rehearsed at this point to give the people what they want.

12. Formerly closed places will see more travel.
With the U.S. president allowing travel to Cuba, visiting Myanmar and supporting massive changes in Libya, many destination experts think adventurous Americans will take the first opportunity to visit these formerly closed destinations. If you are among that number, be very aware of political events during your travels, as conditions can change very rapidly and departure can become difficult almost in minutes.

13. The big screen will direct travel.
platform 9 3/4 hogwartsIf Disney is proof of concept that movies based on stories and books draw tourists, then 2013 should see heaps of visitors to the land of the Hobbit, and to live the Life of Pi. As foreign-based films become more popular in the States, this trend should continue for years to come.

Don't believe it? Ask yourself how many American kids have had their picture taken at platform 9 3/4.

14. Tourism will follow disaster.
I suspect that the summer of 2013 will see massive efforts to bring people back to the Jersey Shore, Long Island and damaged parts of New York City (including Coney Island and even the Lower East Side). To get folks back into these towns, which without tourist dollars simply don't function properly, there will be deals galore for travelers willing to live with a slightly battered and bruised version of these old vacation spots. And truth be told, disaster tourism has always had a strong effect in similar areas; in 2013 it is the Mid-Atlantic region's turn.

What's Your Travel Goal for 2013?

Those are my 14 travel trends for 2013; do you care to add the 15th? Do so in the comments! Thanks for reading in 2012, and here is to a great new year.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor

Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Tingo.com.

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