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Today's travelers are more empowered than ever (plus: other emerging travel trends)

By Laura Buckley
October 3, 2012

In January, the top travel editors across the country, including Budget Travel's Editor in Chief Nina Willdorf, met to discus travel trends at the sixth annual Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable.

The conversation weaved through the emerging trends of river cruises, solo travel, all-inclusive deals, and the mobilization of travel technology. But the evolution of the consumer was on everyone's mind: today's consumer is decidedly looking to take back power and have an authentic travel experience.

With airlines seemingly charging for everything these days—Ryanair now charges $1.30 to use the restroom on a flight and SpiritAir now charges "overweight" bags at 41 lbs instead of 50 lbs—consumers are "smartening up and making the choice to go where they're not getting nickel-and-dimed," Willdorf said. Which is why Southwest Airlines, known for it's budget-friendly-without-hidden-fees pricing, had more people fly with them last year than any other year, according to Willdorf, and the five fastest midrange hotels all offer free WiFi, foregoing previous standard policy of charging extra for wireless Internet.

With this in mind, Veronica Stoddart, the leisure travel editor for USA Today, said the next big pricing change in the airline industry will be the pricing of individual seats. Air New Zealand now has a "cuddle class," where you and your honey can buy two seats and get the third seat half off so you have extra room to recline and snuggle.

Along with this value, consumers also want an authentic experience. "It's all about experience now, and something that transcends the everyday, that puts you in touch with something enduring or authentic," Nancy Novogrod, the Editor in Chief of Travel + Leisure, said. The recent rise in river cruising, which is growing at three times the rate of the seagoing cruise, reflects this trend. With small groups, new, stylized rooms, WiFi, and the ability to dock in the middle of a city, it allows people a more "local" experience than traditional cruise ships.

River cruising is also a great option for solo travelers, another emerging travel trend. The Norwegian Cruise Line created solo cabins, finally ridding solo travelers of the dreaded single supplement, which had been an expectation of the industry. "They're missing the boat, so to speak, because there's a huge appetite for this," Stoddart said. Women, especially baby boomers who are on their own, according to Stoddart, want to explore and travel, and the industry will soon cater more fully to them.

This emerging take-back-the-power trend has also attributed to the resurgence of travel agents and all-inclusives. It may seem counter-intuitive to say these that these types of travels—where other people do things for you—has gone hand-in-hand with consumer power, but it has. People want to customize their plans and have a curated trip just for them. With all of the options for do-it-yourselfers, travel agents can simplify the process and make sure you get what you want. And all-inclusives allow you to relax and enjoy the sense of value. "You don't need to be watching your hotel bill for all of the charges," Willdorf said.

And with the multitudes of new digital platforms—iPad, iPhone, Android, Nook, etc.—the mobilization of travel technology is another emerging trend. "All this is changing how we think of everything," Keith Bellows, the Editor in Chief of National Geographic Traveler, said. Novogrod expressed concern about this changing publishing landscape: "We're all in a really vulnerable position right now because we are expanding in ways we never even knew would exist."

Despite the unease of how the digital platforms will be used, it's clear they will all focus on you—the consumer. "It's creating a whole new opportunity for us to rethink what our connection is with the consumer, what kind of products we do," Bellows said. Willdorf also sees the power with the reader: "We can't just create and deliver. We have to connect. Once you connect people and they can talk, and they're in your community, then you have self-sustaining content."

Whether it's the cruise industry remodeling ships to cater to the needs of solo travelers, travel agents preparing a specialized trip for a family, or the publishing industry creating new apps based on the information readers want, the power is most definitely in the consumer's hand.

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