A lot has happened in 2010, from airline fees spiraling out of control to innovations in cruising and theme parks. Here are the most noteworthy stories from the past year.
Oil spills. Ash clouds. Plus, every hotel guest's worst nightmare: bedbugs! It would be easy to cast 2010 as "The Year of Freaking Out." Facing such panic-inducing travel hazards, many of us had to fight the urge to follow the lead of former flight attendant Steven Slater by jumping on an inflatable emergency slide and racing home to hide in bed.
Not so fast. We could just as easily call 2010 "The Year of Industry Revival." In reinventions worthy of Cher, two of the industry's longest-running acts—theme parks and cruises—became hip again. In Orlando, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in June, and families queued up for a little levitation. Meanwhile, the December 1 launch of the world's largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, was a high note for the cruise industry.
Through it all, Budget Travel was there for you, covering these and other hot topics, including vacation-rental bans, a victory for fliers' rights, and the news that TripAdvisor was in the hot seat. Here are the most memorable stories of 2010.
Royal Caribbean launches world's biggest cruise ship…again
On December 1 Royal Caribbean launched the world's largest cruise ship, the Allure of the Seas. The behemoth is only 50 millimeters longer than the previous titleholder (and sister ship), Oasis of the Seas, which debuted last year. It sleeps 5,400 people, weighs 225,282 tons, and is one and a half times the size of the Queen Mary 2, the ship that held the "world's largest" title prior to the Oasis. The supersizing of cruise ships is a trend that Budget Travel has been following (see our Mega-Cruise Smackdown, which pits the Oasis against the Norwegian Epic, another heavyweight).
But is bigger better? It's definitely not more affordable—today's mega ships often lead to mega bills (the typical passenger spends hundreds of dollars more onboard than on other ships). To its credit, Royal Caribbean has included many freebies in its ticket price, from surprising activities (free zip lines!) to over-the-top extras (free synchronized swimming shows!) on both the Allure and the Oasis. The company's focus on customer satisfaction must be a key reason why BT readers' picked it as their favorite cruise line in our Readers' Choice Awards.
Airline fees just keep rising
Airlines would make you pay for using their seat belts if they could. For years, they've been adding dollar signs to services that used to be free. But this year, carriers took à la carte pricing to the extreme. Spirit Airlines started levying from $20 to $45 each way for the privilege of carrying luggage on a flight. (Thankfully, other airlines haven't copied Spirit's move, partly because of the public shaming the company was given by U.S. Senator (and Extra Mile Award winner), Chuck Schumer. Most gallingly of all, Irish carrier Ryanair insisted it is serious in its plans to eventually charge £1 or €1 to use a lavatory mid-flight.
Overall, U.S. airlines soaked passengers for $3.9 billion in surcharges during the first half of the year alone. The nickel-and-diming will continue in 2011—unless travelers revolt.
Tarmac delays lead to a victory for fliers' rights
This spring, the U.S. Department of Transportation began enforcing its new requirement that U.S. airlines return their planes to the terminal after three hours on the tarmac or face fines of up to $27,500 a passenger. In more welcome news, travelers bumped from planes can now be compensated up to $1,300 for the inconvenience.
BT readers cheered these regulations, which have been effective so far. Between May and October, there were only a dozen tarmac delays of more than three hours (compare that to the 546 tarmac delays during the same period in 2009).
Flight attendant freaks out, becomes a folk hero
It was working class meltdown of such mythic proportions it could have been the subject of a Bruce Springsteen anthem. Upset at the rudeness of a passenger, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater called it quits, activated the emergency slide, grabbed a couple of beers from the galley, and slid down the chute. He became a household name, but he didn't escape scot-free: He just barely escaped jail by agreeing to undergo counseling and substance-abuse treatment and pay $10,000 in restitution to his former employer.
On a positive note, Slater's cathartic escape cast a spotlight on flight attendants nationwide who feel that they are unfair victims of passenger "air rage." Many Budget Travel readers have voiced support for flight attendants facing down anger mismanagement. The message? Steven Slater is guilty, but maybe we fliers are too.
Merger mania: Airlines rush to the altar
Mergers were all the rage in 2010 as airlines rushed to cut competition and fill vacant seats. United and Continental tied up, becoming the world's largest airline, and Southwest Airlines announced it would buy AirTran. These nuptials come on the heels of Delta's acquiring Northwest two years ago. Next to wed? American Airlines is a top candidate, having been flirting with JetBlue for some time. The two airlines already sell seats on some of the same flights, in a strategy called code sharing. (American also has set its sights on British Airways and Iberia, with whom it began code sharing this year as well.)
As a rule, mergers are bad news for anyone who holds miles in frequent-flier programs but doesn't fly often enough to earn elite status. The reason: Getting a seat upgrade will become much more difficult now on popular routes because there are almost no unfilled seats left.
On the plus side, mergers have fortified the airlines financially so they have glided through the economic turbulence of the past few years without going into bankruptcy, unlike during the last recession when multiple airlines ended up in Chapter 11. Stable airlines allow for more consistent service, which is a clear plus for travelers.
The biggest travel crisis of 2010? The BP oil spill
This year has seen its share of travel crises, from Iceland's volcanic ash disaster in April to the engine fire that left Carnival's cruise ship, Splendor, without power for four days in November. Neither, however, rivals the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which stretched on for months, affecting travelers, hoteliers, and small businesses en masse.
Think that these fiascoes prove the importance of travel insurance? Think again. In each case, most travel insurance policies proved useless. Condo rental cancellations spiked during the Gulf oil spill (30 to 50 percent of condos went empty during peak season), but because the beaches remained open, insurers considered the mass cancellations "voluntary"—and voluntary cancellations are seldom covered. Yes, the beaches were relentlessly cleaned, but swimming and boating were often restricted. Victims of the ash cloud and the Carnival Splendor debacles faced similar twists. In both instances the agencies (i.e., the airlines or Carnival) offered some concessions to travelers. Unfortunately, most insurance policies don't let you make a claim when you've already received compensation elsewhere. To be sure, travel insurance has its place, but it pays to be smart about it. Use our Trip Coach column for guidance on when and where it makes sense.
Bedbugs spread, appearing in hotels
As if travelers didn't have enough to worry about, bedbugs are on the rise. The infamous bloodsuckers are taking a bite out of the Big Apple, and data suggest that they're spreading across the U.S. New York tops the list of infested cities (complaints rose from 537 in 2004 to almost 11,000 at the last count in 2009), followed by Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Chicago. The experience is horrific, leading to red itchy sores by the dozen and hundreds of dollars in eradication fees if you bring them home. Word to the wise: Stay alert no matter how fancy your hotel is (even New York's Waldorf-Astoria stands accused of harboring the pests).
Budget Travel's advice: Always put your bags on a luggage rack or the floor—never the bed. When you return home, launder your clothes (including the ones you're wearing!) at a high temperature. (For more tips, see our stories: "They Want to Suck Your Blood" and "Bedbugs: How to Cut Your Risk.") Then: relax. No, really. Bedbugs don't carry communicable diseases, and your chances of encountering them are extremely low.
Apartment rentals on the rise—and under fire
It may have been the most overblown travel story of the year. This summer, New York City passed a law banning the use of "no-tels"—homes and apartments marketed as short-term rentals without the city's approval (the ban begins May 2011). This news sparked questions about the legality of vacation rentals in other cities, given that travelers this year had booked an estimated half a million nights in such lodgings. It turns out that Paris and San Francisco have ancient ordinances on the books that essentially ban short-term rentals.
Yet as Budget Travel recently reported, these laws are largely toothless (see "Are Vacation Rentals Still Legit?"). None of the cities penalize renters. Just as importantly, few, if any, renters will be kicked off their futons in the middle of the night by police raids. Law enforcement is far more focused on catching con artists who turn residential buildings into full-time hotels without proper licensing and honest business practices. As always, you should be cautious in arranging a vacation rental. (See Budget Travel's "6 Tips for Safer Rentals" and "Trip Coach: Vacation Rentals"). Use well-known matchmaking sites to find and book your stay, such as airbnb.com and crashpadder.com. To feel totally in the clear of the law, only seek out lodging that's free, via sites like couchsurfing.org (see our story: "How Rock Bands Save on Lodging").
The Harry Potter Theme Park opens
Classic children's stories and Florida theme parks: There's a history here, and quite a good one. So it wasn't a surprise when—at long last, and despite national economic uncertainty—thousands of fans of the J.K. Rowling series (which includes Budget Travel: see our "Travel Guide: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter") flocked to Universal Studios Resorts in Orlando to see her famous characters and scenes brought to life in rides, shops, and restaurants at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (universalorlando.com/harrypotter), which opened June 18. Praise was high for the park's faithful translation of the Potter series, from its mugs of Butterbeer and Hogwarts school robes to its "robo-coaster" ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which guides riders through a Quidditch game and other lifelike simulations, with the help of a robotic arm. Attendance at the Universal Studios Resort as a whole spiked 36 percent from the same period a year earlier. Such a double-digit gain is unprecedented for a major theme park, says Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider, putting former champ Disney on notice that it's time to up its theme park game.
TripAdvisor is called out for dubious reviews
TripAdvisor.com, the top site for critiquing hotels, found itself under review this year. Stories came to light of hotel managers attempting to manipulate the site's rankings by hiring people around the world to post fake, positive reviews about properties. (Budget Travel heard similar reports about tour companies attempting the same thing—"Confessions of...a Rome Tour Guide"). TripAdvisor countered that it screens all of its reviews for authenticity, susses out unusual patterns in posting behavior with the help of software, and allows anyone to flag a suspicious review for further scrutiny by moderators. These efforts boosted the site's trust factor.
Readers picked TripAdvisor as their favorite site for hotel reviews ("Readers' Choice Awards 2010"). They know to scan many opinions to get the consensus view, and not take any one verdict as gospel. That said, BT's editors continue to keep an eye on the Goliath of review sites.
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