By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
If we had a crystal ball, using its intelligence to figure out how to be a thriftier, smarter, trendier traveler would bring a big payoff. We don’t have such an orb, but we do have some ideas on what the coming year holds for those who make the world their home.
Don’t expect a decrease in domestic airfares. Even though airlines are realizing good profits and fuel prices — always a big issue for carriers — are declining, you aren’t going to see those savings, said Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com, an airfare search website. The good news: The average domestic airfare for Los Angeles International travelers in the second quarter of 2014, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, was $400, almost $70 less than the inflation-adjusted price in 1995.
Your European vacation may cost you less. The euro and the pound have weakened slightly against the dollar. That hotel room that was pegged at 200 euros last December would have cost you $274. This year? $248. And that 200-pound room? $326 last year, $312 this year. You won’t save enough to upgrade to a suite at Claridge’s in London or the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, but a drink at a pub or a sidewalk cafe after a long day is a decent reward.
Your airfare to Europe may cost less too. After several years of sky-high fares to Europe, prices may stabilize or even drop. It’s not because fuel prices are down. It’s because new or revitalized players (Norwegian Air Shuttle, Aeroflot) have turned up the heat on competition and because, when it comes to European airlines, there are more of them. Competition is the flier’s best friend.
Accumulating frequent-flier miles won’t be quite as easy. That will be true on some major airlines. United and Delta will base award points on how much you spend, not on how far you fly. (Southwest already uses this revenue-based model.) If you’re a price-sensitive flier, as many of us leisure travelers are, you won’t reap rewards for your loyalty the way the traveler whose tab is paid by the company or the trust fund does. No word yet from American on its plans for its programs, presumably because it’s busy working on the merger with US Airways. For those who want to play the game, branded credit cards may be the answer.
Your credit card may soon be a chipped smart card, thanks to the “liability shift.” When card fraud occurs, someone must take the financial fall, and beginning in October, the blame will be assigned to the entity (the bank or the merchant, but not you) that allowed the fraud to occur. The magnetic stripe cards — the standard in the U.S. — aren’t effective against large-scale fraud, so banks increasingly will shift to the chipped smart card, the standard in most places outside the U.S. “If chip was the standard … the Target and Home Depot breaches would not have been possible,” said Kevin Yuann, credit card manager for NerdWallet, a personal finance website.
But that doesn’t mean your new smart card will work at unmanned kiosks abroad. Some of the reissued cards will be chip and PIN cards, which require an access code like the one you use at an ATM. Those are the cards that usually are required at ticket machines, for instance, or gasoline stations. But some new U.S. cards will be chip and signature cards, which require only a signature, just as our magnetic stripe cards do now. Many automated points of sale abroad won’t accept them. Why not switch to what many say is the more secure chip and PIN card? Banks worry that the unfamiliarity of the chip and PIN will discourage users from making that card the card of choice, Yuann said. To find a card that suits you, go to NerdWallet’s guide at www.lat.ms/1BTwfT8.
Taking a car trip because of gas prices, expected to stay low in the coming months, is mostly a head trip. Who doesn’t love seeing gas prices at less than $3 a gallon? That makes a car trip seem like a bonanza of savings. It isn’t. The average car got 36 mpg in 2013, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Let’s say you decide to drive to Yellowstone National Park from Los Angeles, which is a little more than 2,000 miles round trip. In mid-December, the national average of a gallon of gas was $2.55. Fuel cost for your trip: about $142. A year ago at the same time? You would have spent $3.23 a gallon. Savings: $38. Even in an RV that gets 10 mpg, your savings is $136. Moral: If you’re planning a road trip, fuel costs aren’t where you’ll find savings.
Your passport may be valid, but you may not be able to enter certain countries. Many countries will not allow U.S. passport holders to enter if their passports are due to expire within six months (or sometimes three), said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brenda Sprague. If your passport is nine years old, it’s time to get a new one.
2015 will be the last year you can add pages to your passport. Some countries require a certain number of blank pages in your passport or visa. If you’re so well-traveled that your passport is out of room, you can have pages added to your passport. That comes to an end in 2015. Sprague, visiting the L.A. area in August, called that practice antiquated and said that, beginning in 2016, you’ll need to get a new passport.
You may not feel as crummy after a flight as new aircraft are added to carriers’ fleets. Most flights are pressurized to about 8,000 feet, but the new Boeing 787 is pressurized to about 6,000 feet. It will be, said Robert Mittelstaedt, dean emeritus of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, “much more comfortable, especially for those with asthma, other breathing problems, or ears sensitive to pressure changes, even temporarily, such as during a cold.” Even if you don’t have those problems, you’ll be getting more oxygen, Mittelstaedt said, which should make you feel less as though you’ve been slugged in the head.
You’ll pay a little more for your rental car. That’s the word from American Express’ 2015 Business Travel Forecast, which predicts an increase of 0.5 percent to 1 percent for that domestic rental car. The good news for corporate customers, American Express said, is that they can push back against those rates because they have clout. The bad news for the rest of us? Like airlines, rental car companies have seen lots of consolidation, thus reducing competition and increasing your costs.
Stay in a luxury hotel and you’ll get service and style that’s more than a cut above. That may seem like a no-brainer — it is, after all, a luxury hotel so you don’t expect ugliness in service or style — but that AmEx forecast noted that the best hotels in 2015 will try even harder to differentiate themselves.
Furthermore, the cookie-cutter hotel is going the way of the dodo, said Sean Murphy, editor in chief for Jetsetter.com, which he calls an “inspirational hotel deal site.” “This is the age of the boutique hotel,” he said, meaning the experience must be unique. “The distinct hotel has character and some unique aspect to it that makes it the choice…. It provides experiences that are authentic.” It may be its architecture or its interior design, but above all, it will need to be memorable — in a good way.
You don’t have to use “sharing economy” travel services to benefit from them. The sharing economy, in which owners share/rent/lend assets to those who need them, is big and getting bigger. Many players in the field ran into big problems in 2014. AirBnB, which allows its hosts to rent rooms, tangled with taxing authorities in New York and San Francisco; Uber, the ride-on-demand company, has encountered regulatory issues from Nevada to Paris to Rio. With valuations of $10 billion or more (AirBnB) and as much as $40 billion (Uber), these companies have muscled into territory that once belonged to hotels and taxi companies, respectively.
Competition usually benefits the consumer, whether it’s saving money or spurring better service. Example? See next item.
If you’re traveling with family, hotels may do a better job of addressing your needs. That’s the word from Jon Eichelberger, regional manger for Trivago North America, a metasearch engine for hotels. Such entities as AirBnB fill a need for families that need room to spread out or cook, and hotels realize that they must do more to maintain or reclaim that market. Look for such amenities as child care or programs for children. Read more at this FlyerTalk forum: www.lat.ms/1ztRKJJ
And finally, 2015 will be the year of the cat. You may think this refers to the Chinese zodiac, but 2015 is the year of the sheep. No, we are talking about our four-footed friends, which seem to be the “it” critter. Cafes featuring the feline (they snuggle with you while you’re snacking or dining) have long been on the scene in Japan, but recently such establishments have sprung up in New York and Paris as well as in Vilnius, Lithuania (www.cat-cafe.lt), Madrid (www.lagatoteca.es) and Singapore (www.catcafe.com.sg). Two new ones are expected in Scotland in 2015. If you don’t like cats or find that fur and food don’t mix, stay away. For the rest of us missing our kitties while we’re on the road? Purrfect.
Photo: César Viteri Ramirez / flickr