2014 was a great year for travel. From the introduction of more budget airlines in the U.S. to new hotel loyalty programs, a ton of trends are giving travelers more choices and better prices. Here are our favorites that we hope to see more of, this year and beyond.
1. Budget Carriers (That Aren't Spirit Airlines)
WOW Air recently rocked the Internet with unbelievable, under-$300 round-trip flights between Boston and Iceland -- a rock-bottom price. More flights from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. will be added seasonally starting this summer, and if all goes well, we can expect more cheap flights from other American hubs. We were also excited when Norwegian Air Shuttle launched a route between NYC and London last July -- the first budget carrier to do so in 37 years -- with round-trip rates up to $400 less than those on the major carriers. Of course, these types of airlines are best suited to travelers who don't require any frills, but more options can only mean better prices for consumers.
Speaking of airfare, can you believe that it used to cost less to fly round-trip from New York City to places like Phoenix, Puerto Rico, and St. Thomas than to Dallas? That finally changed this fall, when Southwest Airlines and Virgin Airlines both brought a whole host of flights to and from either U.S. coast, as well as Denver and Chicago. Pro tip: In general, prices drop whenever Southwest and JetBlue add new routes -- that's where the terms "Southwest effect" and " JetBlue effect " come from.
3. Free, Open WiFi
Setting aside Marriott's embarrassing, major mistake of blocking personal WiFi, the travel industry is starting to come to terms with how important free and open WiFi is to their customers. Major hotel chains now offer free WiFi to either all guests or members of their loyalty programs, most of which are free to join -- including Kimpton, IHG, Hyatt, Starwood, and, yes, Marriott. In fact, hotelwifitest said just a week ago that 85 percent of U.S. hotels offer free wifi. (Speed is a different matter, since many brands do differentiate between basic, free internet and premium-speed paid internet.) Up in the skies, JetBlue takes the cake for being the only American carrier to provide free (basic) connectivity, at least for 2015, if not beyond.
4. Car Sharing
Uber has experienced its fair share of woes as it aggressively expanded last year, but we're going to go back to the assumption that more competition means more and better choices for travelers. These car-sharing services have meant cheaper prices (surge hours aside), easier hailing, and easier payment for those in need of a ride. Of course, Uber isn't the only one out there. Lyft has been trying to take them head on, and Sidecar is another one to watch. And even if they don't drop their prices, perhaps local taxi commissions will take a leaf from the car sharing book and incorporate more convenient technology into the hailing process -- which black car companies are starting to do.
5. Brand-Agnostic Loyalty Programs
If it's difficult to rack up those airline miles, it can be even harder for leisure travelers to accumulate hotel points -- especially for those who prefer boutique hotels, independent properties, and inns. Enter programs like Expedia+ Rewards, the less-than-two-year-old iPrefer, and Stash Hotel Rewards. These all allow travelers to earn points at hotels beyond the big chains, enjoy extra perks, and redeem award stays more quickly.
6. Longer Airfare Price-Holding
Want more time for price comparison and shopping around than the 24 hours mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation? You have more options than ever. Just this fall, British Airways started allowing travelers to lock in your price at 72 hours for $10, and other airlines like United and Virgin Atlantic offer similar services for holds up to seven days. There are also independent websites like Options Away, a start-up that lets you lock in a prices between two and 14 days. Of course, there's no guarantee that prices will drop when you purchase these holds, but the fees are often insignificant enough that it's worth the potential bet on saving one or two hundred dollars at some point.
7. Swanky Hostels
The definition of luxury is changing, and, we think, for the better. A ton of chic hostels that are looking more and more like affordable boutique hotels are showing that it's now about how an experience feels, not just how much it costs. Saving big, making new friends, and still enjoying your privacy -- what's not to love about staying at a hostel as a grown-up?
8. Rental Apartments...Managed by Hotel Chains
We all know and love vacation rentals from Airbnb, HomeAway, and the like. You get more space, bigger savings, and a better feel for the local lifestyle. Also cool? Souped up versions managed by hotel chains, through which guests can access extra services like housekeeping and concierge support. The reservations process also more resembles traditional hotel bookings, for less confusion, and you know who to go to in the even that you need troubleshooting. We'll say it again: Hooray for more choices.