10 ways we travelled differently in the last decade. How many fit you?
by MARK ELLWOOD, December 16, 2019, Condé Nast Traveler
From Instagram to unlimited vacation days.
Remember 2010? The iPhone 4 was cutting-edge (and we used Skype, not FaceTime, to call our friends around the world); London was gearing up to host the Olympics; Iceland was a movie location not a tourist destination; and the government began loosening restrictions against travel to Cuba, allowing Americans to visit the island more easily for the first time in five decades. In Antarctica, meanwhile, talks began about limiting the number of ships that could visit in the wake of vanishing ice floes. Who, then, could have predicted what would happen in the decade since? (Spoiler: There are currently more cruises than ever to the South Pole and there are new restrictions on traveling to Cuba.) From technology and social media to immigration and climate change, there’s been no shortage of factors shaping the way we travel—and think about travel—over the past ten years. As we enter 2020 and a new decade, we’ve taken a look back at the ten major changes that have changed the way we explore the world.
Americans are notoriously bad at not taking their vacation days, but attitudes are beginning to change. So much so that a plethora of companies introduced unlimited vacation days int he 2010s as a policy: Virgin Management, GitHub, Dropbox, and Netflix among them. The new approach to flexible PTO emerged as an employee perk in the aftermath of the recession, as a novel, cost-effective way to increase the appeal of office work for millennial graduates. (It’s a stark contrast with the 25 percent of Americans who, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, still receive absolutely no paid vacation time at all.)
Data on how much PTO employees actually take when it’s no longer metered is scant, and anecdotal evidence suggests it may actually make them less, rather than more, likely to book time out. But when taking off Friday or Monday doesn’t burn a precious vacation day, it allows people to change the way they travel—and increase their number of trips. Eighty percent of millennials say they would rather take a number of small breaks rather than one big one, while 53 percent of all travelers reported more planned weekends away.
Call them LHLB airlines—that’s long-haul, low-budget. The decade has been defined by the surge in alternative airlines aiming to offer cheaper, easier ways to reach farther flung destinations. Chief among them, of course, is Norwegian. The onetime regional Scandinavian carrier was founded in 1993 but announced its plan to fly to and from New York in 2009, and five years later the first planes took off from London Gatwick to the Big Apple for just 149 pounds ($199) one way.
It wasn’t the first carrier to offer low-cost, long-haul service—British entrepreneur Freddie Laker famously tried to straddle the Atlantic with his namesake charter airline before its collapse in 1982—but in the 2010s, Norwegian’s success encouraged others to try (and sometimes fail), including Primera, Wizz, and WOW. Even JetBlue is finally venturing across the Atlantic in 2021, operating between Boston and New York to London.
Yet as its global network has exploded, so too has Norwegian’s financial problems, which has seen the carrier wobble toward insolvency several times. It hasn’t been a smooth ride for passengers, either: smaller fleets of aircraft mean that replacing a defective plane at the last minute is virtually impossible, leaving it more vulnerable to cancelations, and the unorthodox, bare bones in-flight experience can leave some passengers cold, tired, and hungry. Tellingly, the rivals that remain in operation are almost entirely those underwritten as offshoots by legacy carriers: Eurowings (Lufthansa), Rouge (Air Canada), Level (British Airways and Iberia), and Scoot (Singapore Airlines). But how does the democratization of air travel—which these affordable carriers champion—square with an urge for more mindful, eco-conscious flying? That’s a conundrum to ponder in the 2020s.
Restorative travel isn’t a new concept—ancient Romans took time out from conquering the rest of the world to make pilgrimages to spa towns like Aqua Sulis (now Bath, England). But the last decade has seen a surge in wellness tourism, that holistic idea of healthy body and healthy mind (again, a Roman idea, which they called mens sana in corpore sano). In the last two years alone, the global wellness sector has grown by 14 percent overall, and is expected to continue to expand. In 2017, travelers worldwide took 830 million wellness-focused trips, almost 140 million more than two years earlier. Unsurprisingly, the industry has been quick to respond with new offerings that reconfigure the concept of a spa break for the 21st century: think yoga in Tulum, intermittent fasting retreats in India, or silent retreats in Bali that require you to not only forego speaking, but also surrender all digital devices.
Some existing brands have reoriented expressly toward wellness, like Marriott-owned Westin, which has introduced everything from free in-room loans of workout equipment to a partnership with meditation app Headspace. There have been new entrants, too: take the eco-minded 1 Hotel chain, created by Starwood alum Barry Sternlicht with sustainability efforts at its core, from recycling rainwater to using local ingredients in the onsite restaurants, and swapping out paper notepads in rooms for chalkboard. Meanwhile, the Equinox Hotel in New York’s Hudson Yards is the first of a planned chain operated by the upscale fitness brand, and includes a clean-eating restaurant, cryotherapy facility, spa-like bathrooms and, of course, an enormous, gleaming gym.
Two destinations, one trip? It’s not a new gimmick: Icelandair started offering free stopovers for anyone traveling via Reykjavik between North America and Europe in the 1960s (the planes had to refuel anyway). But in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which devastated the country’s economy, its tourism czars began aggressively marketing the concept to siphon some much-needed cash into the economy. The carrier embraced the opportunity with gusto and made it the cornerstone of its marketing—even launching a hashtag, #Mystopover, to help spread the word on Instagram.
Those efforts worked—perhaps too well. Between 2010 and 2016 international visits nearly quadrupled, and while Visit Iceland director Inga Hlin Palsdottir insisted last year that 95 percent of tourists said they were happy with their visits, the strain is evident on a country whose total year-round population hovers under 340,000, but whose daily visitors in peak season reach 90,000. (One example: one out of five people in Iceland working in tourism are non-native, leading to unreliable tours and experiences due to lack of regulation.)
Fears of overtourism have done little to stop other destinations from adopting Icelandair’s concept, though. Several other carriers have started similar stopover programs in the last decade: Portugal’s TAP (stop off in Lisbon or Porto), Turkish Airlines (Istanbul), or Swiss (Zurich) are just a few examples. Heck, even the late Anthony Bourdain named one of his shows The Layover.
It’s been a major decade for shore excursions, with cruise lines recognizing that passengers are as interested in the destinations as the ships themselves. According to Carolyn Spencer-Brown, editor at large for Cruise Critic, the year 2010 was pivotal to the cruise industry, and it’s all thanks to the efforts of one man: Larry Pimentel, the cruise veteran who had just taken over Azamara cruises as president. “He reshuffled everything to say that destination immersion is the most important thing on a cruise, downplaying the cruise itself and playing up time in port,” she says. Translation: longer days in port, overnights in dock, onshore events hosted by the line itself. A decade later, many competitors have followed suit, like the Couture Collection by Silversea, which offers pre- and post-cruise trips, bookable via the firm, that take place entirely on land.
This hunger for experiences beyond on-board entertainment has also changed where ships are sailing to altogether, and the past few years have seen a growing interest in sailings to some of the world’s most remote destinations. Antarctica, for example, has never been easier to travel to thanks to small, expedition style cruises, which entertain guests with everything from whale watching and stargazing to lectures about the effects of climate change led by onboard scientists. The Galápagoshas seen a surge of interest, too, and a number of sustainably minded ships have begun sailing there, including the Celebrity Flora. Ahead: Quasar Expeditions is set to launch the most sustainable boat to cruise the islands yet in 2020.
The first time airlines were permitted to compete over pricing came in the wake of deregulation in the late 1970s, when the government abolished the monopoly-style system and allowed airlines to set their own fares so they would compete on cost rather than service. Once those rules changed, aviation became the alphabet soup-like pricing free-for-all it remains today. The latest addition to the price wars? Basic economy.
Debuted by Delta in 2012, this no-frills fare included little more than the right to sit on the plane, with no right to choose your seat in advance, no free checked bags, no changes permitted, and reduced frequent flyer miles. It was a response to the rise of low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier—in fact, Delta execs described it as the airline’s “Spirit-match fare” in an earnings call. United and American quickly followed suit, selling deeply discounted tickets where seat assignment, checked baggage, and even overhead space would cost extra.
Basic economy has been hugely impactful, making air travel even more accessible for the price-conscious. But the granular, nickel-and-diming approach has led to price-driven fliers generating lower revenue per seat, meaning carriers like American are cramming extra seats into new aircraft interiors, resulting in far less legroom. The concept is now spreading beyond economy: Emirates is currently piloting stripped-back fare for its premium cabins, where the ticket price will solely cover the seat, with all the fripperies that make premium what it is available at extra cost.
At the beginning of this century, immigration became a hot button issue in the wake of 2001’s terrorist attacks, and borders reflexively tightened through 2002’s Homeland Security Act. This decade, though, immigration authorities have focused on streamlining how certain travelers return home by relying on biometrics. The known traveler program, or Global Entry, was first piloted in June 2008 but has since spread to every major U.S. international gateway and is now used by an average of 10 percent of international arrivals. The parallel program, Mobile Passport, was developed as an app in 2010 and has surged in popularity, steered by its founder, former McKinsey consultant Hans Miller. He sees it as part of a wider move in the industry. “I don’t think it’s a big secret that the travel industry overall is very interested in what they call seamless travel, or the idea that your face can be your boarding pass and your ID all rolled into one,” he told Traveler in an interview.
And then there’s Clear. First introduced in 2003 by media magnate Stephen Brill, its early iteration flatlined and went out of business in 2009—largely because it was ahead of its time. But the remnants of the company were snapped up by a new consortium, and it’s been successfully rolled out at two dozen or so airports across the country so far, allowing members, who pay $179 per year for the privilege, to shortcut the security lines. Combined with TSA Pre Check, it radically reduces the time required for airport screening.
Up next? What Customs and Border Protection dubs Global Entry 2.0, which will supposedly expedite processing even faster. Certified travelers will no longer need to use their fingerprints for identification at immigration kiosks. Instead, they’ll simply stand in front of the booth and an AI-equipped camera will use facial recognition to grant them entry.
Uber. AirBnB. VRBO. NetJets. FlexJet. Boatsetter. Sharing economy startups, which first emerged as a timely antidote to the materialism underpinning the financial crisis, have boomed in the past decade, morphing into mainstays of the travel sphere almost overnight. So much so that they’ve transformed how, where, and why we travel, prioritizing peer-to-peer over pre-packaged experiences.
Ride-sharing services, for example, have made it easier to explore new places (especially in destinations lacking in public transport), helped solo travelers feel safer, and even made it easier (and sometimes cheaper) to get to and from the airport. Homeshares, meanwhile, have unlocked new neighborhoods in cities, allowing visitors to live amid the locals rather than cheek by jowl alongside tourists in hotels. They’ve turned ordinary people into ad hoc hoteliers, or “hosts”, and created unexpected connections spanning everything from friendships to marriage. Of course, the rise of Airbnb has also pushed hotels to innovate and adapt. Accor Hotels, for example, acquired luxe homeshare firm OneFineStay, and Hyatt’s invested in vacation rental platform Oasis. Other brands, like The Hoxton, have created lobbies that feel like local hangouts rather than places to check in, and curated on-site restaurants and experiences to feel like extensions of the surrounding neighborhood.
It hasn’t all been straightforward, though, and there’s been far-reaching blowback from the boom—spanning everything from concerns over gentrification to safety. Local legislators have been forced to update laws that weren’t primed to regulate this new industry, and some destinations, like Japan or Palma de Mallorca in Spain, have been so overwhelmed by the trend that they’ve opted to virtually eliminate all but a handful of homeshares, citing unrest, danger, and general inconvenience to local residents. Many more destinations have yet to decide how to tackle Airbnb’s expansive presence, so expect a continuing tussle as we enter the next decade.
When Mike Krieger was an undergrad at Stanford he developed an app called Send Me Some Sunshine, where users could snap pictures of a sunny day and send the mood-boosting image to someone across the world. Krieger then reinvented the idea into one that allowed users to share any kind of photo—and on July 16, 2010, Instagram was born. Within two months Kreiger, and co-founder Kevin Systrom, had 1 million registered users. A decade (and an acquisition by Facebook) later, it’s surpassed 1 billion.
Instagram has reshaped many sectors—the rise in posting photos of our food has changed how dishes are plated, and selfie-ready backdrops in stores have usurped eye-catching window displays—but its impact on travel in particular has been outsize: by one estimate 70 percent of all Instagram content is travel-related. In other words, doing it for the ‘gram has become the 21st century equivalent of sending a postcard.
But our urge to snap, filter, and share shots of our trips isn’t all positive. Instagram has turned little-known hideaways into world-famous attractions: Trolltunga in Norway, for example, where a rocky outcrop received just 500 visitors in 2009, received 40,000 five years later after becoming Insta-famous. Risky but renowned selfie spots have become death traps, where careless travelers keen to take an eye-popping selfie have instead ended up losing their lives—often by falling. (Two tourists died, in separate incidents, at the same waterfall in Koh Samui in 2019 alone.) Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell of luxury travel advisory Cazenove & Loyd, says Instagram has become so ubiquitous with our travels that backlash against it is almost as powerful a force as the app itself. “As soon as an influencer says where the best place to have pancakes in Siem Reap is, it’s full of a whole load of people who just want to be seen there,” he says. “Now [travel] is about thinking beyond what social media tells you to do.”
Are you paralyzed by flygskam? Or are you proud of your tågskryt? These two terms—meaning flight-shame and train-brag, respectively—have elbowed hygge aside as the latest Scandinavian buzzwords. It’s easy to see why, when our social media feeds are flooded with stark images of the world’s bleaching coral reefs, footage of wildfires ravaging parts of Australia and California, and tourists wading through the waters in Venice, which suffered the worst sustained flooding in recent years since the 1960s. And then, of course, there’s Greta Thunberg, the teen climate protester who has spent 2019 traveling the world to share her message—all without stepping on a plane. At just 16 years old, her activism has already been deemed so impactful that she was named Time magazine’s person of the year for 2019.
We’re seeing actionable change, too. Germany has announced plans to cut taxes on train journeys while hiking them on flights, and a survey conducted by CBS across the U.K., U.S., France, and Germany this summer confirmed that one fifth of people planned to reduce the number of flights they took per year, with 24 percent of Americans planning to rein in their flying. Aviation industry analyst Henry Harteveldt tells Traveler that the industry expects these concerns to continue to take off. At one recent aviation conference, he estimates that 23 – 35 percent of the conversation centered around sustainability. “It’s shifted from a box that airline executives felt they had to tick, to a very earnest effort—all in the past year,” he says.
The urge toward sustainability isn’t just impacting the number of flights travelers consider taking, either. Cruise lines and airlines continue to announce that they’re eliminating single-use plastics or swapping to paper straws. Norwegian, for example, has pledged to nix water bottles on its ships by January 1, 2020, while United Airlines flew a trial flight between O’Hare and LAX this summer dubbed ‘Flight for the Planet,’ where bagged snacks were replaced with plated nibbles, serviceware was compostable, and the entire journey was powered by biofuel. Hotels in delicate ecosystems are also trying to minimize their impact—Indonesia’s ultra-luxe Nihi Sumba is powered by biofuel produced from coconuts at its own facility—and even choosing a sunscreen requires mindfulness, as more of us opt for reef-friendly options in an effort to protect the world’s fragile coral reefs from further bleaching.
The biggest trend born out of the climate crisis, though? A sense of urgency to our travels. Or more specifically, a nagging urge to see the world’s most beautiful places, before they’re gone forever.
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