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Longer hauls, nicer planes and hotels improved travel in 2018 | TribLIVE.com
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Longer hauls, nicer planes and hotels improved travel in 2018

Nikki Ekstein
| Sunday, December 23, 2018 1:33 a.m
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Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner of Embark (formerly Ovation Vacations), says that 62 percent of his Northeast client base is traveling to the Caribbean this winter season, up from a historical average of 53 percent.

If you’re heading out of town this week, the airport may not look too different from the one you walked through in January. The same sitcoms are showing on your seatback screen, assuming you still have one.

And hopefully the people you’re traveling to visit are familiar faces, too.

But there’s a lot about travel that has changed over the past 12 months — even if you were too fixated on your destination to notice. Here, the major highlights.

Flights went farther

Qantas Airways debuted its newest ultra-long-haul this spring: a flight from Perth to London. At 17 hours, it came close to breaking records.

Then in October, Singapore Airlines Ltd. did what Qantas didn’t. Its 18-hour, 45-minute route — which spans 10,400 miles from Changi to Newark — is 500 miles longer than the previous record-holder, a Qatar Airways flight from Auckland to Doha.

Credit goes to Airbus’s new A350-900 Ultra Long Range aircraft, which guzzles less fuel than previous versions and makes the journey possible. (According to our reviewer, the journey feels every bit as long as it is, even if there are only business-class seats aboard.)

And flights are only going to continue getting longer. Gulfstream made advances this year that will help private aviation reach extreme distances, and Qantas’s goals are so ambitious that it would like to have 20-hour flights from New York and London to Sydney by 2022 — possibly on planes with bunk beds, child-care facilities and gyms.

Planes got nicer

Unlike recent years, which saw monumental advancements in luxury such as Qatar’s Qsuites or Emirates’ Residences, 2018 was a bit of a snooze. That’s not a bad thing: Sometimes it’s the less-glitzy, incremental advancements that can have a wider-reaching effect.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines all started installing premium economy cabins along their international routes — a first — while JetBlue Airways announced the expansion of its relatively affordable (and very comfortable) Mint Business Class.

A large number of European carriers, too, added more first-class seats to their planes, reversing a years-long trend to get rid of those ultra-premium seats.

Still stuck in cattle class? Don’t worry: Even perks such as in-flight internet access were a focus this year, as service got more ubiquitous and faster than ever.

The Caribbean rebounded

A year after the one-two punch of Irma and Maria, both Category 5 hurricanes, hotels have refurbished and reopened and new air routes have improved access to quieter corners of the region. Meanwhile, travel companies at every end of the spectrum are engaging in smart philanthropic efforts.

The combination has been a powerful one.

Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner of Embark (formerly Ovation Vacations), says that 62 percent of his Northeast client base is traveling to the Caribbean this winter season, up from a historical average of 53 percent.

Among the hotels to prioritize: the scene-y Mandarin Oriental Pink Sands in Canouan, the fully redone Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton Reserve in San Juan, and Silversands, the first resort to pull out all the stops on the lush island of Grenada. And just about anything in St. Barts and Anguilla.

Hotels took on Airbnb

No, the answer isn’t to start offering apartment rentals. In fact, the companies that tried that approach largely floundered in 2018 — Accor had to write off $288 million on One Fine Stay; Hyatt decided to sell off Oasis, its home-rental collection.

Instead, hoteliers found success in the extended-stay model, which was due for a rethink. In Europe and the U.S., “boutique apart-hotels” took the best parts of extended-stay hotels (large suites with kitchens, affordable rates) and merged them with modern-day luxuries like high-end design, third-wave coffee shops and vibrant co-working spaces.

One such brand, Locke, was purchased by Brookfield Capital for an industry-setting price of $565 million. Its main competition? Not Marriott, but Airbnb.

Next-level, kid-friendly travel

Multigenerational travel — trips that include kids, parents and grandparents — has been a dominant force in the industry for the last few years. But this year the idea got a new spin.

First was the concept of “skip-gen” trips, where grandparents cut the parents out of the equation and take the grandkids for a grand tour, European or otherwise. That put more pressure on the older generation to channel what younger travelers want, which isn’t always easy.

As a response, TCS World Travel has convened a panel of teenage travel consultants who can help adults cater to their ever-shifting preferences. A few months later, Big Five Tours and Expeditions followed suit.

Hotels have also started to overhaul their family-friendly programming.

And if that all wasn’t enough, private aviation company VistaJet took in-flight entertainment to new heights with a program that delivers themed, six-figure play parties at 45,000 feet.

Nikki Ekstein is a writer for Bloomberg.

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