With airline fees that won’t seem to go away, seats that seemingly keep shrinking, and global threats ranging from Zika virus to terrorism, it’s easy to tell yourself that this is the year to stay home. But those who hit the road will find that so many pain points of traveling are being zapped by brilliant, game-changing innovations—some so good, you could almost say it’s a new golden age of travel.
TSA Is Going Through a Desperately Needed Overhaul
This week, United Airlines teamed up with the TSA to begin installing automated security lanes at some of its hubs across the U.S., a move that American Airlines made earlier in the month. The new security setup is said to be 30 percent faster; it uses CT-scanning technology to examine carry-on bags and personal items. Similar to the system used in Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport, the bins feed into a scanner; instead of having humans flag bins that need further inspection, this technology automatically identifies worrisome scans and pulls those items of luggage out of the queue, routing them to a control center. Most bags will breeze through, improving security line speed drastically.
Bonus: Thanks to the CT technology, you’ll also be able to leave liquids and laptops in your carry-on bags, assuming that the pilot is successful. Expect to see the new system at major airports such as Chicago O’Hare, Miami International, and more than a dozen others before the year’s end.
Tracking Your Airline Miles Just Got a Lot Easier
A newly launched plugin for Expedia called 30K allows you to input your various frequent flier numbers so that your flight searches include alternate prices—in miles. Instead of just seeing that a flight from New York City to Tokyo costs $677, for instance, you’ll also see that it earns 1,117 award miles. The mileage estimates can factor in multiple loyalty programs at once, and the plugin also breaks down what you will earn in both award and status qualifying miles for each purchase.
Never Wait to Check In to Your Hotel Room Again
There’s nothing more frustrating than surviving a long, overnight flight only to find that your hotel room isn’t ready until 3:00 p.m. Standard Hotels, which has five properties in Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami, intends to buck that trend by instituting a new policy called Standard Time. It lets guests check in at any hour of the day—and checkout is just as flexible.
The fine print says this is based on availability. Still, a representative confirmed that guests could check in at 6:00 a.m. and check out at 11:00 p.m., if they so wished, signaling even more flexibility than Starwood’s Your24 policy, which guarantees ultra-loyal guests a full 24 hours in their room.
Last-Minute Flights Are No Longer Exorbitant
It’s one thing to put a big-ticket, last-minute flight on a corporate card; it’s another entirely to book a spontaneous trip that’s just for fun. Now you don’t need to think twice about it. A new feature from the fare-predicting app Hopper will alert you when there are breaking fare sales from your home airport to destinations you may be interested in. It also looks at where you’re interested in going and suggests similar, alternate destinations where the flights are more affordable.
For the really impulsive, the year-old, $10-a-month subscription service DealRay sends text message alerts when there’s a notable fare drop—think $294 round-trip tickets from the U.S. to Europe or $355 return trips from various U.S. cities to Hong Kong, Taipei, or Seoul. (You can set your home destination to ensure that deals are relevant to you.) They’re not always last-minute fares, but they require you to act fast and can often be booked for nearly immediate travel.
Last-Minute Restaurant Reservations Are No Longer an Impossibility
If you snagged that last-minute flight, the rest of the trip is just as easy to plan. Apps like HotelTonight will get you a place to stay on the same day you’d like to check in—and have been gaining traction for years. Last-minute restaurant reservation apps are newer. The largest is Table8, which works in 12 U.S. cities. Internationally, you can use DINR in several Canadian cities and Velocity in London.
Lost and Delayed Luggage Are (Almost) a Thing of the Past
Lost luggage hit an all-time low in the U.S. in 2015 despite overall passenger growth—an impressive feat. Chalk it up to the expansion of self-checked bag drops, which ensure that the right tags go on the right bags, and pioneering programs by Alaska and Delta Airlines that guarantee you won’t wait for your bag at the carousel for more than 20 minutes. (On the off chance that you do, you’re handsomely rewarded, usually with miles.) Also helping: Smart bag tags from British Airlines, AirFrance, KLM, and Qantas help track bags around the globe, and smart luggage with built-in GPS tracking (such as the models from Bluesmart).
You’re Guaranteed Not to Get a Dud Rental Car
Booking a rental car is a painfully opaque process—you never really know what you’re going to get. But Avis has just launched a program that makes the shopping experience far more transparent. Sort of like Tinder for rental cars, the company’s new app lets you swipe through the available cars in your destination until you find one you like. It also lets you bypass the rental counter by putting all the paperwork right on your phone. Once you’ve decided on a car and e-signed the rental agreement, the app also unlocks your car.
Airline Wi-Fi Is Finally Getting Better
A little healthy competition is driving faster Wi-Fi in the skies. Two years ago, ViaSat introduced an ultra-fast, 12 mbps Internet service that’s now rolled out to United, JetBlue, Qantas, and El Al planes; its cutting-edge, high-capacity satellites are a notch above the ones that Gogo uses for its own in-flight Wi-Fi offerings. This February, American Airlines tried to break its contract with Gogo in order to provide its customers with the faster service, but Gogo responded by upgrading its equipment. High-speed Gogo service is due to roll out globally within the year—making it easier to get work done at altitude.
Premium Economy Is Becoming More Ubiquitous
As much as premium economy cabins have been on the lips of every airline chief executive officer, some prominent carriers still have yet to roll out the offering that’s halfway between coach and business class. American will be the first U.S. legacy carrier to offer the product on overseas flights when its three-row premium economy cabins are launched this November—the seats will include extendable footrests, USB ports, and free checked bags. Delta will launch something similar in mid-2017, though details are still forthcoming. Perhaps most exciting are the premium economy cabins on Singapore Airlines, which were introduced on the carrier’s Singapore to Sydney route earlier this year. Those seats are as wide as 19.5 inches, feature eight inches of recline, and cost $80 million to install on just 20 A350s. (The cabins are now being rolled out on routes to major financial capitals around the world, including Beijing, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, London, and Tokyo.)
High-Speed Planes and Trains Are Coming
Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is on its way to reaching viability, but it’s not the only ultra-high-speed transit option in the works. Bullet trains are slated to link Asian capitals such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in the coming decade—transferring between those two cities would take a mere 90 minutes. And Boom, a startup focusing on supersonic commercial planes, has recently gotten Richard Branson onto its list of investors; the Virgin Group optioned 10 of its planes before Virgin America’s merger with Alaska Airlines. (A round-trip flight from New York to London would cost roughly $5,000.) What’s more, NASA is developing supersonic planes that it thinks will be in commercial production within a few years. What could be more emblematic of a new golden age of travel than the return of the Concorde?