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Do You Actually Need a Passport for Domestic Travel? The View from AFAR

Plus: Spirit’s CEO departs, and a journey to the oldest cave paintings in the world

We’re back after a brief holiday hiatus and ready to continue delivering weekly reports on the latest and greatest travel news. As usual, if you have questions or comments about anything you read here, please Tweet us at @AFARmedia. And please share with friends!

Changes, controversy at airport checkpoints

You might have missed it, but just before the holidays, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) changed its rules regarding body scanners at airport checkpoints, saying an “opt-out” is no longer an option for certain passengers. Following negative reaction to the news, TSA Spokesman Bruce Anderson backpedaled a bit: Most people will still be able to opt out, he explained, but “some passengers will be required to undergo advanced-imaging screening if their boarding pass indicates that they have been selected for enhanced screening.” Still, critics are incensed, and with good reason. In well-reported piece last week for the Washington Post, Chris Elliott outlined the problems with this policy reversal. Among them: The machines were deployed without giving the public a chance to comment; the scanners potentially could present health risks; and—most damning of all—data indicates the scanners aren’t that effective at neutralizing threats. Of course all of this is happening against the backdrop of another developing situation—the brouhaha over whether or not certain state licenses are adequate forms of identification to fly. That situation, the result of new requirements mandated by the Real-ID Act, was expected to come to a head this month, but the Department of Homeland Security has said it will inform states at least 120 days in advance of changes to application of the rules. Could 2016 be the year everyone must bring a passport for domestic travel? 

Travel-oriented gadgets at CES in Las Vegas

If it’s early January, it’s time for the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a week-long look at cutting-edge technologies across a variety of industries. Early reports from the ground in Sin City indicated that fitness trackers, autonomous cars, and the Internet of Things were the hottest items on the show floor this year, but a handful of travel-related products also grabbed some headlines. One, the TarDisk Pear, is aimed at MacBook users and is designed to double the computer’s storage. Another, the Sol Bag, from Samsung’s wearables company, Samsung C&T, is a clutch with solar panels that charge a phone in four hours using nothing but the sun’s energy. Undoubtedly, CES vendors unveiled other products designed to make travel easier and more efficient. We’ll keep our ears peeled and share any other noteworthy products next week.

Uber Travel gets patent for metasearch

Online travel agencies such as Kayak and Expedia soon may have new competition from a familiar face: Uber. In December,  the sharing economy juggernaut was granted a new patent that could lead to the creation of a web portal for booking travel. Dubbed Uber Travel, the new system likely would appear similar to many other travel metasearch sites, and would incorporate the ability to call for an Uber ride for the first and last parts of each journey (in other words, to and from an airport or train station). According to the patent document (and an article on TravelPulse), the system could also interface with flight data to track delays—a feature that would enable it to compete with itinerary-management services such as TripIt. A report in Fortune magazine also indicated that Uber Travel eventually could connect with hotels and such home-sharing companies as Airbnb. To be fair, just because Uber filed for this patent doesn’t mean it will be moving its business in this direction. Still, the big boys—as well as we small travelers—should note that an already saturated market might get even more crowded sometime soon.

Gilt gets back into travel flash sales

Gilt.com is back in the travel flash-sale business. Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that the e-commerce site launched Gilt Travel, a website that offers last-minute discounts of up to 70 percent at four- and five-star hotels, resorts, and inns. The new site is powered by Secret Escapes, a flash sales aggregator; users must become members to browse listings and book, but signing up is free. Technically speaking, this is Gilt’s second foray into travel flash sales—the first iteration, Jetsetter.com, was sold to TripAdvisor.com in 2013.

Frontier adds routes across U.S.

Frontier Airlines, the carrier based in Denver, announced late this week the addition of 42 new nonstop domestic routes, including flights to 10 new cities from Philadelphia, four new cities from Cincinnati, three new cities from Kansas City, Mo., and two new cities from Houston. Most of the new service, which also adds destinations from Nashville and Phoenix, was expected to begin in April. Many routes are being introduced with fares as low as $39 one-way. None of the new flights will begin as daily service; the carrier said it will roll out the routes slowly as a way to meet initial demand. In order to provide these new flights, Frontier had to order 18 new aircraft—routes that will use the new planes won’t start until May or June.

Spirit CEO steps down

Ben Baldanza, the outspoken and often controversial CEO of Spirit Airlines, resigned this week, a move that shocked analysts because of how dramatically he had turned around the company. The move was effective immediately. Robert Fornaro (formerly the head of AirTran) will replace him. Baldanza largely is credited with escalating airline fees in the United States. Spirit was among the first airlines to drop ticket prices but raise fees and start charging more of them on every flight. Baldanza was also seen as a bit of an eccentric, approving racy advertising campaigns and, as TravelPulse reports, taping customers’ complaint emails to his bookshelves. Still, the company flourished with him at the helm. When Baldanza took over Spirit 10 years ago, it was in dire straits, losing money and contemplating bankruptcy. Last year, Spirit stock peaked at more than $80/share. (It’s worth about half that now.)

Good reads

Writer Jo Marchant kicked off 2016 with a bang: a riveting travel/science feature in Smithsonian magazine about a journey to the oldest cave paintings in the world— in Indonesia. The story offers a crash course in description, with an opener that likens “flooded fields of rice” to a “shimmering green sea.” The piece also details an incredible find—art that, at 35,400 years old, could be the world’s oldest pictures. Be sure to scroll through the photos that accompany the story, too.

 Attitudes about style are changing in the Dominican Republic, and a recent article in the New York Times Travel section captures some of these transformations in refreshing ways. Author Sandra Garcia uses a hair salon as the vehicle to tell the story. Traditionally, straight hair  has been the most popular style for women in the D.R., but this  salon specializes in curly cuts. The story, part of the "Personal Journeys” series, is honest, funny, and, in a way, subversive. Multilayered, for sure.

No, CNN Travel’s recent service piece about traveling to Cuba isn’t going to win any awards for literary excellence. But the content of the story is incredibly useful, especially if you’re one of those people who hopes to get to the island nation this year. One of my favorite parts of the article is the kicker—author Mara Sofferin’s tip about getting the biggest bang for your bucks (literally). The bottom line: While Cuba is more open than it once was, it’s still not the easiest place to visit. At least not yet.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker,  Alaska Airlines, and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia, and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association, and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.