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Visiting with Early Humans, Surprised and Delighted by United: The View from AFAR

Plus: family travel by the numbers and Seattle on the teevee

The first full week of autumn was a busy news week in the travel world—especially including the developing story of Hurricane Joaquin bearing down on the Bahamas at press time. We hope for the best in the Caribbean, and will update you on the impact of the storm next week. In the meantime, if you have any questions about what you read in this column, Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia.

Following early humans
Earlier this year, when archaeologists discovered Homo Naledi in a part of South Africa dubbed the “Cradle of Humankind,” many said the find might change the thinking on how humans evolved (the bones were excavated so recently they have not yet been dated). To celebrate this discovery, andBeyond this week launched a new trip to the region. The Our Human Origins Safari begins in Tanzania, pairing the Olduvai Gorge (the home of the earliest remains of Homo Sapiens) with safari experiences at the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. The journey continues to South Africa with an insightful tour at the Cradle of Humankind and the resting place of Homo Naledi. From there, groups head out for a Big Five safari in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. The tour concludes with a trip to Cape Town. Prices start at $12,600 per person. 

Family travel snapshot
Family travel now accounts for a full one-third of all leisure trips booked in the United States—at least according to research released earlier this week by the Family Travel Association (FTA). The data was the result of a comprehensive study by the FTA and the NYU School of Professional Studies Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. Among other findings: Survey respondents took an average of 3.53 domestic trips and 1.25 international trips with their children in the past year, and families prefer to travel with their children when the children are between 6 and 12. The data was unveiled during the FTA’s inaugural summit, held at the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Emigrant, Montana, where about 80 people representing travel companies, destination marketing organizations, and media outlets (including this one) came together.

Surprising and delighting
At a time when airlines are being attacked for cutting amenities, two airlines rolled out new programs designed to give loyal customers cool stuff for free. First, United Airlines announced “Surprise and Delight,” a campaign through which it will upgrade customers to first class and business class on select domestic and international flights. Days later, Virgin America unveiled a separate initiative through which customers flying on VA’s newest Airbus A320 jets will receive free Wi-Fi, courtesy of Netflix. As Chris McGinnis reports on his Travel Skills blog, currently there are only two new A320s darting across the country, but Virgin will be deploying a new one every month through next June for a total of 10.

Embracing travel video
It’s all Seattle, all the time on a new internet television channel launched last month by Visit Seattle. The channel, VisitSeattle.tv, went live with two different content campaigns, including first-time visitor testimonials and a music series partnership with Sean Combs’ Revolt TV. On the surface, this effort is an expansion of the popular 2 Days in Seattle campaign from 2012 to promote local businesses. Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle, was quoted by Skift as saying that the new campaign is designed to drive hotel stays between November and April—Seattle’s off-season. If the plan works, it will be interesting to see how many other destinations replicate this strategy on their home turf.

New ways to see the world
Two separate announcements this week bode well for world trekkers. First, National Geographic and G Adventures announced they have joined forces to launch National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures, a new line of experiential trips. The initial collection of 70 trips combines exploration with real-world research; a trip to Costa Rica includes meeting with a researcher from the Sea Turtle Conservancy, while a safari in South Africa incorporates first-hand learning about a National Geographic-sponsored initiative to protect cheetahs and other big cats. Many trips will feature visits to projects sponsored by G Adventures’ nonprofit organization Planeterra, which develops sustainable projects to support local communities. Second, Cox & Kings, a luxury travel company, announced plans to add more than 35 new journeys over seven continents, including trips to explore colonial Bolivia, textile hotspots in India, and the markets of Central Asia. C&K also unveiled a plan for flexible pricing that makes big-ticket trips (slightly) more affordable. In a nutshell, the new pricing schema entices travelers to team up; under the new rules, traveling with family or friends could yield savings up to $1,000 per person over the per-person price of two (or more) people traveling separately.

Commercial flights return to Dominica
As parts of the Caribbean hunkered down to bear the brunt of Joaquin, take-offs and landings resumed this week at Douglas-Charles Airport on Dominica, where air traffic had been suspended following damages caused by Tropical Storm Erika in August. While flights through regional carriers such as LIAT, Seaborne Airlines, and WinAir have returned to normal schedules, repairs to the airport’s terminal building are ongoing. The “Nature Island” also issued a video update on the island’s tourism attractions following the devastating storm.

Changes at National Parks
The end of the busy summer season has brought changes at national parks across the country. For starters, Rocky Mountain National Park, about 90 minutes northwest of Denver, this week added a new day-use vehicle pass for $20, and raised fees on the seven-day vehicle pass to $30 from $20. Fees for the annual pass went up, too, to $50 from $40. Nationwide, the park service announced that e-cigarettes are prohibited wherever parks prohibit smoking. Finally, following the death of seven Zion National Park visitors in a flash flood last month, that park is re-evaluating its backcountry permitting procedure to see how it can keep visitors safer from unexpected changes in weather. Stay tuned for developments.

Good reads
Heather Greenwood Davis’s Toronto Star feature on canal boating with her family through the canals of Northern England is a breath of fresh air—a compelling and informative narrative, told without pretense. I particularly was drawn to Greenwood Davis’s piece because “narrow-boating” the canals of England is something I’ve wanted to do since my family lived there in 2013. Now I’m more psyched than ever.

You don’t have to be a woman to appreciate the latest title from Go! Girl Guides, 50 Essential Items for Female Travelers. The book, edited by Kelly Lewis (the driving force behind Women’s Travel Fest), culls input from 100 female travel writers, bloggers, and professional travelers to provide a list of the 50 “most awesome” travel products on the market today.

Finally, it’s always good to be reminded about the importance of travel insurance, and this essay, by Brian Major, executive editor of TravelPulse, does a great job of explaining when and why it makes sense to shell out a little extra money for peace of mind.

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.