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Marriott to Buy Starwood; Ski Season Comes Early to the U.S.: The View from AFAR

Plus:  47 million to travel for turkey, and Patricias welcome in Mexico

About a week has passed since six terror attacks rocked Paris, one of our favorite cities in the world. To paraphrase our President, offering “thoughts and prayers” simply isn’t enough anymore—the attacks were horrific, tragic, and just plain wrong. While it’s human nature to read about this sort of violence and talk yourself out of traveling, that strategy lets the terrorists win. Instead, we encourage you to get out there, experience the world, and immerse yourself in foreign cultures to learn and laugh and grow. In the meantime, this compendium of news tidbits should keep you up-to-date on all of the latest and greatest from travel industry. If you have any questions about what you read in this column, Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia.

Marriott to buy Starwood in $12.2 billion deal

In a move that was anticipated by many (and foreshadowed in this very column), Marriott became the world’s largest hotelier this week, buying rival Starwood for a reported US$12.2 billion. If approved by regulators, the stock-and-cash deal would add 50 percent more rooms to Marriott’s portfolio, netting the company a total of 5,500 properties and more than 1.1 million rooms around the world (the next-largest hotel company is Hilton Worldwide with 4,500 properties and about 735,000 rooms). The transaction also would unite Starwood’s brands—which include Aloft, Sheraton, Westin, W, and St. Regis—with Marriott’s, which include Courtyard, Ritz-Carlton, and Fairfield Inn. It was unclear at the time of announcement how the deal would impact loyalty programs for either brand. As noted in Associated Press coverage, regular Starwood guests love its partnerships with American Express, Delta Air Lines, and Uber, while Marriott’s program features partnerships with Chase and United Airlines. The transaction is expected to close in the middle of 2016. Stay tuned here for updates.

AAA expects 469 million Americans to travel for turkey

If you’re planning to travel for Thanksgiving, you most definitely are not alone—almost 47 million other Americans will travel 50 miles or more for the holiday, as well. The estimate, part of AAA’s 2015 Thanksgiving Travel Forecast Report, is up slightly from last year’s prediction of 46.6 million. It is the seventh consecutive year this annual report has predicted growth in holiday travel, and the highest AAA holiday travel estimate since 2007. The report cites several factors for this continued rise in holiday travel. Among them: steady wage growth, rising disposable income, and a falling unemployment rate. The price of fuel is another key contributor, and AAA indicates that gas costs an average of $2.15 per gallon right now, a huge drop from about $2.80 per gallon in November 2014. With more than 89 percent of holiday travelers planning to drive to Thanksgiving dinner, cheaper gas is an incentive to get in the car. That 89 percent figure is sizeable—put differently, it means almost 42 million of the 46.9 million total travelers will go by car (an increase of 0.7 percent over last year). The AAA report also predicts 3.6 million Americans will fly to their holiday destinations, and another 1.4 million will travel via cruises, trains, and buses. However you plan to get to your holiday celebration, in the name of Del Griffith (that’s John Candy’s character in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, folks), travel safely.

Ski season starts with a flurry in U.S.

Early fall storms hit a number of higher altitudes in the United States this week, kicking off the 2015-2016 winter sport season with a bang. In the Lake Tahoe area of California, ski resorts Heavenly, Northstar, and Kirkwood all opened a week earlier than anticipated and were reporting feet upon feet of fresh powder. In Park City, Utah, where two resorts recently joined forces to create the largest ski destination in the United States , skiers and snowboarders were gearing up for the season opener on Saturday. Finally, in Colorado, where many resorts opened today, The Arrabelle at Vail Square, announced it will offer in-room Starbucks delivery for winter sport fans who don’t want to wait in queues. In related news, the airport in the popular ski destination of Stowe, Vermont, is set to receive its first regularly scheduled flights in more than 30 years next week as Tradewind Aviation is set to launch nonstop commuter flights from the New York metropolitan area. The flights, on eight-seat Pilatus PC-12s,  which begin Nov. 24, connect Westchester County Airport and Morrisville–Stowe State Airport; flights leave Westchester twice every Friday and depart Stowe twice every Sunday. As of press time, Tradewind was the only carrier to service this route. Rates start at $350 plus tax per one-way flight and $250 when purchased in a commuter ticket book.

Changes for American AAdvantage plan

Airlines such as Delta, United, and Southwest all recently have switched their loyalty programs from distance- to spending-based systems. This week, American Airlines followed suit with major changes to its AAdvantage program. Starting in the second half of 2016, AAdvantage members will earn award miles based on the price of their ticket in combination with the buyer’s elite status. According to a report on TravelSkills.com, a great blog from Chris McGinnis, the program also will adopt a new spending-based credit exchange: Non-elite members will earn five miles per dollar spent; AAdvantage Gold members will get seven, Platinum members will receive eight, and Executive Platinum members will get 11. McGinnis noted that this new AAdvantage rubric is identical to the new credit exchanges in loyalty programs at United and Delta. While the bulk of these changes will impact business travelers most acutely, one change that will trickle down to everyday travelers pertains to award redemption; popular destinations such as Mexico and the Caribbean will require fewer miles after March 22 and beyond, and the airline announced that new MileSAAver awards for flights of 500 miles or fewer in the United States and Canada will be available for as few as 7,500 miles one-way.

Crystal Cruises adds second jet

Crystal Cruises made waves (see what I did there?) earlier this year when it announced a brand expansion that soon will include extravagant air vacations. This week, the company announced it has purchased a second plane—a twin-aisle Boeing B777-200LR that will be redesigned to accommodate 88 guests with flatbed first class seats. The news is significant for two reasons. First, it will enable the company’s air division, Crystal Luxury Air, to double the number of offerings (the first plane was a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner). Second, because Crystal plans to receive an Air Operator’s Certificate from Aruba, the company ultimately will be able to launch international operations. According to a press release on Crystal’s website, this likely will enable the company to begin offering 14- and 28-day around-the-world itineraries starting in 2017.

Calling all Patricias

Hurricane Patricia drenched and the Puerto Vallarta, Nayarit, and Manzanillo resort areas of Mexico last month. Now, in an attempt to woo skittish travelers back to the area, the Mexican government is rolling out the red carpet for people named Patricia to come and visit. The “Welcome Patricia” campaign, which launched this week, is insanely clever; it comprises a web site and a series of video spots with actor Patricia (of course) Heaton. While the invitation to visit is open to everyone, a special promotion is available only to Patricias; 25 women with the magic name will have a chance to win a vacation for two, including flights and accommodations, in the region. To enter, participants must upload to the website a video or photo that shows they are ready to visit Mexico. People also can Tweet or Instagram their content with hashtags #WelcomePatricias and #sweepstakes. May the best Patricias win!

Good reads

Cloud-seeding is a controversial practice through which humans effectively can make it rain (and not in the Pacman Jones kind of way). In a wonderfully detailed article for Longreads, author Justin Nobel details the science behind this phenomenon, and offers up HARROWING descriptions of what it’s like (for the researchers) to fly through a storm. The story is worth reading for the description alone. Just maybe think twice about reading it at 35,000 feet.

In a fun and intricately crafted feature for the New York Times Travel section, author Charlie Lovett visits Lewis Carroll’s Oxford, England, and spotlights sites around town that appeared in or significantly influenced Alice in Wonderland. There also is a mention of Alice’s Shoppe, a local store that sells Alice memorabilia. The article is accompanied by stunning photographs of Oxford icons, including the Great Quad at Christ Church. (As an aside, the piece boasts one of my all-time favorite words: panoply.)

Kari Bodnarchuk has written about some pretty far-flung adventures over the course of her career, and her recent piece about ice climbing in Colorado is another adrenaline-pumping narrative. The story, which appeared in the Boston Globe, details the author’s experiences during a four-day ice-climbing clinic near Ouray, Colorado, with an outfit named Chicks with Picks. In addition to painting a vivid picture of the rigors of climbing frozen waterfalls, Bodnarchuk offers great service information about the trips.

One more note: We'll be taking a break next week for the holidays, so expect the next View From AFAR December 4th. Happy Thanksgiving!

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.