By now you’ve read that our furry friend, Punxsutawney Phil, failed to see his shadow, which means spring break (and spring travel!) is right around the corner. This wasn’t the only major travel news of the week; a number of other stories grabbed our attention, too. As we mine the headlines for travel tidbits, we continue to monitor the Zika outbreak—an international threat that took an even more serious turn this week when the World Health Organization called it a global health emergency. Stay tuned for the latest updates. And if you have questions or comments about what you read here, please Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia.
Cuba expands Wi-Fi hotspots
As relations between the United States and Cuba thaw, the island nation continues to embrace the modern trappings of tourism. This week’s development: Government-funded Wi-Fi hotspots. Cuba's national telephone company announced plans to expand public Wi-Fi hotspots, many of which will be in public parks. The utility will also expand broadband service inside Cuban homes, a huge development. According to a Spanish-language article* in one of Cuba’s biggest newspapers, some experts think that the owners of Cuba's version of B&Bs will get priority when it comes to installing at-home Internet so that they can offer it to guests.
Dubai International reigns as busiest in world
Dubai International Airport (DXB), the largest commercial airport in the United Arab Emirates, announced Monday that it served more than 78 million passengers in 2015, making it far and away the world’s busiest airport for international passengers. That number also represents a 10.7 percent increase over 2014. (The next busiest airport was London’s Heathrow Airport, which clocked in with just under 70 million passengers.) According to a report in GulfNews.com, one of the reasons for DXB’s success in 2015 was soaring demand from the Indian market. Last year, 10,391,376 passengers traveled between India and Dubai, up 17 percent from 2014. Flights from the United Kingdom also added to the total, with 5,682,307 passengers traveling between the two countries (a 6 percent increase). And new routes to Toronto, Canada; Cologne, Germany; and Wuhan, China likely also added to the spike.
Qatar Airways mulls world’s longest flight
What do reading “War and Peace,” watching an entire season of “The Walking Dead,” and running four consecutive marathons have in common? They are just some of the things a person might do in 18.5 hours—the length of what will be the world’s longest nonstop flight when Qatar Airways introduces nonstop service between Doha, Qatar, and Auckland, New Zealand. Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker revealed the company’s plans during an interview with Bloomberg Business at the Bahrain Air Show this week, but an ensuing CNN story noted that there is no timetable for when the flights might start. Of course the distinction of “world’s longest flight” is a already bit of a moving target (no pun intended): The world’s longest flight is currently a Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, to Sydney, Australia flight that takes just under 17 hours, but Emirates Airlines is set to eclipse that record with a flight from Dubai to Panama City, Panama, that will debut this spring and will last 17 hours and 35 minutes.
Airlines reversing controversial policies
It was a good week for airline customers. First came news that American Airlines has joined rival United in bringing back free snacks for economy passengers. Under the new rules, passengers on American flights departing before 9:45 a.m. will receive free Biscoff cookies, and passengers on flights leaving after 9:45 a.m. will get a bag of pretzels. American also announced it will bring back complimentary meals in economy on flights between Dallas and Honolulu starting in May. Additional complimentary economy-class meals are expected to be announced later this year. In the second bit of news, The Chicago Tribune reported that United is planning to let families traveling with small children board early, reversing a policy they introduced in 2012. According to reports, the change will take place Feb. 15. IMHO, as a father of three (and a board member for the Family Travel Association), this second piece of news is a *much* bigger deal—one that truly will make travelers' lives easier. A United spokesperson basically said the airline reverted to the old policy because the 2012 revision was a mistake. Kudos to the airline for admitting an error and righting a wrong.
Iceland rolls out buddy service
This week Icelandair rolled out a new free service that allows passengers on stopovers to have a local tour guide show them around the island. The service, dubbed the “Stopover Buddy Service” was outlined in an article from Frommer’s and is available from now until April 30. Here’s how the program works: Once you have your travel itinerary, you can choose a buddy by "theme"—adventure, food, culture, health, nature, and more—and within 72 hours Icelandair will let you know if the buddy is available. Buddies are all Icelandair employees, so while passengers will have to pay for any food and admission expenses on their tours, the buddy is free. Does this mean the airline now can include “friends” in its list of benefits? You be the judge.
Study: People are more likely to be amorous when traveling
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a new study finds that Americans are likely to be more inclined toward romance when they are traveling. Findings from the study, commissioned by Expedia** and conducted by market research firm GfK, were released this week. Among the takeaways from the “Expedia Heat Index 2016” were these: A majority of the 1,027 study participants appeared to feel most amorous when they were away from home, Americans rated Paris as the “most romantic” city in the world, and an overwhelming number of people thought Los Angeles had the “most attractive” dating population. In other interesting data, 72 percent of survey respondents said they like getting intimate in hotel rooms when away from home, 23 percent preferred hot tubs, and 4 percent copped to romping in a rental car. Finally, more than half of respondents (55 percent) said they would be "very or somewhat likely" to propose to a significant other while on vacation.
Without question, the best read on the Internet this week was a personal essay by Michelle Sponagle about her life as a plus-sized world traveler. The piece is raw, honest, and incredibly specific; the author goes into great detail about some of the weightism and bigotry she has experienced in airplanes, in taxis, at hotel spas, and other places around the world. She also outlines how people in some cultures have responded positively to her size. If this story doesn’t open your mind, get the hinges checked.
Cities can be so stressful. The crowds. The loud noises. The Uber drivers cursing out cabbies. Perhaps this is why the recent T magazine story about urban meditation destinations resonates. The story, written by Stacy Suaya, profiles three urban calm rooms—two in New York and one in Los Angeles. The piece is neither lengthy nor poetic, but it paints a colorful picture of three very different respites worth an escape. Consider us intrigued.
Niagara Falls, one of New York State’s most iconic tourist attractions, is gearing up to shut down for a while when part of the falls will literally be turned off to replace two 115-year-old bridges. In a stellar piece of science/travel journalism in Wired magazine this week, author Eric Adams outlines the procedure, known as “dewatering,” and explains the challenges, benefits, and logistics. The story is riveting in its details.
Spotlight: World Nomads
Travel insurance is a hard sell. Most travelers don’t realize they need it until it’s too late, and the ones who invest in it usually don’t end up using it at all. But on those rare occasions when you’re traveling and you need to cancel part of your journey or need unexpected medical attention, it can make a huge difference. Insurance can be particularly important for people setting out on physically demanding trips, so we were thrilled to learn about World Nomads, a company that specializes in travel insurance for adventure travelers. The company offers specific insurance plans for travelers who plan to spend vacations abseiling, scuba diving, dog sledding, or ballooning. General Manager Chris Noble says that the company also allows travelers to purchase insurance policies after they’ve started their trips—a handy benefit for travelers who veer off-script spontaneously. “If something does go wrong you can claim online while you’re traveling,” he says. “If your claim is paid, you get the money while you’re away so you can keep on traveling.” And customers can even do good while they protect themselves: World Nomads solicits micro-donations from customers when they book, and over the last 10 years the company has collected 2.5 million dollars and distributed the money to more than 143 different charitable projects. Noble describes this as the ultimate form of giving back. We couldn’t agree more.
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 includingTIME, 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.
*Special thanks to Julie Schweitert Collazo for translating
**Full disclosure: I serve as senior editor of the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog