As the year comes to a close, I find myself taking stock of the last year, and more importantly looking ahead to what comes next.  2010 was good to me.  I took 31 trips to 6 different countries, including 3 cruises, and my BIS (that stands for butt in seat for the uninitiated) miles for the year are just shy of 100,000 miles.  That doesn’t even make me a neophyte in the world of real frequent travelers I suppose, but for me, that’s pretty good.  And oh yeah, 2010 isn’t over just yet.  😉

Looking back on the past year, I think one of the biggest travel stories is just how full flights are.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember the last time I had an empty seat beside me.  With load factors averaging well north of 80 percent, you can bet that your most popular flights between major points on the map are running much closer to 100 percent full most all the time.  I read a lot of complaining, whining, and pontificating about how evil airlines have cut capacity to the bone and now aren’t necessarily adding lots of new capacity in the face of high load factor, and finally…..profits.  The wonders never cease!  As unlikely as it seems, airlines are for-profit enterprises in business to earn profits for their shareholders.  Most airline managers seemed to have finally developed something called discipline.  If it takes tight controls on capacity, and 85 percent load factors to keep their balance sheets out of the red, that’s what they’re going to do.

Armed with that information, traveling in 2010 proved to me like no other year that it’s always important to travel with a backup plan.  If things go bad, and your flight gets hosed, the likelihood of having a plethora of seats available on other flights is pretty slim.  Take 10 minutes, and use a tool like ExpertFlyer, to explore other options that might get you where you’re going if your first flight doesn’t go.  Having that information available for a harried gate agent trying to deal with a delayed flight might get you on your way while the unwashed masses wait and wonder what to do.  And if you are waiting in a line, don’t be afraid to pick up your cell phone and call the airline’s 800 number to get yourself rebooked.  If you don’t have the time or the inclination to handle things yourself, I think a service like Brett Snyder’s Cranky Concierge is absolutely worthwhile.  I recently tried it for myself, and trust me, invaluable doesn’t even begin to describe the service received.

As we move into 2011, I expect more of the same in travel.  Unless something unforeseen happens, look for flights to remain full and airlines to keep a tight lid on capacity.  Expect fares (and hotel rates for that matter) to remain above fire sale levels for the foreseeable future.  It’s about time.  Like I said, airlines are for-profit enterprises.  Even with higher fares, there are still some great deals out there, and I think there will be next year too.  You just have to do your homework and invest some time in a little planning.  If you can’t stomach the legacy airlines’ menu of fees, then you do have options… Southwest and JetBlue, both of which will allow you to check a bag (or 2 in the case of Southwest) free of charge.  Southwest has so far avoided the pesky change fee as well….so there’s an option if you can’t be certain about your travel plans.

All in all, no matter what happens in travel over the next year, it’s still a miracle to me that you can insert yourself in some metal tube, fly across a continent or an ocean, and be on the other side of the country or the globe in a matter of hours at a price that the majority of us can pay.  The last few months have been a real eye-opener for me in how to travel well.  Looking forward to sharing the journey in 2011.