What to expect for holiday travel

(This is a shortened version of a story we first wrote for NBC News)

This year’s post-pandemic travel boom is continuing into the holidays.

Nearly half (48%) of Americans plan to travel between Thanksgiving and mid-January, up from 31% last winter, a recent Deloitte survey found.

AAA expects 55.4 million travelers to venture at least 50 miles from home during the Thanksgiving period alone, a 2.3% increase from last year.

That means if you’re hitting the roads or the slopes this season, you’ll have lots of company. Here’s what to expect as you pack your bags for a winter getaway.

More affordable airfare

Airline ticket prices are falling even as more Americans intend to fly.

Deloitte found that 33% of holiday travelers plan to take a domestic flight, up from 29% last year. Despite the strong demand, airfares were more than 13% cheaper last month than at the same time a year ago, federal inflation data shows.

Smoother flights?

Airlines and aviation officials sound confident about handling the holiday crush. While major U.S. carriers — including AmericanDelta, and United — expect record passenger numbers this Thanksgiving, many are touting their readiness for the season.

Track records for flight cancellations and missing luggage have improved ahead of the holidays. About 1.7% of flights were canceled during the first eight months of this year. That’s much better than the 3.0% rate for the same eight-month period last year and 2.3% in the comparable stretch of 2019, the Department of Transportation reported.

And in August, the latest month with available data, the mishandled baggage rate dropped to 0.61% from 0.75% the month before.

A broader push to streamline and automate operations “will continue to help curb mishandling as we approach the holiday season,” said Nicole Hogg, head of baggage for SITA, an air transport IT company. But travel experts still suggest adding an AirTag or other digital tracking device to your luggage, especially during busy travel periods.

“Mother Nature will cause some number of cancellations, guaranteed,” said Scott Keyes, the founder of the airfare tracking site Going. But he noted that “cancellations caused by the airlines — the most galling for travelers — are at multiyear lows” and added that many carriers have bulked up on pilots, planes, and staff.

“The entire industry was snakebit from last year’s debacle,” Keyes said, “and airlines have adjusted their operations accordingly.”

Pricier hotel rooms

More holiday travelers plan to stay in hotels this holiday season instead of bunking with friends or family. Deloitte found that 56% plan to stay in hotels, a sharp jump from 35% in 2022.

That could push up room rates, which were already 0.8% pricier in October than the year before.

Jan Freitag, director of hospitality analytics at the commercial real-estate research company CoStar, said this season’s strong travel numbers will likely nudge Christmastime room rates above last year’s levels. In the first full week of November, they were up 4% in the U.S. from the same week a year ago, averaging $156 per night, CoStar said.

Price-conscious Christmas travelers might want to “book early to lock in lower rates, shorten their trips or trade down to a different class of service,” said Freitag, or else take their chances with last-minute reservations. Inventories will be slimmer in the eleventh hour, but hotels may still cut prices on unsold rooms.

How about a 2-inch suitcase?

Would you travel with a flat suitcase? We would.

In March 2020, just days before the world closed down due to the pandemic, our baggage and accessories reporter spent two days at the Travel Goods Show, a for-the-industry event held that year in New Orleans.

In an exhibition hall filled with travel gadgets and suitcases of all shapes, sizes, and prices, the Rollink collapsible suitcase stood out for its ingenuity and convertibility. And its cuteness.

The suitcase is made with hybrid polycarbonate hard shells and fabric that allows the bag to fold down to just 2 inches when not in use. That made it seem perfect for storage between trips, in a cruise cabin, or when staying in one of those teeny-tiny boutique hotel rooms that are so common these days.

We weren’t the only ones charmed by the Rollink.

At the Travel Goods Show, the Rollink received the “Innovation Award” for best new luggage as well as the overall “Buzz Award,” which is awarded to the most attention-getting item in the new products section of the show. 

Of course, the pandemic meant we had no need for suitcases of any size for a while. But that super slim suitcase stuck in our minds.

Now that we’re ready to get back on the road, we’re pleased to see that the Rollink has made its U.S. debut, in partnership with Macy’s. It comes in three sizes, including cabin and cabin plus, both of which are a TSA standard sized carry-on suitcases. There’s also a medium-sized Rollink that should be checked. Prices start at $155.

Cute, right?

It came in the mail: Beautiful books and a snazzy suitcase

Test-driving a colorful carry-on

A week before COVID-19 made staying home the right thing for us to do, we had the chance to test drive the Roam luggage carry-on we were invited to design for ourselves.

We’ve been reading about these bags. And besides offering a line of 4 carry-ons and check-ins that are super light and durable, Roam lets each customer customize the color of their suitcase, from the front and back shells to the zipper, the wheels and the handle.

Here’s how our Jaunt XL turned out.

Pretty, right?

If we were to do it again, we’d go a bit wilder with the colors, but this design still stands out in a crowd.

We’re grounded, for now, so the bag has only been road-tested once.

But our Roam bag made it home nick-free after traveling as checked luggage to and from London, through a half dozen London Underground stations and a neighborhood with bumpy sidewalks.

Books we may have time to read

We love the fact that books show up in the Stuck at the Airport mailroom. But we don’t always have time to sit down and read them.

The upside of sheltering in place is that now we do.

Here are two recent arrivals we’ll spend time with this week.

Many national parks may be closed to visitors right now in the interest of social distancing, but Scenic Science of the National Parks – An Explorer’s Guide to Wildlife, Geology and Botany, by Emily Hoff and Maygen Keller, is a good armchair prep tool for when heading to a park makes sense.

The book is filled with scientific tidbits, insider tips, recommended hikes and notes on all sorts of wonders to explore in 60 national parks around the country.

Tokyo Travel Sketchbook – Kawaii Culture, Wabi Sabi Design, Female Samurais and Other Obsessions, is chock full of the charming images Spanish artist Amaia Arrazola created while spending a month in Tokyo.

If travel restrictions have put your trip to Japan on hold right now, try touring Tokyo virtually through Arrazola’s keen and quirky observations.

Apps help travelers find a place to store luggage

There’s that ‘in-between’ time – when you arrive in a town before hotel check-in time, or when you checked out of your hotel or Airbnb and want to do some sightseeing – when you need a place to leave your luggage.

Hotels will sometimes store your gear, but in a story for CNBC this week, I found a group of apps that match travelers seeking short-term bag storage with coffee shops, restaurants, gift shops and other businesses with strage room to spare.

These luggage storage networks, such as Vertoe, LuggageHero, Stasher, Nannybag, Knock Knock City, Bounce and others, have apps that lead users to vetted nearby drop-off spots, with payment made online.

When dropped off, security ties are usually attached to bags to prevent tampering. Insurance is included in the fee and, after pick-up, users are invited to rate the experience online.

Storage fees vary and are charged by either the hour or the day:  

Both Knock Knock City and LuggageHero charge $1/hour or $10/day with a one-time handling fee of $2/bag. Bounce charges $5.99/day. Nannybag charges $6 per bag for the first day and $4 per bag for each additional day. Stasher’s fees are $6/day/per item and Vertoe’s fees start at $5.95 per day/per item (overnight storage counts as two days) and vary by location.

The storage-app ‘industry’ is still young and most company founders I spoke with said they decided to get into the business after finding themselves lugging their luggage around a city after checking out of an Airbnb.

“We started in New York City and Brooklyn with people offering bag storage in their apartments on Craigslist, like Airbnb for luggage,” Selin Sonmez, co-founder of Knock Knock City, told me, “But we found the business hours posted for some people’s homes weren’t reliable or always accurate and others required users to walk up flights of stairs with their suitcases.”

Knock Knock City now also operates in San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami and only partners with ground floor venues that have strict business hours. Sonmez said any location with an average star rating below 3.5 (out of 5) is removed.

Like the other luggage storage app services, the list of Knock Knock City partner sites is eclectic. Customers can store their bags at bike shops, clothing stores, restaurants, a massage therapist’s office, an eyebrow bar, at hotels and in hostels.

In addition to helping businesses put unused or underutilized space to income-producing use, “We’re helping local economies by getting travelers to explore neighborhoods and getting foot traffic in the doors,” said Sonmez.

That’s the pitch that convinced ATLAS Workbase, a coworking space by Seattle’s Space Needle, to sign up as a Knock Knock City site.

“There are a lot of Airbnb rentals in this area and a lot of tourists, so it solves a real need,” said Kim Burmester, ATLAS Workbase vice president of sales and marketing, “But our real goal is to get traffic in here as our key target audience is the traveling professional.”

As convenient as storing a suitcase at a coffee shop for a few hours may be, travelers who don’t want to deal with any baggage hassles have other options.

Travelers can send luggage (and golf bags, ski and snowboard gear or bicycles) ahead with door-to-door shipping services such as Send My Bag, Luggage Free or LugLess (part of the Luggage Forward family) that offers both drop-off and door-to-door luggage shipping services. (Pricing depends on destination, weight and how soon you want your bag to arrive).

Or, for $9.95/month and $99 per standard U.S. shipment, you can skip worrying about making travel arrangements for your suitcase altogether. 

Dufl sends customers a suitcase to be filled with clothes or accessories and then picks up the suitcase and stores the items in a “virtual closet.” Customers can request that the suitcase, filled with any of the stored items, be waiting for them at a hotel and then, after their trip, return the suitcase and the clothes back to Dufl for dry cleaning and storage until the next trip comes around.   

Socks with pockets & see-though luggage.

My story for CNBC this week highlights some of the cool gear and gadgets that will be on display later this week in Las Vegas at the annual industry-only Travel Goods Show.

Carry-on bags and checkable suitcases seem to make up the bulk of the products vendors bring to the show. But there are also oodles of travel accessories on display, and many of those are quite useful and clever.

Here are just a few of the items that caught my eye:

Luggage that weighs itself

If you shop for shoes, clothes or books or liquor when you travel, your suitcase will weigh a lot more on the way home. A new suitcase from GetSet Luggage has a built-in battery-powered scale that weighs the bag as you pack.

See-through luggage

This product is sort of puzzling: tranparent luggage.

At least three companies are planning to display their versions of transparent or translucent luggage at this year’s Travel Goods Show. Traveler’s Choice calls their version The Millennial, so maybe see-through luggage has a generation-specific appeal.

Socks with pockets

My household has a variety of clothing with hidden pockets. These snazzyPocket Socks are getting added to the collection. 

Gear for your Grab ‘n Go

We thought attachments for carry-on bags that let you tote coffee cups were pretty cool, but Hontus Milano Group is bringing out a carry-on bag with a built-in insulated pocket for keeping foods (or medication, cosmetics and other temperature-sensitive items) hot or cold.

There are more items in my full story on CNBC – but these are definitely my favorites. Which of these new travel products would you buy?