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Longer hauls, nicer planes, and other ways travel changed in 2018

A lot about travel changed over the past 12 months — even if you were too focused on your destination to notice.

Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul opened its first phase in October. The plan is for it to become the world's busiest passenger hub.
Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul opened its first phase in October. The plan is for it to become the world's busiest passenger hub.Read moreEmrah Gurel / AP

If you’re headed out of town this week, the airport may not look too different from the one you walked through in January 2018. There’s a fellow slouched in his seat with his eyes closed, waiting for his delayed flight. All the electric outlets are taken (or not working), so you can’t charge your smartphone.

But there’s a lot about travel that has changed over the last 12 months — even if you were too focused on your destination to notice. Here are some highlights:

Flights Went Farther

Qantas Airways debuted its newest ultra-long-haul in the spring: a flight from Perth to London. At 17 hours, it came close to breaking records.

Then in October, Singapore Airlines one-upped Qantas. Its 18-hour, 45-minute route — which spans 10,400 miles from Changi to Newark, N.J. — is 500 miles longer than the previous record-holder, a Qatar Airways flight from Auckland to Doha.

Credit goes to Airbus' new A350-900 Ultra Long Range aircraft, which uses less fuel than previous versions, which makes the journey possible. (Our reviewer says the journey feels every bit as long as it is, despite there being only business-class seats aboard.)

And flights are only going to continue getting longer. Gulfstream made advances this year that will help private aviation reach extreme distances, and Qantas would like to have 20-hour flights from New York and London to Sydney by 2022 — possibly on planes with bunk beds, child-care facilities, and fitness centers.

Planes Got Nicer

Unlike recent years, which brought monumental advancements in luxury (Qatar’s Qsuites and Emirates' Residences, for instance), 2018 was a bit of a snooze. That’s not a bad thing: Sometimes it’s the less-glitzy, incremental advancements that can have a wider-reaching effect.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines all started installing premium economy cabins along their international routes, and JetBlue Airways announced the expansion of its relatively affordable (and very comfortable) Mint Business Class. A large number of European carriers, too, added more first-class seats to their planes, reversing a years-long trend to eliminate those ultra-premium seats.

Still stuck in cattle class? Don’t worry: Even perks such as in-flight internet access were a focus this year, as service got more ubiquitous and faster than ever.

Tented Camps Became All the Rage

Hotels with four walls are so 2017. This year was all about the tented camp — experiential properties inspired by the glamour of the African savannah. They cropped up in Bali, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, with more in the works in Mexico, Costa Rica, and beyond. And, no, we’re not talking about roughing it. These are tents with private pools, indoor and outdoor showers, canopied beds, and butler service. The canvas walls just add to the adventure.

The Caribbean Rebounded

A year after the one-two punch of devastating Hurricanes Irma and Maria, hotels have been refurbished and reopened and new air routes have improved access to quieter corners of the region. Travel companies throughout the spectrum are engaging in smart philanthropic efforts.

The combination has been powerful. Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner of luxury travel agency Embark, says 62 percent of his Northeast client base is traveling to the Caribbean this winter season, up from a historical average of 53 percent. Among the hotels to prioritize: the sceney Mandarin Oriental Pink Sands in Canouan, the fully redone Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton Reserve in San Juan, and Silversands, the first resort to pull out all the stops on the lush island of Grenada. And just about anything in St. Barts and Anguilla.

Hotels Figured Out How to Take on Airbnb

No, the answer isn't to start offering apartment rentals. In fact, the companies that tried that approach largely floundered in 2018.

Instead, hoteliers found success in the extended-stay model, which was due for a rethink. In Europe and the United States, "boutique apart-hotels" took the best parts of extended-stay hotels (large suites with kitchens, affordable rates) and merged them with modern-day luxuries like high-end design, third-wave coffee shops, and vibrant co-working spaces.

One such brand, Locke, was purchased for $565 million. Its main competition? Not Marriott, but Airbnb.

“The intention is to cover every major European city and get the company to $2 or $2.5 billion [in valuation] — then we’ll look at the U.S. and Australasia markets,” Locke’s founder, Eric Jafari, told Bloomberg in July.

Layovers Became Less Painful

New hubs made globetrotting a more streamlined pursuit this year. Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, which is slated to become the busiest passenger hub in the world, opened its first phase; Oman debuted a new hub for the Middle East; Singapore’s Changi went next-level with automation technology; and the most nightmarish U.S. hub, New York’s LaGuardia, opened part of its $8 billion facelift to all cheers and no jeers.

And it’s not just the airports that have gotten upgrades — it’s how we navigate them. New and expanding companies are offering VIP treatment to fliers, letting them skip the customs line, get into exclusive lounges, and drive them straight to the jetway.

The Balkans Became Buzzy

The trendy destination of 2018 was the Balkans. (Yes, the whole region.) Europhiles looking for the next big thing set their sights just past over-touristed Croatia on places like Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Slovenia. All have untrammeled, postcard-perfect landscapes, fascinating history, distinct food traditions, few crowds, and easy access.

Whether you connect them by road trip or regional flights, it's easy to check off a couple of countries in a single weeklong trip. (Up next on the insiders' heat map: the Silk Road.)

Kid-Friendly Travel Went Next-Level

Multigenerational travel — trips that include kids, parents, and grandparents — has been a dominant force in the industry for the last few years. But this year, the idea got a new spin. First was the concept of “skip-gen” trips, where grandparents cut the parents out of the equation and take the grandkids for a grand tour, European or otherwise. That put more pressure on the older generation to channel what younger travelers want, which isn’t always easy.

As a response, TCS World Travel, which specializes in luxury travel, has convened a panel of teenage consultants who can help adults cater to their ever-shifting preferences. A few months later, Big Five Tours & Expeditions followed suit. Hotels have also started to overhaul their family-friendly programming.