A world of change greeted the decade's travelers

Remember the relatively care-free days of air travel? Say 2000, maybe?

Oh, you may have thought it was a hassle to walk through a metal detector and have your carry-on bag X-rayed. You took it for granted that your special someone walked you to the gate and your purse carried a full-sized bottle of lotion. You had shoes on and you checked your bags for free. You didn't know how good you had it.

Today, as we arrive at the airport 90 minutes before a domestic flight, our suitcases unlocked, our no-more-than-3.4-ounce toiletries stowed in a zip-top bag and a photo ID dangling goofily around our necks, we pine for the good old days. Here's one really good change: There's no need to hunt around for that ticket issued by the airline anymore. That paper ticket died in May 2008 when the electronic ticket, which was introduced in the mid 1990s, went industrywide.

The first decade of the new millennium saw monumental changes in travel because of new security regulations, technology and the struggling economy. Some newfangled gadgets and Internet innovations made it easier to make travel arrangements, but the economic downturn put travel out of reach for some people. At the very least, money worries spurred the scaling back of vacations. Nearly everyone ratcheted down their plans in the last years of the decade.

A terrorist attack, heightened security

Changes in air travel happened almost immediately after four terrorist-commanded planes slammed into U.S. targets on Sept. 11, 2001. That fateful morning defined the decade in numerous ways, including the transformation of air travel to make it more safe for us and the country. And as the decade wore on and the economy worsened, there were even fewer flights to take. Routes were reduced, especially those that didn't bring a profit.

Though we must be going somewhere. U.S. air travel hit a record high in 2007 with 769.6 million passengers, 100 million more than flew in 2000. Even with the recession, more people flew in the first eight months of 2009 — 478.6 million — than in the first nine months of 2000 — 453 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

After 9/11, security measures tightened and some people quit traveling for a time, a shame since what the world needed was more people understanding each other, not less. By decade's end, overseas travel bounced back. In 2000, 61.3 million U.S. residents traveled abroad. In 2008, the number climbed to 63.5 million.

U.S. passport rules strained to change, but the process went slowly. Deadlines were extended several times, but now all Americans heading to Canada or Mexico by air or land must have passports, along with those flying to islands in the Caribbean. While some cruises require passports, others don't, keeping the waters muddy.

Travel aid is a click or device away

It wasn't just the terrorist attacks that affected travel. Technology put more control in the hands of travelers. Literally. Handheld mobile devices and a multitude of applications — apps — that come with them provided maps and all the information that was traditionally found in guidebooks. Want to know what someone else thinks of the restaurant you're dying to dine in or the hotel you're considering? Check out the 30 million customer reviews on TripAdvisor.com, which has been posting them since 2001. Web sites such as Chowhound, Yelp and Open Table list restaurants and reviews in nearly any destination, and even help with reservations. All of this at our fingertips.

GPS devices and online mapping services now guide us just about anywhere we need to go by car. (Though I am guessing more people than me have cursed MapQuest for providing outdated routes. Didn't they know about that construction?) An early handheld Garmin GPS device sold for $589 in 2003; today's start as low as $89. But you might not need one if your phone has a mapping app.

New technology has made it simpler to make reservations online for airline travel, hotel, restaurants, rental cars and even cruises. Oh, and don't forget to print out your boarding pass before you leave home. You may or may not find a friendly face at the airport check-in counter to help you with the computer process. The automated systems are a change, occasionally more irritating than helpful.

Other travel developments since 2000:

Super cruise ships: Royal Caribbean thinks size does matter and debuted the "world's largest cruise ship" twice in the decade. In 2006, Freedom of the Seas set sail with the industry's first surf simulator at sea and about 4,375-passenger capacity. Royal Caribbean bested itself in 2009 with Oasis of the Seas, 17 decks high, two surf simulators, a carousel and enough room for 6,200 passengers. There have been other innovations in cruise ships, including rock climbing walls, planetariums and water slides, that have transformed cruising from largely a newlywed and seniors trip to a family vacation. Norwegian Cruise Line started the "freestyle" concept, which allows passengers to eat when they want and at various restaurants. Several cruise lines have followed Norwegian's lead.

Foreign travel: The number of Americans heading for Western Europe declined about 20 percent during the decade. However, travel to other regions increased. Travel to Eastern Europe and South America was up 30 percent, and more than double the numbers of Americans went to India, China and Vietnam in 2008 than 2000.

Gas prices: Fluctuating gas prices — mostly going up — put a crimp in driving vacations in 2008, and spurred surcharges from airlines and cruise lines. In the last years of the decade, close-to-home travel became more popular, too.

Bargain hunting: Mapping your own trip and finding the best prices became easier because of aggregate travel sites. Besides the big three — Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia — Priceline became a force for travel agents to reckon with. Other Web sites played key parts, too, including CruiseCritic, Airfarewatchdog and TripAdvisor. You no longer need a friend to tell you if a trip or price is worth it. Now, you've got the world, especially if you're on Facebook and Twitter.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8486.

Defining moment: Sept. 11, 2001, when four planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. From that day forward, the way we travel changed.

A world of change greeted the decade's travelers 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 5:17pm]

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