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TRAVEL INSIDER

Hot-button issues, to be continued . . .

December 23, 2007|James Gilden | Special to The Times

SO you're reading all these year-end stories and thinking, "What's past is past." Wrong. Here's a roundup of some of the top travel consumer stories of 2007 and how they may rock your travel world in 2008.

Airfares and hotel rates: In the first half of 2007, you actually paid less to fly than you did in 2006, but that was before fuel prices began to spiral -- and those results aren't in yet. Meanwhile, average daily U.S. hotel rates were up 5.6% in early December over the same week in 2006.

American Express Business Travel projects that in 2008 "worldwide airfares are expected to continue their climb [and] hotel rates are projected to experience high double-digit increases in demand-heavy markets," including up to a 22% increase in the Britain. (How much of that is the weak dollar is unknown.) It projects airfares will increase as much as 5% for domestic, 8% for international.

Bottom line for travelers: No escaping this. Look to pay more for the same, unless the economy nose dives.

Weak dollar: In 2007, travel to many countries cost more as the dollar sank against the euro, pound and Canadian dollar, among others. The U.S. dollar, for instance, bought about 11% less in countries that use the euro, and 1 British pound cost about $2, a decline of about 4% from a year ago.

But that didn't stop us. The number of Americans traveling to Europe increased by 1% from the previous year, according to a survey in cooperation with the European Travel Commission.

Exchange rates appear stable for now but could change, depending on the economic winds, and some experts are predicting the worst is yet to come.

Bottom line for travelers: 2008 may be the year to stick around the U.S. or visit a country with a more favorable exchange rate (see latimes.com/euro) unless $5 for a cup of coffee in London doesn't faze you.

Gasoline prices: In mid-December last year, the national average price for a gallon of gasoline was $2.28. A year later, it's $2.98, according to the American Automobile Assn. In Southern California, the average price was $3.35 in November, up from $2.49 a year ago.

Bottom line for travelers: With increased global demand, instability in the Middle East and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, we might look back fondly on $3.35.

Storm watch: Forecasters predicted as many as 10 hurricanes for the 2007 Atlantic season (June 1 to Nov. 31) and guessed that as many as half of them could be strong (Category 3 or bigger). There were six hurricanes (including, in September, Karen, which did not threaten land and was upgraded to a hurricane after the fact).

In early December, the University of Colorado issued its 2008 forecast: seven hurricanes, an above-average year.

Bottom line for travelers: Will 2008 be the year forecasters get it right? Stay tuned. And consider travel insurance.

Passport delays: A record number of travelers applied for passports this year in response to new rules requiring the document for air travel to the U.S. from Canada, Mexico and much of the Caribbean. The system was overwhelmed by the millions of requests, and processing delays sometimes more than doubled the six weeks it used to take to get the document. In June, the government relaxed its rules until Sept. 30, giving passport adjudicators time to catch up.

On Jan. 31, American and Canadian citizens entering the U.S. by land or sea from Canada, Mexico and much of the Caribbean will need to present either a passport or a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license, plus proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate. In the summer (a date has not been announced yet), all travelers may be required to carry a passport when entering the U.S., although Congress has delayed this.

Bottom line for travelers: If you're planning to go abroad in 2008 and don't have a passport, apply now ( www.travel.state.gov/passport).

Crowded flights: U.S. airlines will carry a record number of passengers in 2007 if projected growth continues for the rest of the year, according to the Department of Transportation. U.S. airlines carried more domestic and international passengers in the first nine months of 2007 than in the same period in 2006. Available seat-miles, a measure of airline capacity, were up only slightly. As a result, flights have few empty seats.

Airlines in the coming year are worried about fuel prices and whether the economy will dampen travel demand.

Bottom line for travelers: Don't expect airlines to add a lot of flights -- or to find an empty seat next to you in 2008.

--

travel@latimes.com

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