Traveling in an airport
Globally, tourist visitor numbers look to finally return to pre-pandemic levels this year, according to recent research from the World Economic Forum. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The busiest travel season of the year is about to begin: Almost 44 million people in the US are expected to unofficially kick off their summers by traveling on Memorial Day weekend, a 4.1 pre cent increase over 2019, according to the American Automobile Association.

"We haven't seen Memorial Day weekend travel numbers like these in almost 20 years," said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, in a May 13 release. "We're projecting an additional one million travelers this holiday weekend compared to 2019."

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The Transportation Security Administration also said on Tuesday that it expects"-for the first time"-to screen more than 3 million passengers nationally in a single day "at some point this summer."

Revenge travel may have tapered, but sky-high demand persists in tourism.

It's not just in the US Globally, tourist visitor numbers look to finally return to pre-pandemic levels this year, according to recent research from the World Economic Forum.

If you're among the millions of people hitting the road in the coming months, here's a preview of some major industry changes that may affect your journey.

AI will continue to shape your travels

Scarlett Johansson may not be playing the part of your Chat GPT-created travel agent this summer, but as generative AI keeps improving, so will travel planning tools that leverage the technology. Look no further than Expedia Group Inc, which on May 14 deployed an AI travel assistant app called Romie that can both craft tailored itineraries and troubleshoot unexpected travel disruptions once you're on the road.

Invite the Romie chatbot into a text chain with your travel companions, and it can help find ideas everyone will love; Romie will also suggest restaurants, activities and other places to see in areas you're visiting, as well as answer general travel questions. It's currently available to test on iPhones in the US, but you must join Expedia's EG Labs program on the app in order to access it. (Find that in your account settings.) As with any AI chatbot, it's worth double-checking automated suggestions.

Expedia's product joins an ever-growing landscape of AI travel-planning tools; earlier this year, Booking Holdings released Ask Kayak and Kayak PriceCheck to help travelers find vacation ideas and quickly compare flight prices against 100 different websites.

And don't forget about biometric technology, an additional form of AI being implemented at global airports to hasten checking in or dropping off luggage. The most advanced example so far is a self-service variation on TSA screenings"-done without the presence of human agents"-currently being tested at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas. Later this year, passport-free travel may become a reality: Singapore is preparing to let departing travelers use biometrics in lieu of physical ID to clear border control.

Five-figure trips will soon become the norm

International trips are averaging more than $9,000 per person this summer, according to Florida-based Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison engine. That's higher than ever"-a 7 per cent increase over 2023. And as trip costs continue to climb, so does the price to insure them; Squaremouth research shows that travel insurance premiums have increased 22 per cent year-over-year, to more than $600 in 2024.

To bring travel insurance costs down, the company recommends insuring only expenses you're likely to lose if you should cancel your trip. For instance, if the penalty to cancel a hotel reservation is 50 per cent, insure only that amount versus the full cost of the room; this will ultimately reduce the total cost of your policy.

If the rising expenses still have you down, consider this: A growing number of companies are rising up to insure not just against travel delays or cancellations but also against simple disappointment. Take Sensible Weather's add-on guarantee to your reservation, ensuring you'll get a refund if it rains on your trip when you book with specific hospitality companies. Or the new WeatherPromise, which lets you directly buy rain protection online for any existing trip. 

Travel will be more accessible

The travel industry is ramping up improvements for people with physical disabilities"-a $58 billion market. Increasingly, it's looking to meet the needs of drastically underserved neurodivergent travellers, too: According to the travel booking platform Autism Travel, 87 per cent of families find traveling so complicated that they forgo it. Hotels are finding ways to help.

For example, Virgin Hotels is getting more of its seven properties around the world "Autism Double Checked," an independent certification that ensures that staff members are trained to properly help guests on the spectrum. You'll soon see this service expand to other hotel brands; Hyatt Hotels recently announced a push in this direction.

On the tech side, Alphabet Inc's Google has continued expanding accessibility features into Google Maps, including wheelchair accessible place listings. Also new are screen reading and voice guidance for blind or low-vision travelers, which tell users when say, they're going the wrong way.

Accessibility is also becoming more important for airports and the aviation industry, though this summer you're more likely to hear about what's coming than see actual progress. In the US, legislation is in the works to amend the Air Carrier Access Act to guarantee better services for air travelers who use wheelchairs. The comment period on proposed amendments will close on June 12, so expect related headlines over the summer. Similarly, Zurich Airport is currently getting ready to roll out autonomous electric wheelchairs, from Swiss startup DAAV, by the end of the year.

You'll book at the last minute

Last-minute bookings are on the rise, said glamping hospitality company Autocamp, which attributed the pattern to a growing share of Gen Z travelers. It's a global trend: Some 78 per cent of international travelers surveyed by American Express this year indicated a preference for last-minute trips and leaving room in trip itineraries for unplanned experiences.

Flexibility isn't the only pandemic-era trend that's back and staying strong. The desire to vacation in nature and visit national and state parks is driving outdoor hospitality companies to tap in: Think upscale lakeside treehouses, tents, cabins and domes in locations ranging from New York's Catskill Mountains to Wyoming's plains and Colorado's ranges, with limited inventories heightening demand.

It seems as if every week a new property announces an opening; right after our preview of new glamping lodges was published, we caught wind of this stunning new property thats bringing bubble domes to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.

Road trips in the US"-another pandemic era favorite that allowed for more flexible summer travel in one's backyard"-are predicted to hit a record over Memorial Day weekend, according to AAA. Some 38.4 million people are expected to travel by car, 1.9 per cent more than in 2019.

All-inclusive resorts will push further into luxury

Luxury hotels have been betting large on the all-in-one vacation model, with new openings in such hotspots as Mexico's Riviera Maya and the Dominican Republic's Punta Cana. At these places, the standards associated with all-inclusive resorts are trending strongly upward. Expect more than lavish suites and miles of white sand beaches. Think of amenities that range from a 10,000-square-foot spa to farm-to-table chef menus with panoramic sea views.

Hotels won't get any more affordable

Hotel prices were forecast to rise in most major cities this year, according to American Express Global Business Travel's Hotel Monitor 2024 Report. At the start of the year it predicted rates would jump by 10-17 per cent year over year in the most affected markets. That seems to be an accurate assessment.

We're not just talking about the luxury sector, where the $1,000 entry-level room has become the norm. When looking more broadly at hotels"-meaning everything from budget motels to five-star stays, globally"-Hopper says Memorial Day weekend prices have hit an average of $212 per night, a 30 per cent increase over rates during the same period in 2022.

In the most-searched cities, you'd be lucky to be able to book for $212. In both London and San Juan, Puerto Rico, Hopper says the average rate is right around $370, which represents an increase of 6 per cent -10 per cent year-over-year. And as Airbnb continues getting pushed out of major cities like New York and Amsterdam, the price pressure on such rooms will only continue to grow.