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biggest travel stories 2023

The Big Stories & Trends That Shaped Travel in 2023

If 2022 was the year Americans began turning their attention back toward travel, we were all laser focused in 2023.

That's the undercurrent behind a year full of changes – good and bad – in the travel world this past year: Travel is right back where we left it before the pandemic.

Shifts and surges in travel demand brought back the usual tide of great flight deals travelers have missed, new routes to Europe (and more of them), and fancy new business and first class seats are set to hit the skies soon. But then there's the downside: A year full of passport problems as international travel demand outpaced the federal government's capacity and another year of airlines messing with their loyalty programs.

Let's take a look back at some of the biggest stories from the past year for travelers.

 

Travel is Officially Back to Normal

To kick off the year, we predicted 2023 would be “the first full year of ‘normal' travel – or something darn close to it – we've seen since 2019.”

It's safe to say that was correct.

After a slow and steady climb back from the depths of the pandemic, travel demand hit new highs in 2023. From record-setting travel days over the holidays to regularly topping 2 million passengers any (and every) old weekday, the new normal is here … and it looks a lot like the old normal.

You can see it clearly in the data tracking daily passenger volumes in the U.S. from Airlines for America, tracking with and then surpassing the same numbers from 2019.

a4a chart
Courtesy of Airlines for America

 

It was a huge step up for travel from just last year, and there's no wonder why. It was the first full year without mask mandates and with virtually zero international travel restrictions – especially that stressful requirement to test negative for COVID-19 before returning to the States. That gave Americans a full year (and full confidence) to plan their first big trips abroad in years.

And that's exactly what they did. While international travel to and from the U.S. remained slightly below 2019 levels, the number of U.S. citizens heading abroad hit a record high in 2023.

airlines for america
Courtesy of Airlines for America

 

After getting those “revenge travel” trips out of their system earlier this year, things have settled down to close out the year – aside from the typical Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday travel rush.

And that's a win for travelers.

 

Flight Prices Normalized, Too

Three-plus years of occasional explosions in travel demand regularly led to explosively high airfare. You remember seeing sky-high domestic airfare in 2022 and flight prices shoot through the roof to Europe this past year, don't you?

But as travel demand in the U.S. settles into its new normal, some airlines are struggling to adapt. That's a good thing for travelers on a budget: It was easier for travelers to score a great deal in 2023 than it had been in years.

Domestic flight prices plummeted over the summer as budget airlines struggled to fill seats, forcing them to slash fares and pressuring big airlines to match. Europe followed a similar trend this year: Transatlantic fares were steep this summer as Americans finally took their big trips abroad, but now they're regularly dropping back below $500 (or less) for trips in 2024.

Not every single flight got cheaper, but the big numbers back up those trends: Monthly inflation reports from the federal government show average airfare has fallen fairly steadily since May 2023. In the latest data from November, average flight prices were down roughly 4% compared to 2019 – and by more than 12% from just a year ago.

 

“As you’re looking at pricing, as you’re looking at trends, we’re coming off of a peak last year where people just needed to go, and they didn't really care what they paid or where they went. They just needed to get out,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian told Yahoo Finance last month. “We're now back into a normalized pricing environment.”

That opened the door for travelers to book flights for less in 2023 or even next year – or rebook and pocket the difference as an airline voucher. It spurred some of the best flight deals we've seen in years – maybe ever – like sub-$100 domestic fares all across the country …
Minneapolis to Charleston nonstop flight

… to $400-some fares to Italy and elsewhere in Europe…
Naples flight deal

… and even the occasional dirt-cheap fare to Japan.
united flight deal to tokyo

 

Award Space Surprises

All the airline miles in the world don't guarantee you a thing: If you want to redeem them, you need the airlines to release award availability to make it possible … and they can be incredibly stingy, preferring to sell seats for cash instead.

But 2023 was different. Just as flight prices dropped, great points and miles deals were in steady supply throughout the year – including an unparalleled amount of business class award space bookable with points.

 

Air France business class

But the biggest telltale sign is down in Australia and New Zealand – typically two of the hardest destinations to reach on a business class award ticket. Before the pandemic, you could search through an entire calendar without finding a single business class seat available to book with points and miles.

Not anymore. We've sent Thrifty Traveler Premium members a dozen award alerts in just the last few months to fly Air New Zealand, Qantas, American, and United Polaris business class this year or next.
air new zealand deal

 

Airlines Take a Scalpel to Status & Miles

This past year could go down as the year Delta shot itself in the foot.

The airline's deeply unpopular changes to its Medallion Status program unveiled this fall became national news, decried as a pure cash grab that drastically raised annual spending requirements for status and gutted Sky Club lounge access, too. The outcry among travelers swearing they'd stop flying Delta and chop up their Amex credit cards forced the airline to relent, eventually rolling out milder tweaks – with some tremendous upside for frequent flyers.
delta plane in the dark

It was a tough year for even loyal Delta flyers who never get a whiff of status. The disappearance of regular Delta SkyMiles flash sales earlier in 2023 led us to wonder about the sad state of SkyMiles, though that tide has fortunately turned: SkyMiles deals are back, big time.

But Delta isn't the only airline that messed around with its loyalty program and flyers in 2023 – far from it.

As travelers hoarded record amounts of miles throughout the pandemic thanks to eye-popping credit card bonuses, there's only one way for award rates to book flights and hotels to go: Up. It's inflation for airline and hotel programs. We saw it play out again and again throughout 2023, including:

It's not all bad news. Air France/KLM Flying Blue bucked the trend by actually decreasing award rates on many routes, bringing business class fares between the U.S. and Europe down to just 50,000 miles each way. And while Virgin Atlantic Flying Club took a few hits, the airline introduced a new (and shockingly cheap) way to transfer points between members.

But the lesson from 2023 overall is clear: Use your points, and use them soon. They didn't get more valuable this year … and they won't next year, either.

 

Airlines Stabilized After a Shaky 2022

Last year was a brutal one for flight delays and cancellations capped off by Southwest's historic holiday meltdown. Put it all together, and 2022 was the worst year of disruptions on record.

But 2023 was the year that airlines got back on track.

An unprecedented hiring tear and pressure from federal regulators appear to have paid off, making airlines that struggled with even the slightest IT hiccup or storm last year far more resilient. The result? Airlines canceled just 1.6% of flights from January through September 2023, according to federal data – down from 2.8% over the same period in 2022.
JFK Airport

Still, 2023 wasn't perfect – heck, air travel never is.

Delays continue to be a problem, with fewer flights arriving on time in the first three quarters of 2023 than a year prior. The nation's air traffic control system is understaffed in critical areas and woefully out of date. And yet again, Southwest struggled over Christmas as dangerous fog at its important Chicago-Midway (MDW) forced the airline to cancel hundreds of flights.

But unlike a year ago, that didn't trigger a full-blown, nationwide meltdown. And that's a positive sign of where the airline industry is closing out the year.

 

Europe Was The Big Winner

More Americans were traveling abroad than ever in 2023, and there was no more popular place to go than Europe.

Lingering pandemic restrictions may have deterred many Americans from planning a big trip overseas in 2022, but not so this year. Airlines responded in kind, flying more seats than ever across the Atlantic, with Delta and other carriers saying they had their biggest summer flying over to Europe in company history. They had no trouble filling those seats either: By April, Delta said it had already sold 75% of seats on its international flights for the summer season.

It was a big year for new routes to Europe, too. After several years of flying reduced schedules, many of the big U.S. carriers doubled and even tripled down on new transatlantic routes this past year, especially for seasonal travel – and they're going even bigger in 2024.
Naples, Italy

Delta and Aer Lingus announced they will fly nonstop between Minneapolis (MSP) and Dublin (DUB) next year, and German carrier Lufthansa is also launching direct flights from Frankfurt to both Minneapolis and Raleigh, North Carolina (RDU). Off-the-beaten-path destinations are also getting some love from the big carriers, with Delta and American planning nonstop flights to Naples, Italy (NAP) and United launching a new route to Faro (FAO), the first nonstop service to the Algarve coast of Portugal.

New routes mean more competition and more seats for airlines to fill – and that's almost always a win for travelers.

 

But Getting a Passport Was a Pain

As many Americans were gearing up to go abroad, passport delays put many of their trips in jeopardy.

All that pent-up international travel demand meant more Americans needing to get a passport – or renew an expiring one. The U.S. State Department issued a record 24 million passports this past year, according to a recent news release.

The surge in passport applications led to a backlog and drove wait times up – way up. In March, the State Department advised it could take up to 13 weeks to get a passport – or up to nine weeks even for expedited service. In fact, the State Department actually recommended applying at least six months before a trip or passport's expiration date.
urgent travel passport

The delays left even travelers who planned ahead in purgatory. Travelers reported long wait times on the phone, paying additional fees for expedited service or rushed delivery, or even booking additional flights to get to a passport agency with scarce in-person appointments – if they could find one at all. Many even turned to members of Congress for help securing a passport.

Fortunately, the situation has improved: As of this month, passport wait times have returned to normal. The State Department is looking to avoid a repeat in 2024. They've increased their staffing, and have also begun notifying passport holders by email to remind them when when their passport is expiring.

 

New First & Biz Class Seats on the Way

Travelers looking to fly at the front of the plane have a lot to look forward to after this year. A handful of international airlines pulled back the curtain on their new business and first class seats – and some will be flying as soon as 2024.

German carrier Lufthansa shared more details about what its long-awaited new first and business class cabins will look like. The new “Allegris” long-haul product will include suites in first class for the first time and an updated business class setup that gives every passenger direct aisle access in a 1-2-1 arrangement.

FCL Outboard Suite Renderings
New first class, rendering courtesy of Lufthansa

 

Australian airline Qantas is also upping the ante with a brand new, first class cabin: Six private suites, each outfitted with a shoulder-height door, personal wardrobe, and a separate bed. Business class suites will have doors too, along with a new look and new features like wireless charging and a touchscreen seat control.

Qantas First A350
First class cabin rendering, courtesy of Qantas

 

The airline is installing these new products on its new Airbus A350-1000, expected to finally take flight in late 2025.

Japan Airlines, too, is raising the bar with the cabins on its new Airbus A350-1000, which will soon begin flying between Tokyo and New York and will fly to many more U.S. cities in the years to come. To start, there are just six incredibly spacious first class suites, equipped with a double bed, personal wardrobe space, and other bells and whistles all enclosed within five-foot-high walls (and yes, there's a door) for nearly unparalleled privacy.

japan airlines first class bed
First class suite rendering, courtesy of Japan Airlines

 

The Japanese carrier's new business class suites are getting the door treatment, too, along with cool features like Bluetooth charging and a novel, built-in speaker in the headrest to watch your movie or show without headphones.

 

Bottom Line

Another year of travel is in the books, and what a year it was.

Travelers picked up in 2023 where they left off in 2022, hitting the skies by the billions and bringing the travel world back to normal – and then some. That was largely a good thing for travelers as cheap flight deals stormed back and airlines shaped up. But in the ever-changing airline world, there's always some bad news, too.

Senior Editor Allie Johnson contributed to this story

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