The golden age of travel isn't over — it's evolving
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Some might say the golden age of air travel ended when Pan Am went out of business and airlines stopped serving free-flowing cocktails and cigars. Or maybe it was when the pandemic struck and forced airlines to retire their superjumbo jets and make major cuts to their premium-cabin offerings.
However, I believe we’re still in the golden age of travel now. It's just evolving.
The unprecedented disruptions caused by the pandemic have accelerated the shift toward a new golden age. Flying private is more accessible than ever, airlines are pushing toward more innovation, it's gotten easier to redeem miles, gone are pesky change fees and travel credit cards are offering best-ever sign-up bonuses.
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Anyone can fly 'private' ...
The biggest shift I see is that more people than ever are flying private. And the reason is that it's never been more accessible.
Flying private is no longer just for the ultrarich and C-suite business executives. Thanks to new apps and services offered by companies like Wheels Up, XO, Blade and Aero, flying private can be as easy — and sometimes almost as affordable — as ordering up a car.
Today, there are dozens of regularly scheduled "private" flights you can book by the seat. When there's no scheduled service that fits your needs, you can initiate your own crowdsourced flight. You can think of it as the Uber Pool of private aviation.
Related: The cheapest ways to get the private jet experience
For as low as $89, you can book what I'll call a no-frills semiprivate flight with JSX. Flights are operated with 30-seat regional jets, so they're not completely private but do offer the convenience of departing from private terminals. You can show up just 20 minutes before your flight and there are no long check-in lines, traditional TSA security screenings or potentially crowded terminals to deal with. The cabins are spacious, and although there's no caviar onboard, you still get free snacks and drinks. Routes are centered around the West Coast and Texas.
For a more quintessential private jet experience, you can book a semiprivate flight with a company like Aero or Blade for around $1,000 to $3,000 per seat. While still a bit more expensive than a domestic first-class ticket, that's a drop in the bucket compared to the $4,000 to $20,000 normally charged per hour to charter a jet.
The companies fly smaller jets with luxurious interiors and focus on serving higher-end vacation spots like Miami; Aspen, Colorado; and Napa, California. On BladeOne-marketed flights, expect top-notch inflight dining, including caviar service from Pearl Street Caviar.
Your options for booking shared charters are even greater if you join a membership program. For instance, with a $100-a-month Set Jet membership, you could fly across the West Coast for $450 to $490 each way. Members dictate the flight schedule and enjoy excellent service from start to finish. Set Jet's planes feature 13-16 seats and every flight has a cabin attendant who serves complimentary top-shelf drinks and premium snacks.
Meanwhile, if you're interested in joining Wheels Up, you can now get a discounted membership and other perks with The Platinum Card® from American Express. In addition to seats on shared flights, Wheels Up members can book highly discounted empty-leg Hot Flights.
Related: Yes, you can fly private — here’s the secret that will help you do it
... or have a private-like experience
Of course, flying private isn't always feasible. Luckily, there now are a number of ways to have a private-like experience while flying commercially. And they, too, have become more accessible.
Those traveling through Los Angeles (LAX) can skip the hustle and bustle of the airport's main terminal by splurging on access to a secret VIP terminal called PS. There are three types of experiences you can book: a private suite, The Salon or PS Direct.
The private suite is the ultimate choice for those seeking extra privacy and comfort. It's basically like waiting for your flight in a luxury hotel room. The suites are stocked with all of the snacks, drinks and travel essentials you could possibly need, you can order meals prepared by the acclaimed H.wood Group and you can even request in-suite massages. When it's time for your flight you go through a private TSA screening and are chauffeured across the airfield to your plane's door. Each visit costs $3,250 to $4,350 and includes up to four travelers.
Related: Everything you need to know about LAX’s secret VIP terminal PS
The newly launched Salon offers all of the key benefits of PS in a shared, social setting, but at a fraction of the cost. Access is $695 per person (you must be 21 or over to book) and you still enjoy great food and drinks, expedited security screening and shuttle service to the aircraft.
Finally, PS offers a service called PS Direct. For $3,450 for up to four travelers, members can be driven to their final destination directly from their arriving aircraft, bypassing the terminal altogether — just like flying private.
If you're traveling through another airport and are flying with American Airlines, you could book one of its Five Star ground experiences. While not nearly as private as PS, they get you out of waiting in any lines in the airport and make the overall ground experience less stressful, particularly for families. The cheapest service is the new Five Star Essentials, which costs $149 or 15,000 AAdvantage miles for up to two adults and three children. Delta and United offer similar VIP services as well.
While you're still boarding a commercial flight with these services, with a little bit of research, you can ensure you have the most comfortable experience onboard possible. Nowadays, it's pretty common to find wide-body aircraft operating domestic routes between major hub cities. This means lie-flat seats upfront and spacious premium economy seats being sold as extra-legroom coach.
And keep in mind we're only focusing on air travel for the sake of this story. There are also plenty of private-like hotel experiences you can have these days, including lots of private-island resorts you can book with points.
A new level of flexibility
Perhaps one good thing that came from the pandemic was saying goodbye to pesky change fees.
Apart from the ultra low-cost carriers, all of the major U.S. carriers have eliminated their $200 penalties (excluding basic-economy fares). Some airlines like United have gone so far as to say that they will never bring back those fees. This is great news because it means that you can jump on great travel deals when they pop up and decide later whether you actually want to go. It's also useful for repricing tickets when your fare decreases.
Several airlines have also added free same-day change options. This means that if you get to the airport early, you have the flexibility to standby for an earlier flight free of charge.
Related: How to avoid airline change and cancellation fees
Best-ever welcome bonuses
Credit cards play a pivotal role in the travel world and we are without a doubt witnessing the golden age of credit cards. Issuers keep upping the ante, making cards more rewarding than ever for consumers. One way they're doing this is through best-ever sign-up bonuses and welcome offers.
In June, the ever-popular Chase Sapphire Preferred Card launched the highest sign-up bonus we’ve seen in this card’s 12-year run. Specifically, you can currently earn 100,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. That's worth a whopping $2,000 toward award travel according to TPG point valuations, which is terrific considering the card has just a $95 annual fee.
Then, in early July, the Citi Premier® Card rolled out its best-ever bonus of 80,000 ThankYou points after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. In the past, the card offered a relatively consistent 60,000-point bonus for meeting the same spending requirement. The list of best-ever bonuses goes on.
Related: The complete history of credit cards, from antiquity to today
Points and miles are easier to redeem
Not only are points and miles becoming easier to earn but they're also becoming easier to redeem.
Over the past few years, more and more airlines have been dropping award charts and moving toward dynamic pricing. This basically translates to more expensive awards when cash prices are high and cheaper awards when fares are low.
While this is disappointing for award travel enthusiasts who would find ways to get outsize value from their points and miles, it's a generally welcome change for the everyday traveler. I know, you might think I’m crazy, but hear me out. The average consumer isn't chasing ultra-premium long-haul award tickets, focusing instead on more ordinary redemptions.
Dynamic pricing allows travelers to redeem points for any flight with no blackout dates. So, even those whose work or school schedules force them to travel over peak periods — whether it be over Fourth of July, Thanksgiving or any other day of the year — can use their points. In the past, you needed to be flexible with your dates and were constrained by award space. Even if you found saver-level availability, finding seats for the entire family was rare.
Related: Are we entering a new ‘golden age’ of creativity with loyalty programs?
And let's be real, it's not like points and miles are worthless now. It's possible to get serious value from Delta's SkyMiles flash sales and American's Web Special awards. What award chart ever offered flights for as low as 400 points each way? And that's before considering all of the more recent innovations in frequent flyer programs, such as family points pooling, the removal of fuel surcharges from award tickets and the ability to earn elite status without flying.
Airlines are investing in innovation
Finally, airlines are investing more in innovative technologies than ever before.
Although the Concorde may never fly again, in June, United sent shockwaves through the aviation world when it announced a deal to purchase 15 supersonic jets from Boom Supersonic. Boom and United said that the supersonic fleet would be considered net-zero carbon, and would fly entirely on sustainable aviation fuel. The planes are expected to enter commercial service in 2029 and tickets will supposedly be priced similar to today’s business-class fares.
Not long after, the airline officially launched a new, corporate venture fund, United Airlines Ventures, to invest in high-potential companies innovating in sustainability and aerospace. In July, the subsidiary invested in Swedish startup Heart Aerospace, which is working on bringing electric passenger planes to the market.
Related: What flying was like 50 years ago when man first walked on the moon
Airlines like American and Virgin Atlantic have also announced investments in eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) startups, as has Blade.
Until these planes hit the market, passengers can enjoy innovations such as floor-to-ceiling fully enclosed first-class suites with "virtual windows" in middle seats. Even the ability to now pair Bluetooth-equipped headphones directly with the seatback monitors is pretty revolutionary.
Double-decker jets with three-room "residences" will never fly again. Likewise, true international first class may be disappearing.
But it's not all bad news. In the midst of all of the cuts and changes airlines had to make over the last year, the industry moved toward a new golden age of air travel. Sure, airlines are currently dealing with lots of cancellations and delays but this is only temporary. With how things are looking, air travel is only going to get better from here. Before we know it, we'll be redeeming miles for flights to space.