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The 15 Coolest Things in Travel This Year

2015 was an epic year, from space flights and self-driving cars to affordable mini-bars and hotels-by-the-hour. Here, the 15 things that got us pumped on the future of travel.

See recent posts by Chelsea Stuart | Photo by Ira Lippke

The fight for in-flight space is over
Boeing’s new overhead Space Bins for 737’s store nearly 50 percent more carry-ons than the current standard. Bonus: They hang two inches lower, so your biceps get a break.

Flying gets more high-tech
Aboard Virgin America’s new ViaSat WiFi-equipped Airbus A320’s, you can log into your Netflix account and stream House of Cards and your other favorite shows to your phone, tablet, or laptop at a speed eight to 10 times faster than any other onboard WiFi system. Meanwhile, JetBlue has teamed up with Amazon to offer free mega-fast WiFi to all prime members, which means you can stream virtually anything for no cost.

Room keys become almost obsolete
Smartphones that double as room keys are rolling out at major hotel chains like Marriott, Starwood and Hilton. You’ll get your room details via a mobile app and simply wave your phone in front of the lock to open it. No more demagnetized plastic.

Hostels go upscale
A new breed of high end hostels on par with hip boutique hotels is cropping up around the world, from Hlemmur Square, in Reykjavik to the Freehand in Miami and Chicago to the Generator brand across Europe.

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RELATED: 20 Hotels You Won’t Believe Are Under $200

A new class hits the skies Singapore Airlines joins Lufthansa and Finnair in debuting "premium economy" seating — think friendlier fares with greater seat pitch, privacy dividers, and airport lounge access.

Mini-bars get a budget makeover Richard Branson’s first Virgin hotel opens in Chicago with snacks at actual street prices. You’ll find $1 Peanut M&Ms, $2 Red Bulls, and $2.25 protein bars atop the retro Smeg fridges.

The book-by-the-hour hotel goes mainstream Midday hotel stays are perfect if you need a place to take a nap, escape the kids, get ready for an evening out, or do some work in between meetings. Nowadays, they’re easier than ever to find thanks to HotelsByDay, which lets you book blocks of four to six hours at 40 percent less than regular room rates.

Self-driving cars make their beta debut Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Tesla are releasing cars with features like auto-acceleration, braking, and steering, and Google has an autonomous fleet zipping around California roads. A world without gridlock ⎯ not to mention reduced accidents ⎯ is this close. 2020, to be exact.

Space tourism gets real NASA granted tech superstar Elon Musk’s SpaceX a contract to bring astronauts to the International Space Station via their futuristic Crew Dragon spacecraft. What does that mean for the rest of us? Commercial companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are one step closer to putting your average Joe (okay, your average Joe with $250,000 to spare) on Mars.

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RELATED: 8 Futuristic Hotels

Lobby check-in gets the boot
Hotel brands like Thompson and Joie de Vivre are finally catching up with airlines, Airbnb, and Uber by providing check-ins, upgrades, and customer service via text without making you download an app.

Road trips get an upgrade
Google releases Android Auto to rival Apple’s CarPlay, and practically every car company signs up to offer one or both. Just plug your phone into your car’s USB port and you can access maps, messaging, and music ⎯ in other words, you never ever have to leave the universe of your smartphone.

Solo travelers get some love
Cruise lines like Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Holland America are adding cabins for one, a big deal considering most ships charge huge fees when one person stays in a double. Plus, hotels like Ace and CitizenM are offering discount packages for solo travelers, and building smaller rooms to accommodate those on the road alone. Cheers to being single!

Getting lost abroad becomes impossible
If you download Google’s new Offline Maps, you can use your smartphone to search for a museum address or get turn-by-turn street directions in a place without Internet access ⎯ from Prague to Provence ⎯ without racking up expensive data charges.

Travel to Cuba gets way easier
After years of talk, President Obama expanded authorized travel to Cuba. What this means for U.S. citizens: we can legally go if we’re involved in an organized activity (taking an educational tour, attending an athletic event or working on a humanitarian project, for example). Access will likely expand to all Americans tourists in the upcoming years and that means flights from major US cities.

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RELATED: Your Keys to Cuba

Discount airlines go international
The USA is finally getting discount airlines that fly abroad. WOW Air kicked off its US service with $99 one-way fares from Boston/Baltimore to Paris/Amsterdam and will expand service to LA and San Francisco in 2016.

New high-design museums reach epic status
LA’s Broad (free!), The Whitney NY, Fondazione Prada in Milan and Zaha Hadid’s cantilevered Messner Museum Corones, in Italy’s South Tyrol region, have redefined the museum as an architectural landmark.

It’s easier than ever to keep track of your luggage (and your kids)
New suitcases with GPS trackers like the Bluesmart carry on make it a cinch to find lost luggage. And airlines like Air New Zealand have added technology like digital bracelets to help trail unaccompanied minors along their journey.

Flying your own plane gets more accessible
If you’ve ever dreamed of flying your own plane, now is the time. The new Icon light- sport A5 aircrafts are super simple to fly (with intuitive controls that resemble a car dashboard) and require only 20 hours of flight time for a private license. You can pretty much take it anywhere, land on ground or water, and feel completely safe thanks to a spin-resistant airframe and built in parachute.



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