The changing role of travel tech in 2015
In 2015, technology is all about connecting travellers with local sources, friends back home and fellow travellers.
As more exciting advances in tech grow ubiquitous (covering everything from booking to communication to tracking your luggage), their physical presence may actually be diminishing. Increasingly, tech is taking the form of smaller, more elegant and wearable devices. That makes 2015 the year where technology may really begin to succeed at just getting out of the way – helping us in countless ways on our journeys, but giving us the space to really experience them.
It may seem antithetical to one of travel’s main tenets – to escape our daily lives – but globetrotting can create a heightened need for digital connection. We crave a signal when we’re on the road. Plans change midstream, information must be fetched, and posts about your latest adventures just can’t wait.
Luckily, finding signal isn’t tough these days. In countries such as South Korea and Japan, you can rent a portable wi-fi device (a ‘wi-fi egg’ or ‘wi-fi pod’) that gives you pocket wi-fi. If you just need data for your smartphone, it can be cheaper to buy a local SIM card, as long as your device is already unlocked.
Google maps (google.com/maps) can actually continue to track your location with GPS even if you have no wi-fi connection, meaning many map functions will still work. Just make sure you have recently opened the local map on your mobile device. You can’t search offline, so pre-clicking ‘Save’ on some pins helps navigation later. On Android phones, if you type ‘OK Maps’ into the search, it will give you the option to save lists of whole areas to your phone.
To use maps with offline search features, maps.me (maps.me) is excellent and lets you save navigable maps for whole countries. Or pre-plan your journey with the website rome2rio (rome2rio.com), which lets you plan and price international trips across surprisingly different types of transport – just check the price accuracy.
Hotels have gotten in on the mobile game as well, with sophisticated offerings from Hilton, Sheraton, W and Westin hotels that let guests do everything from skipping the check-in desk to requesting room service and unlocking their room doors with an app.
The strong desire for ‘authentic’ travel experiences in another country and culture is greater than ever. Most travellers can spot cookie-cutter brochure copy a mile away. Airbnb (airbnb.com) tapped into this idea early on, and as the notion really takes hold, the attitude should reach aspects of travel beyond lodging. So not only can we stay with locals, we can also sit at their dinner table as they cook a regional speciality, through EatWith (eatwith.com) or Feastly (eatfeastly.com). Then we can borrow their motorhome on RVShare (rvshare.com), or even take their bicycle for a spin through Spinlister (splinster.com) (with some getting-around advice thrown in).
Since the first Dick Tracy comics and Star Trek episodes, we’ve dreamed of wearing machines that could help us navigate and keep in touch throughout the world (or galaxy) without getting in the way. The Apple Watch’s launch (apple.com/watch) this year promises the most significant step yet in this direction. Part of its appeal lies in its careful eye toward fashion as well as cutting edge technology. It’s not alone – sports and high-end clothing brands are getting in on the act later this year.
The most compelling reasons to buy into these products are still practical – easy payment, location tracking and health monitoring. ApplePay is built into the Watch, encouraging us towards truly cashless travel.
Our other traditional travel accessories are also trending toward full connectivity, as more products communicate with each other without human interaction. It’s part of a tech movement lately dubbed ‘the Internet of Things.’ Our humble luggage gets smart with the Bluesmart (bluesmart.com) suitcase, which knows exactly how much it weighs with built-in scales, and you can securely lock it and GPS-trace it through an app.
The way we spend money is quickly shifting from the old cash and credit card paradigm. PayPal initiated a streamlined revolution in e-commerce years ago, and now companies like Google and Apple (along with traditional banks) are swooping in to do the same at cash registers across the world. The idea of paying for something with a wearable device or click of a button in an app on the spot will seem secure and natural – not just for geeks and early adopters. It’s already happening in Australia, where “contactless” ATM cards like the Visa PayWave (visa.com) system have taken off quickly.
Uber (uber.com) has already conditioned its users to pay for its taxi service straight from their app. This idea is set to blend into dining apps such as OpenTable (opentable.com) and Reserve (reserve.com).
Other innovations simply work to bust the borders of commerce. TransferWise (transferwise.com) now makes international money transfers with lower fees than traditional telegraphic bank transfers. In the USA, Facebook Messenger allows you to transfer money to a friend. Currency apps such as Units Plus and XE Currency remember your last conversion and can convert all three currencies simultaneously.
A prevailing attitude among contemporary travellers is that experiences and moments trump material possessions. The ease, accessibility, and instant sharing abilities of modern photography are playing a big part in that attitude shift. In 2015, the variety of ways you can capture your travels from every angle is greater than ever.
Always-on cameras are tapping new trends toward ‘lifelogging’ our everyday travel experiences. The clip-on camera Narrative Clip 2 (getnarrative.com) is a wide-angle, GPS-enabled camera that takes a photo every 30 seconds for the whole day, compiling the experience into a series of truly candid snapshots. The iOS app Picr (picr.info) turns the camera on you, helping you compile a collection of daily self-portraits to see how you changed on your journey. Meanwhile, Hyperlapse by Instagram (hyperlapse.instagram.com) lets you create timelapse videos, allowing you to compress something like a two-hour road trip in Vietnam into a few wondrous minutes of speedy footage.
Proving you were there enjoying the moment continues to drive products such as the selfie stick. Going a few steps further, the Allie (ic720.com) is a 720-degree camera for photo and video selfies that take in every angle around you. Or imagine a camera flying above you, recording your every move while you travel. It’s not a part of the robot army in the new Terminator movies, it’s Nixie (https://www.facebook.com/flynixie/) a ‘selfie-drone.’ Its prototype was unveiled in 2015.
You don’t even need to carry anything new with CamMe (iOS) and Snapi (Android), which let you trigger the higher-res rear-facing camera with a simple hand gesture. Opening up a fist is easier than fumbling round the back of your phone for a touchscreen button.
More doors open for travellers who say a simple ‘nǐ hǎo’ in China. Tech companies might never replace that experience, but they’re getting pretty close! With these translation tools, it’s easier than ever to get over that tourist language barrier.
Google Translate’s recent acquisition Word Lens allows travellers to use their phone cameras to translate text they see in real life. Point the phone at a big red sign in Barcelona that says ‘Alto’ and your screen will show that same sign that reading ‘Stop.’ It’s still glitchy but updates are coming fast now that it’s part of the Google stable.
Just as futuristic, Skype Translator went live with a preview at the end of 2014, letting two speakers have a conversation that's instantly translated with subtitles, as if it were dialogue spoke between stars in a foreign film.
The more we learn about privacy intrusions from all angles – large-scale hacks of corporations like Sony and Target, persistent evidence of NSA and international government snooping – the more users are apt to change how they use net-connected communication. Messaging apps continue to dominate over SMS, mushrooming especially in developing countries, making privacy features in those apps more important than ever.
To keep in touch on the road without anybody listening in, iMessage comes with stronger encryption, and WhatsApp (whatsapp.com) (only the Android version for now) gets two-way encryption that not even the government or WhatsApp themselves can crack. This has prompted the UK government to talk about banning these type of apps. Protected messaging apps are still undeniably useful in places where you might not want the powers that be snooping through your chat history.
Even more convenient for web browsers is the Hello chat app now built into Firefox. It lets you use a computer, say in an internet café or somebody else’s machine, without installing anything else or needing you or your chat buddy to sign up for anything. You just send a link and go.
Duck Duck Go (duckduckgo.com) is a useful search engine to use on the road as it won’t track or record your activity. This is handy for peace of mind about your information being exploited by scams, but isn’t full proof.
In China, using a VPN or Tor to cover your tracks or simply access a travel video is more popular than ever with travellers and locals. For example, Google’s Search, Drive and YouTube are otherwise blocked by China’s Great Firewall.
All that said, it goes without saying that plain old guidebooks have been proven to be snoop-free, high-resolution, battery-less and work well even in areas with no connection whatsoever…