It’s hard to even picture the way travel used to be.
It’s hard to believe we all used to flip through reference books to decide our destination, that we used to walk down to the travel agent to book our flights, that we’d come home clutching a paper ticket with all our sectors locked in, that we’d call hotels to book, that we’d pack actual maps, that we’d write letters, that we’d carry rolls of film to later develop.
Travel has changed. It’s changed immensely, and it’s changed permanently. So much about the way we move through the world has been altered by modern technology, so much has been affected by advances that have often smoothed our path, making things easier, making them faster, making them cheaper.
The internet has clearly made the biggest change. Anyone who has travelled in the last 10 years already knows this. They know that you now utilise the internet for every single part of the travel experience, from booking flights to finding hotels, from deciding on experiences to securing tables at restaurants, from navigating your way around a new city to posting photos of that city on social media to make your friends jealous.
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Travel has changed – but there are more changes on the way. Possibly even bigger changes. These changes involve tools that once sounded like the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, the likes of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and which in some cases are already a big part of the way we travel.
People will soon be booking their holidays with the help of virtual reality. The technology is already there to make it happen – though it’s not quite there. The image resolution isn’t quite there. The market saturation isn’t quite there. But it’s starting to take hold.
If you have a VR headset for your phone, you can already use Google Earth to navigate the globe and decide where you’d like to visit. The German airline Lufthansa has already created several 360-degree videos of certain destinations, including Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo, available on YouTube, viewable on VR headsets. And the travel app Ascape has a whole heap of 360-degree videos and photo tours of various locations and events around the world to entice customers to visit.
VR will soon play a part in the booking process, too. Companies such as Navitaire are now working on integrating VR into the way their customers choose flight and accommodation options, allowing potential passengers to spin a globe, take a virtual tour through the destination of their choice, and then make bookings from their VR headset (which is connected wirelessly to a nifty pair of gloves).
And if typing or scrolling through destinations on a VR headset aren’t your thing, you can already use voice commands through Amazon’s Alexa pod to search and book your travel. Say the words, “Book me a hotel in London” and Kayak will do the search for you, while booking.com will get it all locked in once you’ve made a selection.
Next up, there’s artificial intelligence, which may sound like a thing of the future, but has actually been playing a huge role in any travel planning or booking you’ve been doing for a while now. Any time a hotel booking site gives you the options it thinks will appeal to you, or an airline website gives you its prices, AI is in use. Google Maps uses AI. Siri is AI. The only difference in the near future is that AI and AR – augmented reality – will have far more of a part to play in the travel experience.
For example, the more your various travel apps and other online booking tools get to know your travel preferences, the larger part they’ll be able to play in your future plans. The suggestions you already get from the likes of booking.com and Skyscanner are due to AI. They know what you like and where you’ll probably want to go next. That knowledge is only going to increase.
The AI of the future will help you find cheap flights, it will help you find the best seat on the plane, it will help you travel during the quietest periods, and it will even find the quietest train carriage for you to hop onto in real time. On websites such as Airbnb, meanwhile, AI will even analyse the language you use in the reviews you write to figure out what you like, and what to show you the next time you search (it’s actually already doing this).
You already can check in for flights, too, using AI. The website airlinecheckins.com, created by the Lufthansa Innovation Hub, allows passengers to register all of their details, their seat preferences, dietary requirements and frequent flyer numbers, and then the site will automatically check them in for all of their flights (with any airline), as soon as it opens.
On the AR front, language translation apps are constantly improving – already you can hold your phone up to a sign written in, say, Japanese, and Google will magically turn those foreign symbols into English words. There are other apps right now working on real-time voice translation, which is likely to land pretty soon.
There are also, already, AR guides to museums and galleries, which allow travellers to, say, hold their phone up to a dinosaur skeleton and see what the animal would look like in the flesh. Other apps will also give you information on any building or landmark just by pointing your smartphone at it.
Let’s see your tatty old hard copy map do that.
Which tech innovations have you found most useful for travel? How has travel changed for you in the last 10 years? Are you planning to utilise developments like VR and AI?