Have tech, will travel: Why the phone is now essential when travelling

THE stallholder couldn’t understand a word I was saying.

Have tech, will travel: Why the phone is now essential when travelling

I’d been browsing around the Bretxa Market in San Sebastian, trying to buy some of the Basque country’s wonderful cured meats to take home. But my Spanish — awful, at best — was falling flat on its face.

Specifically, I wanted to know whether the meats would keep on the plane. After several minutes of pointing, gesticulating and repeating ‘frío’ (cold) in various accents, I had a mini ‘Eureka’ moment. I whipped out my iPhone, called up Google Translate, typed in what I wanted to say, and showed the Spanish translation to the lady.

“Aha!” she exclaimed. “No te preocupes, estará bien!”

I translated that too: ‘Don’t worry, it will be fine!’ My souvenir would not stink up the plane... and a few days later, I had the pasta bake to prove it.

Ten years ago, what would I have done in the same situation? Muddled througha phrase book, perhaps? Taken a chance on the chorizo? Walked away?

Back then, my mantra leaving home was always ‘passport, tickets, wallet’. Today, it’s ‘passport, wallet, phone’. I still travel for the same reasons — to experience different cultures, to feel that excellent rush of adrenaline — but the technology is radically different.

In less than a decade, bulky guidebooks have been replaced by apps. Getting lost has been replaced by Google Maps. Postcards have been swapped for status updates. Airline tickets have been replaced by QR Codes and digital boarding passes.

The way we buy holidays has changed, too. When Aer Lingus launched its online reservations system in 2001, most of its tickets were sold through travel agents. Since then, online growth has been relentless, with hotels and airlines seizing the opportunity to sell direct to consumers, and consumers delighting in the freedom to research, plan and book their trips online.

Today, you can book a flight, restaurant or room with a few clicks on your phone. And that has made us more spontaneous, says David Slocombe, Head of Mobile at lastminute.com — up to 84% of whose hotel bookings are for the same night.

That behaviour, in turn, has fed back into mobile site design. “Our hotel landing page leads with GPS-driven hotel inventory with ‘check-in tonight’ availability,” Slowcombe says. “Smartphones are fuelling a culture of ‘Nowism’, which will only increase.”

Another businesswoman, Jill Holtz, co-founded mykidstime.ie in response to a frustrating lack of a central resource on children’s activities in Galway. The mother-of-two has since helped grow the site into a national resource, and released a smartphone app in partnership with DERI at NUI Galway, using geo-location technology for area-specific results.

“I remember printing off pages of information to tuck in with the passports before I went abroad,” Holtz says. “Now it’s all available on your smartphone. From my perspective, technology has enhanced our family holidays as we can look up information when we are there rather than having to have it in advance.”

Airlines have been at the forefront of technological change. Since Oct 1, 2009, Ryanair has not operated check-in desks, instead requiring passengers to check-in online, print their own boarding passes and pay €7 for the privilege.

Technology has jazzed-up the frills too. Korean Air’s new Airbus A380s, for example, come not only with cocktail bars and in-flight duty-free stores, but an entire upper deck devoted to first and business class seats. The airline even sources beef for its menus from a special farm on Jeju, the “Island of the Gods”... giving a whole new meaning to cattle class.

“IT systems drive everything these days,” says Kevin Cullinane of Cork Airport. He remembers a blackboard on the concourse in the old terminal in the 1960s, updated by airport police to reflect the estimated arrival times of inbound flights… in chalk.

Today, everything from check-in to the online booking of car parking, flight display screens, websites, hold baggage screening systems, security processes and the allocation of boarding gates and parking stands is handled by a new generation of IT systems.

Interestingly, although technology has changed the “back office” in terms of airport operations, he says, “it remains a people-orientated business where customer satisfaction with the travel experience through the airport is of paramount importance.”

That’s a salient point, because as everyone running a travel business knows, customers can share their experiences very quickly on Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor or Yelp. And those experiences can take the form of a glowing review, or pure poison.

As well as changing the way we talk about travel, social media and user-reviews have changed the way companies, and indeed countries, market themselves.

Tourism Ireland’s Facebook site is the second most popular in the world after Australia, for example — with fans grown from a couple of thousand at the beginning of 2010 to over 1.5m today. Given that each fan has an average of 200 friends, that puts the Irish tourism message within one click of over 300m people.

Did you know that a different Swede runs the @Sweden Twitter account every week? Or that Sligo has a social media campaign (#sligowhoknew) crowd-sourcing the best of their county into a content bank (whoknew.sligotourism.ie) with which to attract visitors?

What exactly is being shared? “Things like how to get to Maugherow without a map and rescue helicopter, what not to say at the grave of a Nobel Laureate and where we keep the secret stash of biscuits,” says Annie West, an illustrator and Sligo woman involved in the campaign. “The amusing and unique peculiarities of Sligo.”

Ten years ago, none of this could have happened. And its tantalising to think what the next 10 years could bring… teleportation, flying cars and tasty airplane food look as far away as ever, but Virgin Galactic’s forays into space tourism are a very real prospect indeed.

Of course, technology doesn’t always improve things (just ask Apple Maps). TripAdvisor has its flaws, knowledgeable travel agents can still save you a whack of money and time, and for all the technological advances in our 21st century airports and airplanes, pre-boarding and security procedures only seem to get longer and more annoying.

For all its benefits too, 24/7 connectivity has diluted one of the savvy traveller’s greatest resources: the ability to think for him or herself. Wi-Fi is great when it works. When it fails, basic communication and navigation challenges can reduce us to quivering wrecks.

So yes, Google Translate helped.

But I would have bought that chorizo anyway.

Goodbye, Hello

1) Goodbye: Maps. Hello: Sat Nav.

Gone are the hours spent arguing on motorways and street corners… in theory.

2) Goodbye: Postcards. Hello: Social Media.

We still send silly pictures and short messages on holiday. But texts, tweets and status updates have knocked the humble card and stamp for six.

3) Goodbye: Bum Bags. Hello: Bank Cards.

Ok, ‘fanny packs’ remain essential accessories on the tour bus circuit. But a simple bank or credit card wipes out the need for travellers’ cheques and costly visits to the Bureau de Change.

4) Goodbye: Film. Hello: Digital cameras

Remember worrying whether the X-Ray machine would zap your holiday snaps?

5) Goodbye: Phone cards. Hello: Smartphones.

Online booking, social media… the possibilities are endless. They make phone calls too.

6) Goodbye: Guidebooks. Hello: Apps.

A dog-eared Lonely Planet or Rough Guide once took pride of place on every self-respecting backpacker’s bookshelf. Today, it all fits on your phone.

7) Goodbye: Check-in. Hello: QR Codes.

“Using a QR code to self-check my luggage in Schiphol Airport has to be the most convenient and modern piece of technology I have used yet,” says Adriaan Bartels of the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore.

8) Goodbye: Beach books. Hello: Kindle.

One device, hundreds of books. Take a bow, Amazon.

9) Goodbye: Liquids. Hello: Body-scanners

After 9/11, airport security would never be the same.

10) Goodbye: Concorde. Hello: Space tourism.

Virgin Galactic recently moved into the final phase of vehicle testing prior to the start of its commercial services from Spaceport America. Full space flight is expected this year.

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