Find cheap flights, live like a local and optimize the fun with travel tech that improves your adventure from the moment you start planning to when you return.
Tourists are taking to the roads, air and rails like never before.
According to the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index 2015, London sees the most tourists (18.82 million expected this year), nosing out Bangkok’s expected 18.24 million. Paris, Dubai, and Istanbul round out the top five with New York, Singapore, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong completing the top 10.
Meanwhile, Colombo, Sri Lanka, Chengdu (China) and Abu Dhabi top the list of fastest growing destination cities.
One reason for the surge in travel is that technology has made it easier, more affordable and, quite possibly, more immersive and fun.
“So much has happened,” says Grant Martin, business editor of Skift, which reports on trends in the travel industry. “A lot of it is thanks not only to the Internet, but enhanced connectivity. When you take the Internet, 3g or 4g networks, and combine them with a mobile computer in your pocket, that’s really revolutionized the way we travel.”
With a smartphone, travelers can request an uber from the airport, check Google Maps for the transit route to their temporary home, order food through Feastly or at the latest pop-up on Instagram, translating the menu by pointing a camera phone at it.
And that’s just the beginning.
“Having the ability to go online very quickly in your pocket changes everything about how you travel, how you plan, how you get there,” said Dave Dean, founder of Too Many Adapters, a technology site for travelers.
Here’s how the latest tech enhances travel experiences:
Find that Fare
Finding affordable airfare is easier than ever with the introduction of Google Flights.
When Google first bought ITA Matrix, the software allowed travelers to do very intensive searches to find cheap tickets, Martin says. “Now that it’s integrated into their flight engine, it’s become a real go-to product for a lot of budget travelers.”
With ITA as the backbone, Flights allows for multiple searches to multiple destinations in parallel. Instead of searching routes one by one, travelers now can zoom out on a map for a visual and quickly see that airfare to, say Kuala Lumpur, is half the cost of a ticket to Bangkok.
Take Control of the Trip
After booking, juggling all the details of a trip is now as simple as letting an app like TripIt take over. Simply connect the app to an email account or forward email confirmations. From there, the app manages a trip itinerary.
“You have all your details when you need them. It tells you your flight, what time it is, what terminal, your hotel address,” Dean said.
TripIt even automatically notifies the traveler when she needs to leave for the airport, Martin added. “It knows when your flight is supposed to leave. If you’re downtown, it knows how long public transit will take.”
When he arrives at the airport, Dean counts on LoungeBuddy to let him know if he has access to a lounge and where it is. For fliers who rack up miles, but not on one particular airline, the best bet for an airport oasis is to buy a day pass that’s available for purchase within the app.
Navigate the Neighborhood
On the ground at their destination, travelers can turn once again to their devices.
“I’m much less prepared than I used to be in terms of knowing ahead of time how I’m going to do something, because I know I can get that information on demand,” said Dean. I can find out how to get to my hotel when I’m standing in the arrivals hall.”
Grant often relies on downloaded Google maps so he doesn’t require connectivity. “With latest build, you can download maps that are super-detailed even up to street level,” he said. Travelers can also build their own maps, customizing them with points of interest.
Finding a place to stay is also a breeze thanks to the growing traction of sharing.
The giant, of course, is Airbnb, with more than 40,000 listings in Paris alone, a city where it’s notoriously difficult to find affordable lodging. Travelers can use the website or app to tap into home-sharing options in more than 190 countries.
Renting a room or entire home is often more budget-friendly than traditional lodging in hotels, but for many travelers, the sense of living like a local is just as important. And the site is capitalizing on that allure now as well, by offering unique experiences led by, well, locals.
And the latest apps are alerting travelers to cool sights and activities in more effective ways.
Pulling from sources like Zagat and Thrillist, and tailored to your interests, Google’s Field Trip app gives users a heads up if there’s something nearby they might want to check out. GogoBot aims to inspire with its community reviewed listings for everything from museums to mountain ranges at destinations across the globe.
Catch a Ride
Travelers who take to the road are finding apps to boost their experience behind the wheel — or in the passenger seat.
Those driving never have to gamble on finding a coffee shop with WiFi at the next exit with iExit, an app that lets you know what’s up ahead. And forget overpaying for gas; GasBuddy relies on crowdsourcing to report real-time fuel prices (and even answers that all-important question: Is there a restroom?).
When it comes to ride sharing, Uber leads the way, connecting drivers in 60 countries with people who need to get somewhere.
The Trip of the Future
While these apps have vastly improved travel, Martin sees wearable devices and mobile payments becoming a well-integrated part of the experience.
“We’ve crossed this chasm of ‘it’s not going to be adopted,'” he said, citing Apple Watch as an example. “What will help is people using technology that emulates what already exists; people are not afraid of watches.”
Tools like this that can buzz to alert the wearer to turn left or right allow us to peel our eyes away from our phone and take in our surroundings — which is why we travel to begin with.
Even further out, Dean foresees a time when virtual reality means we might not have to physically travel.
“The more immersive it gets, the less distinguishable from actual travel it gets,” he said. “If you’ve wanted to go to the Colosseum in Rome, and you can put on a bodysuit and can’t tell the difference, do you need to spend $5,000 dollars to get there?”
For people who can’t afford or are unable to travel due to health or other reasons, this opens a whole new world.
Until that day, though, travel means going somewhere. And for anyone who wants to maximize the experience, that probably means going with an app-loaded phone.