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Travel apps: The world at your fingertips

Organising a trip in advance may soon become a thing of the past, thanks to a new breed of travel apps that let you plan your travel on the move

Travel apps: The world at your fingertips
Image: Getty

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Plan ahead. Book three months in advance. Build an itinerary to see the city in 36 hours — or, heck, 24; scope out today’s sightseeing, or consult the map or app to plan a route across town… The staple advice of travel articles, guides and countless websites boils down to three things: plan, plan, and plan some more.

Yet recent developments in consumer technology offer an alternative: you could ditch the planning altogether. And the key to this travel spontaneity is the transponder you’re carrying in your pocket or bag right now — otherwise known as your mobile phone.

Last-minute hotel booking is enjoying a surge in popularity. App HotelTonight enables you to book a room at the last second in over 150 cities around the world, from Acapulco and Amsterdam to Vienna and Washington, DC.

“Our users are people who woke up not expecting to stay in a hotel tonight,” explains Jared Simon, HotelTonight’s co-founder and COO.

It’s a simple proposition and booking could hardly be easier. The app works out where you are and, from midday each day, offers double rooms in three or four local hotels at significant discounts for a stay of up to five nights. A couple of taps on the screen, a quick swipe, and you’re booked. The service is only available on mobile phones.

“Our users split three ways, about a third, a third, a third,” says Jared. Those three types of users, he explains, typically include business travellers needing an unplanned overnight stay, as well as local leisure travellers, in the city for a show or dinner. A third group includes people booking adventurously, on the move, looking for the instant gratification of a cool room at a bargain price.

The secret sauce in HotelTonight’s success is to offer zero accommodation options (double rooms only) yet a wide range of hotels and offers. Heather Leisman, HotelTonight’s managing director, Europe, says: “We believe we’re part of a larger societal trend towards last-minute, on-demand consumption that we’ve seen across the board. Information, transport, food, appointments — consumers expect everything to be at their fingertips as never before.”

HotelTonight isn’t the only player in this sector. Priceline-owned hotel reservation service Booking.com sells last-minute rooms through its Tonight app, and in September, group-buying website Groupon acquired last-minute hotel discounter Blink Booking.

Beyond accommodation

For true spontaneity, you need to be able to pay on the move, even if you don’t have a penny in your pocket. Enter the so-called ‘digital wallet’ — essentially, a place on your mobile to store and use various secure payment services. According to Visa — which launched its own digital wallet, V.me, in late 2013 — by 2020 half of all payments will be made from a mobile.

Targeted at the bargain hunter on the move, Weve is set to launch in 2014. A joint venture between UK mobile networks EE, O2 and Vodafone, the mobile commerce platform will bring together digital payments with coupons and location-specific marketing, all accessible via a single app. Ginni Arnold, head of communications at Weve, explains: “The vision is of a future where a consumer can be sent an offer over the air or be messaged in a location — for example, a free muffin with their morning coffee. They can pop it into their wallet, walk into the coffee shop and with a single tap can, firstly, redeem the coupon; secondly, pay for the coffee; and thirdly receive their loyalty points for the purchase, updated to their account.”

From the second half of 2014, travellers whose phones are equipped with near field communication (NFC) chips will be able to pay with Weve wherever contactless credit cards are accepted. The contactless network is already global and the rate of adoption is growing fast: for example, as of mid-2013, there were more than 1.2 million merchants in 56 countries using the MasterCard Paypass contactless system.

So, you’ve found a hotel, booked and paid — but you still have to get there. The physical act of travel still needs to be planned. Leaving flight booking until late could be an expensive strategy, even though booking sites like Drungli specialise in last-minute flights. According to travel meta-search service Momondo, the cheapest airfare is available, on average, 59 days before departure. For long-haul tickets, it’s around 74 days, says Stuart Lodge of Roundtheworldflights.com.

Rail time

Like flying, train travel usually rewards those who buy tickets in advance. But changes in booking technology may soon make it easier to board a train on a whim and still bag the best price. The way we buy a train ticket hasn’t changed much for a century — join a queue, hand over money, present a ticket at the gate, then board. However, electronic ticketing is coming, which means no more queuing. Juniper Research forecasts that almost a billion worldwide mobile phone users will be using mobile ticketing by 2018.

And the impact of cutting those queues? More last-minute travel — as experience with Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) shows. Ticketing in Boston went fully mobile in November 2012, and “most tickets are now activated within one second of purchase,” according to Ben Whitaker, CEO of Masabi, the company responsible for the system’s mTicketing upgrade. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is set to launch mobile ticketing on its commuter rail lines during 2014.

Mobile ticketing also benefits the companies that run rail networks. Unlike with analogue ticketing systems, rail app developers can analyse mobile phone data generated by customer activity, including tracking purchase behaviour and system load levels. This data could be used to steer travellers away from busy services and towards quieter ones, by offering differentiated prices (also knowing as granular pricing), thereby easing peak-time network congestion.

“Granular pricing would have a greater impact on the happiness of the average commuter than pretty much any other rail improvement,” according to Ben.

Future networks may be run on a ‘Be-in Be-out’, or BiBo, system. Users will sign up to a transport system and… that’s it. Every time you travel, your presence is detected via wi-fi, Bluetooth, picocells, or some other short-range technology, and you’re billed accordingly.

Pair BiBo ticketing with an app that tells users when to travel more cheaply, and budget-conscious, spontaneous travel becomes simple, wherever you are in the world. The first BiBo systems are likely to appear “within the next two or three years,” according to Matthias Stahel, at transport technology company Trapeze.

Across the board, apps that take the hassle out of planning a trip are getting smarter. Citymapper is an automated transport routing app that launched in early 2012. Users type in a destination and the app senses the start point and does the rest, comparing journey times and prices for every conceivable method of transport. It currently operates in London and New York, but plans to spread “everywhere data is available,” says Azmat Yusuf, Citymapper’s founder. In theory, this kind of app could operate in any city with open transport data, whatever its size, and would signal the end of traditional timetables.

Google Now — the ‘life management’ software built into every Android smartphone — also incorporates travel planning (and is available to iPhone users via the Google app). The software tracks location and learns your routine. Every morning, it produces weather and traffic reports, relevant flight news, public transport departures, and more, on a series of automatic pop-up cards. A little scary, perhaps, but also useful. With increasing contextual awareness — for example, of your location, the weather, your preference for certain foods or experiences — mobile phone apps are only going to get better at this. At times, they’ll probably know what you want before you do.

So, the logistics of travel will increasingly be handled by apps that help us to be spontaneous. But travel isn’t simply mechanical. What about the experiences that motivate us to travel in the first place?

In the field

YPlan, ‘tonight’s going out app’, is all about experiences. Every day, the app offers a range of last-minute discounts on tickets to shows, comedy and music gigs, one-off events, and more. “We offer everything and anything — we curate the best 10 to 15 events each day, which can be anything from a chess boxing match to an intimate comedy show. A lot of our events come with an extra nudges, like giving access to a sold-out event or fast-track entry into the venue,” says Rachael Pettit, marketing director at YPlan. “YPlan is all about spontaneity, and in our experience people are prepared to book all sorts of experiences at the last minute.” For now, the app operates in London and New York only.

Of course, we can’t YPlan a whole trip. But can we enjoy the sights, find a great place to eat, learn something new — all without planning ahead of arrival? What happens if we turn up for a weekend’s sightseeing without having done a scrap of research?

I attempt to answer this question over a few days in Rome. Social check-in service Foursquare is one option, and has a clever algorithm that tailors local eating, sightseeing and partying recommendations based on previous check-ins and likes. I hit the Explore button, hoping for killer insight. It suggests the Colosseum. I have a voracious appetite for information when I travel, and over the course of a day I sense that Foursquare is telling me only what I could easily work out for myself. But it finds me a good lunch and one of Rome’s best coffee stops, Sant’Eustachio. Foursquare also rewards my spontaneity: 20% off a Segway tour here, two-for-one cocktails if I check-in there. I get accurate map directions with one press, from inside the app, with zero planning. It’s ingenious. But is the app helping me to have an enriching trip? I’m not so sure. I feel like I am missing more than I would’ve seen with some proper pre-planning.

Then there’s Google. Its Field Trip app is built for spontaneous tourism; tracking my location and vibrating whenever I’m near something interesting. Tap the screen and it brings up geotagged information from any one of over 100 online sources. It’s slick and, significantly, Field Trip is the first travel app to get adapted for Google Glass, the company’s venture into web-connected eyewear. Google Maps has also had a face-lift, now focusing on museums, restaurants, and sights as well as mapping and directions.

But there’s bad news, too. I set out around 9.30am with a fully charged iPhone. My battery gave up at 4.35pm, plus I used 80 megabytes of data in under 24 hours. Until phone battery life improves, and roaming charges disappear, relying on a mobile phone for spontaneous travel inspiration probably isn’t going to work.

The good news is it’s not far away, so you better start planning for it now.

The anti-planning apps

HotelTonight launched back in 2011 with offers on hotel rooms in just three US cities. By September 2013, after the company raised a further $45m (£28.3m) in investment, the app had been downloaded 6.5 million times. By the end of 2013, the service had reached 18 countries in the Americas and Europe, with London being HotelTonight’s most-booked European city. Android, iPhone. Free. hoteltonight.com

This mobile service lists last-minute event tickets and special offers for an evening out in London or New York City, and you can buy them using the app. More than 4,000 events have been sold since the app launched in late 2012. The developers have raised around $13m (£8.2m) in investment so far. According to YPlan, the app is installed on 15% of London’s iPhones; an Android version launches in late 2013. iPhone. Free. yplanapp.com

This ‘multimodal travel’ app is the ultimate route mapper for bus, trains, Tube, subway, and cycling in London and New York City. For those evenings when you’re perhaps too worn out from the day’s stresses and strains to type in your destination, hit Get Me Home and the app does everything else bar physically moving you. It’s also available online at citymapper.com/superrouter. Android, iPhone. Free. citymapper.com


Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)