We've all heard of tech-savvy travel tools that help us save money, seamlessly plan our trips and share our unique experiences across the globe. But the latest tech innovations go well beyond ride-sharing services and selfie sticks (hat tip: drones). This year's game-changers include video-streaming apps that are reinventing how we source travel inspiration, tracking tools that make commuting from point A to B effortless and pain-free and forward-thinking hotels staffed by robots. To get the inside scoop on the gear, gadgets and gizmos making travel easier in 2016, we caught up with industry experts to pinpoint the top tech trends to expect – and ways to get the most out of our digital devices in 2016.
For some globe-trotters, the easiest way to ensure smooth travel starts with selecting a durable carry-on. But an often-overlooked yet important factor to consider is how easily your luggage can be tracked. "I'm keeping my eye on smart suitcases," says Jen Leo, who writes the nationally syndicated Web Buzz column for the Los Angeles Times. She points to NUA Robotics' new smart suitcase model as a high-tech carry-on to watch this year. The suitcase "has the ability to follow you around and avoid obstacles via a combination of Bluetooth technology and proximity sensors," she explains. The bag also features an alarm system and batteries to reboot your electronic devices. "It'll be great when suitcases that weigh themselves, have tracking devices, act as charging stations and have biometric locking devices are the norm," she adds. The bag is still being developed, but NUA Robotics expects to introduce it to the market in about a year.
There are plenty of other smart bags to choose from, including a stylish model from Bluesmart ($399) featuring inventive features such as a digital lock, a digital scale and Bluetooth and GPS tracking systems that can be connected with smartphones. Beyond these features, if the bag goes missing, Bluesmart's alliance with Uber allows it to get back to you with "minimal fuss and muss. It's basically the bag James Bond would be proud to own," says Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com.
Rely on Google as Your Guide
With a cachet of easy-to-use navigation tools, Google has reshaped how we travel, placing a wealth of tech-forward apps at our fingertips. Among the many apps tested by Googling globe-trotters are Google Now and the Popular Times tools. After downloading the Google Now app, you can easily log in to your Google account and slide the card at the bottom of the screen to access need-to-know details about your current location for greater context of local sports teams, weather and notable landmarks, restaurants and other points of interest. Meanwhile, the Popular Times tool, as its name suggests, allows crowd-averse travelers to avoid peak visiting days and hours based on collected historical data by simply navigating to the Popular Times tool in the drop-down menu after punching in the point of interest in a quick Google search.
But the key Google companion to keep on your radar, according to Gary Arndt, the creator behind the popular Everything Everywhere travel blog, is Project Fi, a new platform that offers international data roaming on 3G devices without imposing extra fees for unused data. For a $20 monthly fee, you can stay connected in areas that offer Wi-Fi capability and talk or text in more than 120 countries. In the future, on the international level, this could replace the local SIM card, he says. Another top tool: Google Maps. With the chance to view local maps without a Wi-Fi connection, the tool can serve as a go-to resource, steering you in the right direction so you're never lost again. The maps are not only helpful for walking directions, but also public transportation, says Arndt, although he cautions that it's a smart idea to double-check directions with Apple Maps in unfamiliar places.
Find New Angles to Elevate Your Photography
On your next trip, instead of snapping sharp photos on your smartphone, you may be focused on capturing sky-high photos with a drone. Drone photography is all the rage these days, and not only for jet-setting shutterbugs. "Be on the lookout for more drone technology intersecting with the travel space. Drone travel videos have been around for years now, but I expect their influence to become more mainstream," Leo says. "I was impressed when I saw Welk Resort San Diego offers a Game of Drones experience where guests can not only learn to fly drones but race them as well. I hope more hotels offer guest experiences that intersect with high-tech," she adds. For a little inspiration, head to the website Dronestagr.am for videos and photos of places throughout the globe captured by wanderers and travelers with drones.
Preview and Plan Your Trip With the Right Apps
You've probably turned to smart travel organization tools like TripIt, which make syncing upcoming flights, hotel reservations and other travel details a breeze. But nowadays, there are many more must-download vacation-planning tools to tap into. "Whether you're a millennial or wizened road warrior that wants your 2016 adventures to be experience-driven, Facet app is a must-download," Leo says. "It's a video-based travel inspiration app where you can preview a destination before you hit the road. Now is a perfect time to check it out before you make the year's vacation plans. You might be drawn to a place you hadn't considered before."
Once you've decided where you want to go, it's important to carry the right apps while you're in transit. Klee recommends downloading airport and airline apps to stay ahead of delays and disruptions and allow for wiggle room to pivot plans if necessary. "Real-time information on flight delays, gate reassignment, even wayfinding can be better communicated to consumers via smartphone," he says. "More than 95 percent of airports around the world have already developed or have an app in development – all with the intent of keeping passengers better informed when they need the information most urgently on their travel date." Plus, a variety of trusted apps are collaborating with partners to improve their user experience, such as TripIt, which recently linked up with LoungeBuddy to offer its users access to 2,500 airport lounges.
Beyond souped-up carry-ons and in-room hotel technology, headphones are getting a high-tech makeover, too. "You're going to see more digital headsets," Arndt says. And for traveling health nuts, there are a variety of state-of-the-art headphones to choose from, including the compact Bose SIE2i sport headphones, which can easily be stowed away in your suitcase, and the new Sony Bluetooth wireless headphones sets that offer high-quality audio.
After you've outfitted yourself with the right headset and other gear, Arndt suggests making sure you're prepped to stay connected with Hotelwifitest.com, which allows you to run speed tests at any hotel and view the hotel Wi-Fi connectivity at properties in popular destinations such as New York City, San Francisco and Paris.
Use High-Tech Hotel Innovations to Your Advantage
"Last year a Japanese hotel, the Henn-na Hotel, became the world's first robot hotel – a hotel staffed by humanoid robots," Leo says. And that's just the start. The YOTEL New York in Times Square already features a robot that helps with luggage, she adds. Beyond a focus on forward-thinking robotics, properties are targeting tech junkies with state-of-the-art touch-screen technology. Aloft Hotels' Financial District outpost, for instance, allows guests to order room service by emoji. "I won’t be surprised if I start to see less human interaction at hotels and more tech help, whether that's self-help kiosks or facial recognition services," Leo says.
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