Trouble ahead? A new `concierge' service will let you know, writes Jane E. Fraser.
Celebrities and politicians get to travel with advisers on hand, so why not the rest of us? This year, some 300,000 travellers are expected to use an SMS-based "concierge" service launched by Australian company Loop9.
The Travel Messenger service, unveiled last year, alerts travellers to everything from political demonstrations to changes in flight details via text message to your mobile.
The service can be used to translate essential phrases, receive weather reports, find out about festivals and events - or for footy score updates.
It was in its early days when the Thailand airport dramas and Mumbai terrorist attacks unfolded late last year but the company says it was able to provide information to "hundreds" of Australian subscribers.
The message service is available through travel agents - Harvey World Travel, Travelscene and American Express, with a roll-out to Flight Centre brands under way.
Prices vary from agency to agency but it costs about $20 for up to eight days or $35 for a month to receive relevant travel updates.
The subscription includes a set number of free transactions - 20 for the $20 subscription - allowing you to request information such as foreign language phrases, currency exchange rates or hotel details (translated to any given language for the benefit of a cab driver).
The texts you send cost the standard rate charged by your mobile phone provider, so you need to make sure you are on a suitable plan to avoid a big bill when you return home.
The chief executive of Loop9, Mark McCormack, says you can update your destination information if you alter your journey or take a side trip and you can stop the messages coming for a day or more if you choose to do so.
The information sent to subscribers comes from a round-the-clock operations centre, with staff drawing information from sources including news channels and the internet.
"We don't just use DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] because we find they're a bit politically filtered and we find there's a bit of a time delay between when something happens and when they issue their warning," McCormack says.
Once the operations centre has information, such as confirmation of an outbreak of violence in a city, all subscribers in that vicinity receive a text message. "We're very factual, we just say what has happened," McCormack says. "And we don't overload people with stuff, just sending the important things."
McCormack says the service really comes into its own when it's the middle of the night in Australia. If a flight time changes at 2am Australian time, it will be hours before travel agents are back at their desks and able to notify affected passengers.
Subscribers to Travel Messenger receive the alert immediately because the service is integrated with airline systems.
Loop9 is continuing to add features and functions to allow travellers to further customise the information they receive and to integrate with social networking sites such as facebook.com.
Travel Messenger is sold only through travel agents, begging the question of its long-term viability, but McCormack says 80 per cent of international trips from Australia are still booked through travel agents.
Demand for the product is growing rapidly and it is being exported to India and the US.
PASS IT ON
· Travel Messenger could soon be used to help travellers register their journeys with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
· All overseas travellers are advised to register their travel plans with DFAT to make it easier to find them in the event of an overseas incident or family emergency. Travellers can now do so by going to the website smarttraveller.gov.au but Mark McCormack says Travel Messenger would make the process even easier, with travellers being given the chance to simply "opt in" via mobile phone.
· After booking an overseas journey, the traveller would receive an SMS asking if they want the journey registered with DFAT. If the response is yes, the information would be sent directly from the passenger's travel agent to the department.
· Mark McCormack says he is offering the service for a nominal cost and talks with DFAT are continuing.