There's revolution in the air, and everywhere else in the travelsphere. We're flying aboard new and better aircraft with improved entertainment systems and inflight Wi-Fi – and if you're flying at the pointy end, you've never had it so good. Cruise ships are bigger and ever more packed with diversions, and now it's often the ship itself that is the experience rather than the destination. At the other end of the scale, small expeditionary vessels are opening new worlds. There are hotels with robots on the reception desk, hotel rooms that unlock with a smartphone, and these pocket wonders have been the great disruptors. Smartphones give us access to apps that have transformed the travel experience, a new dawn in a fast-changing world.
1. BIOMETRIC PASSPORTS
Also known as an ePassport or digital passport, a biometric passport contains a chip imprinted with the same information as on the passport's data page. It also contains information on physical characteristics that are unique to you, which might be fingerprints, retinal scans or a digital image. Most countries now issue biometric passports since they offer more stringent proof of identification than an image of the owner alone. These passports can be scanned at immigration terminals which streamlines processing, as demonstrated by the Smartgate technology used to scan the passports of outgoing passengers at Australia's international airports.
2. LUXURY EXPEDITIONARY CRUISING VESSELS
Expeditionary cruisers – those small and hardy ships that take us through the fiords of Patagonia, the Raja Ampat Islands of Indonesia and along the Amazon and other hard-to-get-to places – are taking on a silk touch. You can now have National Geographic-style encounters with wildlife and calving glaciers, dance with painted warriors then go below decks for a spa treatment followed by a drink in the cocktail lounge and dinner served by a bow-tied waiter. Silversea has several expeditionary cruisers but one cruise operator that has made this their specialty is French-based Ponant, which will launch four such vessels over the next two years with refinements that include a glass-walled lounge below the waterline.
3. HOME DINING
Websites such as Feastly, Travelling Spoon, Eat with Locals and Cookening take you to where the real gastro stars operate – the family home. These sites usher you into the kitchens and dining rooms where passionate home cooks are dishing it out to their families, sourcing their ingredients from local markets using locavore ingredients before the term was ever invented and cooking to recipes that might have been passed down through generations. For anyone looking for authenticity from their travels, eating family-style is a revelation, a cultural as well as a culinary immersion and a window on domestic life that tourists rarely get to see.
4. TRAVEL APPS FOR SMARTPHONES
They're handy for making calls and sending messages, but it's your smartphone's apps that have transformed the travel experience. Google Maps and other GPS mapping apps make it easy to find your way, whether you're behind the wheel in Bosnia or looking for an address in San Francisco. Google Translate comes to your aid when the menu is all in Greek, you can check the exchange rate, change your flight, book a hotel room, get a weather update and if you have a home security camera that uses Wi-Fi, see what the family dog is up to, all while sitting in a cafe eating grilled figs with mascarpone.
5. RFID BAGGAGE TAGGING
Radio Frequency Identification is coming to baggage tracking, replacing barcode scanning which has been the industry standard since the early 1990s, and it promises a revolution. RFID chips embedded in bag tags can be used to accurately track passengers' bags in real time across all the key points in their journey. This should drastically reduce the incidence of mishandled bags with the ability to locate bags in an instant. Delta Airlines adopted RFID baggage tags last year and from mid-2018, the International Air Transport Association is making it compulsory for member airlines to track every item of luggage from receipt to delivery, and RFID is the obvious choice.
6. TECHNICAL TRAVEL CLOTHING
Adventure-travel clothing manufacturers are incorporating concepts derived from clothing developed for the great outdoors into their range of travel clothing. The result is sleek and stylish body-hugging garments that not only work hard to keep you warm and dry, but also look and feel great. The range from Canada's Arc'teryx comes with a high design quotient, which means you'll look exceedingly sharp for the photo whether you're riding a trishaw on the streets of Hanoi or summiting Chukhung Ri. Kathmandu's Yatra jacket is the traveller's cool climate friend, offering snug, wind and weather-proof performance in a fashion-conscious package.
7. NEW GENERATION AIRCRAFT
Exemplified by Boeing's 787 Dreamliner and Airbus's A350 XWB, these twin-aisle aircraft are constructed extensively from carbon fibre reinforced polymer. CFRP doesn't corrode or suffer from fatigue to the same extent as a traditional aluminium fuselage and that allows the cabin to tolerate higher pressure. In effect, passengers are subject to pressure equivalent to around 2000 metres, about 600 metres lower than in a traditional aluminium fuselage, which means more oxygen in the lungs, more moisture in the air and a more comfortable flight. Other refinements in both aircraft include LED cabin lighting systems which are gentler to the eyes, larger windows and quieter engines, and therefore quieter cabins.
8. FLASHPACKER HOTELS
Flashpackers make do without the frills, such as air-conditioned rooms, minibars and fluffy white towels, and a subset of the hotel industry has sprung up to cater to them. Flashpackers tend to be older than backpackers, they travel independently and often in local style but with a few more creature comforts. While they won't spring for a room with a spa tub and Egyptian cotton sheets, they want an en suite bathroom, and definitely not a bed in a dorm. Most flashpackers started off as backpackers, and the taste for grassroots travel is a way of experiencing the world warts and all rather than through the tinted windows of a tour bus.
This has been a game changer for the way we travel, the essential underpinning for our apps, an umbilical cord to the world at large. In terms of availability, Wi-Fi has exploded. You have to get way off the beaten track these days to be out of reach of Wi-Fi. Over the past few years I've logged in using Wi-Fi from ships sailing along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, from a leopard camp in India and from 10 kilometres in the air. Available in many cafes and most hotels and guesthouses, life on the road without Wi-Fi is almost inconceivable.
Back in 2007 the biggest cruise ship was the Freedom of the Seas, at 154,000 tonnes. Today the biggest is the Harmony of the Seas, half as big again. With each new iteration cruise operators raise the bar with yet more wizardry. Harmony of the Seas features a surf simulator, a zipline, climbing wall, seven themed "neighbourhoods", a 10-storey slide, robot bartenders, a "Central Park" with 12,000 plants and trees, an ice show, Broadway shows, bars and lounges and enough restaurants that you'd need almost three weeks to sample a different one each night. Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas, an even bigger vessel, will hit the waves in 2018.
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