If you’ve travelled for more than a few years, you’ve seen a lot of changes in the ways we get ourselves around the world. Online booking, digital passport readers, texting and Skyping with the folks back home – none of this was dreamed of when I started travelling.
But look out, there are more changes ahead – a lot more – according to a report by the people at Skyscanner travel site. They’ve done a comprehensive look at where the travel industry is headed, and how the travel experience is going to change in the next 9 or 10 years. It paints a picture of a whole new world.
Their report, The future of travel 2024, predicts an era where technology has removed most of the line-ups, red tape and discomfort that can make travel a challenge. Aided by an army of high-tech helpers – many of them already in use or on the way – the traveller of 2024 will have a smoother, more seamless journey from the booking process all the way to the cab ride home.
That’s if you believe the futurists, of course — and they’ve been wrong before. But then, who would have believed we’d all be carrying tiny computer-phones that can show us the nearest hospital and bring up our favourite website anywhere in the world?
Here’s a look at the world of travel in 2024, as Skyscanner sees it.
Booking your trip
These days, most of us book our trips on the web, searching travel sites and comparing the deals. In 2024, says the Skyscanner report, we’ll do it all with our personal “digital buddy”.
That’s an Artificial Intelligence device, contained in a watch or a piece of jewellery, that’s constantly connected to the internet and loaded with our personal preferences. It could even have a human form, and appear as a hologram.
(If that sounds a bit creepy, get ready: this type of technology is already on the way. Companies like Samsung and Microsoft are working on digital assistants that can anticipate our needs and even monitor our heart rates. And Facebook builds profiles on its users that are scarily comprehensive.)
Our digital buddy will be able to research trips and destinations based on our specific tastes, then show us the possible choices in virtual reality demos, complete with sound and even touch sensations, that make us feel like we’re actually there. Then, with our feedback, it will hunt down the best deals for our flight, hotel and activities, and even communicate micro-details like the sheets on our bed.
Once the choices are made, it will put together a tailored package and book the trip. No searching through websites, and no wondering what it will be like when we get there – we’ve already seen it.
The automated airport
A trip to the airport can be as much fun as a root canal these days, but that’s all about to end, the report says. Start with the taxi ride to the airport, in a Google cab equipped with a voice- and gesture-controlled 3D video screen that lets you chat with your family and friends on the way to your flight.
Once at the airport, forget about the endless lines and bureaucracy. You can drop your bag at one of the digital check-in points and do your own check-in procedure using your digital buddy. No need to line up and show your ticket: in fact, with all these processes now automated, there may not be anyone to show it to.
Again, this is no wild fantasy: British Airways and Microsoft are working on smartphone-activated digital bag tags that will take the place of paper tags, tickets and boarding cards, and Nippon Airways is letting people check in on tablets, with no paper involved.
Skyscanner also sees airports being transformed into happier places, with waterfalls, open air spaces and interactive video walls creating a soothing environment while you wait for your flight.
And when you pass through security, a scan of the biometric data card that has replaced your passport will quickly confirm that you’re a low-risk passenger. There’ll be no walk through the X-ray machine, and you can keep your shoes on.
Once on the plane, your seat will actually be comfortable, thanks to memory foam that conforms to your body shape. You’ll have individual climate control and an entertainment system that allows you to hold 3D conversations with the folks back home. And a smart lighting system will help prevent that nasty jet lag.
The virtual hotel room
Once you get to your hotel, don’t expect a warm welcome from the hotelier: The travel experts envision a world where you won’t need to see a human being from the time you check in, using your digital buddy, to the moment it orders the cab to take you away.
Your room will already be programmed to suit your preferences — all gleaned from your social media sites — and you’ll be provided with menus of activities, restaurants and performances tuned to your tastes. (In fact, some hotels are already supplying guests with tablets preprogrammed with preferences and choices.)
There’ll still be a bed, but now your pillow will have embedded electronics that provide head and neck massages to help you nod off, and morning wake-up calls to help you get up.
New Scientist magazine predicts your room will also have a huge, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) wafer-style TV screen, or even a digital wall that turns it into a virtual reality chamber. As well, the shower will spout water infused with vitamin C – or it may use sound waves to agitate the dirt off you, and coloured lights to show how clean you are.
The bathroom mirror will let you call up your entertainment or documents from the cloud. And in a few more years, Skyscanner promises, you’ll be able to print out a new razor or some extra soap on the 3D printer in your room.
Most of these advances involve pushing back the boundaries of technology. But the future of travel itself is about pushing back boundaries too, says the report. It predicts travellers will pay good money to go to the most remote parts of the earth, in part to see threatened species before mankind and climate change drive them to extinction.
If that seems like a grim kind of vanity travel – a kind of “ego-tourism”, as the report calls it — it is. However, some environmentalists believe it could be the last, best hope for some of these species: the money from well-heeled tourists can pay for the protection they need, and the reports of their visits provides publicity that helps the cause.
On a lighter note, Skyscanner predicts that peer-to-peer travel – services like Airbnb, for example – will become a bigger and bigger part of the industry, with as many as 5 to 10 percent of us opening our homes to strangers. “Supper clubs” where foodies welcome diners into their homes are a recent addition to the trend.
But if we’re talking about pushing back the boundaries, how about leaving the earth behind to vacation somewhere else? Places like Jules’ Undersea Lodge in the Florida Keys and the Atlantis Hotel at The Palm in Dubai already give visitors the unique experience of spending the night in an underwater room, with fish swimming by.
The real final frontier, however, is space – remember Star Trek? And the report says that’s the next place travel will aim to conquer. The Russian space agency has already sold seats on its missions to rich passengers, and by next year a company called World View Enterprises will take adventurers almost 20 miles up, in a cabin carried by a helium balloon, so they can see the curvature of the earth. The price: $75,000.
Other companies are racing to launch low earth-orbit travel routes, and one or two are even musing about establishing a colony on Mars. (Sounds interesting, but I wonder if you’ll be able to get Wi-fi …)
On a more realistic note, the push into earth orbit could pay dividends for more ordinary travellers: Virgin Galactic has a ship that can orbit the earth in two and a half hours, and it’s aiming for commercial flights in the future. What would you pay to travel to the other side of the world in a couple of hours?
The world of future travel all seems pretty impressive, and if it does away with the security lines and hours of boredom in ugly airport lounges, I might be its biggest booster. There’s a lot to be said for personalized service, too, and who wouldn’t want a virtual reality wall in their hotel room?
Still, I’m as uncomfortable as many of you with the prospect of a travel experience devoid of human beings. Sure, hotel clerks and airline reps can be grouchy at times, but we travel to see things and meet people, not to exist in a technological bubble.
And as for a digital buddy that knows all your secrets — is that really a good idea? Isn’t it a prime target for hackers and identity thieves? As it is, I know many people who resent Facebook’s constant probing for their personal information. Hopefully they’ll invent security systems just as advanced as these personal assistants, but no system is perfect.
The saving grace may be that while we may book our trips using the new technology, we likely won’t have to spend our trip with it. These high-tech toys won’t be appearing in budget hotels and B&Bs, and you won’t be spending much time in Mexico or India without running into people, and lots of them.
Still, the world changes, and it’s fun to dream about these amazing gadgets even if we never get to use them. And if those two-and-a-half-hour world flights take off, I may just jet off to Tahiti for the weekend. I wonder how many Space Miles that will take?