Destination: The Future – how tech is changing travel

Imagine a plane arcing into space to slice the flight time to Melbourne to two hours; a week-long cruise on a super-sized drone; or a stay at an inflatable hotel on Mars. They may sound like elements lifted from an Isaac Asimov science-fiction story, but companies are already taking steps towards such futuristic travel. However, that’s for the long-term itinerary – most of us would settle for innovations such as stress-free check-in and greater legroom.

It’s easy to forget that travel has already seen vast improvement as a result of tech, with smartphones and sharing platforms such as Airbnb at the fore – but predicting the future is as tough as ever. “Ultimately, when it comes to travel, technology needs to do two things in order to reach critical mass with travellers: enhance the travel experience and make it easier,” says Expedia’s senior director of marketing, Andrew Cocker.

We’ve spoken to futurists, industry experts and professional adventurers to indulge in a little time travel of our own, to find out what’s to come – and how long you’ll have to wait for that trip into space.

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Book it with a bot

Let’s start at the beginning: booking your trip. Twenty years ago, the annual holiday was accomplished via a human travel agent. Now, eight out of ten travellers book their own flights online, according to a Bravofly survey.

These trends will continue. A Skyscanner report predicted that within the decade we’ll be making use of a “digital travel buddy”, which will find us the best deals and flight times for our travels.

This idea is already in the works with AI helpers such as Facebook’s M, a part-human, part-bot assistant that can book flights. Rather than search for a flight, travellers can tell Facebook M where they’d like to go and when. They can even pay directly through Facebook Messenger, potentially making searching for travel options and booking them a near-instant process. However, such tools remain in beta, meaning you’ll have to stick to old-fashioned Google searches for your next few trips.

Up in the air

Boarding passes are already sent to your mobile; border controls use facial recognition to speed up checks; and hotels such as the Hilton chain can send digital keys to your phone to avoid check-in queues – but travel is set to become even more streamlined.  

In the future, Skyscanner predicts that your aforementioned smart assistant will automatically order an Uber to take you to the airport, where you’ll leave your bags at an automated drop point without having to queue. Your smartphone will be recognised on entering the airport, and you’ll be informed of your gate number as soon as you walk in through the doors.

Uber $50 billion valuation - uber delivery network

Although the faff of security won’t be removed entirely, the process will be shorter thanks to the use of biometrics and improved search technologies such as laser molecular scanners. Dozens of airports are currently trialling Cambridge’s Cobalt Light Systems tech, which could remove the need to limit liquids to 100ml containers in carry-on luggage.

“It’s all about creating magic for the customer,” said futurist Patrick Dixon, author of The Future of Almost Everything, on what makes technology successful. “There are numerous areas where what should be a magical experience for a traveller is being wrecked by times you’re being asked to wait. You’re going to see huge attention to sorting this out.”

“In the near future, I see personalisation being the big play for travel companies.”

Airlines will take on a radical idea: building aircraft to be comfortable for passengers. Skyscanner’s research suggests capsule-style bedrooms are “high on a passenger’s wish list”, and personalisation from user data could mean we’re seated in varying zones based on our needs. Airbus’ “Concept Cabin” already separates travellers into entertainment areas, quiet zones or places to work. Smart lighting will aid relaxation and help travellers to avoid jetlag.

“In the near future, I see personalisation being the big play for travel companies,” noted Melanie Marsden, manager at Traveltech Lab. “The younger generations are more open with the data that they’re willing to part with if it means they’ll receive a better service as a result. Using that information to give travellers what they want, when they want it, is the way I see things moving.”

We may get less time to rest in-air, however. Space planes will not only offer the opportunity to leave the planet, but also cut flight times to even the furthest destinations to two-and-a-half hours. Richard Branson has said supersonic flights will happen “maybe in my lifetime”, but so-called spaceports are already planned for construction in the next few years. The idea could be made reality far sooner than we imagine.

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