The mobile traveller's guide to (almost) everything

The smartphone has taken over travel. It now does everything from storing your boarding pass and finding the perfect burger to translating a menu and opening your hotel room door…

By Donald Strachan
Published 11 Apr 2015, 11:00 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 17:11 BST

Attend a travel conference these days and you'll be inundated with statistics. Here's one: by 2017 hotel group Best Western expects 30% of its bookings to come from a mobile device — up from 5% in 2012. Another: deals specialist Travelzoo now receives more searches from mobile devices (56%) than from computers. 

"The UK is one of the most advanced [regions] for Travelzoo globally, in terms of mobile adoption," says UK managing director, Joel Brandon-Bravo. And according to marketing technology company Criteo, a quarter of all online travel bookings in the UK now come from a mobile device. Search engines, including Google and Yahoo, are seeing a rapid increase in travel-related mobile searches.

I could go on, but you get the idea: the future of travel is that five-inch LED screen in your pocket. Our real-world rituals won't change. We'll still experience the panicked, last-second search for a wallet or purse. Got your tickets, room key, camera? Check. Map, compass, translator, restaurant guide? Check. Yet all this is inside one gadget — your mobile phone. This is not a vision of the future, but the state of mobile travel in 2015.

From here to there

Travel isn't all about fun. We first have to get there, on trains, planes and automobiles, bikes, boats and buses. Increasingly, we're turning to mobiles to arrange that, starting with the purchase process. Flight meta-search service Momondo has seen a year-on-year increase of over 50% in bookings via its app.

Several airline apps, including those of EasyJet and American Airlines, have in-built boarding pass functions, or work with Apple's Passbook to store a ticket on your handset. Anyone meeting you off a flight only need set off for the airport when their Just Landed app tells them to. Local currency isn't required to catch a cab from the terminal. The taxi industry has been 'disrupted' by app-powered driver services such as Uber, Lyft, and Hailo. Paying is automatic and cashless.

It's not just air travel. You can rent a car with apps from and Skyscanner, or jump on a train with, Italo (Italy) and SNCF (France). MapMyRide uses GPS technology so you can map and share your cycling exploits. High-rollers even have transport apps of their own. PrivateFly books flights on a fleet of around 7,000 private jets worldwide, including empty legs offered at big discounts. Around 15% of PrivateFly's bookings come via apps. More of a luxury yacht person? There's an app for that, too: GetMyBoat.

Even if you're not sure where to travel, an app can help. Launched in 2014, GeniusTravel allows you to specify a budget and dates and the app suggests the rest.

Is all this starting to feel like mobile overload? If so, you can solve that — by downloading another app. TripCase is an itinerary-management tool aimed at frequent travellers. All you do is email confirmations for air, rail or ground travel, or even restaurant reservations, and TripCase lays out a detailed, mobile-friendly trip timeline for you. The app even sends an alert if your flight is delayed. TripCase is also working to make travel apps work better on smart watches and other wearable tech.

Then there are apps that completely rethink point-to-point travel. BlaBlaCar enables car sharing on journeys between 100-800km, so drivers with space in the car can share the trip (and split fuel costs) with people heading in the same direction. For example, at the time of writing, Edinburgh to Newcastle places were going for £9, London to Bristol for £8. According to BlaBlaCar, it transports two million passengers a month.

Beds for the night

Just like the airlines, hotel brands such as Marriott, Accor and Best Western all have apps aimed at regular customers. I often book a room from the train as I roll into the station, using or similar, mobile-friendly hotel apps. Airbnb has turned spare bedrooms into affordable accommodation (and welcome income streams) all over the planet.

Mobile services use a crucial piece of information that isn't available on your desktop: where you are, right now. Hotel Tonight is a fully mobile service that uses location technology to sell last-minute hotel rooms with significant savings. Launch the app and it presents you with a list of discounted hotels close to wherever you're standing, in 500 locations worldwide. A few swipes of the screen and you're booked. In November, the company announced a year-on-year UK bookings growth of 175%.

Soon we may be rid of check-in and room keys, too. Conrad Hotels has incorporated mobile check-in into its smartphone app, Conrad Concierge, while the Hilton HHonors app lets you check in and choose your room from a digital floor plan at 4,100 hotels across the globe. From spring 2015, four Hilton-owned hotel brands in the US will begin replacing room keys with mobile lock technology. Once checked in (via a smartphone, of course), guests can enter their room with one tap of their phone. Starwood is also trialling keyless check-in with its SPG app. Mobile phone keys will be rolled out to Aloft and W Hotels brands worldwide, including in the UK, this year.

Mobile phone? That'll do nicely

Travel and accommodation is well established, so what's the next frontier for the phone-wielding traveller? Well, much of the fanfare surrounding the launch of the iPhone 6 last autumn focused on mobile payments. Apple Pay software initially launched in the US only, and works with the near field communications (NFC) aerial that Apple added to the latest iPhone. To pay, you tap your phone, just as you would a contactless card. Like ApplePay, the rival Google Wallet also only works in the US — for now.

In the UK, services such as EE's Cash on Tap and the Vodafone SmartPass allow travellers to make small payments (under £20) with one tap of an NFC-equipped mobile phone, including on London's transport network. Further mobile payment technology is set to follow. Launching later this year, Zapp payments will work with existing banking apps to enable secure payments from an NFC-equipped phone.

Mobile payments are, for now, still outside the travel mainstream. But travellers can already use a phone to bypass the bureau de change and get foreign money at decent rates. Like Airbnb, currency service WeSwap works as a 'peer-to-peer' marketplace. Before heading abroad, I can exchange sterling directly with someone travelling in the opposite direction. WeSwap exchanges are at the mid-market rate, rather than the less favourable rates usually offered on the high street. Right now, it works in US dollars, sterling, euros and Scandinavian currency, with additional countries to be added soon. WeSwap charges a service fee of just 1%.

Smile! You're on camera

The moment someone fitted a lens onto a mobile phone was the point things got trickier for budget camera manufacturers. The sensors inside standalone cameras are still superior, but smartphone camera quality has progressed quickly. The Nokia Lumia 1020 Windows Phone has a 41-megapixel camera, as well as optical image stabilisation and more automatic functions to help improve your photography. Journalists sometimes use an iPhone to shoot broadcast-quality video and audio.

And apps have made a big difference. Instagram helps amateur snappers to improve their photos with easy filters and hues, to give a vintage or creative look. It now has a reported 300 million users, many of whom focus their photo sharing on travel. In 2014, Instagram also released Hyperlapse, an app for shooting non-shaky time-lapse video. There are others, too. Afterlight has a bundle of professional filters and moody light leak effects. Apps like Camera+ and Camera ZOOM FX replace smartphone stock camera apps. The mobile phone has completely taken over holiday point-and-shoot.

See the sights with location tech

Where are you, right now? Because your phone GPS knows (roughly), it can suggest the perfect activity to fill an afternoon. For example, when I last fired up my Viator tours app — a company bought by TripAdvisor in 2014 — I was offered a food walk, tickets to Phantom of the Opera and a day-trip to Paris. There are countless smaller and specialist players in the tours and activities market, including US-focused Peek and Vayable. Your mobile phone is the key battleground for many of them.

Location can get more precise still — so-called 'micro-location' — using beacon technology. Beacons are small Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitters that can pinpoint a phone's location to within a few centimetres, indoors or outside. Working in conjunction with apps, they can prompt your handset to do things, such as flash up a reminder to have your passport ready or show a video about local history. Visitors to Wales' National Slate Museum, in Llanberis, and Caerleon's National Roman Legion Museum are guided around by app and beacon. Beacons at airports including Dallas/Fort Worth and Amsterdam's Schiphol coordinate with airline apps to lead passengers through terminals efficiently. Microsoft and Mubaloo worked together on using beacons to help visually impaired travellers navigate cities.

Location technology is also an essential ingredient when it's time to pause for sustenance. It's the backbone of user and expert review apps by everyone from Yelp to Michelin. Whether it's a burger (try Burgerator), a decent pint (you need Craft Beer London or New York), or a veggie meal (download Happy Cow), your phone probably knows where the nearest and best places are. There's even an app that will tell you whether the mark-up on the local restaurant's wine list is reasonable (Raisinable). The list of 'essential' travel apps is already long — and during 2015 it's going to get longer still.

Top 20 travel apps




: Android, iOS, Windows Phone (free)



: iOS (free)


Camera ZOOM FX

: Android (£1.79)



: Android, iOS, Windows Phone 


5. Lookout: Android, iOS (free, with premium features £1.99)

Mobile Money
6. WeSwap: Android, iOS (free)

7. Travelzoo: Android, iOS (free)

Food & Drink
8. OpenTable: Android, iOS, Windows Phone (free)
9. Craft Beer London: Android, iOS (£1.95)

Tours & Activities
10. Viator: Android, iOS (free)

Hotels & Rooms

11. Hotel Tonight: Android, iOS, Windows Phone (free)

12. Android, iOS, Windows Phone (free)

13. Airbnb: Android, iOS (free)

14. Skyscanner Flights: Android, iOS, Windows Phone (free)
15. Tripcase: Android, iOS (free)
16. Uber: Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Windows Phone (free)
17. BlaBlaCar: Android, iOS (free)
18. UK Bus Checker: Android, iOS, Windows Phone (£2.29-2.99)

Translation & Language
19. Duolingo: Android, iOS, Windows Phone (free)
20. Word Lens: Android, Google Glass, iOS (free)

Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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