Ask a Travel Nerd: 7 Ways Tech Can Help You Travel Smarter

Apps are the name of the game when it comes to optimizing your travel experience.

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These days, don’t plan on cruising up to an open airport check-in counter and printing out your boarding pass. The travel industry has gone full speed on digital adoption, especially since the pandemic. And that’s good news for you, enabling you to speed past everyone who hasn’t yet jumped on the tech train. The challenge: knowing what apps to download and how to use them.

Even if you’re not tech savvy, these websites and apps can help you avoid holiday travel crowds — and they’re surprisingly easy to use. Here’s how to incorporate tech into your trip to help make logistics a breeze.

1. Use a mobile boarding pass

Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines

The airport check-in counter is still there, but the lines may be long. If you’re not checking bags, you can likely skip the counter entirely with online check-in.

Many airlines allow you to check in online 24 hours before your flight, at which time you enter a phone number or email address to get your boarding pass texted or emailed to you. Most of these boarding passes can be saved to your phone in Apple Wallet or Google Pay, and some can also be saved to Windows phones. Sometimes you can also display your boarding pass on the airline’s app.

  • On Apple devices: To save, open your digital boarding pass and tap the “Add to Apple Wallet” button on the upper right corner of the screen. You’ll likely need iOS version 8 or higher.

  • On Android devices: Open your boarding pass and tap the “Save to Phone” button located near the top of the page. You’ll likely need Android version 6.0 or higher. You can also save your mobile boarding pass to your photo gallery by tapping on the camera icon in the upper right corner.

By saving to your smartphone’s mobile payment app, you eliminate your reliance on a paper ticket, which can easily be lost. When saved to your digital wallet, your boarding pass is still accessible, even when you don’t have internet access.

2. Check your flight status online — and subscribe to text alerts

Enter your flight information into Google for real-time updates

A simple web search for your route will typically return real-time flight updates, which can be useful in getting alerted to flight delays or cancellations — sometimes even before your airline alerts you.

For a more passive approach, subscribe to flight status notifications. Most major airlines allow you to subscribe to an individual flight's status, which the airline sends by email or text.

3. Join Clear to skip airport lines

Most people have seen the TSA PreCheck lane, which allows you to be screened through an expedited process where you won’t have to remove your shoes or laptop. But consider going one step further and skipping the line, too.

You can sign up for Clear, a trusted traveler program that can be joined for typically $189 per year. Rather than waiting in a security line to have a staff member manually check your photo identification, you’ll head to a Clear kiosk, where you’ll verify your identity with a fingerprint or iris scan. Then it’s straight to the head of the screening line for you.

There’s no special line for Clear, but you do get to go to the front of the regular screening line. Clear is available in about 50 airports nationwide.

4. Use an app as the key to your hotel

Most large hotel chains, including Hyatt, Marriott and Hilton, offer free apps for booking, which can be helpful in getting a last-minute room on the go, requesting items like fresh towels, or using real-time chat to solve issues both before and after you get there.

Most of these apps also allow for digital check-in. One perk is the ability to pick out your room number. Get that corner room far from the elevator if you prefer peace, or pick one nearby if you prefer easy access to the main floor.

A view of Hilton’s digital key share feature. Image courtesy of Hilton

And you likely don’t even need to visit the front desk for a key. Most apps have digital keys, so you can wave your phone in front of the door without needing a physical key card. Hilton recently launched Digital Key Share, which removes frustrations for larger groups by allowing more than one guest to have access to their room’s digital key.

If you’re pining for an upgrade, you’d also typically have to ask in person. But this October, Hilton announced that Hilton Honors members with Gold and Diamond elite status will be notified of space-available upgrades 72 hours prior to arrival and can choose their upgraded room on the Hilton Honors app.

5. Pack a digital copy of your COVID-19 vaccination

You almost certainly need proof of COVID-19 vaccination for most international travel, but you might not want to risk packing (and potentially losing) your vaccination card on a domestic trip. Still, you may need to show proof of vaccination to enter tourist venues or other businesses in some cities. Luckily, digital proof will usually suffice.

Some states have issued their own digital passes to provide proof of vaccination or negative test results, like New York’s Excelsior Pass and California’s Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record. Then, there are privately run apps, like Clear, that let you store a digital vaccine card. Sometimes, a simple photo of your vaccine card saved to your phone is good enough.

If you’re vaccinated, it doesn’t hurt to save proof to your phone in case you arrive at a restaurant or other business that demands it.

6. Order food online

Many restaurants feel busier than ever. If you’re looking to grab food to eat in your room, or maybe you want to skip waiter service to eat in a park, take advantage of mobile ordering.

Most restaurants offer mobile ordering these days, whether it’s on their own website or through a food delivery app. Many of these apps offer pickup as an option too, and it’s typically far cheaper than delivery because you avoid service fees. Download apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash or Grubhub.

7. Download multiple ridesharing apps (and not just the major ones)

There’s been a shortage of drivers for the big ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft lately, which can make it stressful trying to book a ride for a flight.

Don’t overlook smaller ridesharing companies that might have a strong regional presence. Many taxi companies have apps that allow you to request a cab from your phone, and sometimes they’re among the cheapest options. For example, you can book a cab from anywhere in San Francisco to San Francisco International Airport for a flat rate of $35 on the YoTaxi SF app, while Ubers can sometimes run north of $70 on the same route, depending on the time of day.

Give your travels a tech upgrade

Between keyless hotel room entry via smartphone app, mobile ordering and sometimes even showing digital proof of vaccination, technology is crucial to traveling these days.

Luckily, you can make the most of tech when you travel this holiday season, even if you don’t consider yourself tech savvy. The apps are easy to use — you just want to download them ahead of time. And once you’re on the road with your phone in hand, there’s just one more thing you need: a portable smartphone charger.

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