Smartphones let you check flight status, order room service and catch up on the news.

Business traveler Mike Monroe no longer rummages through his bag at the airline counter fishing for his flight ticket or confirmation number.The consultant from Lakeland, Fla., has gone paperless, thanks to Continental Airlines’ electronic boarding passes. Once he checks in online, the carrier e-mails a bar code to his phone. That code is scanned at security checkpoints and gates instead of a boarding pass. “It takes away a lot of annoyances.”


Monroe also uses his BlackBerry for airlines’ flight-change alerts, routing all calls into one number provided by Google Voice, turn-by-turn driving directions when he’s behind the wheel and watching TV on Slingbox when he has downtime. He also carries an iPod Touch — like an iPhone but without the phone — to make international calls using Skype, get the latest sports scores and weather from Viigo and access Urbanspoon’s reviews of nearby restaurants. “Nothing really cutting edge,” Monroe says, “but I’m just trying every day to reduce the stress.”

Monroe is a member of a growing army of tech-savvy travelers whose smartphones are transforming their travel habits. Beyond online maps and travel guides, travelers are turning to their phones to look up aircraft seat configuration, track taxis, reply to early hotel check-in requests, order room service and locate nearby colleagues.

Few Americans remain untouched by the effects of the mobile Internet. But the tech industry’s core mission of getting people to lead untethered lives inevitably invites road warriors such as Monroe as early adopters of all their bells and whistles. The travel industry has responded with some of the most innovative applications available on smartphones. And more are coming.

Airlines and hotels are refining their mobile websites and creating applications, or “apps,” for downloading to popular phone models, such as iPhones, BlackBerrys and Google Android phones. Entrepreneurial software developers are rolling out new services daily, such as “location-based” apps that tap into a phone’s GPS to determine the user’s location and offer discounts, as well as pitch products. User-generated content apps, such as Yelp, provide information based on the collective wisdom of other travelers.

The apps are making a difference. Airlines and hotels say bookings completed over smartphones are rising dramatically, even as business over other traditional sales channels, including their websites, have turned sour or remain flat.

“I’ve been hearing it’s the year of the mobile for the last five years. But something is different now, and I think it’s because of the consumer adoption of the mobile phone,” says Michael Menis, a marketing executive at InterContinental Hotels Group.

Faster network speeds have helped spur development of travel aids. So has the convergence of various portable devices — mini-laptops, GPS, digital cameras, gaming devices, personal digital assistants (PDA), MP3 players — into one device. “It’s your PC on your hand,” says Norm Rose, a travel technology analyst at research firm PhoCusWright. “It’s going to change and shape the experience based on your needs and wants at the time.”

In a survey of frequent business travelers conducted by PhoCusWright in 2008, 71% said they have used a smartphone for business during their trips, while 62% used it for leisure purposes.

Travelers and their apps

“My iPhone has changed my life,” says Al Diamond, an insurance industry consultant from Cherry Hill, N.J. Besides using the phone as an airline boarding pass and GPS, Diamond uses the Expense Tracker app to keep tabs on expenses, TripIt to organize itineraries, Inrix Traffic to avoid running into congestion on the road and Free Wi-Fi to find hot spots.

Such third-party applications remain the most popular services among travelers. But with smartphones representing a new sales channel, the travel industry is eager for a slice of the pie.

In 2008, the three key sectors of the industry — hotels, airlines and rental car companies — each had less than $20 million in direct domestic bookings that were made via mobile phones, according to PhoCusWright. In 2010, hotels will see mobile booking revenue surge to $76 million, it estimates. Airlines will generate $61 million, while rental car companies could expect about $23 million.

Southwest Airlines became the first U.S. airline to introduce an iPhone app last year, betting that an easy-to-use application could generate an untapped base of customers who might otherwise avoid surfing the Web on the phone. Other airlines say they are working on similar projects.

Southwest’s app has the usual array of functions one would expect from an airline: booking, status, schedule, check-in and loyalty account updates. But Southwest is enticing new users with its popular Ding fares, or deeply discounted fares, that it previously distributed only to those who bothered to download its special software on their desktop computers. As of mid-February, Southwest’s app was the most popular travel-booking application in Apple’s App Store, according to Michael Van Houweling, Southwest’s director of online marketing.

Late last year, Hilton Hotels introduced iPhone apps for each of its seven brands, and customers have downloaded them 152,000 times in just four months since introduction. Starwood Hotels’ iPhone app, introduced in June for frequent guests, has been downloaded over 40,000 times, and bookings from it are rising, says David Godsman, Starwood’s head of Web services.

Matt Holdrege, a telecommunications executive in Los Angeles, relies mostly on independent travel apps but has noticed “hotel, airlines and train applications getting better all the time.”

Expediting the routine

Travel companies also are using the smartphone to automate and expedite routine travel chores. The paperless e-boarding pass, now adopted by several major U.S. airlines including Continental, American Airlines and Delta, has been quick to take off in the three years it’s been operational domestically.

Customers who choose the option have their bar-coded boarding passes from the airline e-mailed to their smartphones and proceed directly to security, where screeners scan the phone to match the ID.

Continental Airlines launched its program at Houston Intercontinental in late 2007 and has expanded it to 43 airports. As of October, more than 1 million Continental travelers have used the paperless method, and the airline says the number will double by July. “Every month is a record month now,” says Jared Miller of Continental Airlines.

Continental also introduced the service abroad, in Frankfurt, last year, the first U.S. airline to do so, and added London’s Heathrow last month.

American Airlines’ paperless boarding was launched at three airports in late 2008 and has since expanded to 24 others.

Heather Dunaway, a sales manager for a Houston-based food distributor, says the e-boarding pass saves her from a tedious chore: finding a printer for the boarding pass on the return leg of the trip. “It’s so new at some airports that you sometimes have to show (security checkpoint) guards how to use it,” Dunaway says.

As part of its auto check-in program, Continental also automatically e-mails a boarding pass bar code a day before the flight for customers on the return leg of the trip, so long as they chose the option prior to leaving for the trip.

Hotels also are leveraging mobile technology to streamline check-in. Omni Hotel customers receive an e-mail, inviting them to check in before arriving by using iPhone/BlackBerry apps or going online. About a quarter of customers do, says Kerry Kennedy, Omni’s vice president of e-commerce.

Hilton introduced mobile check-in for loyal customers in October, and the app for its Homewood Suites chain lets users select specific rooms. Starwood’s Aloft Hotel in Lexington, Mass., is testing a keycard using radio frequency identification, or RFID, technology. The hotel has distributed RFID keycards to some loyalty program members, who receive text messages on the day of arrival that disclose the room number. Guests can go directly to the room and tap their assigned card through the sensor on the doorknob to unlock the door.

In the third quarter, InterContinental will begin testing a similar program, in which customers scan their phone containing an e-mailed bar code on a lobby kiosk. The kiosk then spits out the room keycard.

Other hotel transactions conducted through phones are being tested. Hilton guests who use iPhone apps for full-service hotels can request that down pillows, alcoholic beverages or onion rings be waiting in their rooms.

Several hotels have uploaded their room service menus to their websites, allowing guests to order using a laptop or a smartphone. But Omni Hotels says it’s developing a separate mobile app for ordering concierge services. At W Hotels, customers can send concierge service requests via text messages.

Even as mobile apps offer more convenience, expect plenty of upselling, promotions and ads, says PhoCusWright’s Rose. Mobile search ad spending in the U.S. is expected to grow to $531 million this year, up from $242 million in 2009, his firm estimates.

Don’t forget the marketing

Travel companies are “collecting personal information so that you get information that’s relevant,” Rose says. “I’m a jazz musician. If I’m traveling to New York City, it’d be nice if airlines and hotels can (get me) a list of jazz clubs.”

Farelogix, a travel software company, says it’s “working with a number of airlines” to introduce features that will allow airlines to sell ancillary services via smartphones later this year, according to Farelogix CEO Jim Davidson. It would enable airline customers facing a full flight to get an e-mail with an offer to buy priority boarding and pay for it by phone, for instance.

Such services currently are available on airlines’ websites, but the airlines want to be able to pitch to travelers who encounter hiccups and unexpected changes on their trips. Among other possible options: paying bag-check fees at the last minute; pitching in-flight Wi-Fi if the airline knows you’re on a plane that’s equipped with the service; and offering lounge access for non-elite customers facing big layovers.

Similar functions already exist on some apps. TripCase, an itinerary management tool, doesn’t follow customers in real time but uses their travel schedules to stream messages, flight alerts and promotions to the phone. It has signed a partnership with Dallas/Fort Worth International, in which TripCase users can choose to receive information about the airport’s shops, gates, parking availability and other information during a layover. Corporate travel managers can also use TripCase to track employees’ whereabouts and send relevant location-specific messages, reminders and recommendations.

“As long as I can opt out, I’m a fan,” Monroe says of the growing flow of deals, discounts and shopping opportunities. “I’m not a big shopper, but I like tech gadgets. If they send me special deals at a gadget store at the airport I’m currently in, I’ll be all for that.”

 Via USA Today