Apple Watch apps take some of the pain out of travelling

A slew of apps for Apple Watch offer travellers ingenious ways to ease their journey

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 12:05am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 12:05am

Can Apple Watch change the way we travel? Car-hailing services like Uber have been a hit worldwide and have shown how much an app can drastically alter the most basic of travel necessities, but now there's more to think about.

When the Apple Watch launched in Hong Kong in April, it was the 18-carat gold alloy Apple Watch Edition that was marketed. Costing a whopping HK$130,000, it's out of reach of all but the elite, but the regular watch starts at just HK$2,728 - expensive, but cheaper than most smartphones.

"I don't think it should be considered a device exclusively for the luxury end of the market," says Stuart Frisby, principal designer at Booking.com which has just launched its Booking Now for Apple Watch app. "There was a time when luxury travel really meant staying in a five-star hotel and having a very typical high-end experience. What we see more and more is that time and convenience have become greater luxuries, so apps which make travellers' lives easier when booking accommodation are highly valued."

There's no denying that the Apple Watch's hands-free convenience is hard to beat when on the road. "There are lots of small frustrations which we think we can solve with lightweight, well-timed features delivered via a smart watch," says Frisby, who is particularly interested to see how Apple Watch performs in China, a key market for wearable devices and apps. Among other things, Booking Now gives Apple Watch wearers directions back to their hotel after dinner, it remembers their room number without having to fish out the keycard, and it reminds them that it's almost time to check out.

Although the Booking.com app is impressive, any bookings made through its website can already be saved to the iPhone's Passbook app, as can boarding passes, cinema vouchers and more besides. Passbook is already on Apple Watch by default, and seamlessly presents the next voucher you need. There are even suggestions that it could be used to store passport information. Apple Pay, which integrates payment cards into Apple Watch, is also predicted to dominate for travel; those travelling with luggage will appreciate paying hands-free, and its bound to catch on with cruise ships and in theme parks.

"Smartwatch apps will undoubtedly change the way we travel, with the potential to influence where, how often and with whom," says Clive Jackson, founder and CEO at private jet charter app Victor, which has just launched an app for Apple Watch. "The immediacy of a watch app makes the delivery of information more spontaneous, impulsive and accessible - and the connectivity of everything has the potential to make travel more inclusive and collaborative."

We're in the early days of Apple Watch apps for travel, but some 'personal flying assistants' already stand out. TripIt and TripCase extract and collate email confirmations from hotels, airlines and other providers, and create a dynamic travel itinerary viewable on Apple Watch, adjusted for time zones and updated with the latest flight tracker data.

"The smartwatch is easily accessible and the ideal travel companion, providing essential information at a glance," says Joakim Everstin, head of innovation at Sabre, which created TripCase. "Smartwatch apps will change the way people travel, because they offer convenience on a level that other devices do not."

Several airlines have their own apps for Apple Watch, too, including Air Canada, British Airways, easyJet, JetBlue, SAS and British Airways. "It takes the stress out of travelling," says Everstin of the British Airways app. "It's a really good example of how an airline should target customers with smartwatches." Fly American Airlines and you can even check in using Apple Watch.

The in-flight experience, however, is up for grabs. Many airlines now offer digital niceties such as USB ports and even some kind of integration between phones/tablets and the inflight entertainment system, and it's a trend that could skyrocket with smartwatches. The possibilities for in-wrist apps for flights are endless.

"Airlines could potentially develop apps for the Apple Watch to allow passengers to check in using their unique ID, biometric data or credit card information, which is all stored on the watch," says Niall McBain, CEO of in-flight internment provider Spafax, whose clients include Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Singapore Airlines. "It can also have each individual customer's preferences saved, so ground and flight crew know exactly what will make the user most comfortable on their journey."

Time and convenience have become greater luxuries, so apps which make travellers' lives easier are highly valued
Stuart Frisby, designer, booking.com

Creating an in-wrist app to allow a passenger to read a menu, call a steward/stewardess or order a drink would be relatively simple - as would integrating Apple Watch with an inflight entertainment system. However, it all depends not only on the willingness of airlines to hand over full control of an in-flight entertainment system to a third-party device, but on the availability of Wi-fi at 40,000 feet. Though it's getting more popular, Wi-fi among airlines is far from standard, and remains expensive.

Some apps use Apple Watch for more than convenience. Due to migrate to the wrist shortly is SkyZen, a jet-lag app that for now works on another popular wearable device, the Jawbone UP activity tracker. "Business travellers in Asia-Pacific are constantly crossing time zones," says Mark Clarkson, regional business development director for aviation information company OAG. He thinks that health and wellness is a cause for concern for companies across the region. "The app looks to help combat jet lag by monitoring sleep and activity patterns while onboard, with tips on how to get the most out of flights," he says. Skyline uses data from a schedule database of more than 900 airlines and 21 million flight status updates each month, and uses sleep and activity data from the UP app (data that Apple Watch can also collect) and overlays them on flight activity.

When you reach your destination, Apple Watch is ready. One of the most successful travel apps on a smartphone, public transit app Citymapper shows you the fastest routes on bus or train, and the watch "taps" your wrist when you each your destination. Babbel will help you translate (though only between English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish), as will IHG Translator, while spontaneous room-booking app HotelTonight lets you book hotels on the go and gives you directions. The Marriott app lets you complete an advance check-in, notifies you when your room is ready, and allows you to check out easily. It even accepts Apple Pay.

Similarly, Starwood Hotels & Resorts will navigate you to a hotel and let you head directly to your room and unlock the door using Apple Watch.

Though it's being used to streamline travel in ever more impressive ways, Apple Watch isn't perfect. To some it looks clunky, too techie, the screen isn't sensitive enough and it's little more than an extension of the iPhone, which it relies on. That's about to change; an update called watchOS 2.0 downloaded to Apple Watch in July, which means the next crop of apps will load and operate directly on the watch itself, not from a connected phone.

It may seem like just another gadget for people to obsess over, but if it can make travellers more relaxed and more liberated, and less focused on their phones, Apple Watch could be on to something. "For today's traveller, it's all about technology," says Everstin. "If you can build an app that can make travellers' lives easier, you will have something truly disruptive."