The 7 Tech Innovations That Most Impacted Travel in 2016 (+2 Arriving in 2017)

Technology + Gear
by Ana Bulnes Dec 19, 2016

1. Electronic bag tags are starting to be a thing.

There you are, standing by the baggage carousel, checking once again if you’re in front of the right one, and hoping your backpack will magically appear during the 59th lap (yes, you’re counting). This situation is becoming less and less common, but it’s not a thing of the past yet–and if you’re one of the unluckiest travelers, your luggage might be mysteriously lost forever.

How can this still happen in the age of GPS? It shouldn’t, and many companies have realized the solution is as simple as adding a small location tracking tag to the suitcases to make sure we always know where they are. Some airlines like Delta, Qantas, or Lufthansa are already using or trying trackable bag tags; but if you want to take matters into your own hands, you can get one of the many tracking devices already in the market. You have the right know where your backpack is spending the holidays.

2. Access Earth.

Apps like TripAdvisor or Yelp are cool to decide which hotel, restaurant or museum you want to visit, but there’s some missing information that’s crucial to many travelers. Are the buildings wheelchair accessible? Is there an elevator or are we supposed to climb some stairs? How many steps exactly?

Launched in 2016, Access Earth is an Irish platform that wants to be a Google Maps for travelers with disabilities or mobility issues. Many places market themselves as accessible but fail to meet some basic standards, something the platform wants to solve by crowdsourcing data on accessible buildings and locations to make it easier for people with mobility issues to plan out a trip.

3. Robohotels.

Imagine entering your hotel and being greeted by a robot? Not a common thing yet, but also not science fiction anymore. The tech industry is investing a lot in robot assistants and some hotels have started to experiment with them –there are extremes, like the dinosaur hotel in Japan where you won’t see any human staff, but you can also find robot butlers in some Starwood and Hilton properties. If you visit one of these hotels, remember to treat your robotic hosts well, please — we don’t want a Westworld situation.

4. Alptransit Gotthard base tunnel.

More than 60 years after it was initially sketched, the Gotthard base tunnel between Amsteg and Bodio –basically, a tunnel through the Alps — finally started full service on 11 December 2016. Why is this so important? Just look at the figures: it’s the world’s longest (35.5 mi) and deepest (7,500 ft) railway tunnel, a 1,440-feet-long tunnel boring machine was used to excavate the rock equivalent of 5 Giza pyramids (28.2 million tons), a total 94.35-mile tunnel system when you count all the shafts, cross-passages, access tunnels and the two main tunnel tubes…

For travelers, this means saving around 45 minutes when traveling between Zurich and Lugano. And that feeling of being under 7,500 ft of rock, running through a masterpiece of human engineering.

5. Foldable, pocket-size drones.

If there’s one revolution we’ve seen in the world of travel photography and video in the last years, it’s the arrival of drones, with their prices getting lower and lower. The worst thing of traveling with a drone? Having to take it from one place to the other (why can’t it just follow the plane?, you wonder). We knew it was a problem that would be solved sooner rather than later, and that time has finally come: one of 2016’s coolest drones is also foldable and pocket size.

DJI’s Mavic Pro (GoPro’s Karma drone was a good rival, but it had to be recalled due to its tendency to fall out of the sky) looks tiny when it’s folded, which makes it easier to just throw it into your backpack without having to sacrifice taking other gadgets with you. There are a few other foldable, small drones already on the market, and we can expect that number to grow in 2017.

6. Google Trusted Contacts.

This year’s Google’s most useful product for travelers wasn’t Google Trips, but an app released just a few weeks ago —Trusted Contacts. As its own name implies, the app lets you assign “trusted” status to those contacts you feel closest to. These trusted friends and family members will be able to see your activity status, and you can share your location with them if you find yourself in an unsafe situation. Also, if they’re worried about you, they can request to see where you are –you can just deny that request (a sign everything’s fine), but if you don’t respond, your location will be shared automatically. Sure, it will be more difficult to help you out if you’re somewhere abroad, but at least they’ll know where you are and be able to start looking for help.

A cool app to ensure your safety –just don’t use it if you tend to ignore your phone for hours or leave it behind. You don’t want your family to start an international search operation when you’re just relaxing on the beach.

7. And of course… travelstoke.

(Full disclosure: travelstoke is Matador Network’s travel app)

We all know the difference between exploring a new place relying completely on guidebooks or the info we got from the tourist office, and letting ourselves be guided by someone who really knows the place –a local, a friend of a friend who’s been living there for a few years, your brother who moved to Sicily 3 months ago and already drives fearlessly through Palermo like a true palermitano. But what if you also want to visit the Italian mainland and there’s no way to take your brother out of Sicily? Travelstoke is the answer –the ultimate travel app, a tool to effortlessly connect with locals and other travelers who share similar interests, discover cool spots wherever you are, and easily document and share your journeys. Travel is defined by those human connections we make; travelstoke makes it easier to find them and brings them closer to you.

+2 innovations coming in 2017

Nima — a portable gluten sensor.

Being intolerant or allergic to gluten is hard enough in your own country, where at least you can read the food label or ask the waiter, but dealing with celiac disease when you can’t understand the language of the place you’re in makes things even worse. Nima (MIT spinout) will become a lifesaver: a portable, highly sensitive gluten sensor you can carry with you to find out whether your food is gluten-free or not. Useful when you’re abroad and when you don’t really trust the label or the waiter. Better safe than sorry.

Announced this year, it will start shipping in spring 2017.

Pilot — an earpiece language translator

Let’s be honest –those essential phrases guidebooks are useful, but a bit limited. Even if we managed to utter the words in an understandable way, they would only take us so far. Who hasn’t ever rehearsed a phrase in their head and pronounced it perfectly, only to receive an elaborate answer we can’t understand a word of? Up until now, our options were 1) hoping our interlocutors spoke English, 2) learning the local language (if we only had the time to learn all the languages in the world!), 3) find someone who can translate for us.

Pilot is the earpiece version of the third option, something like having a tiny simultaneous translator whispering in our ear. It recognizes languages automatically and translates directly into your ear. Sure, the person you’re talking to will need to have one of these earpieces too, but it doesn’t look like a difficult problem to solve. Language barriers are about to become a thing of the past.

Shipping starts in 2017.

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