Is the digitalisation of travel all good news?

June 30, 2022, 1 Comment

Travel is changing. It has to, not only to meet people’s needs but also to keep up with technology. Almost everything has become digital, moving to apps and online, but sometimes I’m not sure if this makes our travelling lives easier. I wonder if digitilisation can be as much a hindrance as a help.

Last month I travelled around the USA on a book tour, and I loved every minute of it. Except the minutes wasted on grappling with digitalised travel. For example, paying a simple toll on an Illinois highway shaved months off my life expectancy with sheer frustration. I could no longer pay cash at the toll booth as the booths are all gone. Now it’s all automatic.

Great if you live there, have a electronic pass and an account online. No queues, no stress. But I don’t live there and had a rental car. So I had to create an account for Illinois Tollways even though I’ll probably never use it again. Not just a guest account but a proper one, with security questions, duly complicated password, credit card details and email verification.

Plus I only had the car for a week, so also had to be exact with my rental details down to the right hour so that I didn’t pay the tolls from whoever used that car after me. All for a $2 toll. A toll, by the way, that didn’t appear on my account until well over a week later, leaving me wondering if I had done it all correctly or would be fined. Hertz had offered me an electronic pass for the princely sum of $6 a day (not including the tolls themselves). What a rip off!

Then there was trying to park at a beach in Florida. No parking meters anymore, not even for contactless card payments. Just a sign with a QR code for an app. Out in blazing sunshine and with no roaming on my phone, I was expected to download an app, set up an account with my credit card, enter my location and license plate, so I could pay $3. What a joke!

Or at London Gatwick airport, trying to order food at Yo Sushi. That used to be fun, watching what came past on the conveyor belt, taking plates off and stacking them up as you ate. And one easy bill at the end. Now it’s all via an app. You have to know what you want, and pay for each order straightaway. No spontaneity, no service, no sushi – we left without eating.

Even Bern is not immune. The tourist board has replaced paper Bern Tickets with digital ones that you get via an app. It still gives guests free public transport, but only if they have a smart phone. As an Airbnb host, I’ve already had complaints. Older couples with one phone (not one each), people going swimming so don’t want to take a phone with them, guests who don’t like using apps. They have to traipse to the tourist office for a printed version of a Bern Ticket.

Of course, many changes are great. The timetable apps, such as SBB in Switzerland. Having maps and opening hours on call. Booking a restaurant or buying tickets. Boarding passes and hotel confirmations. All at your fingertips.

The downside is not everyone has a smart phone: my father, for example. Phones get lost, broken or stolen – or more likely, run out of power when you need them most. Not everyone has internet when they travel because of extortionate roaming charges. Or a bad signal.

I was in Bellinzona Coop last week, trying to pay with the Twint app but failing dismally. The shop was underground, the signal too weak. Cue a long queue behind me, a grumpy cashier and me giving up. Moral of that: I have reverted back to having cash on hand, just in case.

Travel should be enjoyable for everyone, whether digital native or not. Changes that are badly executed end up exluding some people. Closing ticket offices (as is happening in train stations in England), forcing people to use apps for everything, forgetting those who don’t have a smart phone, taking away customer choice. None of that is good.

Not good for the traveller and not good for the destination. People who feel left out or left behind will go elsewhere, and take their money with them.

One Comment on "Is the digitalisation of travel all good news?"

  1. Paul Burkhalter Saturday July 2nd, 2022 at 04:14 PM · Reply

    Hear Hear!!

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