High-tech services are rolling out across the skies as airlines compete for the always-on digital traveler. From online ticket purchase to in-air WiFi, tech services can save money, time and ease the routine inconveniences of travel.
Online flight booking
Travel agents have largely been replaced by online travel aggregators like Orbitz.com and Expedia.com for comparison shoppers and by airline Web sites for frequent fliers. Travelers may save additional money by watching fare fluctuations and using the information to buy at the best time. Bing Travel, part of the search engine Bing.com, predicts the likelihood of a fare rising or falling over the next seven days. Users can book the flight on Bing when the time is right.
Yapta, a Firefox browser plug-in, tracks prices for domestic flights you tag on most airline sites. Yapta allows you to track specific flights, not just routes between two cities, so you don't have to hear about deals on 5 a.m. flights with three stops. After you buy a ticket, Yapta will keep tracking prices and let you know if the fare drops, so you can claim a refund or voucher.
Check-in via mobile phone
Self check-in kiosks have taken over the role of counter clerks; they are the ATMs of the airlines. At peak times, the machines may be surrounded by crowds and ling lines, adding to the chaos as frantic travelers juggle carry-on bags, laptop cases and wallets while searching for the printout containing their flight confirmation number.
To avoid becoming one of these harried travelers, use mobile boarding passes, which are sent as a link or message to any email capable smartphone. The 1-inch by 1-inch scannable code looks a little like Sunday's crossword. United Airlines added mobile boarding passes in March, the fifth airline to do so along with Continental, Delta, American and Alaska Airlines. Slideshow: Awful airlines
This service is rapidly expanding to airports across the country including Los Angeles International, Albuquerque, Washington Dulles, New York LaGuardia and Salt Lake City. According to the Transportation Security Administration, 48 domestic airports now equip TSA security personnel with hand-held scanners for mobile boarding passes. Check the carrier's Web site for availability.
Theoretically, you can take your mobile device straight to security, bypassing the check-in area altogether, but this technology is not always reliable. Recently, a Continental agent offered to print a paper boarding pass for this reporter because "sometimes the scanner won't read the mobile pass." If the scanner doesn't work, travelers are sent back to the check-in area and must check-in and return to security with a paper pass. When the mobile boarding pass does works, though, it can save valuable time.
Gogo's in-flight Wi-Fi is available on most domestic carriers. The service starts at $4.95 for short flights, $12.95 for unlimited access for 24 hours on a single airline and $34.95 for a monthly subscription to unlimited access on any Gogo equipped flight. Users may register and pay as soon as it's safe to turn on devices. The service is generally reliable.
Some smartphones may be used in "airplane mode" to disconnect the phone from a cellular network, so they may be used during the flight to play games or read an eBook stored on the device, or connect to Wi-Fi to watch a movie online or browse the Internet if the phone is Wi-Fi capable. You could even make a call with Skype on your phone because it uses the Internet connection for the call. This makes a phone similar to using an iPad or eBook reader, but it's best to ask the flight attendant before using a phone in this way to avoid a misunderstanding.
Many airlines have gone to a no-cash policy for headsets, beverages and food. Have your credit or debit card handy if you plan to purchase any of these items.
Using a laptop or other device during the flight can be convenient whether it's for work or entertainment, but a drained battery can bring an untimely end to an activity. Ask an airline representative ahead of your trip if there will be an in-seat power system available. Some larger planes have power systems that do not require special adapters.
If the answer is no, consider a portable battery extender designed for your device that acts as an extra battery. These extenders plug right a device, but make sure the devices are compatible. For instance, Apple products use a different connection than other products. Extenders may run as much as $150, but are rechargeable and may fit more than one device. Finally, remember to charge all of your devices fully before leaving on the trip.
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