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Technology to smooth today's travel turbulence

From CNET Magazine: Smartphones, online services and biometric scanners are already easing the way for travelers. Expect even more tech to transform your journeys in the not-too-distant future.

Passengers line up for security checks at Boston's Logan Airport. Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Andy Abramson spends more than 200 days a year traversing the globe. It can be a gruel­ing combination of international flights, airport layovers and rush-hour traffic.

While that kind of life on the road can bring strong men to their knees, Abramson eases through it with apps on his Apple iPhone and MacBook Air, including Uber for hailing rides, Airbnb for booking lodging, and Skype and GoToMeeting for video chatting.

"I pretty much live using my technology," says Abramson, CEO of Comunicano, a public relations and marketing consultancy in Del Mar, California.

Though few of us will travel a fraction as much as Abramson, getting around is certainly easier now than a decade ago. Online booking has replaced trips to travel agents. Digital bar codes are supplanting boarding passes. Google Maps keeps us from getting lost. Apps from United and other airlines stream movies to our tablets while we're in the air.

The next decade promises even more innovation. Touchscreens, wireless networks, sensors and software will escort you from home to hotel, and all points in between. Online services will handle the grunt work of finding hotels, booking flights and figuring out transportation. Biometric readers will scan your fingerprints, face or eyes to speed you through security and passport lines. Smart luggage won't get lost. Hotel Wi-Fi will automatically sync up with your devices. And smartphones will let doctors remotely diagnose ailments.

Here's how technology will change our journeys in the not-too-distant future.

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At your service

Looking for a flight from San Francisco to Rome? Today, you could spend hours comparing flight times, connecting flights and prices.

Technology is changing tedious parts of travel. CNET/Getty Images


Intelligent software agents will take over that chore, predicts David Lloyd, chief executive of IntelliResponse, which makes "virtual agent" software that large companies use to provide customer support. These virtual agents will know your travel habits and preferences (aisle seat and extra legroom, please). They'll also act swiftly to rebook flights in case of delays or cancellations.

It's the direction Expedia is headed with online service, says John Kim, chief product officer of the popular online travel site. "But first, we have to generate trust with our customers."

Then there's the little issue of those long, snaking lines in front of airlines' check-in counters. Several carriers, including Alaska Airlines and Spain's Iberia, let you print baggage tags at home to bypass those lines.

Speedy check

Biometric authentication -- using our bodies to identify who we are -- will also speed us through airport checkpoints.

It's slowly starting to happen. Two years ago, London's Gatwick airport ran a trial in which 3,000 British Airways passengers scanned their irises when checking in. That allowed security cameras to recognize them as they passed through checkpoints and boarding gates. Scandinavian carrier SAS now scans passengers' fingerprints when they check their bags and uses those prints to let them board.

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"We are going to move toward self-boarding of airlines," says Terry Hartmann, vice president for Unisys security solutions, which makes biometric authentication systems.

Security checks will also get faster and less intrusive (no more TSA agents rummaging through your gear) with new scanners from companies like startup Qylur Security Systems. Its five-cubbyhole baggage scanner, tested in Brazil during last year's World Cup, takes 30 seconds compared with 2 minutes for today's X-ray conveyor belt systems, says CEO Lisa Dolev. And it's smart enough to let you leave water or laptops packed in your bag.

You'll also spend less time getting through customs when you land. The Vancouver Airport Authority's face-detection technology cut peak waiting times from 90 minutes to less than 15, says Paul Mewett, a VAA director. Fingerprint and facial scanners at South Korea's Incheon Airport get travelers through customs in about 12 minutes, compared with 45 minutes worldwide.

About 14 percent of the world's airports plan to use biometric technology of some sort within the next couple of years, according to a survey by SITA, which provides technology to airports and airlines.

When you're there

Hilton's smartphone app already lets you check in and pick a room before you arrive. Later this year, you'll be able to bypass the front desk altogether by unlocking your room with your smartphone.

And in a few years, today's flaky hotel Wi-Fi will be an unpleasant memory. It'll accommodate multiple devices and heavier traffic -- and it won't cost extra.

"Wi-Fi is the new hot water. It's something you absolutely expect," says Umar Riaz, a travel services consultant at Accenture.

Tomorrow's travel tech, today

Don't want to wait for the future? Try today's gadgets and services.

Phablets like the iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Google Nexus 6 improve productivity when your laptop's packed. Their bigger screens ease thumb typing and make mobile document editing more practical. Phablets' batteries last longer, too. Make sure you get a fast-charging model.

Google Translate serves as a language middleman, enabling a two-way conversation. Its Word Lens feature isn't perfect, but it helps translate signs and menus.

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Portable Wi-Fi hotspots for rent from companies like XCom Global cut roaming charges and hotel network fees. Their Wi-Fi networks link your phone, PC and tablet to wireless data networks in other countries.

TripIt minimizes travel chaos. Using your booking emails from hotels, flights and rental cars, it creates a tidy itinerary linked to your online calendar. The $49-per-year Pro version adds alerts, locates alternate flights and strips out ads.

Google's $35 Chromecast plugs into your hotel's TV to bypass pay-per-view videos in favor of streaming video. You can hold videoconferences on the big screen, too.

Profound changes

Transportation itself may also change.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to revolutionize travel with a Hyperloop transportation system. Solar-powered electromagnetic pulses would propel pressurized passenger cabins through tubes on a cushion of air. Speeds could theoretically approach 800 mph.

Others think high-speed rail will be the mainstream transportation of the future. Passengers already use it widely throughout Asia and Europe. And California broke ground this year for its own $68 billion bullet service.

Then there are remote-controlled telepresence robots from iRobot and others. These wheeled machines bring your face, eyes and voice to another location so your virtual self can roam the corridors and chat with co-workers. "We're in the early stages of a massive opportunity to reduce the need for business travel," says Double Robotics CEO David Cann.

Maybe the ultimate future of travel is none at all.

This story appears in the fall edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, go here.