[SPECIAL TO THE SUN] — Imagine reading a novel on your BlackBerry while cruising the Mediterranean, or using your mobile device instead of a paper boarding pass at the airport. And what about this? Getting alerts on your GPS-enabled cell phone to notify you of popular eateries and shops within a five-block radius of where you happen to be standing -- whether it's in New York, Paris, Sydney, Australia, or Shanghai, China.
Imagine no longer. All that stuff? It's here, and more is on the way as mobile devices become smarter, faster and cheaper. One thing is certain: It's transforming the way we travel.
"We've become these nomads, going anywhere and at any time, and we don't have to take that huge, clunky Frommer's or Lonely Planet guide with us," says Ann Mack, director of trend-spotting for JWT, one of the nation's largest advertising firms. "All we need is our little mobile device to tell us where we're going, how to get there and what to do when we arrive."
Ubiquitous cell phones are driving the trend. In fact, people don't necessarily think of them as just phones anymore, but as what Mack calls "communication / entertainment / traveling devices."
Though the trend is just emerging, its implications are huge. Consider: Three-quarters of all travelers in the U.S. have a cell phone, and among business travelers, the figure is closer to 90 percent, according to data from Forrester Research, a technology and market research company. Research shows 60 percent of travelers are using some type of mobile data service, whether it's text messaging, sending photos from camera phones or accessing the Internet.
But the information travelers demand on their mobile devices is much more immediate and functional than what they might expect when interacting with a traditional Web site.
"When you're accessing travel information, it's much more focused: Is the flight on time? What are the directions to the hotel? What time does the next tour bus leave? What is traffic like between the office and the airport?" says Henry Harteveldt, a vice president at Forrester and principal analyst of airline / travel industry research.
Harteveldt, a keynote speaker at the Travel Industry Association's annual conference in April, identifies several companies that have been early adopters. US Airways, for example, sends flight-departure status through text messaging. The company also encourages travelers to sign up for its loyalty program, again through text messaging, right at the gate. InterContinental Hotels is testing a variety of programs, including guest surveys, via text messaging.
"Were you happy with your stay? It's a great way to get an immediate response while everything is still fresh in the customer's mind," says Harteveldt.
Continental Airlines, meanwhile, is testing wireless check-in, popular in Europe and Asia, at some U.S. airports. Southwest Airlines allows wireless check-in, but passengers must print a boarding pass at home or from a kiosk at the airport. And this year, several airlines, including JetBlue, American and Virgin America, began experimenting with in-flight Internet access for mobile devices as well as laptops.
"Clearly, what travel companies realize is that mobile devices are nearly ubiquitous with their customers. Customers like them. We rarely leave our homes without them. They are the device we are most likely to travel with," says Harteveldt. "Why not try to provide more services to the customer that allow the customer to have a better trip, that reduces the stress of check-in and that also helps the travel company with its business? This is a trend that can reduce cost, increase the number of people who are doing self-service and can also lead to customer satisfaction."
To get an idea of what a fast-tracking trend this is, consider these recent developments:
Is your flight delayed or canceled, and you need to unexpectedly book a hotel room? Well, it just got easier. Hotels.com has introduced a Web application that allows iPhone and iPod touch users to view photos, descriptions and amenities for more than 75,000 properties; check hotel availability; and book accommodations.
More travelers are taking their pets on the road. Now there's a GPS-enabled dog collar, called RoamEO, that will alert you if your dog strays beyond a pre-set perimeter and show you on a hand-held receiver where your pet is heading and how fast. Rover can run, but he can't hide.
This year, American Airlines unveiled a sleeker, simpler version of its traditional Web site, AA.com, designed for Web-enabled cell phones, PDAs and other hand-held devices. When you log on using a mobile device, you will be automatically redirected to the new site, where you can view your itinerary, check in for a flight, check flight and bag status, access information on destinations or deals, book flights and request upgrades. Many pages are also available in Spanish.
GPS devices do far more than prevent you from getting lost. They can dispatch traffic updates; guide you to a wine bar or coffee shop; convert currency and measurements; store personal photos; direct you to the nearest police station or hospital; and act as a camera and voice recorder. Meanwhile, wireless companies are beginning to roll out a feature that shows customers where their friends are on a color-coded map on their cell-phone screen. This tool would help families and other groups stay together.
Early adopters of all this technology tend to be business travelers, according to Cathy Schetzina, a technology analyst for PhoCusWright, a market research firm that specializes in travel trends.
"Mobile applications have long been touted as having a potentially major impact on travel. The question has always been: When will its promise be realized?" she says. Schetzina suspects that "mobile's time may be here sooner than we think."
In fact, the new PhoCusWright Consumer Technology Survey, Second Edition, due out this summer, shows a surge in mobile-device activities in the U.S. this year over last. For example, 75 percent of respondents in this year's survey said they send or receive text messages, compared with 53 percent a year ago. Forty-one percent used their mobile devices to access the Internet, up 10 percentage points, and 28 percent used the technology to view video, up 11 percent.
The survey also suggests there is an appetite for travel-related applications. More than three in five respondents would like to view a map or directions, for instance, as well as receive flight-status alerts on their mobile devices. And 40 percent said they would like to use their cell phone as a boarding pass for a flight.
The success of mobile devices hinges largely on the devices themselves. For example, Harteveldt says, Apple's iPhone, with its elegant design and display, has shown how form and function can work together to provide utility.
"We will see more devices emerge like this," Harteveldt says.
He also expects that someday, and maybe not that far off, there will be wearable computers -- essentially an attachable monocle or clip that has a screen --on which you can download everything from train timetables to movies.
"It's the proverbial Dick Tracy watch," says Harteveldt.
"Just think of the future generation of travelers: Gen Y, ages 18 to 27, and Gen X, 28 to 41," Harteveldt added. "It is very clear from a travel industry standpoint that the mobile device will increasingly become a gateway, if not the primary gateway, of interacting with your customer."