The Travel Adviser: Tech and travel

The playground of global technology has recently moved to San Francisco.

By
May 25, 2015 04:31
California

San Francisco, California. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It’s not the largest city in California; in fact it’s only the fourth-most populous city in the state.

It encompasses a land area of about 121 km. It is the most densely settled large city (at least 200,000 residents) in the state and the second-most densely populated city in the US after New York City.

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I’m describing what is affectionately known as “The City by the Bay” and the “Paris of the West” or as Angelinos’ enjoy calling it “Frisco.”

San Francisco’s rapid growth began with the 1848 Gold Rush that saw a wide variety of characters moving out West exemplified by Levi Strauss whose riveted denim pants some 25-years later show an early example of the entrepreneurial spirit that runs deep in the veins of its citizens. In fact after three-quarters of the city was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, it was quickly rebuilt.

After World War II, massive immigration resulted in very liberal attitudes. The hippie counterculture movement, the sexual revolution, the peace movement growing from opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War led into the Summer of Love and the gay-rights movement, cementing San Francisco as a center of liberal activism in the United States.

This culture expanded to the south and Silicon Valley was once the only place to be for the world’s hippest tech firms. It’s the region that gave birth to the all-conquering behemoths like Google and Apple.

But recently the playground of global technology has moved roughly 60 km. north to San Francisco.



Information is the new currency and that is gushing through the streets.

To be sure, San Francisco is a popular tourist destination, known for its cool summers, steep rolling hills, eclectic mix of architecture and landmarks including the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, the former prison on Alcatraz Island and its Chinatown district.

While on a recent visit to Los Angeles I decided to spend three days in San Fran combining tourism with technology. My criteria was simple – everything possible connected with the trip, from the flights to the hotel, to the taxis to the tourism sites to the choice of restaurants and the entertainment options could only be done using the Internet. While not ignoring the human element, it was easy to focus on San Francisco companies to ease in my challenge.

San Francisco is the headquarters of various companies such as Uber, Twitter, Yelp, Craigslist, Airbnb, Square Inc., Pinterest and Reddit, so my tools were many.

We were five family members in total with a variety of interests all flying from the Los Angeles region.

First up, reserve the flights. Quickly using my own resources, I found that legacy carriers that fly between the two cities, United Airlines, American Air and Delta had decent fares but knew that Southwest in all likelihood would have lower fares. No surprise that on their site, southwest.com they had $120 round trip fares from Burbank to Oakland, which was far less than the $294 comparable price on the other airlines. Southwest eschews both travel consultants and all travel sites, such as Expedia or Kayak, forcing all clients to book on their site. Five tickets were purchased with confirmation sent to our emails.

To sleep, perchance to dream was next on the agenda. Dealing with large Israeli wholesalers of hotels I easily compared rates with Internet sites such as hotels.com and bookings.com, but wanted to try out another avenue. Opting not to take a house or apartment with Airbnb as my companions wanted a hotel, we opted for Priceline. Utilizing their option to make a bid, we decided we wanted a property near Union Square east and would pay up to $140 a night for a four-star deluxe hotel room.

Putting in our bid, we were happily surprised when the Sir Francis Drake Hotel accepted our offer. Moreover by going to the hotel sites, we discovered that by joining their hotel’s membership club without a charge, wi-fi would be free.

The day before our flight to San Francisco, Southwest sent us a reminder to do web check-in and receive our boarding passes. At Burbank Bob Hope Airport, we had booked online an off-site parking lot with a free airport transfer. At the Southwest counter we simply showed them the barcode of the boarding pass on our phones. With its innovative concept of open seating and boarding based on early web checkin, we were able to be in the first wave of fliers boarding the aircraft.

Initially planning on renting a car, my first thought was to use a zipcar.com.

Zipcar is a car rental company, actually a subsidiary of Avis whom Budget purchased for $500 million in 2013. You “borrow” the car and are billed by the hour or the day. You simply pick up the car using an access card that works with the car’s technology to unlock the door, where the keys are already located inside.

You drive it to a predetermined location and reverse the procedure to return it. In fact Zipcar has an application on both iPhone and Android that allows members to honk the horn to locate a Zipcar and unlock the doors. In the end though, the price for a car large enough for five adults and paying for parking in the city encouraged us to use BART instead, the Bay Area Rapid Transit directly to Union Square to check into our hotel.

The hotel had already prechecked us into our rooms and had our credit card on file; a simple show of our photo IDs had us in our rooms and hooking up to their wi-fi. Our first stop was at Fisherman’s Wharf where we planned to explore the area. With cable cars at $6 a person we quickly realized that a taxi could be more reasonable. Knowing that both Uber and Lyft offered far cheaper rates, we had already downloaded their apps onto our smartphones.

Uber markets and operates the mobile app based transportation network. The Uber app allows you to submit a trip request, which is routed to crowdsourced taxi drivers. In our case we chose on our smartphones Uber XL for a larger car. No monies are exchanged, no tips given. When you download the app, you provide them with the credit card you wish to be charged. The GPS on your smartphone lets them know where you’re located; you write where you’re going and in less than 30 seconds your request is confirmed. You see on your smartphone a picture of your driver, the vehicle that will transport you and how long until it arrives. It’s done using a map so you see him or her driving toward you. At the conclusion of the journey you receive notification of what it costs and they ask you to rate the driver. Throughout our stay, drivers offered us water and other pleasantries to make sure we gave them a five-star rating.

The entire experience repeated several times throughout, made our stay one of our highlights. No need to hail down a taxi driver, no haggling over the price. Comparing rates that our hotel provided us with, our savings were approximately 20 percent to 30% over a regular taxi. Our vehicles were brand new, sparkling clean cars ranging from Lincoln Navigators to Honda CRV’s. Kibitzing with the drivers, we found many did this part time to supplement their income.

Uber charges them only a straight fee of $2 no matter how long their journey.

Insightful readers will question how the average tourist who doesn’t change SIM cards when he’s abroad utilizes Uber which requires wi-fi. Actually there’s quite a simple solution. We would order the Uber from our hotel lobby and at the end of our touring day, would simple locate an establishment with wi-fi (be it a local Starbucks or Ghirardelli Square) to reserve the return ride.

We had downloaded the Trip Advisor City Guide for San Francisco. This nifty app requires no wi-fi and utilizing the compass on your smartphone directs you around the city. In fact after a lengthy morning jog, it was a pleasure asking it to show me how to get back to my hotel. Using simple arrows, similar to Google Maps, it brought me directly back.

The app uses the data from their famous TripAdvisor site, ranking, listing and describing all attractions, hotels, restaurants, nightlife and shopping. It gives suggested itineraries that you can take and offers tickets for tours. All of this for free and with no need for wi-fi. I’ve used the City Guide Trip Adviser around the world in cities diverse as Barcelona and Paris. Its ease of use and assistance in recommendations is first class.

My other traveling companions enjoyed using Yelp once I offered dining options as they wanted to read the reviews. Yelp is headquartered in San Francisco.

Although initially conceived as an email referral service, it was relaunched on the basis of unsolicited online reviews. At night the younger members of our party were taken out to explore the nightlife by their cousin who resides in the city, taking Lyft, a competitor of Uber who also employs reliable community drivers.

We had decided on visiting Alcatraz Island and were sage enough to know you had to book online days in advance to snag tickets. Similar to the hotel and airline reservation, once the booking was completed, the confirmation was sent to my smartphone.

Sadly using outdated technology, they did require a hard copy at the port.

When supporting the local economy at Pier 39 and at Ghirardelli Square, payments were made using the mobile app of Square, Inc. that supports a simple swipe on the merchant’s Square Reader, which is a small plastic device that plugs into their tablet.

If there was any question on how technology and travel are working together, my visit to San Francisco confirmed the synergy. Mobile devices are ideal companions for travelers, allowing them to access information, services and booking while en route.

What I’ve mentioned are some of the hottest trends relevant to travel apps: cross-device services and marketing, algorithm-driven personalized local search results and innovative photo features. This integration of relative travel information and data results into augmented reality apps.

Travel is becoming more “personal.”

Consider the following: Want to visit a big city, but are traveling on a budget? Airbnb has become a popular means to book a room in someone’s home or get a villa at lower rates than hotels. Uber has turned ride sharing into a new industry and is expanding from delivering people to delivering goods. Zipcar allows users to rent a car, even for as little time as an hour.

It’s clear that a new sea change is brewing. The maturation of cloud, social media, mobility and analytics are motivating the transition from an individual centered economy to an everyone-to-everyone economy.

Characterized by hyper connectedness and collaboration of consumers and organizations, in this integrated system they work together to create value.

Today we find that technological change is happening in a highly compressed time span, much faster than in past decades. We are at the beginning of another shift, as newer technologies develop and mature, but much faster and more profoundly than ever.

For me the confluence of technology and travel was an exhilarating experience, almost but not quite matched by the best chocolate malt shake I’ve ever had, courtesy of the Sundae Bar at Ghirardelli Square.

The writer is CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments: mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il


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