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A Year On, Is Travel Better With An Apple Watch?

A year ago, I was delighted and shocked to win a raffle for an Apple Watch during the SITA IT Summit, then held in Brussels.

I promised to use the prize for the good of science–to test the limits of the device’s benefit to travelers—and I have.

As I set off for Barcelona to attend SITA’s Summit this year, I thought I’d write a quick update on the technology: what works, what doesn’t, and why I’d stand in line to buy a future Apple Watch when (if) this one ever goes kaput.

First: I don’t think the Apple Watch is for everyone.

I recently read a review (and I apologize for not remembering the particular publication) that pointed out the Apple Watch is more relevant to a generation that grew up wearing watches, to begin with. Younger generations, used to working on their handheld devices, don’t really think to check their wrist for information.

Perhaps there’s something to that. But I also believe it’s well worth remembering that watches weren’t always what most people used to check the time. In fact, my great-grandfather’s prized possession was not his wristwatch, it was his pocket watch.

The wristband was first introduced as jewelry. But the watch really took hold when soldiers found it an easier and more reliable way to have the information they needed on the go.

I think a similar dynamic is at play with wearables—not just the Apple Watch.

The device needs to be attractive enough that people will use it as a fashion accessory without feeling too self-conscious. Apple has accomplished that.

The wearable should also serve as a quick portal to things you really need to know while rushing around.

A Watch, A Computer, A Bridge

Think of the Apple Watch as the small screen summary of what matters most of all the incredible amount of information we now pack into our impossibly powerful pocket computers and communication devices. Calling it a smartphone really is a poor term, I believe. It doesn’t begin to cover everything they do today.

My smartphone now has more ROM than my laptop! I’m writing this on my smartphone. OK, you say, time to upgrade your laptop. And yes, maybe, but no.

I’m learning to get along with my iPhone and my iPad because they do more for me and are easier to tote around.

My point? While the smartphone is increasingly designed to work as a catch-all computer, I find it a nuisance for really basic things. It’s too easy to get distracted by other apps, alerts, and nonsense.

Properly set up, the Apple Watch tells me what I need to know–even if my phone is in a handbag or in another room. It’s quicker. It literally saves time.

This is especially true when I travel, and it has become more so as travel apps have introduced complications.

‘Complications’ is watchmakers’ terminology for the fancy functions that turn a Timex into a Breitling, if you will. They put the information you value most on the Apple Watch face, and you only need to turn your wrist to see it.

I have set up a couple of go-to travel watch faces that help me find my way around. When I’m traveling, I select them and forget them. When I need pertinent information, it’s all there.

I particularly like Tripcase, for various reasons, I can go into some other time, but App In the Air is helpful too.

And yes, I use airline Apple Watch apps, though not as often as Wallet.

Here’s why: if I already have my travel itinerary from Tripcase on my travel complications screen, then I don’t really need that information twice.

The airline boarding pass on Apple Watch is a bit quirky. I can use it whenever there are hand-held scanners, but the slotted scanners more often found at gates won’t fit my wrist. I don’t think they fit anyone’s wrist.

The first time I wore the Apple Watch to travel, I tried using the electronic boarding pass but had to take the watch off to put it through the machine. I haven’t tried again since.

I’d like to. It’s sometimes more convenient relying on the watch than balancing bags and a smartphone while rushing the gate, but having to stop to take the Apple Watch off to scan the boarding pass is silly.

I don’t see airports reequipping readers to be more ‘Smart Watch’ friendly unless this becomes a contactless feature, its a pretty irrelevant smart watch function.

What’s really needed on the Apple Watch are flight alerts. That’s why I like the second-party apps I use. Sudden gate change? Flight delay? No problem. I’m notified with a quick pulse to my wrist. I look at the watch face and the complications tell me what’s up. No need to tap or click through for more information. It’s all there.

Airlines should focus on those functions for their apps. A 30 minutes to boarding warning would be a gift to distracted shoppers. A time/distance to gate calculation, based on the measured pace speed of the wearer, might prove helpful for limited mobility travelers. Even a quick call button for gate transport would be a good idea to help limited mobility travelers get through the terminal.

Now that we are advancing on the technology of baggage tracking, it’s time to start thinking of sharing that information with passengers on a smartwatch app. I suspect that’s where travelers who wear smartwatches might want to get information about their bags.

The Apple Watch wayfinding feature has also proven useful when traveling. This is a native function of the map application and works like a charm.

If airports could somehow incorporate this Apple Watch way-finding feature to navigate the terminal, that might be equally helpful.

I used wayfinding during a recent visit to London–a city I’ve been to often. Still, I fully respect its ability to turn me in circles until I’m utterly lost (and delighted).

I set my destination discreetly on the phone at my hotel then followed the gentle pulses on the watch in the right direction, only occasionally looking at the watch map for reassurance. I didn’t have to fiddle with the watch to get this to work. The alerts come up on their own.

That’s what the Apple Watch does best: less.

It overwhelms you less. It weighs you down less. It interrupts you less (unless you ask it to do otherwise).

The Apple Watch lets you get about your business and stay on top of all the key information you need to get the job done.

It’s also an excellent way to stay in touch with home.

Even during a harried rush to a far-off gate, I’ve found time to tap and send a smiley face back to my husband letting him know I’m fine. I don’t need both thumbs for that, even the tip of my nose might do in a pinch. (I have not actually tried this, but I will next time).

Whatever any travel company does with the Apple Watch, the key thing to remember is that it’s NOT a smartphone and doesn’t want to be one.

I don’t use it the same way, nor do I expect it to do all the same things. That would be ludicrous.

We need it to do less far better than the device app.

I think part of the reason there hasn’t been a great success in secondary apps for the Apple Watch is that many think of the Apple Watch as a miniature iPhone, cramming in elements of applications that are irrelevant on the go.

Apple’s also had some trouble because the Apple Watch is wholly dependent on the smartphone for a connection. Updates can be painfully slooooooooooooow when you need to get beyond the surface information on an app.

The company has asked developers to prepare for apps that can be directly connected to wifi through the watch in the future.

That will be nice, but it will be much nicer to see developers ‘getting’ the ergonomic application of the device when they plan their user interface and plan the scope of functions that will be pushed through to the Apple Watch.

I repeat: complications are extremely handy tools.

I’d put it this way: They say reporters need to answer the: who, what, when, where, why, and how.

The Apple Watch is the ideal reporter for the first four. The last two are best left to that huge tiny supercomputer you carry in your pocket.

After a year, I still like and rely on my Apple Watch. I don’t like to have it off my wrist. I wish the battery lasted longer so I didn’t have to remove it for days.

I can do a lot more with it than just manage travel. It’s even helped me be a better writer by keeping me on track.

There are many useful applications that I’m still only discovering today, and I expect to find more tomorrow.

It is durable. I bought a different rubber wristband for it from Apple for a nice color change. Those things are ridiculously priced, but Apple always understood vanity price points.

I did manage to scratch the top of the watch’s crystal display. I fell, and it got scuffed. I don’t know what material it struck against as the crystal is meant to be scratch resistant. You can barely see the scratch, but I know it’s there.

Even with that, I am unlikely to rush out and buy a replacement until Apple gives me a darned good reason.

I believe the Apple Watch is worth the money but the one I have already satisfies my needs. I’d need a really good reason to buy up to a new one.

I’m not sure whether that reason will be functional or aesthetic, or a combination, but no doubt Apple is thinking about this too. I suspect I’ll know the right new Apple Watch to buy when I see it.

For now, my one-year-old Apple Watch is still and will remain my favorite useful travel gadget.

In other airline industry news

SAS Simplifies Bookings By Adding Complications

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