11 ways smartphones are changing how people travel

Will hassle-free travel ever become a reality?

Getting from point A to point B can be a tricky business sometimes, especially when the journey involves flights and hotel stays. Navigating unfamiliar airports, searching for taxis and waiting in line can add up to exhausting days for travelers.

That didn't change much when smartphones were first introduced. But as mobile technology improved and more people began using them, big hotel chains and air carriers began to see new opportunities.

Now, there are smartphone apps for just about every aspect of travel. Many of them aim for the same goals: To reduce the time you wait and the number of people you talk to. Some even try to make traveling fun. Yeah, it's a new concept. They're working on it.

Read on for 11 ways smartphones are changing the way people travel.

Making plane and hotel reservations

There are hundreds of apps available for booking flights. Some of them are much easier than calling airlines on the phone, and that's exactly the way the industry wants it. The easier the app, the lighter the burden on airline call centers.

Airlines have developed their own flashy apps that let you book a flight in a few minutes. You can also change your flight or cancel a reservation without talking to anyone on the phone.

About 76 percent of passengers are using airline apps, and 43 percent say it has definitely improved their travel, according to a recent survey from aviation communication firm Societe Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques (SITA) and aviation journal Air Transport World.

"Travel is better with technology," said Francesco Violante, CEO of SITA, when the survey results were released. "And tech-savvy passengers expect more personalized apps and services consistently delivered on the web, to their phone or tablet."

It's taken hotels a lot longer to offer online booking. But now, large hotel chains are rolling out sophisticated apps that offer much more than room reservations. We'll get to those in a minute.

Picking your seats

Flight reservation apps also give passengers the ability to choose their own seats from their phones. Some airlines are even letting you learn more about the people sitting next to you.

Virgin America has its own in-flight social network that lets people use their iPhones to connect with other passengers at the gate or in the air. The service, according to the airline, is designed to help business travelers "take advantage of the downtime in-flight" to make new professional connections.

Getting a boarding pass

You might have already seen people using phones as boarding passes at airports. Southwest and other airlines have been rolling out the service recently, allowing passengers to skip printing out boarding passes altogether.

Flyers can call up their boarding passes using a phone's app. They then scan the mobile passes at airport security checkpoints and at plane gates.

The app could be embraced by more flyers as airlines begin charging fees to print out paper boarding passes. Allegiant Air hits travelers with a $5 fee to print out boarding passes at the airport, and Spirit Airlines charges $10.

Accessing in-flight entertainment

Delta Air Lines (DAL) has begun offering passengers free movies, television shows, games and music through its Fly Delta app for phones and laptops. United (UAL) rolled out an in-flight movie service earlier this year with hundreds of movies and TV shows available through its app.

Other airlines are jumping on board as well, recognizing that more people are tending to ignore expensive seat-back screens in favor of their own devices. Southwest Air (LUV) announced Monday that it will offer Apple's Beats Music app to let passengers stream free music from their own devices.

Booking rental cars

Many airlines and travel apps move users right into car rentals after a flight is booked. Enterprise, Hertz and Alamo all have their own apps as well, and Expedia (EXPE) collects information from more than 30 rental companies for its CarRentals.com app.

Car-sharing services also let customers view and reserve available cars with a smartphone. Zipcar, a subsidiary of Avis Budget Group (CAR), even lets you use your phone to lock a car's doors or honk the car's horn in order to find it.

Hailing a taxi

The act of hailing a cab hasn't changed much in decades. Then along came services such as Uber and Lyft to turn the industry on its head.

Now, customers can use apps to reserve a taxi and get an estimate of how much the trip will cost. Uber and Lyft have been expanding across the country and the world and encountering significant opposition from traditional taxicab companies that claim the upstart service isn't as safe or well-regulated.

Taxi companies are busy developing their own apps, meanwhile. Yellow Cab in Texas has launched Hail A Cab which lets users find a nearby cab and schedule future pick-ups.

Checking in to a hotel

So you've slogged through long lines at the airport and waited patiently for a ride. The last thing you want is to wait in another line to get your hotel room.

Taking a cue from the airlines, major hotel chains are now allowing customers to check in online. Marriott International (MAR) lets guests check in at most of its North American hotels. Customers get a message that a room is available, and can pick up their room keys in the lobby.

Hilton Worldwide is implementing a similar system, and will also let guests use its app to select specific rooms.

Unlocking a room

Who needs a room key anymore? Starwood Hotels and Resorts (HOT) is bypassing keys altogether and allowing guests to unlock hotel room doors with their phones.

Customers can use Starwood's preferred guest app to check in with their phones, get their room number and open their room door. Guests simply hold their phones up to the door, and the device's Bluetooth connection will activate the lockpad.

Requesting a wake-up call

OK, all those fancy-schmancy phones can probably wake you up in 17 different languages. But some heavy sleepers still count on the hotel wake-up call to rouse them out of bed. Hotels are exploring the idea of letting guests schedule wake-up calls on their phones and tablets, although the service is not yet widely available.

A new app called Wakie mimics the hotel wake-up call for users, and they don't have to be staying in a hotel to use it. The app says it has 1.5 million users who agree to wake each other up in the morning with a phone call. The calls are automatically disconnected after 60 seconds, which eliminates the possibility of a long, awkward conversation.

Ordering room service

Most hotels still take room service orders the old fashioned way: You thumb through the in-room menu, compile your order and place a call to the correct extension. But hotels are eyeing the possibility of ordering room service through an app, which would ideally make the process more efficient and easier. Hotels are also looking at selling spa treatments through an app, The Associated Press reports.

Sightseeing

Plenty of apps offer maps for getting around town. But a new breed of sightseeing apps aim to give tourists a more complete introduction to a region.

Detour, for example, is developing "location-aware audio walks" that people can listen to on their phones while exploring a city. "We also wanted Detour to be incredibly immersive, almost like a video game where the listener is the main character and the game world is the real world," wrote Andrew Mason, the former CEO of Groupon (GRPN) who is now heading up the company, in a blog post.

The Historic New Orleans app tracks a users location and shows photos that were taken in the same spot from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Some regions are pouring big money into developing apps for tourists. Hilton Head Island in South Carolina is spending $100,000 to create an app for smart phones, a controversial decision that is being criticized by some residents as being too expensive.