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Wouldn’t it be nice to have a personal travel assistant? Someone who could research flights, book accommodation, and check what the weather will be like during your trip, and all you need to do is ask them nicely?
Enter Alexa, the voice-activated AI assistant that’s been making waves in the tech world. As it turns out, it includes some useful travel skills that can help out before and during your trip. Fascinated by its potential, I decided to take a closer look.
What is Alexa? A Primer
If you’re not yet familiar with it, Alexa is Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant. In essence, it’s Amazon’s answer to Apple’s Siri, with a twist. While Siri mainly responds to questions by looking up answers online, Alexa can take things a step further and act on commands to do things like turning down the lights or playing music.
Simply activate the system by using the trigger word (by default, “Alexa”), clearly state your question or command, and wait for the magic to happen.
Alexa works via “skills,” which are similar to apps on a smartphone. Right now there are over 100,000 skills available, with more released every week. In a smart move, Amazon released the Skills Kit to the public, meaning anyone with basic programming knowledge can create skills for others to enjoy.
How do you get Alexa, though? It’s included in Amazon’s Echo smart speaker line, with a wide range of models to choose from. There’s also a web app, Echosim, which lets you use Alexa without an Echo as long as you have an Amazon account.
Alexa is increasingly showing up elsewhere as well, including in smartphones and tablet computers, car stereos, earbuds, headphones, rings, and even eyeglasses.
The Echo is the standard model, currently in its third generation. This speaker comes with Wi-fi and Bluetooth, and is able to control smart home devices with the addition of a hub device.
At 27.5 ounces and 5.8 x 3.9 x 3.9 inches, it isn’t exactly travel-sized, but won’t have you heading for the oversize luggage counter either.
More useful for travelers is the Dot, which (aside from the sound quality) offers the same features as the Echo in a much smaller package.
At 10.6 ounces and 1.7 x 3.9 x 3.9 inches, it’s easy to conceal in a room and easy enough to carry, should you want you. It’s also relatively inexpensive, which always helps.
Smallest of all, though, is the Flex. This little speaker has no battery, and is designed to plug directly into a wall socket. Sound quality is mediocre at best, but it’s a simple and straightforward way to add Alexa voice assistance to a room.
There’s also a USB-A port on the bottom, so you can charge your phone or other device directly from it. That’s handy, but the Flex still isn’t really useful enough to justify a place in your suitcase — especially if you’re heading overseas and need a travel adapter to plug it into the wall anyway.
On the other hand, the Plus and Studio are expanded versions of the Echo. They’re heavy and bulky, with a built-in smart home hub, high-fidelity sound, and more. These speakers are great in a living room or home cinema space, but won’t be making it into your suitcase any time soon.
The Show adds a screen into the mix, making it a full audio-visual device. Available in three different sizes from 5.5″ to 10.1″, it’s a combination of a basic tablet computer and speaker that’s designed to live on your kitchen bench or bedside table.
They’re nice devices, but for travel we’d suggest taking a Kindle Fire instead. Amazon’s similar-sized tablets are much more useful on the road, still have Alexa support built in, and cost less.
Alexa for Travelers
Alexa has a wealth of skills built for travel planning, and I decided to put them to the test before a recent trip to Ecuador. Since I haven’t made up my mind on whether to shell out for an Echo yet, I borrowed my friend’s one (a standard model) a few days prior to see if it’d be any use.
As it turns out, it was. Here’s what Alexa can do for you in terms of travel planning:
Look Up Flights
You can ask Alexa to look up flights to a specific destination, and set up your home airport as the default origin. You can even ask Alexa to find a flight to anywhere based on your budget, with the command “Alexa, find my flights for [your target price].”
The Kayak skill also lets you book hotel rooms and car rentals, and set price alerts for accommodation and flights.
Find Out Visa Requirements
For international trips, Alexa can help take the guesswork out of whether you need a visa for the country you’re visiting. Just ask Alexa clearly, stating your citizenship and where you’re going, and the Visa Requirements skill will give you the info you need, along with anything else your destination requires for you to enter.
Keep in mind this skill is just for informational purposes. Always check with the appropriate embassy whether the data is up to date, since “Alexa told me” isn’t likely to be a valid excuse at the immigration counter.
Confirm Travel Status
Several skills let you check the status of flights. When Is My Flight checks if there are any delays, and provides the new time of departure or arrival if necessary.
If you booked your flight with Expedia, the skill can also check your flight status. It doesn’t yet let you book flights or hotel rooms (that’s planned for the future,) but you can check loyalty points and reserve a rental car already.
Beyond just checking whether planes are running on time, Alexa can even track flights in real-time. Just tell Alexa the name of the airline and flight number, and the Flight Tracker skill will give you updates.
Caveat: so far, it only works for domestic US and Canadian flights.
Check the Weather
The Big Sky skill will tell you what to expect in terms of weather in your destination, down to the street where you’ll be staying if necessary.
Find Out Security Line Wait Times
Security lines can be the difference between making and missing your flight. As the name suggests, the Airport Security Wait Time skill can check the average waiting time at security in several airports, so you can leave with enough extra time to avoid an ungainly sprint to your boarding gate.
Schedule an Uber or Lyft Ride
Figure Out Transport
Want to figure out the train options between London and Paris, or how to get to JFK airport by public transport? The Faretrotter skill lets you discover where you can fly from a given airport, how to get between cities by a specific (or any) mode of transport, and more.
On the Road
While some of the above skills are equally useful when you’re actually traveling (like Uber and Big Sky), Alexa also has a few interesting features specifically for those on the road.
Alexa can help you pick up words in the language of the country you are visiting, with the Translated skill. With it, Alexa will detect words and phrases in English, and repeat them in one of 37 languages.
Just ask how to say a specific word or sentence, and in which language, and Alexa will translate it for you.
Request Hotel Services
Forget about calling the concierge: if you’re staying in the right hotel, The Front Desk skill will make requests on your behalf. If you need more towels, or to order room service, or want to be woken up at a certain time, Alexa can help.
Granted, it only works at places like Marriott and Westin at the moment, but if that’s where you’re resting your head, it’s a useful extra.
Book Tables in RestaurantsOpenTable has an Alexa skill, which works in several countries and helps make reservations in restaurants with just a voice command.
Alexa will ask a few questions to make sure the restaurant has all the info required, and you’re good to go. Keep in mind it’s only available in the US and UK for now.
Find Things To Do
Want to check out what’s happening in a specific city? Alexa can help you find out about concerts, sporting events, new restaurants, and more.
Trying to pick a restaurant? Ask Alexa for a recommendation with your requirements, and it will look for one that matches, using Yelp data via the Random Restaurant skill.
It’s also worth searching the Skills store for a city guide to your particular destination — there are dozens of different ones available.
So, Is It Worth Caring About?
So, how much value can travelers get from Alexa? The technology certainly has some interesting uses, especially for trip planning and researching, but it’s clearly still in the development stage. Many skills have limited capabilities, both in terms of what they can do and where they can do it, with some way to go before they reach full potential.
Would I recommend taking an Echo along on your travels? Honestly, no. I wouldn’t consider anything other than the Dot, but with Alexa built into so many other devices now, there’s no need to pack a smart speaker just to use a voice assistant.
Even if you want decent sound on the road, there are better Bluetooth travel speakers available — just pair them with your Alexa-enabled phone or tablet if necessary.
All in all, if you are interested in owning an Echo for your home for other reasons (as a smart home control device, or a speaker, or just because you love technology and want a new toy), Alexa will certainly add something to the travel experience.
If you don’t have another reason, though, I wouldn’t invest in an Echo just to make travel planning a bit easier. Maybe down the line, when more skills are developed or the existing ones have reached their full potential, it’ll be a different story… but not right now.