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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 30,000 skills available, with more released every week. In a smart move, Amazon released the Skill 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 five different 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, but it’s currently in beta phase and isn’t created by Amazon.
The Echo is the standard model, currently in its second generation. This speaker comes with Wi-fi and Bluetooth, and is able to control smart home devices. At 29 ounces and 5.9 x 3.5 x 3.5 inches, it isn’t exactly travel-sized, but won’t have you heading for the oversize luggage counter either. It typically costs around $100, though you can get a refurbished model for less.
Other than the sound quality, the Dot packs the same punch as the standard Echo in a much smaller package. At just 5.7 ounces and 1.3 x 3.3 x 3.3 inches, it’s easy to conceal in a room and easy to carry, should you want you. It’s also the most affordable model, going for about fifty bucks.
On the other hand, the Plus is the expanded version of the Echo. No use for travelers, it’s a hefty 9.3 x 3.3 x 3.3 inches and 33.6 ounces. Featuring a built-in smart home hub, it sells for just under $150.
The Spot was the first Echo device with a screen, which added features like video calling, seeing music lyrics, playing Prime video, and showing baby monitors or security cameras. Smaller than the regular Echo but bigger than the Dot, it weighs 14.8 ounces and measures 4.1 x 3.8 x 3.6 inches. It will set you back around $130.
The Show is the larger, better version of the Spot, with a bigger screen, optimized visuals, and room-filling sound. At 7.4 x 7.4 x 3.5 inches and 41.0 ounces, it’s also the fanciest and most-expensive Echo device. Expect to pay around $230.
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 skill will give you the info you need, along with anything else your destination requires for you to enter.
Keep in mind this Alexa 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. Landing Times 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. Alexa 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
Don’t waste time trying to find a way to get to the airport. Just ask Alexa to order you an Uber or Lyft for the time you need to leave, to your home, hotel, or any other address you may be at.
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 36 languages.
Just ask Alexa 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 Restaurants
OpenTable 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.
The CityGuides skill provides plenty of information in supported cities. Skills like StubHub and Fandango let you check for available events, although you can’t (yet) book tickets directly through them.
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.
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Conclusion: So, Is It Worth It?
So, should travelers invest in an Echo in order to take advantage of Alexa? The technology certainly has some interesting uses, especially for trip planning and researching. It’s clearly still in the development stage, though: some 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? Weighing 29 ounces, the standard Echo I took definitely isn’t a lightweight device, and is very hard to justify. The 5.7oz Dot would certainly be easier to carry, and at around $50, you’ll be far less worried about it getting broken or stolen as well. Even so, it’s just not useful enough, often enough, to add to my packing list just yet.
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.