Once upon a time, in the 1990s and early 2000s, traveling was a high-touch affair: chauffeurs, bellhops, concierges, and turn-down service meant you rarely lifted a finger when on the road.
Airline and hotel companies — luxury brands in particular — built their reputations on having someone to cater to your every need because, well, you were on vacation.
Then in 2010, social media and smart phones tipped, becoming a core part of the travel experience.
Suddenly the travel industry was abuzz with something called low touch luxury. Gone were the in-room butlers and cabin attendants anticipating guests’ every need at every moment.
Technology had reduced the need for always-on attentive service.
Millennial guests wanted to be left alone. Give them a room with an Instagrammable view, a Nespresso machine, and a bulletproof wifi connection and your hotel was on its way to being millennial-friendly.
Now in 2020, no-touch is the holy grail. As travel has slowed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines, hotels, and vacation rentals have raced to remove any human contact that might spread the coronavirus.
This is noble and certainly necessary for the time being, through many question the long-term impact of no-touch on the soul of travel. We’ll return to that topic in another article.
But for now: what does contactless, no-touch travel really look like?
We summarize where the airlines, hotels, and vacation rentals are focusing their attention below.
When it comes to air travel, you’ll find contactless options at check-in, boarding, and at the baggage claim. Be sure to check with your airline to understand its specific protocols.
Contactless check-in aims to remove all human contact from obtaining your boarding pass and selecting your seat. This is accomplished via online check-in on the airline’s web site, via the airline’s mobile app, or via a check-in kiosk at the airport.
In the case of the airline’s mobile app, you’ll receive a mobile boarding pass which you can often scan yourself at security and during boarding. The airline’s web site usually gives you the option of a mobile boarding pass or printing one on your own printer. Kiosks print a traditional paper boarding pass.
And on the subject of kiosks: while they are technically contactless, they do pose another risk when you consider the thousands of travelers who touch their screens each day.
United is now piloting touchless kiosks in Boston (BOS), Chicago (ORD), Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and Orlando (MCO). Requiring only a scan of the passenger’s mobile phone or or printed boarding pass — held a few inches from the kiosk itself — it’s a promising approach.
Traditional kiosks are being cleaned more frequently by many airlines as part of their COVID-19 airport operations.
Contactless boarding means passengers scan their own boarding passes and are separated from gate agents by social distancing and/or plexiglass shields.
For international flights, passports often still need to be physically checked by an airline employee.
Most airlines are encouraging social distancing in boarding lines and on jet bridges, limiting the number of passengers allowed to board simultaneously, and separating passengers who aren’t traveling together on board whenever possible.
If you’re checking baggage, many airlines’ self-serve kiosks allow you to print your own baggage tags. United’s touchless option mentioned above supports this option.
Alternatively, you can use the attended bag drop, where airline employees and passengers are usually separated by plexiglass shields.
And if you’re picking up luggage at baggage claim, airports have installed floor decals to encourage social distancing.
Airlines recommend only one person from a family or traveling group goes to the baggage carousel to retrieve bags if possible.
Contactless check-in at a hotel provides a guest with their room number and keys without interacting with a hotel employee. Like the airlines’ contactless check-in, it’s accomplished via a mobile app or kiosk.
Contactless check-in provides guests with their room key in one of two ways: guests receive a traditional key card printed from the kiosk, or are provided a mobile key via the hotel company’s mobile app.
Keyless entry is a relatively new technology now being widely embraced.
Large international hotel companies like Marriott and Hilton use this method in many hotels. The hotel company’s iOS or Android app serves as the mobile key which is scanned to enter the guest room.
Some independent hotels provide keyless entry via a web app. Clicking a secure email link opens a web app. The web app allows the guest to open the room without downloading an app from the Apple App Store or Google Play.
For many hotels, room service has also become touchless.
Hyatt now offers ‘Knock & Go’ room service, leaving the food cart outside the room.
Accor mentions ‘Safe Room Service’, which is available at no extra charge provided the hotel offers it.
Expect to see more hotels innovating in this area.
Contactless check-out is managed similarly to check-in.
The guest’s invoice or folio is provided in the mobile app, on the room TV, or slipped under the door early in the morning on the day of check-out.
Guests accept or contest charges as necessary and the payment method is charged without needing to visit reception.
Vacation rental companies like Airbnb and Vrbo have had their own form of contactless check-in for years: a numeric keypad or lock box.
A private, numeric code is sent to the guest just before check-in enabling the guest to open the home or apartment.
While decidedly more lo-fi than the mobile keys from the traditional hotels, numeric keypads work well and are now in high-demand from travelers choosing to stay in a home rental during COVID-19.
Airbnb is actively encouraging its hosts to offer self check-in / checkout via lockboxes or smart locks.
Travelers may search Airbnb for homes that have these features, and the company is hoping it assuages concerns as contactless travel amidst the pandemic becomes a requirement, rather than merely desirable.