The 20 Biggest Travel Technology Innovations of the Last 50 Years
By Jordan Hollander
Last updated February 16, 2023
9 min read
In many respects, 2020 was supposed to be a milestone year. It has a pleasant ring to it, with balance and heft. It also had a convenient correlation to the optometrist’s shorthand for perfect vision. Well, 2020 certainly was a milestone -- but for reasons that no one ever could have predicted.
Given that hindsight is always 20/20, we figured it was time to look back on the history of travel and pull out some of the most important innovations in travel technology over the last half-century. It was a period of tremendous growth, with major expansions of the industry in all directions: land, sea, air. The tourism industry grew from around 165 million in 1970 to 1.5 billion in 2019 (obviously 2020 is an outlier here, so we went with 2019).
Technology was a tremendous force in driving this growth in travel, mirroring broader trends in technology-fueled growth across the global economy. So which travel tech innovations had the greatest impact and fundamentally and positively changed the trajectory of the industry? Here's a timeline of the most important moments in travel technology over the last 50 years. Each signifies a milestone that influenced travel’s journey, ultimately becoming a global industry that provides opportunities for millions of people.
The travel industry is changing rapidly and even the dominant online travel agencies aren't safe from disruption. New technology from augmented reality to next-gen social media like TikTok will continue to change the way we get inspired, where we go and how we share our travel experiences. Pressing questions lie ahead as we think about the next 50 years and to predict the future it's important that we first understand the past.
The past informs our thinking around transformative questions like:
If virtual reality becomes ultra-realistic will we still want to travel in the future?
Will biometrics safety tech be so accurate that we'll no longer have lines at the airport?
Will the internet of things (IOT) help travel companies deliver hyper-personalized travel experiences?
Let's hop on a time machine through the last 50 years of travel innovation!
January 1970: The 747 officially enters service
The era of mass tourism really took off with the Boeing 747, which was in and of itself a technical marvel. For the first time, tourists could be transported in large numbers across vast distances. Both leisure and business travel became not just more practical and convenient but also a bit more affordable, as airlines could lower prices by packing more people into a single aircraft.
October 1971: Magic Kingdom opens in Florida
And with it began the relentless global march of theme parks worldwide. As the first expansion beyond Disneyland in California, it not only heralded the beginning of an era of mass tourism and packaged culture -- but also the idea that technology could enable more fluid in-person experiences: the entire kingdom was built one story above ground level to accommodate utilidors, the passageways that cloak all operations from public view. That preserves the fantasy -- and put the “magic” in the kingdom.
1976: SABRE opens to travel agents
Since going live in 1960, the GDS had transformed how American Airlines managed its bookings. But the real moment that mattered was when SABRE opened up to travel agents. This meant that travel agents could more efficiently serve customers and thus accelerated the popularity of package tours, resort destinations and last-minute travel. Eventually, of course, Amadeus and Travelport entered the market, further fueling travel’s digital transformation, such as OTAs making self-serve travel a reality.
1976: FOSSE installed as Marriott’s first PMS
Dave Berkus wrote the code for his PMS in 1974, growing his business rapidly as he installed his property management system at more hotels. Eventually, Marriott licensed the technology, called it FOSSE, rolled it out worldwide...and proceeded to use it for nearly three decades! The PMS was a companion to existing Central Reservations Systems, which managed reservations externally but didn’t offer functionality to manage internal operations and the guest experience.
Today, there are nearly 700 PMS vendors, alongside other hospitality technologies that help hotels manage operations, reservations and customer relationships.
Legacy tech held sway for decades, but cloud-based options are loosening the grip. [source]
1976: Foreign currency exchange replaces gold standard
With the Jamaica Agreement among IMF member countries, floating exchange rates became the global norm. Travel between nations would eventually be influenced greatly by the relative value of each country’s currency, creating a new dynamic in how travel trends unfolded around the world. Fluctuations in currency valuations would now influence the ebbs and flows of travelers based on their home currency’s relative strength and weakness.
May 1981: American Airlines launches loyalty program
American Airlines wasn't the first to launch a loyalty program (that honor goes to the defunct Texas International Airlines). But it remains the world’s largest and longest continuously operating loyalty program. Marriott followed closely after, launching its loyalty program in 1983. Loyalty would eventually become a billion-dollar business for hotels and airlines, who benefited from the rise of premium rewards credit cards.
An early AAdvantage loyalty card shared on FlyerTalk Forum
September 1983: GPS goes public
Originally developed for military use, President Ronald Reagan opened the system up to the public in September 1983 after a Soviet jet accidentally shot down a Korean passenger plane.
Since then, GPS has been the lynchpin for so many of travel’s transformation technologies. What would rideshare be without mapping? How popular would the iPhone have been without point-to-point directions? Would travelers be comfortable exploring new places in such great numbers without the help of digital maps? The cost would have been too prohibitive for any one company to develop this technology on its own.
A military GPS tracker prior to its public release [source]
January 1988: The first STAR Report
The STR report has become the world’s most indispensable source of market intelligence for the hospitality industry. With the Smith Travel Accommodations Report (STAR), hotels could use actual aggregated data to measure performance against similar hotels. The STAR became indispensable and maintained its place at the center of a revolution in data-driven market intelligence.
The STAR report became an essential part of hotel revenue management.
Early 1990s: Marriott creates Demand Forecasting System
Taking a cue from the nascent application of revenue management in the airline industry, Marriott created a Demand Forecasting System for its full-service hotels and a Revenue Management System for its limited service ones (read the genesis story here, it’s a good one!). By building models to predict demand, the hotel could more accurately price its rooms and optimize its revenues. This strategy was obviously transformative and became widely used across the industry -- especially as cloud computing made revenue management more practical for hotels of all sizes.
October 1996: Microsoft Expedia Travel Services
Expedia started as an internal project within Microsoft. Its launch in 1996 heralded a sea change in the way travel was booked. No longer reliant on travel agents and ticketing departments, travelers could now research and book travel for themselves. Eventually joined by Booking.com, Google and hundreds others, Expedia entered the scene just as millions of people were accessing the internet for the first time.
As pure-play technology companies, OTAs rapidly cemented themselves at the center of the industry.
An early version of the Expedia website [source]
February 2000: Salesforce launches its Web API
The first enterprise application programming interface (API) was launched by Salesforce at its IDG Demo conference. Its XML API was the first out of the gate, unleashing a wave of innovation as businesses could share data with other companies and customers in an entirely customizable manner.
As APIs proliferated, data silos fell. Organizations could build applications that pushed and pulled data across products internally, while also making data more accessible to external partners. This accessibility drove innovations around open APIs, which enabled hospitality brands to build customized tech stacks with two-way data sync, all at a lower-cost than legacy tech.
The original Salesforce site. [source]
2001: First review added to Tripadvisor
Tripadvisor began as a personalized trip planning website that aggregated reviews from guidebooks. But a small button asking visitors to add reviews took off, with eager travelers leaving reviews en masse. As the first user review site in travel, Tripadvisor began to wield extraordinary power over traveler decisions. Hotels began to watch their online reputations closely, focused on both responding to reviews and getting guests to share positive experiences online. Yelp followed in 2004, cementing user reviews at the center of the online reputation economy.
June 26, 2001 from the Wayback Machine.
June 2004: CouchSurfing and “live like a local” home-sharing
Conceived in 1999 and launched in 2004, CouchSurfing was a precursor to the commercialization of home-sharing by Airbnb. Alongside other sites like Hospitality Exchange, it offered travelers an online platform to connect with locals. These “hosts” would not only share their homes with travelers but would often become local guides, showing travelers a real slice of local life -- yep, this was also the original “live like a local” brand promise!
April 2006: Google Translate introduces instant translation
While translation services transformed the way that we communicated across cultures, instant translation changed how we interact in real-time with others. Google Translate was the first mainstream instant translation service. Launched in 2006, it started off as browser-only and struggled to be accurate and sensible. Even in its earliest iteration, it was a tremendous help to travelers. Today, the app now supports 109 languages, with 500 million users translating 100 billion words per day. The app also translates photos and has a “conversation mode” so travelers can communicate fluidly with others.
Instant translation also became a standard feature on Apple's latest iOS 14 update, which includes a Translate app that supports 10 languages. Users can download languages for offline translation and can also set up automatic language detection, which makes it a must-have tool for any traveler.
Google Translate’s simple interface made instant translation easy
August 2006: Amazon Web Services and cloud computing
Cloud computing has been a fulcrum for innovation. Dave Berkus, investor and inventor of FOSSE PMS, sees cloud as central to the future of hospitality technology: “If we look ahead ten years, and certainly beyond 10 years, it would be easy to see a single cloud based system integrating everything from CRM to reservations to the accounting functions at the properties, all the way through all forms of marketing and follow-through.”
Amazon Web Services accelerated adoption of cloud computing by making it easy for companies to access shared server space on a “pay what you use basis.” Eventually embraced by Microsoft, Google, IBM, Oracle and others, cloud computing helped enterprises reduce IT infrastructure costs and increase flexibility. For startups, the technology was even more transformative, as it reduced upfront IT costs and simplified scaling up to accommodate demand.
June 2007: the iPhone changes everything
After the GDS, which streamlined the buying and selling of travel via phone and online, the iPhone arguably had the biggest impact on travel. It was the start of the mobile computing era, which would eventually put smartphones in the hands of billions of people worldwide.
Now travelers could take their computers wherever they went, meaning that they could make reservations at restaurants, search for things to do and, most importantly, stay in touch with friends and family while traveling. The smartphone became an indispensable tool -- and massive fulcrum for the growth of the industry, becoming cameras, contactless credit cards, room keys, taxi dispatchers, check-in counters, mobile travel agents and local guides.
The first iPhone on display in 2007 [source]
August 2008: Airbnb ushers in the home-sharing economy
Originally called Airbed & Breakfast, Airbnb essentially commercialized the CouchSurfing model of connecting travelers with locals offering a place to stay. It gave homeowners a way to monetize unused space and fulfilled the emerging “live like a local” traveler ethos.
The company would eventually transform the entire hospitality industry by expanding the diversity of accommodation types worldwide. Hotels were threatened, local governments bristled, and Airbnb grew to be a behemoth. The concept would rapidly expand to other assets, such as cars, boats and RVs, forever changing the economics of stuff -- and giving travelers an entirely new way to experience the world.
2010: UberCab launches rideshare revolution
Taxis had long been a pain point in travel. From unknown wait times and handsy drivers to cabbies not wanting to go to certain neighborhoods and price-gouging at the airport, grabbing a cab was always a bit fraught. Now, with cabs on demand, pricing was transparent, wait time was visible and a driver’s reputation upfront. Travel would be forever different.
Early images of UberCab
October 2011: Apple integrates Siri into iPhone 4
Voice forever changed the way that we interact with our devices. The journey began when Apple integrated its Siri voice technology into the iPhone 4. As one of the earliest efforts in voice control, it was far from perfect. But it signaled a shift in thinking about the flexibility and accessibility of our digital devices.
The adoption of voice accelerated with Amazon's Alexa in 2014 and Google's voice assistant in 2016. With all the major players integrating voice, it's now become a ubiquitous way to interact with our devices -- including the curtains, lights and appliances in smart hotel rooms!
Original coverage of voice control by Engadget.
November 2014: Digital keys become the next must-have
Demagnetized cards are frustrating -- even more so when you happen to be in Vegas and the front desk is half a mile away. The first hotel chain to introduce digital keys was Starwood, who piloted the SPG Keyless program at 10 hotels in November 2014. Other brands followed close behind, with Hilton announcing a similar pilot later that year.
Since then, keyless has become standard across hotels worldwide. Digital keys also became a clever driver of loyalty, as digital keys could only be accessed by members.
Keyless entry also has become a major part of the vacation rental experience, allowing owners to manage properties remotely without a traditional “hand off” of keys. The ease of access was welcomed by guests, which often valued the self-service aspects of vacation rentals in the first place.
Keyless entry becomes standard as hotels partner with technology vendors worldwide.
2014: Uplift brings “buy now, pay later” to travel
Even before Diner’s Club launched its charge card in 1950, most department stores offered some sort of installment plan. Then, as banks began to issue credit cards that didn't need to be paid off each month, America turned to credit and installments fell out of favor.
Other regions preferred installment payments over credit, with certain countries (like Brazil) maintaining a strong consumer desire to pay in installments. In 2014, FinTech startup Uplift began offering its core service: a “buy now, pay later” installment option integrated directly into the payment systems of major travel suppliers. There’s also Affirm, which integrated with Expedia in 2016, and FOMO Travel, which offers interest-free payment plans for travel booked through its partners.
Uplift integrates within the checkout flow [source]
Bonus: Travel insurance
The first known seller of travel insurance was James Batterson, who opened his travel-focused agency in 1864. For those who could afford to travel, the insurance was a must-have, given the risks of traveling long during that era. Today, travel insurance has become a global industry with a variety of options that range from stand-alone policies, add-ons to existing health insurance policies and benefits attached to premium credit cards.
Travel insurance is an important innovation as it provides peace of mind and confidence for travelers. Travel insurance that can be customized to individual needs offers a backstop to uncertainty for travelers. Of course, the global pandemic revealed how complex the product has become, with many travelers realizing that their policy did not cover COVID.
The tourism industry is one of the most exciting and rewarding career paths one can take - staying on top of travel technology trends is critical to success. Did we miss any major innovations? Let us know over live chat so we can add yours to the list!