Late on Sunday night a few weeks ago I was sat hunched over my computer. My girlfriend and I were going to be flying out the following morning on holiday and that meant that I was knee-deep in the task of printing out the reams of tickets we would need while we were away: flight boarding passes, hotel reservations, train tickets, event bookings etc. The only useful information on them is often just a QR code or a confirmation ID, but I always worry about forgetting important information and so I tend to just send it all to the printer anyway. The whole process takes ages, wastes paper and ink and generally feels unnecessary.
Although I was already most of the way through the printing, I’d been in the same position so many times in the past that I decided that enough was enough and it was time to switch to the alternative: digital tickets. Almost all of the documents that we needed could be downloaded as a PDF, and even those stubborn ones that demanded a printer could be fooled by printing to PDF as well.
I was quite anxious about trying this out; I’ve always relied on having physical tickets so this was an entirely new experience for me. While I kept copies of the most important print-outs, I decided that I was going to see if I could avoid using them for the whole trip and instead rely wholly on the digital copies on my phone.
Fun fact: I wrote most of this blog post on the two flights back home!
Less fumbling, more flow
For the most part, using digital tickets means a huge reduction in fumbling around in your pockets and bags for the right piece of paper and prevents that situation where the document you need has spontaneously disappeared from this plane of existence. As such it can make travel a lot more fluid, where you can move from your flight to your train to your hotel without needing to keep opening and closing your bags. This benefit goes doubly so for anyone travelling with just hand luggage since skipping baggage drop-off/reclaim means you don’t really need to stop for lines, so why stop to fish out your tickets?
One of the biggest benefits of digital tickets is that you don’t need to spend nearly as much time printing out all of your documents. I saved time, didn’t have to waste paper or ink and didn’t have to lug all of my paper tickets to and from our destination. Given that my home printer also has a bad habit of failing exactly when I need it, the less I rely on it the better.
Flight boarding passes, hotel confirmations, event tickets etc. all have important information on them that should be (but rarely is) disposed of correctly. The temptation is that when you’ve used a ticket you can just drop it in the nearest bin, but from a security perspective this is generally a bad idea. The benefit of storing all of your tickets digitally is that they’re on a password protected, encrypted device (if you don’t have a password or haven’t enabled encryption, go set them up now!). If someone gets a hold of your documents, they can read the information without any additional effort (or minor effort to scan a QR code), whereas a phone with modern encryption and even a half decent code will require a whole lot of effort before they could see any of your details (and at that point, they’d be logged into your phone so you’d have way bigger problems at hand)!
Contactless payments can sometimes replace tickets
I’ve been evolving my use of the London Underground over many visits to the city. I originally used to buy either single use or day tickets, before moving over to an Oyster card. While that was a pretty good solution, I switched over to using Android Pay on my last few trips and the improvement can’t really be overstated; rather than having to spend time at a kiosk or service desk buying a ticket or topping up your card, you can just walk to the nearest station, pull out your phone and walk through the turnstiles. This gives you all of the benefits of digital tickets without even having to download or save them.
NOTE: This point is a little bit of a cheat since contactless payments aren’t really digital tickets, but they follow the theme of replacing physical tickets with a digital solution so I decided that it was worth including.
One of the most consistent problems I found was with ticket processing. On the first flight out for example, their system simply couldn’t read the QR code off of the boarding pass on my phone no matter how bright we made the screen or how closely we zoomed in. Luckily we had been given a pair of printed boarding passes when we manually checked in our luggage so we were able to fall back to those, but it was an early and pretty major failure to have.
On the way back I had another issue, this time where my phone kept trying to open Google Pay when they placed it under the QR code scanner (I’m assuming because of some NFC chip in the reader). This thankfully didn’t cause too many problems since the code was scanned fast enough, but if the scanner was any slower the code would have kept disappearing before it could be read properly.
I’m sure that there are fallbacks for these kinds of situations (such as entering details manually), but considering I wanted to use digital tickets to simplify the process these issues were doing almost the opposite.
Where did I store them again?
No matter how many times I looked at our tickets, the second I needed them I couldn’t remember where they were stored. For some services there was an app that I needed to use, for others I had a copy of the e-mail saved on my phone, some were stored as PDFs in Dropbox and in a few circumstances they were saved as screenshots.
The solution to this was to do a better job of remembering where the tickets were, but considering how fragmented the storage of them was I couldn’t seem to avoid jumping between all of my apps to find what I needed.
This had to be my biggest issue with trying to rely purely on digital tickets. Due to roaming charges, it wasn’t really feasible for me to use mobile data and so I had to instead rely on Wi-Fi where I could find it. While certain apps were designed to handle being offline, a few critical ones decided that it was imperative that they had an active internet connection even for static information such as confirmation numbers or for QR codes.
This was particularly difficult when I had to scan my boarding pass to get through to security on the way back. My girlfriend’s boarding pass was still open in the app and therefore visible on-screen, but the Wi-Fi had died before I could flip back over to my pass. As such, I had the enjoyment of fumbling around trying to reconnect to whatever open Wi-Fi I could find while one of the security staff stared at me with great suspicion. Thankfully I managed to resolve the issue, but in the end I decided to take a screenshot of both of our boarding passes to make sure that I didn’t run into the problem again, therefore almost entirely defeating the concept of having an app for your tickets in the first place.
Technology can feel arbitrarily fickle. More than a couple of times I found that an app I really needed to use simply didn’t open, even after force closing it. After five minutes or so the issue disappeared and I could get back to the information I needed, but this sort of situation doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Even worse, it starts to make your tickets feel like they may or may not be there when you need them. With the Wi-Fi issues there was at least a specific reason for the failure, but when an app arbitrarily decides to not co-operate you just have to roll with it and hope it resolves itself.
Adding stress to the stressful
I’m relatively experienced with travelling overseas so I’m pretty comfortable with the whole experience, but I know that there are a lot of people who find it to be very stressful. If you’re one of those people, I’d definitely say that having your tickets stored entirely digitally can be a stressor all on its own due to all of the other points listed in this section. There’s a comfortable tangibility to paper tickets; you know that as long as you don’t lose or damage them, they should work as expected and be available when needed. If you’re already on edge about all of the other things that go into travelling, digital tickets may very well add to that feeling.
You need a backup
There’s a famous saying: “two is one and one is none”. As much as I liked the idea of only needing my phone for the whole trip, I still recognised that I was reliant on a single device that can fail in many, many ways. It can get lost, stolen or broken, it can lose Wi-Fi or the files can be accidentally deleted etc. In the end my backup approach was to have the already printed versions of the critical documents (mostly flight and hotel details) available, but another approach would be to use a second digital device such as a tablet or a fellow passenger’s phone. The key point here is that however you decide to do it, you need a backup.
Batteries don’t last forever
As soon as you start relying on your phone for tickets and important information, you start to pay a lot more attention to your battery levels. Thankfully my phone is relatively new and I had a power bank as a backup, but since my phone also acted as my access to the internet, messaging device, camera and GPS on the trip, there is certainly concern that a dead battery means no tickets.
You need a phone or a tablet
I’ve not really specified throughout this post, but I’d almost certainly say that you need a smartphone or a tablet to try this. I wouldn’t recommend using a laptop and honestly even larger tablets would be less practical since some of the scanners are mounted to tables or are otherwise fixed in place and getting the barcode under the scanning area can require a bit too much finesse. It also undermines the practicality of just pulling your phone out of your pocket and pushes you back to the world of storing and retrieving your device from a bag all the time.
It’s mostly normalised
At least in my experience, people are now as used to scanning phone displays as they are scanning paper tickets. I’m sure that this has been the case for a while now, but it does certainly make it easier when no-one looks at you twice for holding out your phone rather than a piece of paper.
The short answer to the title of this post is yes, but it comes with a number of caveats. You absolutely need backups for your tickets, you need to make sure that they are all available offline and you need to be ready for some issues throughout the process. Whether you feel that it is worth doing depends on whether you dislike having to print out and handle physical tickets along with how much stress you usually feel when travelling.
If you do want to go through with using only digital tickets, I’d advise the following approach:
- Store all of your tickets in Dropbox, OneDrive or another cloud storage solution even if there is an app available for your airline, hotel etc. This makes them easier to find and allows you to make them available offline on multiple devices quite easily.
- Test that you can access everything you need offline by switching off Wi-Fi and mobile data and trying to access them.
- Give yourself extra time where available. You might be lucky and not face any issues, but if you do you certainly don’t want them to make you late for anything.