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The rise of self-service travel

By Nick Easen for CNN

Travel agents are finding new niches as more travelers book online.
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(CNN) -- Many business travelers now book air tickets and car hire on the Internet, print out their own boarding passes or use check-in kiosks at airports and hotels.

A novelty nine years ago, paperless and ticketless bookings are fast becoming a predominant way to travel -- made more attractive by incentives, discounts and offers of air miles.

And within three years airlines plan to stop issuing paper tickets, a move that could save the industry up to $3 billion a year in running costs, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Some carriers are already far ahead. In the past year, more than 18 million customers have used e-ticketing services on Continental Airlines.

"We must chase paper out of our business," Giovanni Bisignani, director-general of the IATA told an airline conference earlier this week.

"Paper costs do not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that up to $3 billion in savings are possible."

Big hotel chains, such as Hilton, InterContinental, Sheraton, and Hyatt, are starting to automate processes too.

In some hotels, guests insert their credit card into a touch screen console and the reservation appears. If they follow the prompts, the kiosk spits out an electronic room key.

In Malaysia, SMS -- short messaging service -- is used to field air ticket enquiries to a travel agent. You can also book seats on its budget carrier AirAsia using text. (Full story)

Whereas, in the U.S. computerized self-service now allows you to purchase upgrades, in-flight beverages, headsets, earlier stand-by flights, as well as print baggage tags.

Some companies even combine services -- at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel you can access the Air Canada booking platform from a kiosk and receive a printed boarding pass in the hotel lobby.

The role of travel agents is also evolving with the rise of ticketless travel. Agents are now used for planning more complex journeys for the business traveler, as well as booking group hotel and flight packages.

However, a common automated ticketing standard has yet to be rolled out across the globe for both airlines and hotels -- this is seen as the next move.

IATA also wants to replace boarding passes' magnetic strips with bar codes and swap bar-coded baggage tags for automatic radio frequency identification tags, even though they are currently an expensive option compared with paper bar-codes.

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