Apple Watch: Flying smarter skies

I've been flying with Apple Watch since it was first introduced over a year and a half ago. It's become so integrated into my travel routine that it's tough to remember back to when iPhone was my only companion, let alone before that, when I flew with papers and analog time pieces — yes, like an animal. So, 18 months of apps and integrations later, what's the state of the art of Apple Watch flight?

Flight status

First thing I do in the morning is strap on my Apple Watch. After getting up and getting ready, if I'm traveling, the next thing I do is go over everything I've packed and make sure I haven't forgotten anything. Especially adapters. Always forgetting the adapters. Sigh.

While I'm putzing around, my Apple Watch will let me know if there are any changes to my flight. Especially delays. There's nothing worse than leaving for the airport a couple of hours early — we clear customs on the Canadian side, because fewer airports to cover — only to find out your flight will be leaving a couple of hours late.

A tap on my wrist, a glimpse of a notification, and I know everything is cool. I still have Tripit Pro, which also organizes all my flights, hotels, and car rentals, but my airline app has gotten much better at timely notifications as well. They've even learned how to update Wallet with gate information — hallelujah!

App in the Air is also fun. It has flight updates, but also gives you all sorts of cool information while you're in the air. It even renders 3D travel maps using SceneKit!

You have to walk (or run) before you can fly

watchOS 3, thanks to its activity sharing, has really kicked my workout motivation into high gear. Now, when I see east coast friends start to get up and get going, I want to get up and get going to. That means my morning walk, which is usually around a 4km hike in a nearby nature preserve. When you have to leave for the airport at 5 or 6 a.m., though, that doesn't leave much time.

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Previously, I would have just let it slide and told myself I'd get the workout in on the other side. But now that those "Clayton completed a workout!" notifications come in, there's no room for procrastination. So, I hit the streets early and do a quick 2km around the block. That way, at least, I've gotten off to a good start and defrayed some of those long hours in an airplane seat with as many minutes of power walking as possible. (If I don't hit the 30 minute exercise goal and fill in that green ring, I'll do laps at the terminal later before I board.)

When I'm done, I'll get a "Shazam!" notification, a fire emoji, or some-such from a friend, I smile, and then I'm ready to go.

(One day I'll work my way up to Trails, which looks like a ton of fun, especially when looking for places to go when I'm away from home.)

Uber-ing over

It usually takes Uber a few minutes to arrive. Lately that means a few minutes after the few minutes they initially tell you, because after you request them, they're somehow finishing another ride or much farther away than the app initially suggested. Whatever.

In the old days, I'd have to pull out my iPhone every few minutes to double-check the status and make sure the driver wasn't having a hard time finding me, didn't pass me, or isn't going the wrong way.

With Apple Watch, all the information I need is right on my wrist, and I can check it with just a turn of my wrist. When my Uber is about to arrive, I get a little tap, and without having to reach for my phone, I know to grab my bags and head out.

That same convenience is invaluable on the road. Not so much on the way to the airport, but from the airport to the hotel. Roaming is tough on battery life, so the more my iPhone can stay safely asleep in my pocket, the better, especially since it's so easy to check a notification, and then 5 minutes later realize you're back on Twitter...

Boarding passes

Air Canada has an iPhone app and they enabled it for Apple Watch well before launch. They've also got electronic boarding passes set up pretty much everywhere I travel. That means I can skip the check-in lines and the kiosks and head straight to security.

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They scan boarding passes when you enter the security area, at the security area, and at customs, which used to mean fumbling with my Plus-sized phone each time. It's only a hassle because you can't walk through security with an iPhone. But you can with an Apple Watch. So, scan, walk, scan, walk, scan, done.

There are a few machines that scan inside a narrow gap, which makes Apple Watch impossible, but I haven't gotten one of the those in years. All the ones I see now are scan plates or handhelds, and they all work great.

Gate agents will typically ask to see my seat number when boarding, but it's just a quick scroll to show them that as well. Best of all, it keeps your hands free the whole time. That way there's no need to juggle luggage... or beverages!

Fueling up

If I'm on the west coast, I'll hit Philz before leaving for the airport. Thanks to Apple Pay, I can just walk over, tap, and walk back with a mint mojito in hand. On the east coast, no such luck. When leaving from home, I'll typically hit up a coffee shop at the airport. It's franchise coffee, but unlike most U.S. terminals, at least it's name brand: Starbucks, Tim Hortons, Java U, Second Cup. (Some of those are only name brands in Montreal, of course.)

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Most Starbucks take Apple Pay but not at the airport. It doesn't really matter, though, because it takes the Starbucks card, and that lives in Wallet on my Apple Watch.

It's incredibly fast. Recently, I grabbed a mango juice and walked up to pay. There was already a customer at one of the checkouts paying with cash. I scanned my watch and left before they finished counting out coins.

It's not just infinitely cooler — it's faster and better.

In the air

One of the great things about Apple Watch is that the watch face isn't static. It can change to suit whatever situation you need. So, I have a custom watch face I use while in flight. It's the modular template, with date in the top left, local time in the top right, a flight time counter in the middle, battery life in the bottom left, destination time in the bottom middle, and activity rings at the bottom right.

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Date is just there because I'm used to being able to glance at it on a watch, and once in a while it's handy for filling out customs forms. The timer lets me know how long is left on the flight, which is helpful for planning what I want to watch and when. Time for Civil War or just an episode of The Flash?

Battery life I'll probably swap out. Apple Watch Series 2 lasts so long I don't really need to keep an eye on battery any more. Carrot Weather is what I'm thinking of replacing it with. I like to know the weather, so I might as well have an obnoxious computer intelligence tell it to me.

Destination time lets me keep track of when it is where I'm going, which I like since my phone and watch won't automatically switch time until I land and they connect back to the cellular network. Activity rings are more useful for the terminals than the plane, since turbulence conspires to keep me in my seat most of the flight. Once I hit the ground again, though, it's rings on.

Checking in

One of the nice things about hotels in silicon valley is that they quickly embrace new technology. For example, when I stay at SPG Starwood Hotels & Resorts, they have it set up so I can use Apple Watch as the room key.

It's super clever. It uses Bluetooth for the unlock signal, but requires the Apple Watch to be close enough to the door so it doesn't unlock unless you're right next to it. It's NFC-like without using NFC. It's also much easier than key cards, which you can lose or leave in the room.

I don't have HomeKit locks at home — yet! — but I do have HomeKit lights. I've used the Home app to set up an automation so, if it detects me approaching and it's after sunset, it turns on my hall light 25%. Because Home supports Siri, I can also turn lights on or off at any time, either when I leave for the airport or when I'm nearly home. And because Apple Watch has a Home app, if I can't use Siri, I can simply tap a few lights and turn them on or off, even as I'm pulling up or pulling away.

I've used it to make sure everything is off from the airport just before takeoff as well, because sometimes I forget that kind of stuff when I'm rushing out the door.

It's all about the journey

There was nothing that my Apple Watch could do that my iPhone couldn't. No surprise there. But many of the things my iPhone can do the Apple Watch can do better in the moment. Not as deeply, not as powerfully, but much more conveniently. That remains the killer Apple Watch feature.

When juggling luggage, rushing to make cars and planes, grabbing coffee, or doing any of the many things you do while traveling, the Apple Watch gives me just what I need, just when I need it.

If you travel with Apple Watch, let me know your stories!

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.