Paperless tickets for travel

One-way ticket to a paperless world

Image credit: Getty Images

Many areas that formerly required cash and tickets are adopting paperless alternatives. We look at the entertainment industry, travel and public transport.

I will never forget my embarrassment on a tram in Tallinn, capital of Estonia, eight years ago when it turned out that I was the only passenger trying to pay my fare with cash - still not euros then, but old Estonian kroons, a stack of which I got at Heathrow in exchange for pounds.

I didn’t know that even then Estonian society was already practically cashless and public transport fares could be paid with mobile phones. In the end, the driver agreed to accept a banknote to let me in, while other passengers stared at me with mixture of pity and puzzlement, as they would probably look at a confused alien who had accidentally boarded a tram instead of his habitual UFO.

Paperless payments have progressed enormously since then. Even in the UK, traditionally behind most Asian and West European countries in that particular technology, more than half of all retail purchases are now paid for using cards and supermarket cashiers enquire routinely if a shopper needs a receipt - which most of us do not.

Paperlessness, from being a curio, is quickly becoming a way of life. And a kind of a literary genre, too. Here are a couple of self-explanatory titles of recently published books (e-books, no doubt!): ‘The Paperless Entrepreneur’, ‘The Paperless Lifestyle’ and even ‘Paperless Joy’, the author of which, George Dimopoulos, notes in the introduction that “paperless practices are totally dependent on available technology”.

We are going to have a look at some of those technologies in the areas that formerly necessitated paper (or cardboard) tickets and/or vouchers: the entertainment industry, transport and travel. All of them boil down to digitalisation, or, as it is put by Adrian Kelly, global head of product at Vix Technology, “dematerialisation of payment.” Despite countless existing platforms, apps and other ‘solutions’, it is still a long way to a complete disappearance (or dematerialisation) of paper tickets. I saw proof of that the other day, when, having booked movie tickets online, I was solemnly handed a bundle of printed paper (tickets, receipts, bedsheet-size discount vouchers and what not) at my local cinema on arrival.

Islington Assembly Hall in North London is often referred to as the UK’s first fully ticketless theatre and concert venue. Incorrectly so, in actual fact.

“We are only in control of 50 per cent of the seats,” Hellen Rolle, venue business manager, told E&T. “The remaining 50 per cent are sold through agents and the tickets they issue are often not paperless.”

It is not right to assume that the crowd queuing for an event tonight won’t be brandishing multiple pieces of paper, I asked her.

“Well, to begin with, since we went partially paperless, queues have practically disappeared,” Rolle said. “Our booking system, managed by the company called Dice, is not only fast and reliable. It also protects the fans from touts and makes sure that if the event is sold out, you get automatically put on a waiting list and will be offered a seat in case of a cancellation, while the person who cancels gets an immediate refund. Dice is 100 per cent mobile and the ticket lives in your smartphone handset without being printed. You can also transfer it electronically as a gift to friends who will then keep it in their phone. No other system, apart from Dice, can do that.”

Obviously, with a paperless ticket, there’s no danger of losing it down the side of a sofa, but what if you lose your SIM card or if your phone gets stolen?

“Every ticket is backed up in our database of course, so to mitigate the trauma of your phone loss, you can still see the show,” Rolle explained.


‘Since we went partially paperless, queues have practically disappeared.’

Helen Rolle, Islington Assembly Hall


There are plans to introduce an app that will allow you to pre-order the interval drinks online, too.

The possibilities of Dice - which claims on its website that it can sell out the whole of Wembley Stadium in 60 seconds - as well as of other events and entertainment ticketing platforms such as Eventbrite or Ticketmaster, are vast, and the future belongs to them, no doubt. Yet, as a former collector of theatre programmes and paper tickets, I would not want them to disappear completely. I am sure that lots of music fans and devoted theatre-goers - not necessarily old-fashioned retrogrades - would agree with me here, for what can pass for a better souvenir of a memorable first night show, or a gig, than a ‘proper’ paper ticket, stapled to an old programme?

Relief. Ticketmaster recently invented a solution in the shape of the so-called Collector Ticket: a colourful credit card-sized plastic ticket-cum-souvenir, with an exclusive design for the event. It comes with a lanyard to be worn around the neck. You can get it for an extra £5.95 per ticket and will receive it in the post one week before the show. One thing to bear in mind: those who opt for Collector Tickets cannot claim duplicates - either printed or paperless - and have to be happy with just the plastic souvenir ones.

Old habits die hard and the brave new world of paperless technologies keeps proving the validity of that adage over and over again. We have witnessed a largely unexpected boom in paper consumption, triggered by the internet and email communications that were supposed to drastically reduce it. In reality, some internet and email users are still keen to print out an article or an email before, after or, most likely, instead of reading them online, a common explanation being, ‘I can see the text better when it’s on paper.’ As a result, in many modern organisations, the use of paper has actually gone up.

Researching this article, I attended several industry events dedicated, among other invariably ‘smart’ topics, to ‘intelligent paperless solutions’. I got very surprised when at the entrance to one I was asked to produce a printed copy of my registration confirmation email, which, according to the event’s own website, was not supposed to be sent out in the first place!

In public transport, however, positive changes are obvious. Paper tickets on London or Edinburgh city buses, for example, seem to be firmly in the past, with most passengers resorting to either contactless or mobile payments. London Underground is following in their stead. Yet most long-distance train passengers in the UK still travel with the habitual orange-and-yellow pieces of thin card in their wallets.

The level of contactless and other paperless transport payments varies from one country to another. “There are massive differences between different regions,” says Liz Gibson, head of payment services at Creditcall. “Asia is at the forefront for lots of mass-transit technologies, while the USA, in my view, is much further behind. Demand in places like India, where comparatively few people use bank cards, will be very different from, for example, Turkey, one of the leaders in contactless deployment.”

Recently, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, speaking at the Tory party conference in Manchester, promised to introduce paperless rail tickets across England and Wales next year. “People want smart ticketing and we will deliver it,” he declared.

It is of course easier said than done, as just 250 contactless transactions are carried out in Britain every second - fewer than in most other developed countries, according to Richard Koch, head of cards at UK Finance which represents the sector. Only 50 per cent of Londoners routinely use contactless cards for transactions under £30 and equipment for contactless ticketing at present can only be found at 125 railway stations across Britain (out of a total of 2,563 on the Network Rail) and at 25 within Greater London. The number of contactless payments is bound to grow. “The ease of it catches people’s imagination,” insists Koch.

The future of paperless ticketing may be bright indeed, yet - significantly - when Mathew Lewis, head of Swift at West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority, asked delegates at the recent Intelligent Transport gathering in London how many of them used paperless tickets to get to the venue, only about a dozen hands went hesitantly up.

There are many technologies for paperless ticketing, or ticketless travel, from electronic passes and smart cards (Oyster, Mango, Wirecard, Orca, even a ‘Robin Hood’ smart card in Nottingham which, hopefully, is not associated with daylight robbery) to mobile smart-ticketing and Bluetooth. The latter is increasingly being used at bus stops and on coaches in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Passengers download the app, set up a secure account and top it up. When they come to the bus stop, the beacon installed in it recognises their location, after which the passenger touches a button on the screen to access a secure on-screen pass to show the driver.

Bluetooth is also used in the new BiBo (Be-in/Be-out) ticketing application by Siemens. A smartphone with the BiBo app detects Bluetooth low-energy beacons (transmitters) along the route and sends the data out for processing. Billing takes place after the journey and depends on its distance and duration, with the cheapest available fare automatically applied in each case. No tickets, no vending machines, no card validation, no barriers. This app suits all kinds of public transport, including buses, trams and trains.

Sounds promising. Yet, in the words of Arndt Baetzner of Mobility Cooperative in Switzerland, the real challenge is “to find one system, whereby you can use your own credit card for everything, rather than all those different apps and passes”. Such universally suitable technology is yet to be developed. Speaking about the future, some experts also mention ‘virtual cards’, which would allow customers to use any mobile devices they may carry in their pockets for all kinds of payments and - further ahead - facial-recognition ticketing technologies, too.

Another challenge is how to standardise the card-scanning devices to make them read regional transport cards, distinguish between peak-time and so-called ‘dynamically priced trips’ (we all know that prices of same-distance railway journeys can vary substantially depending on the time of travel and the time of booking), accept concessions and group travel discounts. And how should we deal with the steadily decreasing, yet still substantial, number of passengers who do not have (or are reluctant to use) bank accounts? The increasingly popular pre-paid cards, not linked to any bank accounts, are not always the answer and are frequently targeted by fraudsters.

Adrian Kelly, global head at Vix Technology, says, “We need to find new ways of standardising, for at the moment there’s no easy paperless travel solution for an ordinary British family of five. But there will be one soon.”

I wish I could share Kelly’s optimism. As it is, my son recently lost a rather expensive paper train ticket from Edinburgh to London and had to either cancel his trip or buy a new one. He chose the former scenario. That wouldn’t have happened had he opted for a paperless solution, with his travel and payment details safely stored on the Trainline or other electronic database. With around 70 per cent of all train tickets in the UK and in Europe still bought offline, that option remains distant for many.

Visiting the technology section at the recent World Travel Market in London, the bulk of the exhibits represented new digital hotel and flights booking systems for tour operators and travel agents, as well as numerous ‘payment solutions’. As with other areas of modern life, travel is aiming at being ‘smart’ and that includes self-driving cars, virtual and augmented reality apps, AI and automated customer services. What about paperlessness?

Paperless travel is not limited to digital maps and electronic guide-books. Xpenditure, a Belgian company, was displaying its new and, allegedly, easy to handle travel expenses app, allowing you to automate and manage your expense reports in real time. The app is entirely paperless, of course. “Imagine how much paper we save if we all switch over to doing our travel expenses online!” says Maxime De Winters, the company’s sales development representative.

Speaking about paperless travel guides, I couldn’t ignore ‘Entertainer go’ - a mobile travel companion providing travellers with important en-route essentials: day planners, city guides, tours and attractions, as well as vouchers for spas and restaurants. All paperless and kept within the constraints of your smartphone. This app, developed by the Dubai-based company Entertainer Business, is suitable for both tour operators and independent travellers.

Even in-flight magazines can go paperless, as recently happened with the British Airways magazine The Club, now that laptops and tablets are allowed to be used openly on most flights. TransPerfect, its digital platform, also made sure that the magazine is now available online in a number of different languages. - an app developed in Russia - not only supplies free maps of the world to the smartphones of its subscribers but allows them to advertise on those maps, too. A free paperless mobile world atlas, no less.

Outside the technology section of the WTM, almost all exhibiting major cities and some countries demonstrated their own leisure and explorer passes (London Pass, Washington DC Explorer Pass etc) - prepaid plastic cards allowing for ticketless and therefore paperless visits to their main attractions and the no less-ticketless (and paperless) use of local transport. I was pleased to see among them the Octopus Card from Hong Kong, representing the world’s first ever contactless (and hence, of course, paperless) public transport payment scheme, introduced 20 years ago. The mother of all smart cards, so to speak.

Hong Kong was one of the first world cities to think of its development in modern ‘smart’ terms and the Card became one of the main signs of that emerging ‘smartness’. The now famous, almost historic, Octopus Card, which gave rise to similar cashless schemes in India, China, Singapore and many other places, can still be used on Hong Kong’s public transport network and at some 20,000 outlets: shops, bars, restaurants and vending machines. To me, it also remains a small plastic symbol of the world’s happy paperless future.

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