Okay, Google, when is the best time to visit Paris?

This little white can is voice-activated and gives on-demand information of upcoming trips

In recent months, Google has further insinuated itself into the travel world.

The company's latest innovations include flight price alerts, pinged to your inbox, and the Google Home personal assistant, a voice-activated speaker that can translate languages and tell you when your flight is departing.

An update to Google Flights, the online fare-comparison tool, has added price-tracking and itinerary- sharing. To sign up, search for a flight, select "track prices" and enter your e-mail address.

When the price changes, you will receive an alert (websites such as Skyscanner also offer free alerts). Just keep in mind that Google Flights results do not include all airlines.

Another updated feature is "share this itinerary". After choosing an itinerary on Google Flights, click the "send to yourself" or "share" button.

In October, Google went beyond software, introducing its first line of hardware made inside and out by Google, including the Pixel phone, Google Home (US$129 or S$187), a virtual-reality headset and controller known as Daydream View, Google Wi-Fi and streaming device Chromecast Ultra.

And Home's ability to understand my voice was notable, considering how frequently Siri - the iPhone virtual assistant - and I misunderstand each other.

For travellers, Google Home and Pixel are the most relevant. A white speaker slightly larger than a can of beans, Google Home can spit out the status of American stock market index S&P 500, create a shopping list and control your lights and television through smart home-automation devices such as Nest and Philips Hue.

Google Home can respond to questions such as "Where's the nearest Mexican restaurant?" It can tell you what US$300 is in euros and that the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is about 828m tall.

It can tell you about your coming trip by searching your digital calendar and give you local traffic and weather conditions. It can book a ride if you say "Call an Uber".

To use Google Home, say "OK, Google". The LED light ring atop will illuminate, a sign that it is listening. On a chilly morning, I sat across the room asking it for travel information.

"OK, Google, how do you say 'hello' in Japanese?"

"Konnichiwa," it said.

"OK, Google, when is the best time to visit Paris?" "According to US News Travel," it replied, "the best time to visit Paris is from June to August, when the weather is just about parfait."

Next, a few rapid-fire questions. "Is there Zika in Puerto Rico?" Google Home answered yes and mentioned advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Would I need a visa to visit Singapore? I would not need a visa for a tourist visit up to 90 days, it said, quoting the US Department of State, but I should make sure my passport was valid for at least six months beyond the date I planned to enter.

All of this was faster than typing a request into Google and searching for a reliable source (Home chooses sources based on programs and formulas that Google writes, such as those used to power Google Search).

And Home's ability to understand my voice was notable, considering how frequently Siri - the iPhone virtual assistant - and I misunderstand each other.

I moved on to flight questions. "OK, Google, what time does United Airlines Flight 97 arrive?" Home identified the flight, naming the cities and departure time.

However, it did not give an arrival time. It simply said: "United Airlines 97 from San Francisco to Houston is on time and departs in five hours and 26 minutes." I asked again. It failed again to give an arrival time.

"OK, Google, when was Central Park created?"

"According to Wikipedia," Home began and rattled off part of a Wikipedia entry about the founding of the park.

When I asked, "Can you tell me how to get to the New York Public Library?", Home replied, "I don't support directions yet".

A Google spokesman said this was mainly because directions could require a long voice response. Over time, Google said, it will probably allow users to send directions to their phone for step-by-step navigation.

Time for some music. "OK, Google, play me Frank Sinatra," I said.

"All right. Check out this Frank Sinatra radio mix on YouTube." "Some day, when I'm awfully low," Sinatra crooned as The Way You Look Tonight began.

I leaned back. "OK, Google, clean up my room," I said.

"Let me try," it said to my surprise as a magic pixie dust sound-effect emanated from its base. "Did anything happen?" Home asked.

"Sorry, I guess I can't," it said.

Another way Home can be handy for travel is by telling you what is on your calendar. While tidying up the room, I said: "OK, Google, when am I going to Puerto Rico?" It provided the dates and details.

None of this makes the gadget essential for travel per se. But you can get answers while folding laundry, call out items to add to your shopping list while standing in front of the refrigerator (you do not need to be in the same room with Google Home) and order an Uber hands-free while walking out the door.

Pixel, the Google phone, has some travel-friendly features. You can ask it for the location of the nearest sushi restaurant, then tap the microphone and say: "Remind me to leave for sushi at 8pm."

Parents can use it on road trips with their children (tell the phone's "assistant" you want to play Mad Libs). And the phone's camera has received strong reviews.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline 'Okay, Google, when is the best time to visit Paris?'. Print Edition | Subscribe