Hacker Demonstrates Ability To Hijack Plane Using Smartphone

Imagine this: you’ve fallen asleep on a plane headed to your dream vacation when suddenly erratic flight movement stirs you awake. The cabin is chaotic, and what’s even worse, in the cockpit the pilot has no idea what is happening. All systems have been overridden, and – although the pilot doesn’t know it – someone is controlling the plane from within the cabin.

Hacker Hugo Teso demonstrated he could do just that at a recent conference in Amsterdam. Using a smartphone app called PlaneSploit, Teso showed he could essentially turn a commercial aircraft into a remote control toy. He had the ability to redirect a flight, activate a plane’s alarms and dash lights, and even crash a jet – and he did it all remotely with the touch of a few buttons.

He claims to be able to take control by intercepting and repurposing the data the go to the flight systems.

The demonstration points out weaknesses and lack of security in several plane systems, including the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, which is crucial in the radar tracking of planes, as well as the text system used to communicate between aircraft and ground control. It’s a scary thought, but luckily Teso has no plans to make the app available for download. Furthermore, just because he was able to get access to the communications, it doesn’t mean he could necessarily crash the aircraft. Our own resident pilot, Kent Wien, says:

“The idea that someone can gain modify the FMS (flight management system) on an airliner is pretty far fetched. The FAA claims that there’s no way this person could gain access to an FMS in this way.

Setting that aside, if our FMS, which is similar to a GPS in a car, were modified inflight it wouldn’t go un-noticed by the pilots. And once discovered, a simple change in autopilot mode would result in the airplane flying to wherever the pilots wanted it to go. Not to mention the even more simple move-clicking off the autopilot. I’d love to hear his presentation about how he can access an FMS, but it’s not like he’s able to take over control of the airplane through that box.”

[via Phandroid]

[Photo credit: Flickr user hugokernel]

A Personal Lament To The Death Of Guidebooks

Death of guidebooks - Frommer's bookshelfIt was with a heavy heart that I read the news last week that Frommer’s guidebooks will cease to be printed. The guidebooks were purchased by Google last summer, and as of this year, the entire future list of titles will not be released. With the takeover of digital apps, social media, and user-generated content, we knew this was coming, but it still feels like the end of an era. It’s become fashionable for any traveler (especially for writers, including our own bloggers) to be dismissive of the printed guidebook, claiming they get all their tips “from locals on the road” or via social networks, possibly demurring to an occasional read of Lonely Planet. Let’s dispense with the tired traveler vs. tourist argument; we can all benefit from practical info for navigating a new place, and no matter how “local” you go, there’s nothing wrong with visiting the museums and attractions for which a destination is known. Even as an active member of the “new media,” I mourn the death of guidebooks like that of a friend.

The greatest gift of the digital age to the traveler is online trip planning. I’d never want to go back to the days of travel agents and phone reservations. I’ve spent hours on the Internet booking flights, reading hotel reviews and soliciting advice and recommendations from friends, but guidebooks have always been the heart of my pre-travel ritual. Each year, after we had narrowed down the destinations to a few (often places where American Airlines and Marriott coincided, back in the days where work travel generated a fair amount of status, miles and points for free vacations), my husband and I would spend a few hours at a bookstore, poring over the guidebooks for points of interest, relative costs of travel and local events that might happen during our travel dates. Back when I worked at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, my desk was next to the research department, making me feel like a kid in a candy store. Shelf after shelf of guidebooks, atlases and travelogues gave me a keen eye for what features are the most useful in a printed travel companion.In addition to having the most current information, I look for an efficient presentation (while I love travel photography, I don’t care for it in my guidebooks, taking up valuable real estate and showing me things I hope to see myself) with detailed maps, a short phrasebook and menu guide, as well as a point of view in a guidebook. I had always made fun of Rick Steves and his fanny-packed followers, but in Portugal, I discovered his “back door style” is really quite helpful for navigating crowded tourist attractions and distilling fun facts about a museum’s history (look elsewhere for nightlife advice, though). My respect for Mr. Steves solidified with his book “Travel As A Political Act,” particularly due to his advocacy for travel to Muslim countries and the importance of getting a passport. Time Out city guides offer a surprising depth of cultural sidebars in addition to nightlife listings. Occasionally, you might be lucky to stumble upon an indie series like the gorgeously-designed Love Guides to India or Herb Lester‘s guides to the “usual and unusual” in Europe and the U.S., but these were often only discovered once you reached your destination. Lonely Planet was usually a given, having the widest range of places and most annual updates, but my heart belonged to Arthur Frommer.

Frommer’s guides were never the hippest or most inventive, but I liked their no-nonsense and concise layout, stable of local writers and the personality that shown through the pages with “Overrated” tags and honest advice. I loved the history behind the Frommer’s brand, imagining how Arthur’s original “Europe on $5 a Day” changed the way Americans travel and opened up a world of travel daydreaming and practical trip planning. Writer Doug Mack recently published his own book, “Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day” using Frommer’s 1963 book as his only guide. Vintage guidebooks are priceless slices of the past, whether it’s a reissued Victorian guide, or a handbook for your trip to the USSR (the later is now one of my prized possessions). In 50 years, what will people learn about how we traveled to Asia from Facebook photo albums and TripAdvisor reviews?

Destination and books chosen, I relished my New York commute armed with guidebooks before the trip. While I hated to ever brandish a guidebook while traveling, I didn’t mind being seen with it on the subway, where people might see me and think, “There’s a girl who’s going places! Literally, to Chile!” I imagined a stranger might strike up a conversation, offering their tips for their aunt’s restaurant in Santiago or their best friend’s guesthouse in Valparaiso (I was evidently envisioning a live version of Twitter). Even now that I do float travel questions over social media, I first try to research via a custom Google search that limits results to my trusted sources, ranging from travel writer friends’ blogs to big media like New York Times’ travel section and, of course, Frommers.com.

During a trip, I’d carry a book in my purse during the day, but I only removed it for surreptitious glimpses of a map if seriously lost. While in a museum, I might allow myself the luxury of reading the book in full public view. In the evenings, I might peruse the book before dinner, not for restaurant recommendations, but for hints on what neighborhoods and streets might yield the most options. My husband has always loathed making reservations, even in our own city, preferring to rely on instinct, menu/curb appeal and highest density of locals. At the end of the night, I liked going back to read more about the places we’d seen, learning about the backstories of a city, and understanding the cultural importance of the names we saw on statues.

Once I moved abroad to Istanbul in 2010 and constantly clutched a smartphone, my guidebook usage slowed, but I never fully gave it up. English books were expensive and travel plans were made much more freely (weekend in Budapest on Friday? Why not, when it’s a two-hour flight?), but I still tried to cobble together some basic info before going to a new country – stuff like: how much to tip, the best way to get to the airport and the going cost of a bottle of local wine. Basically, stuff that could be found in a guidebook. In many eastern European countries, I found the excellent (and free) In Your Pocket guides, produced by expats and natives, with tips on everything from happy hours to hidden Soviet murals. The guides are available in various digital forms, but I always preferred to find a paper copy, easy to roll up in a purse and read cover-to-cover like a magazine. I experimented with various Kindle books and documents and apps to collect the many links and tips I found before a trip, but found a lot of limitations: poor maps, advice from inexperienced travelers, lack of context and real “meaty” content. Especially when I was stuck with a lack of Wi-Fi, a dead battery or a setting where it would be unwise to flash any form of technology, I’d yearn for an old-fashioned book.

After I return home, I can’t say exactly what happens to my guidebooks. I don’t revisit places often, so I tend to pass on books to other travelers, leave them in airplane seat pockets, or recycle them when I have to purge books. I always liked the idea of keeping them on my bookshelf, a visual reminder of where we’d been, like passport stamps in your living room, but my shelf space can’t keep up with my wanderlust. Many travelers like a printed book so they can make notes and annotations in the margins, but I consider a book a sacred space to be left pristine, though my books are accessorized with receipts, ticket stubs and bar napkins. I keep these artifacts in duty-free bags and hotel envelopes, possibly for a scrapbook I will never make, or for future generations to marvel at the fact that we once paid for hotel Wi-Fi.

Now that we’ve reached the end of an era, what’s to come in the next? Now that anyone with an Internet connection can tap into a local network, or crowdsource restaurant recommendations, is Mr. Frommer and his ilk destined to become a relic of travel, like steamer trunks and airplane ashtrays? I’d say that until apps and social media can overcome the limitations of user-generated content, there’s a niche for printed guidebooks, but the choice of print over digital is more visceral. We need guidebooks as long as there are people who love browsing in bookstores, who appreciate a beautiful map, and who don’t give a damn about being a traveler or a tourist, as long as they are going somewhere.

[Photo credit: Gluten Free Mrs. D via Twitter]

Google Maps Adds Data For 38 Ski Resorts

38 ski resort maps are now integrated into Google MapsFor my money, Google Maps is one of the greatest technological advances of all times. Whether I’m at home or traveling to some new destination, it helps me to find restaurants, museums, shops and other points of interest, then routes me to those locations by car, foot or mass transit. Over the past few years, Maps has continued to evolve and add new features, making the system even more useful as time goes by. Earlier this week, Google announced yet another upgrade to Maps, this time adding data for 38 ski resorts across the U.S. and Canada.

This new addition to the Maps database is already live both on the web and in the Android and iPhone apps. When viewing popular ski resorts such as Big Sky, Mammoth or Park City, skiers and snowboarders will be able to quickly and easily see all of the runs and lifts that are available, with their skill levels clearly marked. Blue, green and black runs are displayed on the map as solid lines while chair lifts are designated by dotted red lines. Parking is also clearly marked and when zoomed in close enough, restaurants, lodges and bars are also visible. There are even Street View options for a few of the resorts, letting you scout out the terrain before you ever visit.

The complete list of mountains that are currently available in Google Maps can be found in the blog post announcing their addition to the system. Google promises more locations will be coming soon, so check back often to see if your favorite ski destination has been added. The maps may just help you discover some new runs and make your day on the slopes a bit more enjoyable.

[Photo Credit: Google]

Which App Offers The Lowest Hotel Prices? Priceline, Tonight Or Hotel Tonight?

william shatner pricelineFinding a dirt-cheap hotel room – either at the last minute or well in advance – is an art, not a science, and I’m always looking for new tools to save money. For years, Priceline has been my go-to resource for cheap hotel rooms and rental cars because I have a system for gaming the site and it works beautifully for me.

Here’s a few examples of deals I’ve scored by bidding – not using the search function – on Priceline in the last few months.

  • Full-size rental car with Avis at LAX for a bid of $13 per day (with taxes and fees the total price came to $18.44 per day for a 9-day rental).
  • 4-star Westin Gaslamp Quarter Hotel in San Diego- $70 per night bid ($82 per night including tax and surcharges).
  • 4-star Hyatt Regency Chicago- $55 bid- ($67.66 all inclusive per night)
  • 3-star Courtyard by Marriott- Flint, MI- $50 bid ($63.25 all inclusive)
  • 3.5- star Galt House Hotel- Louisville, KY- $50 bid ($64.95 all inclusive)
  • 3-star Courtyard by Marriott, Fair Oaks, VA- $51 bid (63.94 total)

As you can see, I’ve gotten some killer deals on Priceline and I’m not really brand loyal, so I don’t mind the element of chance in bidding. But my biggest complaint with Priceline is that I sometimes get stuck with hotels that charge for Wi-Fi and have expensive parking. (If you’re looking for a list of hotels that offer free Wi-Fi click here.)

The Hyatt Regency in Chicago, for example, charges $52 per night to park, and a hotel I got on Priceline in Orange County in December charged $14 per computer per night for Wi-Fi, which works out to $28 per night for my wife and I. I almost never pay to park at the hotel I’m staying at and I’m adept at finding free parking just about anywhere, but it’s hard to get around paying for Wi-Fi, unless you can find another signal or if it’s free in the common areas.

I’ve tried other sites and apps with less than impressive results but on a recent last minute trip to Milwaukee, I decided to give two other apps, Booking.com’s Tonight and Hotel Tonight a go (the Jetsetter app doesn’t work in Milwaukee). Hotel Tonight had just four options for us, ranging from $50 at a Radisson outside the city to $189 for the ultra hip Iron Horse Hotel. But while the selection was lame, we did get a $25 credit for registering, so if we’d been up for staying at the Radisson in the suburbs, we could have snagged a hell of a good deal.

The Tonight app had almost the exact same results from a regular Priceline search (not their bidding tool) – the same hotels and the exact same prices (Hotwire, Expedia and others all tend to generate similar offers). All the downtown hotels we had our sights set on – Hilton, the Iron Horse, Residence Inn, Hilton Garden Inn and a few others were all at least $129.

So I went back to my old reliable method of bidding on Priceline, using the free rebid system, which relies on the fact that some bidding zones don’t have 4-, 3.5- or 3-star hotels. In Milwaukee, like most U.S. cities, there are several geographic bidding zones that have no 3- or 4-star hotels (you ascertain this by checking the boxes and seeing what star levels are grayed out), so I started the bidding at $35 for a 4-star hotel and after being rejected at $35 and trying again at $40, got a message stating that if I’d increase my offer to $55, I’d get my 4-star hotel.

I’ve gotten messages like these before but I never given in at this point because I figure there’s always room for an even cheaper price and usually there is. In this case, I got the 4-star Hilton City Center for a $45 bid ($59.07 total). This same hotel was on the Tonight app and in the Priceline search field at $129 not including taxes per night.



The hotel was beautiful and we even found free street parking right around the corner, which saved us $25. This is just one example, but I’ve found over and over again that there is really no substitute for bidding if you want a really low price. Some people can’t handle the element or risk or surprise, however you want to put it, but you can mitigate those risks by researching what you might get on sites like Bidding For Travel.

If you like the security of choosing your own hotel, Tonight or Hotel Tonight are worth exploring, but if you simply want the lowest rate, you are usually better off bidding.

[Photo credit: Loren Javier on Flickr]

The 10 Best Travel Apps For Flight Attendants

1. FAAWait – During a creeping weather delay a flight attendant who also works part time as an air traffic controller told me about FAAWait. It’s his favorite app. One click and we knew which airports across the country were also experiencing delays, how long the delays were averaging, and what had caused the delays.

2. MyRadar: Recently a fearful flier on board one of my flights spent three hours watching the weather light up his iPad screen: blue, green, red – wow, so much red! He knew exactly when to expect turbulence, how bad it might get, and how long it would last. Knowing this kept him calm. At one point he even turned around in his seat to let the crew know it would be smooth flying from here on out. Two seconds later the captain called to tell us the exact same thing, it was safe to get up and finish the service. Since then I’ve been recommending the app to anyone who mentions they’re afraid to fly.

3. WhatsApp: An Emirate’s flight attendant from Bosnia based in Saudi Arabia told me about this app on a flight from Miami to New York. WhatsApp makes it possible to send text messages to friends and family out of the country free of charge. There is virtually no cost to stay in touch with loved ones. You can even share audio and video messages.

4. Twitter: Still the best way to get breaking news! You don’t need to “get it.” Just learn how to use the hashtags to find information as it’s happening. For instance, not too long ago I was at an airport that was being evacuated and no one knew why. That was my cue to search the airport code – #DFW. That’s how I found out there was a bomb threat on an incoming flight. I learned this from passengers who were actually on board the flight and tweeting about it as they taxied to the gate.

5. HappyHourFinder: Flight attendants don’t make a lot of money. In fact new hires start out making less than $18,000 a year. And yet we’re subjected to overpriced hotel and airport food on a regular basis. This is why we take advantage of happy hour specials, particularly ones that include half priced appetizers, which might explain how I ended up at Vince Neil’s Bar, Tres Rios, in Las Vegas two hours after learning about the app in the crew van on our way from the airport to the layover hotel.6. Instagram: Because when you travel there are just so many beautiful things to photograph. The app not only makes your pictures look ten times better, it’s easy to text and email your photos or post photos straight to Facebook or Twitter. What I enjoy most about the app is following people whose photos inspire me to travel, like @Lax2Nrt or even @Umetaturou who shares hilarious pictures of a Border Collie named Sora who can balance anything on his head. One of these days I’m going to fly to Japan and walk that dog!

7. Postagram: Remember when you used to send postcards to family and friends from around the world just to let them know you were thinking about them? Now you’re too busy to think, let alone search for just the right card to send. Not to mention all that time it takes to address and stamp it. With Postagram you can turn your cool photos into postcards by using pictures from your phone, Facebook or Twitter. Write a short message and Postagram will take care of the rest.

8. Yelp: Whenever I find myself at a layover hotel in a new city, the first thing I do is pull up Yelp just to see what’s nearby. I might use it to find a great place to eat, check out a tourist attraction, or locate a pharmacy within walking distance. Users post reviews and photos to help narrow down the search so you can determine whether or not it’s worth it to leave your hotel room.

9. HotelTonight: If you’re a commuter like me, this app will save your life one day. At noon each day HotelTonight offers great last minute deals on a couple of hotels near your current location. Get a $25 credit with your first booking, $25 for each friend who signs up, and $25 when a friend makes their first bookings. So … who wants to be friends?

10. GateGuru: Enter an airport code and up pops everything you could ever want to know about food, shopping, and any services offered, along with reviews, ratings and maps. Enter your flight number and access flight status, delays and weather conditions all in the same place.