Global online travel bookings are expected to reach $313 billion by the end of 2012. Most of that market share is held by the major online travel sites, among them Priceline, Expedia, and Travelocity. These companies offer not only airfare, but hotel reservations, rental cars, and vacation packages. Full service booking is ostensibly a win for consumers. But as the online travel industry has expanded beyond airfare, there has been less incentive for innovation in matching customers with flights. The problem is especially pronounced for business travelers, who are often looking for direct connections—not red eye bargain flights with two hour layovers in Denver and Minneapolis.
Some startups, however, are challenging the conventional model and offering different approaches to booking flights that make its easier to both minimize cost and maximize convenience. Hipmunk offers a unique visual design that helps travelers avoid lengthy layovers. Kayak uses a “meta” search function to find the cheapest flights domestically and internationally. And Yapta lets you know when you’re eligible for a refund when ticket prices drop. All of these sites offer diverse booking services, but each has developed a comparative advantage by doing one thing exceptionally well.
Let’s consider each:
Forbes recently deemed this startup the “best travel site on the Web.” Hipmunk’s website is clean, simple and narrowly focused on one thing: flights. There is a separate tab for hotel reservations, but you aren’t inundated with flashy ads for vacation specials or celebrity-endorsed promotional deals. Hipmunk’s main page offers users an intuitive interface that’s fairly similar to Expedia or any other number of online travel sites (minus the clutter). But the flight listings page (pictured above) is where Hipmunk really stands out.
Flights and airfare are arranged in a visual timetable, not as a text-heavy stack. And the default sorting isn’t by price, but by a category Hipmunk calls “Agony,” which factors in price, duration, and number of stops. This ranking is especially useful for professionals willing to spend a little more money to avoid red-eye flights and four-hour layovers in Phoenix. Flights can be sorted by traditional price / departure time categories, but the results are always displayed in Hipmunk’s clean visual style, which communicates everything you need to know about flight options—including a familiar wi-fi symbol to indicate Internet access.
Kayak’s inclusion on this list is slightly misleading, in that this “startup” was recently acquired by Priceline for $1.8 billion. But that astonishing price tag reflects Kayak’s single minded focus on delivering the cheapest airfare available. Most travel sites search for fares within their own internal databases, but Kayak uses a meta search engine that scans the rates of multiple airlines and travel booking sites simultaneously (including some international ones) and sends you to the source to book the ticket.
“Nobody will beat us (on average) on fares in the US and Europe,” Kayak founder Paul English told the New York Times.
Unlike Hipmunk, Kayak’s results page is focused on price and the display is basically a stack of text. But there is a handy sliding filter that lets you adjust arrival and departure time by five-minute increments without having to re-enter your information. And Kayak’s mobile app features a very clean, user-friendly interface.
Yapta’s site design is fairly pedestrian, and the prices it offers are competitive but not rock bottom. But Yapta’s unique feature is a winner: it tracks real ticket prices across 23 different airlines and alerts you via email of any drops. If the price goes down after you’ve already purchased the ticket from an airline with a low price guarantee (such as JetBlue, Southwest, or Alaska), Yapta provides you with links to receive a refund. Not all airlines are quite that consumer-friendly, but Yapta alerts can still save you money by allowing you to change your reservation. You’ll probably have to pay a $75 to $150 fee to do so, but it still makes sense for international flights, which can suddenly go down $300 before the departure date.
If you haven’t already booked your flight home for Christmas (or a last minute business trip), there are plenty of new booking sites that can save you time and money. And if you end up using multiple sites to book different tickets, you can also always use TripIt to keep the track of them. This free mobile app turns all of your flight, hotel and rental car confirmation emails into single itinerary, and creates an easy-access list of current and past reservations. Maps are also integrated to provide airport directions and terminal layouts.