The travel apps that could make your next holiday cheaper, easier and better

Mobile phone apps that use personalised ‘metasearch’ engines will change the way we organise and book trips; for now, it seems most Hongkongers still use a computer to buy tickets and relatively few use mobile check-in

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2016, 12:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2016, 12:35pm

The massive amount of information and travel booking services now available online and via apps is fast making independent travel the way to go.

Or is it? Trying to book a flight, find some decent hotels and design an itinerary for a trip all by yourself can be an exhausting and repetitive process. By the time you’ve perused multiple search engines and websites, checked out hotels on TripAdvisor, and mapped your trip on Google Earth, you’re going to need that holiday just to recover from the stress of it all.

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In May, travel search engine Kayak (kayak.com.hk) reported nearly half of Hong Kong travellers are spending more time planning trips despite recent technological innovations. But its mobile travel report revealed that use of traditional travel agents has collapsed from 56 per cent a decade ago to a mere 22 per cent in 2016. A whopping 84 per cent of Hong Kong people now make their travel plans online, according to Kayak.

The internet is fast moving towards personalised “metasearch” engines for travel services. Perhaps the most high-profile new addition is Google Flights (google.com/flights), a service from the search engine giant that monitors trends in price rises and notifies you when the flight you want is dropping, or about to go through the roof.

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Obviously, you have to tell Google Flights exactly which flights you’re interested in, but the cross-referencing is handy. You can search for a flight on specific dates, but Google will flash-up a “tip” box that tells you how you could save money. For example, when I was searching for a flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles on Google Flights, it quickly told me that the fare was likely to increase in 17 hours.

Other helpful features include more generalised geographic search, such as “flights to South America”, so you can choose the cheapest or shortest flight to or within a particular continent or region. A similar real-time search service comes from Skyscanner (skyscanner.com.hk), which uses proprietary technology and data from 1,200 global partners.

“Everywhere Search enables travellers who need a little travel inspiration to ask Skyscanner to make a suggestion on their next travel adventure, based on specific dates and budget,” says Fang Fang, senior marketing manager of Skyscanner Greater China. Like Google Flights, Skyscanner also offers price alerts that monitor a particular flight and route, and “whole month search”.

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What really differentiates today’s online travel tools is that they’re often best used in apps. “We’ve seen more and more Hong Kong travellers using smartphones to consume travel information, perform searches and make online bookings,” says Fang, who reports that 58 per cent of its Hong Kong users are searching for travel information using smartphones.

The trend for smartphone use is perhaps no surprise, but it has some unpredictable effects. According to Skyscanner’s survey earlier this year of more than 8,000 respondents across Asia Pacific, 40 per cent of travel enthusiasts in Hong Kong read or watch travel-related content just before they sleep and 25 per cent while at work or school.

If where we search for our next trip has changed, so has how we search, and with the growth in personal devices and more detailed search options comes the birth of personalised travel search engines.

For example, as well as offering flight, hotel and rental car search, TripStreak (tripstreak.com) lets you rank and save travel preferences. “I was fed up with existing solutions and the massive amount of wasted time,” says Charles Ralston, CEO of TripStreak. “I wasn’t alone – travellers like me needed greater efficiency in planning and booking trips, and I wanted to create a product that could factor in those preferences and create a personalised booking experience.”

TripStreak is unique in that it can log in to travellers’ frequent flyer rewards programmes and show how many points can be earned from any potential itinerary.

Do air miles still matter? “Travellers have definitely felt the sting of devaluation by various airline programmes,” says Ralston, who nevertheless thinks that value can still be had. Those looking to maximise the value from points programmes should visit blogs such as Boarding Area (boardingarea.com), UPGRD (upgrd.com) and The Points Guy (thepointsguy.com).

Although most of the major online tools concentrate on flights, hotels and rental cars, tools for other modes of transport are beginning to emerge as a major part of the personalised travel search industry. Travel planners such as Rome2Rio (rome2rio.com) provide multiple options for journeys by plane, train, bus, ferry and taxi. An app called Transit (transitapp.com) tells you the best way to get to your destination using public transport, complete with bus number and time to destination. While it does not currently cover Hong Kong, a ‘Vote for the next city’ option on its website shows it is favourite to become the next place to get the Transit treatment.

Planning trips is fast becoming a digital task, but there is still some way to go.

“The world is becoming increasingly connected each day, and with that comes more technology available to us,” says Ralston, name-checking the rise of mobile devices in travel and the recent growth of artificial intelligence and messaging tools. “Everyone wants time added back to their day; searching for trips should take minutes, not hours.”

Unlike Skyscanner, Kayak reports that more than two-thirds of Hongkongers prefer to book travel on a computer and just 19 per cent on a smartphone; only a quarter check in online using their smartphones.

We may know the destination, but the digital journey is one that’s far from over.