There Is No Perfect Travel App—But These Will Help (#GotBitcoin?)
My travel app should know where I want to go, how I want to get there, and what I want to do when I land. Right now, most apps are still learning. There Is No Perfect Travel App—But These Will Help (#GotBitcoin?)
HONG KONG—The low point, if I had to pick one, was probably Starbucks .
It was a Sunday morning, and I had just landed in Hong Kong—a city filled with Michelin-starred restaurants and legendary coffee shops. Yet there I stood, ordering a venti cold brew and a microwaved blueberry muffin in the Chipotle of caffeine.
How did I end up here? I typed “coffee” into Google Maps.
Sure, with enough time and patience I could have found something better. I could have sorted through the hundreds of reviews, all the “50 Best Places” and “29 Hidden Gems” stories, and the tips from various friends and co-workers. I could even have walked into the nearest store and hoped for the best.
But given the unfathomable amount of available data about me and all the places I could visit, travel apps ought to be better guides automatically.
My perfect, personalized, AI-powered travel app would start helping me the minute I decided to travel, maybe even before I knew where I was going. It might pull from Google’s knowledge of the places I’ve been, Facebook ’s log of where my friends go and Amazon’s list of things I tend to buy, to compile a personalized itinerary.
It would find me the perfect seat (aisle, exit row, not too far back) on the perfect flight (not too early, but get me there in time for dinner). It would help me through every traffic jam, security checkpoint and train system as if I came here often—wherever I was. The perfect trip is perfectly planned, and all I would need to do is show up.
Of course, this ideal travel app would have to tread a delicate privacy balance, between helping me travel and creeping me out. Any app that could collate all the available data about what I like could know me better than anyone, but do I really want all that data living in one place? Or with one company?
Many developers and companies are working on making travel easier and more personalized, and they are already starting to offer ways to make your travels a little smarter. None are even close to getting it right. But for each of the three phases of travel—planning the trip, getting there, and exploring your destination—there are apps that are beginning to figure it out.
That doesn’t mean your apps won’t sometimes point you to Starbucks.
Booking The Trip
People are complicated. You might prefer an aisle seat, except on a red-eye, and you’d take a middle seat if it meant getting there sooner. Price matters, but so do loyalty points. And all that goes out the window when you have a meeting you can’t miss.
Finding the right hotel is just as complicated, with ocean views pitted against better room service and proximity to shopping. It would be hard for an app ever to book travel without any user input. But maybe it can help narrow the options.
For years, services like Expedia and Kayak brought all your options to one place, a sort of department store for travel. A new breed of services now is working on whittling those options back down to just the few you might use.
App in the Air, a travel-assistant service, is launching an AI-based booking service that will consider your seat, time and airline preferences (including your status progress), and offer you the best few choices.
“The human being is the ultimate decision maker, but we can organize information in a manner that will simplify that decision,” said Bayram Annakov, App in the Air’s chief executive. The system learns over time too: If you filter your results to only show early-morning flights, it might show you those first next time.
The Best Option So Far: App in the Air’s booking service will be available to everyone in July. Meanwhile, go with Hipmunk, an app that shows all your flights on a straightforward timeline. It also lets you sort options by “agony,” a really handy shorthand combining price, duration, stops and the flight’s typical reliability, showing you the likely best flights up top.
Consider even the simple question “When do I need to leave for the airport?” The answer depends on real-time traffic to the airport, how long the security lines will be when you arrive and much more. If your flight is likely to be delayed, that changes things too.
Still, this is the part of the travel experience that apps currently do best. From airport maps to real-time security line traffic, there’s more information than ever about your travel.
The Best Options So Far:: For $49 a year, TripIt offers a Pro service that can tell you when to leave home, and it has handy maps and alerts for getting to your gate and to the right baggage claim.
Fun Fact: Both TripIt and Hipmunk are now subsidiaries of SAP Concur, a company that also handles all my expense reports. App in the Air offers a similar service for $30 a year that includes crowdsourced tips from frequent travelers.
Exploring Your Destination
Travel apps are least helpful once you get where you’re going. Few apps offer any kind of personalized recommendations, and even if you are willing to comb through countless reviews, every city has its own best source of information.
In Hong Kong, for instance, every Yelp review appears to have been written by a jet-lagged tourist. Locals seem to use apps like OpenRice—but I don’t want the pure local experience, either.
TripAdvisor, the titan of the travel-recommendation industry, has more data and reviews on more places than any other service I’ve tried. But how do I decide which of the countless places rated “Excellent” is the right one for me? “Over time we’ll enable TripAdvisor members to tell us whether they’re traveling with family or friends, looking for hidden gems or top attractions, or hungry for local hangouts or tasting menus recommended by well-known foodies,” said TripAdvisor president of core experience, Lindsay Nelson. The company’s also working on ways to personalize the experience, but right now it’s still like finding needles in 4.5-star haystacks.
The Best Option So Far: The Your Match feature in Google Maps. Google can use your history and preferences to assess whether you are likely to enjoy a given place. It isn’t perfect—and requires you to turn on Google’s Location History feature, which we recommend privacy-minded people keep off—but it is the closest thing I have found to a virtual travel guide that really knows what I like.
You know what Google Maps thinks I like? Starbucks. 86% match. It isn’t totally wrong. I did like the cold brew.
What I really want, though, is a travel app that broadens my horizons, that knows me enough to take me to places I’ve never been but will surely love. Until the virtual travel agents catch up to my dreams, I guess I’ll have another cold brew. There Is No Perfect, There Is No Perfect