Travel Smarter 2012: Tips for improving your train travel

The railroad is the oldest, commercial mass transport of the modern age, predating the car and the airplane by at least 100 years. So how can train travel be smarter in 2012?

For starters, “the train takes less time total than all the preliminaries of air travel,” says Margaret King, who regularly opts to take the train to New York City, DC, and Boston from her home in Philadelphia. “I can take plenty of luggage, with no extra fees; I can easily work aboard the train; [and there are] no security hassles.”

From smartphone apps to help you plan and book your travel to a new crop of high-speed trains, train services across the globe have upgraded to appeal to frustrated air travelers and entice would-be drivers from their cars. Let’s take a look at all the ways traveling by train is smarter in 2012.

Smartphone Apps
Name any national railway and there’s likely an app that helps you find train schedules, get arrival and departure updates, and book seats. If you’re traveling to Europe, you can download apps for the particularly country you may be visiting or get the free Rail Europe app. Though far from perfect (e.g., tickets purchased through the app are sent via email as an e-ticket or, given enough lead time, mailed, rather than existing digitally within the app itself), the Rail Europe app gives you information on timetables, stations, and more for 35 European countries. Amtrak has a similar app (also free) that includes a panel for Guest Rewards, a loyalty program that lets regular rail travelers earn points towards free trips. Round-the-world trekkers, particularly those that intend to city-hop, would do well to download AllSubway HD ($0.99), a database of more than 130 city subway maps.Improved Rail Travel Using Social Media and the Web
Twitter is the social media platform of choice for travelers who need quick answers on rail information, particularly interruptions in service on municipal rail lines. Transitpal, a service available to riders of the Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area, monitors tweets to determine delays, police activity, and schedule changes. A companion app to the Transitpal service is set to launch in spring 2012 and the concept, says developer and Google alum Frederick Vallaeys, could easily be applied to rail lines in other cities.

As for using the web to improve the rail travel experience, look to Hipmunk, which became in fall 2011 the first online travel agent to integrate Amtrak searches. Hipmunk now displays train schedules and fares alongside airline timetables and fares, giving passengers, particularly those on the East Coast, where Amtrak service is strong, “greater flexibility and pricing power when considering routes.” Sadly, Amtrak fares are not included in Hipmunk’s smartphone app.

High-Speed Rail and Express Trains
Investing in high-speed rail infrastructure has become a priority on the local, state, regional, and federal level as they see that more consumers are willing to pay a bit extra for faster connections. Countries currently at work on high-speed rail networks include Turkey, China, Italy, and Russia. China’s newest express line, which connects Beijing to Shanghai in just over five hours, opened in June 2011. NTV, the first private bullet train operator in Italy, is set to begin service of its Italo fast trains in spring 2012. A point of interest: the private, high-speed rail line has the backing of Italian leather goods mogul Diego delle Valle, among other investors, and a 20 percent stake by SNCF, the French National Rail Service.

Russia has two relatively new high-speed trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg and Helsinki, Finland, but Russian Railways is currently at work on a line that will connect Moscow with Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Turkey’s famous Haydarpaşa Train Station, the terminus on the Asian side of Istanbul closed in January 2012 for restoration so that Turkish State Railways (TCDD) could complete its construction of the high-speed link between Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, as well as the Marmaray Tunnel, a controversial and ambitious project that will create an underground rail link between Europe and Asia by digging a tunnel below the Bosphorus.

On-Board Amenities
In a bid to compete with and outdo airlines and bus companies, railways have been upgrading on-board amenities, such as offering Wi-Fi and unique dining menus. Amtrak launched free Wi-Fi on 12 East Coast routes and three California routes in fall 2011, thereby bringing the percentage of Wi-Fi-equipped fleet to 75 percent. (Note: Hipmunk, mentioned above, automatically provides info on Wi-Fi trains in its search.)

Meanwhile, rail passengers on board the Canadian, the VIA Rail train that connects Toronto to Vancouver, can look forward to a revamped dining menu. VIA recently enlisted the talents of eight chefs in a Top Chef-style cook-off. The 2012 Menu Creation Challenge saw the chefs create 72 gourmet dishes for menu consideration.

[flickr image via krikit]

Hipmunk launches mobile hotels app

Jumping on the mobile hotel bandwagon today is Hipmunk, known already in the travel world for its flight planning website.

Just like the flight tool sorts by level of “agony” involved in each flight (based on cost, flight time, number of connections, ect.) the hotels tool uses a heat map based on current location and overlays it with data showing price points and proximity to areas like shopping, dining and nightlife. Pretty nifty, hmm?

The tool lets you compare up to three hotels at a time and allows you to book reservations directly through the hotel or via third party provider like Orbitz. If you’d prefer to complete the transaction on a laptop, the app lets you paste a code into your computer that will keep your data and search history ready for you.

VentureBeat spoke positively about the app, calling the user experience “a great one,” but correctly pointed out that, like its flight app, much of the data is dependent on third party aggregators instead of one-to-one partnerships.

The app is available on iPhone, iPad and Android.

Hipmunk makes travel planning easier with integrated calendar technology

In recent months and years, flight search technology has greatly improved (hello, Google Flights!), but it still isn’t a mind reader.

Launching today, travel site Hipmunk’s new Google Calendar integration aims to make travel planning even easier. The site has launched an upgrade that integrates your Google calendar directly into the travel-planning process, meaning that you’ll automatically be looking for flights that automatically leave after your night grad school class and get you back in town in time for that important business meeting on Monday.

It’s a great idea – the idea of personalizing and customizing the search experience has greatly changed both the search landscape and traveler behavior in recent years – and the idea of being able to “sync” or share multiple calendars makes planning group trips much easier.

We can easily see the application – it would make it much easier to plan that girlfriend getaway, coordinate with a significant other’s work schedule, or even plan a last-minute meeting out of town that doesn’t interfere with other work events.

The program can even plot multiple destinations on a map and help you select a hotel that’s convenient to your needs – something we’ve seen on sites like Trippy and loved.

You can get live help via a chat feature, search by price, duration, departure, arrival and airline and also see the amount of layover time and which airport you’ll be connecting through, all in one easy spreadsheet-like feature. There’s also a funny “agony” button that allows you to see similar flights that are “worse than this one.” It’s also easy to use “flex” features that allow you to search within a one- to three-day window. You can’t book through the site, but you can easily click to book directly through the airline, with your search parameters already inputted into the query – you’re deposited directly into the payment screen.
On the hotel front, the site is fairly easy to negotiate, allowing you to search on a map, narrow according to attractions nearby, features and even hotel chain. You can also access the service via iPhone or iPad, which makes booking travel on-the-go even easier.

Limitations? The Hipmunk program only works with Google Calendar – meaning that someone like us, who uses Outlook, won’t be helped. If you haven’t tagged an event correctly – like a friend’s birthday that you’ve accidentally scheduled as a full day event, for example – the site won’t show your time as available. It also requires that you “share” your calendar with friends / colleagues to use it, meaning we’ll have to change “bikini wax” to “important medical appointment” on our schedules…

Still, the app and new integration are on the way to helping us plan our travel. And we’ll take anything that makes our lives easier.

Hipmunk first online travel agent to integrate Amtrak searches

It is the El Dorado of Online Travel Agents (OTAs) to provide the fullest spectrum of travel options when users search from point A to point B. Having more data than the competition allows passengers to be confident that they’re getting the lowest price, and when they have that feeling then they keep their business in one place. That’s why metacrawlers like Kayak and Mobissimo have enjoyed so much praise in the community.

Hipmunk is now adding a new layer to the passenger travel game by integrating Amtrak fares along side their already-powerful airfare engine. This means that for itineraries like those along the east coast (where Amtrak service is strong), train tickets and prices will appear in parallel to those provided by airline carriers. The reflected prices and times should hopefully give passengers greater flexibility and pricing power when considering routes.

The inclusion of Amtrak itineraries into general travel search is a first in the OTA industry, and highlights Hipmunk’s visionary approach to displaying the best fare content for its users.

As far as integration, train fares, amenities and connecting data will be displayed next to the normal airline itineraries, and when a user clicks through, an Amtrak page will be deep-linked with preloaded dates and times.

Don’t count on booking flights and train tickets under one seamless reservation though. As Adam Goldberg, CEO of Hipmunk tells us:

“Users can’t combine air and train into a single ticket because it’s not supported by any of our partners’ ticketing systems. If this becomes possible in the future, we’ll definitely explore it. In the meantime, the best bet is to do two one-way bookings.”

Nevertheless, this new upgrade engine is a welcome approach to travel booking, a breath of fresh air sorely needed in the OTA industry. Team Hipmunk: you continue to amaze us.

[Update, 0948EST, Sept 8, 2001: Kevin May from Tnooz points out that Momondo has been hosting Amtrak fares for more than a year. That would make Hipmunk the second OTA to provide combined airfare and train booking.]

Gadling test drives new search engine

The new buzz on the internets this week is all about a new fare booking site called Hipmunk, a catchy, minimalist little site with a unique way of presenting fares.

Founded by the co-founders of Reddit (Steve Huffmann) and BookTour (Adam Goldstein), Hipmunk brings a unique, fresh way of looking at fare data unlike the old tabular model. Timing and duration are stressed, so a list of fares on each airline as a function of departure and length are presented in a series of parallel, colored bars.

In this way, passengers can easily see when they depart, how long they’ll be traveling, where they have layovers and when they arrive. Sorted against price, one can easily pick the lowest priced ticket against the that with the shortest travel time. Lower ranking fares under the best conditions per airline are folded under each line.

One can also sort fares by number of stops, duration or agony and then continue searching.

Once users have found a reasonable itinerary, they can click on their favorite fare and then carry over to Orbitz for finalized booking.

And only Orbitz, mind you. Why is this an issue? Well, we don’t know exactly where Hipmunk’s fare data comes from (their FAQ says that they’re not owned by an online travel agent), but if they’re only monetizing through Orbitz then they’re only limited to fares that Orbitz displays. And as we all know, Orbitz doesn’t necessarily always display the lowest possible fare. Coincidentally, however, the online travel agent does provide the industry highest return for each referred and purchased ticket, $3 versus $2 for Travelocity.

Running a quick search for an upcoming itinerary from ORD-CDG that we’ve got on the calendar, the proof is in the pudding. Hipmunk returns an (Orbitz available) $823 for roundtrip fare, while metacrawler Kayak (that actually queries returns $796.

This isn’t to say that Hipmunk’s model is broken — their interface is lovely and the amount of returned data is simply outstanding — they just need to expand their dataset for searching and monetization. Until this happens, we recommend using at least a few different engines in addition to your current searches on Hipmunk.