Wanderfly.com travel-planning site launches in beta

A new travel-planning website and booking engine is launching this month in beta, and I was excited to give it a test run, having first heard about the site this spring at a EuroCheapo travel happy hour. Wanderfly.com is a “personalized recommendation engine” that takes your interests, budget, and even social network connections to give you inspiration and help you plan your next vacation. Flights and hotels are pulled from Expedia, with restaurant recommendations, activities, and sightseeing descriptions culled from Lonely Planet, FourSquare, NileGuide, and Yelp.

Let’s say you have a week to travel in early September for Labor Day. Budget is under $1,000 per person for flights and hotels, and you’re interested in culture, beaches, and food. Plug all those into the search engine and you’ll get a series of destinations to review, refine, share, and book. While the site still has a few bugs (budget busters would sneak through the filters, the help feature is not fully enabled), the interface is slick and user-friendly, the features are thoughtful, and the content is reliable.

What’s cool about the site:

  • Since I’m currently based in Turkey, I loved that your point of origin could be pretty much anywhere in the world so I could run searches from New York and Istanbul to get a wide variety of places convenient for different parts of the world.
  • A wide (1,200 and growing) network of destinations gave me some ideas I’d never considered or even heard of (Kalingrad, Russia; Azemmour, Morocco; Krabi, Thailand), as well as some more tried-and-true vacation spots(Sunny Isles Beach, Florida; Mykonos, Greece; Split, Croatia).
  • Weather and news tabs give you an idea of the current climate (could be too hot on that Egyptian beach) and happenings, though you might come up with nothing for more obscure destinations. I also love that many of the news feeds are through Twitter accounts like @visitbritain, giving up-to-the-minute quickie items.

What will be cool about the site:

  • Ability to share trip ideas and plans with friends via email or Facebook is great for planning a trip with multiple people or getting feedback on a destination. Currently, Facebook Connect will tell you who you know in a given place, but I’d probably remember if I had a friend in Lutsk, Ukraine.
  • Festivals and special events come up via Eventful, but on the beta site event dates will pop up well after your search range so don’t plan around that blues festival just yet. There are also plans to add destination reviews, currency converters, and travel tips.
  • After all the searching, sorting, and sharing, you can actually book through the site, though only if you have a US credit card. The booking interface is also easy to use and gives options for frequent flier numbers, seat and meal preferences, and room types.

All in all, Wanderfly is a nifty new tool for dreaming and planning your next trip. If they could find a way to integrate time-sensitive deals, local blogs, and multiple-destination trips, this could be the only travel site you need.

Bing Travel: “We save the average couple $50 per trip”

Hugh Crean is the general manager of Bing Travel, Microsoft’s new travel search engine. Microsoft is trying to chip away at Google’s search engine dominance, and Bing Travel is part of a multi-pronged effort that also includes shopping and health-related microsites. Crean’s company, Farecast, was acquired by Microsoft last year and folded into MSN Travel. I asked Crean about what Bing means to travelers.

Q: Farecast. MSN Travel. Now Bing Travel. My head is spinning! Couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?

Crean: It’s true that we’re giving the guy who changes our name on the front door some good business this year, but we’re excited that as part of the overall Bing search strategy, Bing Travel is a solution that a lot of travelers will discover and learn about in the coming weeks, months and years. Frankly, we’re simplifying things. With Bing Travel, Microsoft now has a single online destination for travelers.

Q: How is Bing Travel different from MSN Travel?

Crean: For starters, we incorporated all the great Farecast features – price predictor, hotel rate indicator, deals, planning tools, fare alerts, and more. Plus, we added the travel editorial travelers have used and read for years at MSN Travel. Beyond those core features, we have a really deep integration with Bing.com that makes Bing a great search site for travelers. Try a general Web search on Bing.com for ‘flights from LAX to SFO.’ Right at the top of the results you’ll see our prediction on whether to buy now or wait, deals out of LAX, a link to our flexible travel tools and more.
Q: Bing is about a week old. Has anything surprised you about the reaction to the new site, and particularly to Bing Travel?

Crean: We’re excited that travel is a key vertical in Bing and that the user response to the Bing and Bing Travel has been generally positive. There is plenty of room for improvement and we’re anxious to receive any and all feedback from customers so we can make it even better.

Q: At the heart of Bing Travel is data-mining technology that predict the price of an airline ticket or hotel room. Can you explain how it works?

Crean: At the core of Bing Travel is a passion to help consumers make faster, more informed decisions by delivering a more organized travel search experience and providing interesting features and functionality which help users accomplish key tasks more easily.

The prediction is a good example of how we make customers smarter and more empowered when shopping for airline tickets. Every night we gather and analyze millions of airfares (we basically run and catalog every possible search for every destination and every possible date). We then monitor those fares over time. Through machine learning and other really complex methods employed by our team of data miners, we are able to predict airfare pricing trends over time. The process and the information we provide for hotels is different, but employs many of the same basic principles.

Q: I really like the way you turn airline yield management on its head. Yield management tries to predict how much money a passenger is willing to pay for a ticket. But Farecast — sorry, Bing Travel — tries to predict when airlines are likely to offer the lowest fares. How much money have you saved your customers?

Crean: We are complimentary to the airline’s yield management and in fact, we give consumers the confidence to buy when they otherwise wouldn’t open their checkbook. The airlines control their pricing, and we are offering a free tip that builds consumer confidence. Importantly, we’re a search experience and not a travel agency, so when the consumer is ready to buy we connect them with a click directly to the airline or online travel agency to buy their tickets. A third-party audit showed that we save the average couple $50 per trip. I couldn’t tell you how much money we’ve saved travelers over the life of our company, but we get emails and tweets all the time from fans who save $100, $200 and even more by using our price predictor.

Q: Those fare prediction charts that show up when I do a fare search are extremely helpful. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked, “Will fares go up?” But I’m wondering: How do you know if you’re right? Have you ever subjected yourself to an audit of any kind?

Crean: Yes, we have subjected ourselves to a third party audit. Navigant Consulting found that our airfare predictions are 74.5 percent accurate. We’ve never claimed to be perfect, and you’ll see that alongside our predictions we include a confidence rating. Our goal is to be transparent and provide as much information and data as the consumers need so they can make a smart decision about their travel.

Q: When you look at hotels on Bing Travel, you don’t see the same kind of chart as you do when shopping for fares. Instead, there are three given designations: “Deal”, “Average” and “Not a Deal.” How do you come up with those labels, and how is your algorithm for hotels different than it is for airfares?

Crean: Hotels is a very different product than air with distinct comparison and pricing dynamics, so our approach is unique based on the category. With hotels we aren’t predicting what that particular rate is going to do over time, the way we do with airfare. We mark hotels as “Deal” or “Not a Deal” based on the historical rates for that hotel over time, and a few other indicators. Again, we’re presenting as much data for travelers as possible so they make and informed choice. We like to say that all our results are based on science, not marketing.

Q: Don’t look now, but car rental prices are climbing. They could sure use a little Bing attention. Any plans?

Crean: Don’t drive any conclusions from this, but we’re definitely keeping the door open on a rental car product.

Q: I’ve noticed that Bing Travel includes more than just a way to search prices. There are blogs and forums. How do these fit into a search engine?

Crean: With Bing Travel, we’re extending beyond comparison shopping and providing content that helps travelers get inspired about where to travel and be up to date with the latest travel news. A recent Forrester report said that 20 percent of travelers start their search without a specific destination in mind. So, the idea is to complement quality travel editorial content with community content to provide useful planning insights for travelers.

Q: Bing Travel isn’t the only site that tells travelers the best time to buy. Others, notably Farecompare.com, have similar features. How do you plan to differentiate yourself from those products, moving forward?

Crean: To be clear, no other online travel site provides a Price Predictor, which predicts if airfares are rising or falling and provides consumers with a recommendation to buy now or wait. The Hotel Rate Indicator, which uses science to indicate which hotel rates are deals, is also a differentiated offering available only to Bing Travel. Even our approach to airfare deals, leveraging billions of historical airfares to help consumers know what is a deal and why it’s a deal, is unique to Bing Travel. We’re committed to continued innovation to help consumers make faster, more informed decisions when searching for travel.

Applying Google Text on the road

Years back we posted on Google’s new technology that lets you google simple questions to the search engine via the text message function on your phone. If you question is easily answerable, the service will return your query with a short answer in a text message.

This, my friends, is a powerful, powerful tool, that I believe many people under utilize. So to demonstrate a good example of how Google text has saved my ass multiple times on the road, I’ll give one example of a trip I recently took.

I have yet to indulge in the Blackberry or handheld wireless internet market for two reasons: the data fees that AT&T charges are completely unacceptable and I don’t want to devote my life to the internet attached to my hip. I’ll probably break down at some point, but for now I’m still resisting. What I do have, however, like most other people who own mobile phones, is a text message function (or SMS, as the Europeans often call it) that I occasionally use to keep in touch with friends or send dirty messages during meetings at work.

A few months back I was headed out to my weekly pilgrimage to Detroit‘s Metro Airport (DTW) for another one of my typical weekend trips. I usually park off site because the shuttles seem faster and they issue online coupons for free days, so took the red Qwikpark shuttle from my car straight into McNamara terminal. As usual, I was cutting it close, so by the time we rolled into the terminal I was hot to get through security. Ignoring the departure and arrival monitors, I burst through the security checkpoint and headed up for the the internal train that runs the length of the terminal.

As I crossed the large span towards the terminal, I pulled out my boarding pass, checked my flight (say, Northwest 266) then plugged it into my text box as NW266 and sent it to GOOGL, or 46645. Five steps later I received a text message saying that my flight was on time, departing from gate A6 and had the number for customer service just in case of problems. Now I knew to get on the northbound train.

Immediately when I got on the tram, I felt that something was wrong.
I checked my pockets – left pocket, cell phone, right pocket, wallet. No keys. Damn it. I must have left it on the Qwikpark shuttle. Thinking quickly, I texted “Qwikpark, Romulus, MI” to 46645 and was immediately given their number. Hitting the send button with the text message open, my L7 picked up the number, asked if I wanted to dial it and patched me through to Qwikpark.


“Yeaaaah. I think I just left my keys on the shuttle that dropped me off at the Mac. I think my driver’s name was…. Duane? I was sitting in the back corner. They’re black switchblade keys”

“Oh, ok. Hang on a second.” Pause. Radio noise. “Yeah, he’s got it. We’ll keep it in the office until you get back”

“Cool! I’ll be back in a couple of days. Thanks!”

“No problem”

Now I didn’t have to carry around my keys with me for the entire weekend! But I’ll admit, I was lucky. Darting towards my gate because I was still late, I thought about the weather where I was heading and considered switching into my sandals. I GOOGL’ed, say, “Boston, weather” and found out that it was going to be raining all weekend. Better keep my shoes on.

Just then, I reached my gate as they were starting to board the aircraft. Time to head out.
Where would I be if I hadn’t 46645 at my side? Well, I would have been a little later getting to my gate since I would have had to go out of my way, stop at the monitors, find my flight and find my gate. I’d be even further later because I would have to call 411, pay a service fee and track down my car key. I also wouldn’t know what to expect about the weather in Boston.

But because of the power of Google and a little quick texting, I got all three tasks out of the way quickly and efficiently.

Traveling can be tough. Little things can add up, setting you back a half step every time and adding to your stress level. You carry this frustration with you all day and in the end it can take a serious toll on your body, physically and emotionally. You become short, angry with the person that you’re traveling with and turn into a person that you don’t want to be when you’re on the road.

While still an inconvenience, Google text helps by giving you a shortcut the solution — and any reduction in stress during travel is important. Give it a try next time you’re on the road. You can’t forget G-O-O-G-L, right?