7 February 2018 Issue 21 Feb/Mar

The travel startups transforming trip booking

Five startups offering a fresh perspective when it comes to organising a holiday.

Congratulations! Your sister is getting married. First, some good news: the wedding is planned for a blissfully sunny beach in the Bahamas. The bad news: you’ll need to spend a research-heavy afternoon bouncing between booking sites to snag a cheap flight from London.

For years, online flight booking has been dominated by a handful of incumbents, from The Priceline Group (owner of Priceline, Booking.com, Kayak and Momondo) and Expedia Inc (Expedia, Cheap Tickets, Hotwire, Orbitz, Travelocity and Trivago), to the Chinese company Ctrip (parent of Skyscanner).

Such online travel agencies, meta-search engines and flight fare aggregators have unquestionably made arranging trips easier than in years past. (Remember all those hours spent in high-street travel agents and phoning multiple airlines to compare fees?)

And yet for many people, booking a flight remains somewhat painful – the wanderlust equivalent of getting a root canal. Websites are often cluttered and unintuitive. Pricing is opaque, fluctuating from day to day and from one site to the next. While the huge variety of choice should be good for consumers, it can also make the experience overwhelming, stressful and time-consuming. More dark art than science, more chore than fun.

The new generation

A new wave of companies has been taking notes and adding clever twists to the booking experience. The travel tech space has surged.

According to industry news outlet Skift, startups in the space saw ‘a record amount’ of venture investment in 2017. Data intelligence firm CB Insights adds that almost £3.9bn was invested in roughly 350 deals last year; the ‘fifth consecutive year of deal growth’ for travel tech companies, an area it says is ‘rapidly evolving’.

The price is right

Because of its direct impact on travellers’ wallets, price optimisation is a fast-growing field. Flyr, a San Francisco-based startup, allows users to ‘lock-in’ an airfare if more time is needed to plan a trip and actually buy the ticket. If the price rises in the interim, Flyr will pay the difference. If it drops, it will alert you.

Tel Aviv-based Fairfly offers a similar solution for corporate travel managers. The company reckons an airfare changes nearly 100 times from the point the flight is published until takeoff. It will track these changes and offer real-time options to cancel or amend a flight to snatch a better price.

Houston, we have a problem

There’s a subsection of travel startups focused on offering help when trouble strikes. US-based Freebird allows travellers with cancelled or delayed flights (or a missed connection) to quickly rebook on any airline – for free.

When flights are overbooked, severely delayed or cancelled, passengers in Europe are legally entitled to compensation, yet very few ever claim what they’re owed. Airhelp takes care of the mountain of paperwork for a 25% cut of the total refund. The company has attracted the attention of investors and raised more than £9m in Series A funding.

Travel incubators 

Rather than go it alone, many founders in the industry are partnering with established brands. It’s an approach that works particularly well within the experiment-friendly confines of co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators.

In London, co-working operator The Trampery runs Traveltech Lab, a dedicated location built solely for travel startups. Late last year, the lab announced a ‘mentorship-driven’ accelerator programme called Hotel Jumpstart, in which startups receive strategic support from Hotels.com and the Expedia Affiliate Network, including access to Expedia’s data.

EasyJet dreams

Airlines are keen to join in. Budget brand Easyjet has set up a joint programme with tech accelerator and incubator Founders Factory. As part of the scheme, announced in 2016, five early-stage startups will be supported and two new companies co-created from scratch each year.

Among its early cohort are Luckytrip and Flightsayer (see below), plus Taptrip, a service built entirely in-house that
allows users to view flight options in the context of their personal calendar.

JetBlue and Lufthansa have also dipped their toes in the accelerator game. More than a dozen such travel-focused programmes now exist


Five travel startups taking off

Luckytrip

Founded 2014 – The inspiration search engine 

Brothers Tiff and Alex Burns built Luckytrip in the kitchen of their Hackney flat. It’snow one of the fastest-growing travel startups in London.

The Burns brothers tell Courier that inspiration and discovery were the key missing ingredients on most travel
websites. ‘We really love going away but we hate the planning process,’ Tiff Burns explains. ‘Travel booking websites tend to look like spreadsheets of prices, because most of them started out as spreadsheets in someone’s bedroom back in the day.’

To fix this, the pair invented an app that soothes planning headaches. A user sets their preferred budget and dates, taps a ‘Lucky’ button, and is offered trip suggestions broken down into three categories: ‘Somewhere to go’, ‘Somewhere
to stay’, and ‘Something to make you happy’ (i.e. handpicked things to do). If the results aren’t quite right, simply hit the ‘Lucky’ button again.

Luckytrip was one of the first two startups admitted into the Founders Factory travel accelerator programme. It has since partnered with Booking.com for hotel suggestions and Skyscanner for flights.

Jack’s Flight Club

Founded 2016 – Cheap deals to your inbox

Jack Sheldon – Texas-born, London-based – runs this free email service focused on cheap flights.

Sheldon and his team send hand-picked flight deals – hidden offers, discounts and ‘error fares’ – to their bulging membership.

Sign-ups have recently hit 350,000 in the UK and Ireland. ‘It’s been an incredibly rapid growth period considering we were at just over 40,000 this time last year,’ he says.

It all began as a bit of fun: ‘Being a bit of a numbers guy at heart, I started exploring different methods of tracking prices and looking for deals,’ he tells Courier. ‘The sheer excitement and curiosity from my friends and family about the bargains I’d find is what really made me think there was more to this than just a personal hobby.’

One year ago, Sheldon began monetising the site by adding a premium membership, giving access to four times as many deals.

The company has been bootstrapped so far and kept costs low by working remotely. ‘I’ve yet to meet our latest two team members in person,’ he says. ‘One of them has been with us for three months now.’

Srprs.me

Founded 2014 – Journey into the unknown

Not for the faint-hearted: Srprs.me, based in Amsterdam, believes the best adventures should be spontaneous. Users
say when they want to leave and for how many days they would like to be gone for, and the company takes care of the rest. Unlike Luckytrip, Srprs.me goes a step further and chooses the destination, flights and hotel all without the customers’ knowledge. ‘You will discover your destination at the airport,’ the site explains.

Stefan Wobben, one of the company’s founders, came up with the idea after he asked a friend to book him a flight and only tell him the departure gate and when to arrive at the airport.

So how do the surprise trips actually work? A week before the departure date, the company shares the location’s weather forecast (helpful for packing), but only reveals the destination after sending out a scratchcard in the post explaining what time to arrive at the terminal.

According to the company, the goal is to avoid what it calls ‘decision stress’ and also to ‘give the travel industry a shake’.

FlightSayer

Founded 2015 – Always on time

Flight delays, cancellations and missed connections cost passengers billions of pounds per year globally.

Armed with a $1.75m (£1.26m) grant from Nasa, Boston-based startup Flightsayer says its advanced simulation algorithms and machine learning technology can predict flight delays hours, days or even weeks before takeoff.

‘As a former road warrior, I used various rules of thumb to book better flights,’ says founder Bala Chandran, a frequent traveller. ‘But I was frustrated that there wasn’t a service that would just tell me if my flight was likely to be delayed.’

Chandran created Flightsayer to ease this frustration. The service allows users to search delay predictions by flight, airport and route, and receive alternate flight recommendations.

Trvl

Founded 2010 – DIY travel agent 

Through its free service, Trvl is looking to monetise travel advice for everyone, from the established blogger to the casual traveller. Users can set up pages and make hotel and travel recommendations, earning a commission when others book through their page and complete their stay. Customers can also reach out to these ‘agents’ for advice, a sort of personalised recommendation feature that Trvl sees as lacking in the sea of other travel sites.

Though it’s attempting to reinvent travel, the company currently relies on some of the industry’s biggest names to operate: Booking.com, Hotels.com, Expedia and Priceline. These established firms pay Trvl a commission on each booking (the majority of which Trvl says it passes on to users).

Trvl picked up £2.2m in funding last year and plans to grow its business to include car rentals and flights.