If you’re reading this on any device other than a mobile phone, you’re behind the times. If I can’t persuade you to post this piece on Facebook, I’m doomed to irrelevance. And if you want to tweet a complaint about my bad jokes or ask for a restaurant recommendation in Heathrow, I’d better have a round-the-clock team ready to respond.
O.K., so those lessons were intended not for me but for the travel industry types at EyeforTravel’s Social Media and Mobile Strategies for Travel conference, which I attended last week in San Francisco. I did, though, pick up some tips — and a few warnings — about how a budget traveler should maneuver in this fast-changing world.
Hold those prices: Several companies allow you to put a no-risk hold on airline tickets for days or weeks for a small fee. If you haven’t heard of this, you most likely will. Robert Brown, the founder of OptionsAway, one of those companies, said his service’s “call option” will be integrated into more mainstream booking sites within months.
How could it save you money? It’s sort of like insurance: capture a low price before your plans are finalized and take a few days or weeks to decide. If you cancel, you lose only the fee. (If the prices go down, you save more.) A competitor, Level Skies, has the advantage of allowing you to move the travel dates forward or back one day up until when you finalize your purchase. Their interface, though, needs some work — and there’s no app yet.
Better photo sharing: Have you already traded a heavy SLR camera for your iPhone when you travel, posting your pictures on Facebook and Instagram? Several sites now help you share your experience more elegantly. A new one that officially launched at the conference and should soon be available on the App Store, Tripstr (iPhone only, at least for now), is designed to turn your photos into an appealing record of your trip that others can view and even add to their own “bucket list.” In addition to sharing with others on your Tripstr network, you can share a link through Facebook and email.
Is customer service transitioning to social media? Shashank Nigam, the chief executive of a research and consulting company called SimpliFlying, told an amazing story of a passenger on Turkish Airlines who, frustrated that the flight attendants would not turn down the heat, vented on Facebook via the plane’s free Wi-Fi. Because spots sent from the plane’s IP address are flagged, the airline’s social media team spotted the comment, contacted the pilot, and a compromise was reached. Many other airlines are also responsive on Twitter: KLM, for example, says it responds to 4,500 tweets and Facebook posts a week, in 10 languages and always within an hour.
I asked Mr. Nigam if some companies had perhaps swung too many resources toward their social media response team to the detriment of call centers. “There is an unfair advantage to the connected traveler,” he said. But that’s true only for some companies — and don’t expect miracle solutions. Just having a Twitter team doesn’t instantly make the flood of requests during weather-related cancellations go away, for example. Still, the industry is moving in this direction if you don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account, it can’t hurt to open one just for this purpose — it might end up saving you time and money.
Get an emergency interpreter: Google Translate and its automated competitors can be miraculous in everyday situations abroad. But if you really need an interpreter in a difficult situation — when you’re a victim of crime, your travel companion lands in the hospital or you’re just horribly lost, for example, instant, reasonably priced live translation is hard to come by. A new app due out next month, TalkLingo, undercuts established services like VerbalizeIt by charging $1 a minute, without requiring a subscription or package fee. It will offer 200 languages, with interpreters from 20 major ones from Spanish to Swahili, guaranteed to be available within a minute.
Ready to be pushed? Another conference consensus: users will need to seek information less. Instead, phones will know what you want without asking you. That’s an evolution that, in theory, is especially useful for travel. Walking through an unfamiliar city, your phone puts together where you are with what it knows about you and pushes out suggested attractions, historical information, even articles from trusted sources. Budget travelers might be pinged about nearby sales or receive discount offers for the restaurant right across the street. For those of you who find this horrifying, here’s some mild solace: Companies (at least those at the conference) know bothering you unnecessarily is a grave danger for this technology.
There are already apps that do this. Google’s Field Trip, currently available for iPhone and Android, pushes content to you when you’re in the vicinity of a historical site, architectural landmark, shopping area, restaurant or the like. I’ve tried it in New York, where I’ve had some success with it — for example, as I passed near a new Mexican restaurant near my home, a review popped up from Eater.com. (Lots of other trusted and lesser-known sites have their content integrated here, like Zagat, Thrillist and Atlas Obscura; you can customize which ones you hear from.)
The new technology is specially designed for what those in the know (now including me) call “wearables” like Google Glass — which several conference attendees were strutting around with — and the company’s coming smartwatches). But those are likely to stay expensive for quite a while. Budget travelers who want to try it will have to continue to do stare down at their phones and then stuff them back in their pockets for the time being.
It’s not just Field Trip, but other technology that integrates more smoothly into your phone, like Yahoo’s Aviate (in beta for Android) or Google Now — which is part of the Google search app — that is now growing on me. On the morning of my 8 a.m. flight from New York to San Francisco for the conference, my alarm did not go off. About an hour later, my phone let out a single beep, and I somehow woke up and looked. “Time to leave for UA 397,” it read. “Leave by 6:37 AM to arrive at the airport 60 minutes before your flight.” I bolted out of bed, grabbed my bag and hopped in a taxi, barely making the flight and saving a rebooking fee. If I were nit-picking, I’d say it should be smart enough to know I prefer public transportation and ping me an hour earlier, saving me a few more bucks. It’s not as if Google doesn’t know what I do for a living.
You are the marketer: If there were one theme conference participants harped on repeatedly, it was that companies are relying less on traditional advertising campaigns and more on recruiting customers for marketing on their behalf. Mike De Jesus, head of travel for Twitter, noted that the company had counted 640 million conversations about travel. “There are some good opportunities for you as a brand to jump into these conversations,” he told company representatives.
Brands are also popping into Facebook feeds as ads — but what the companies really want is to pop up on your feed under your name. There are companies out there that exist just to help hotels, airlines and the like incentivize customers to give up control of their news feed, at least temporarily. Guests might be offered free drinks or other incentives in exchange for letting hotels post a note in their name on Facebook. I’d file this one under “no thanks,” but if you do go ahead with it, just make sure it’s a one-time deal. Some efforts are less tacky, as when, in January, Airbnb got hundreds of Instagram users to produce short videos with the hashtag #airbnbshorts. One company at the conference, Silvercar, showed longer, slicker videos by its users — at least one of which was unsolicited.
Reviews required? Your social networks — or at least what’s public on them — also help hotels in their efforts to know you before you arrive, allowing them to “delight” you with a personally-tailored surprise. If that appeals, fine — in the places I stay, a clean bathroom is “delight” enough for me.
One presenter caught my ear by noting that hotels can now discover (or hire a company to help discover) which of their guests are frequent reviewers on TripAdvisor, presumably to delight the heck out of them. TripAdvisor says this would be difficult to do, but let’s say it isn’t. Does anyone see a problem here? I see two: 1) If hotels pamper TripAdvisor reviewers, their presumably rave reviews will bias the site’s influential rankings; 2) Nonreviewers become, by default, second-class citizens.
Maintain your independence: Company efforts to create customer loyalty are often bad news for budget travelers — something you already know if you’ve been tempted to book a more expensive flight just to gain miles toward a theoretical free trip on “your” airline. But that’s old news. At the conference, it seemed that companies are now quite keen on having you download their own apps. Those who uses airline apps to access digital boarding passes or hotel apps to bypass check-in lines already know that this can be a very good idea. But be aware that companies can use their app to ping you with offers, and hope that as you become accustomed to the app, you’ll use it to book future trips, locking you into their brand instead of doing a broader search on, say, hotels.com. So remember brand apps for convenience, search apps for booking.