There are no shortage of travel apps trying to help travellers before, during and after their trip. Of course there are the big online travel tools like Expedia, Hotwire and TripAdvisor. But increasingly startups have tried to enter the busy travel planning space – from flight and hotel search tools like Hipmunk, to hotel deal sites like HotelTonight and Guestmob, to planning apps like Wanderfly.
But the new trend in travel isn’t deep discounts or smart search; instead, it’s all about the wisdom of the crowds. Startups are attempting to draw on the expertise of locals to give travellers better advice and insight before the book, and while they’re on their trip. One example of this is Localmind, a Q&A service that allows people to ask questions of locals in any location around the world. While not specifically focused on travel, the app is perfect for people who want a local’s opinion on everything from the weather to local activities. The company showed off its usefulness for travellers when it launched special features during SXSW in Austin in March.
Some startups are trying to use crowdsourced advice to save travellers money by tapping into local expertise. Flightfox launched its crowdsourced flight search platform in February 2012, and it’s already amassed a group of over 400 “flight hackers,” its team of global travel experts who compete to find cheap flights for travellers. Travellers post their travel plans on Flightfox and offer a finder’s fee, which is a minimum of $29 and is paid up front. The flight hackers then send the cheapest fares they can find, and the traveller takes their pick of the fares and books their favorite. The company claims to save travellers over 20 percent on flights, along with the time it would take them to search. Since launching, the company has amassed over 6,000 users and paid out tens of thousands in finder’s fees to flight hackers around the world.
The company is based in Australia, and was part of the Startmateaccelerator. The founders recently moved to San Francisco to raise funding and plan to stay there indefinitely. The founders previously founded GlobeTrooper, a social network for adventure travellers. They supported the site with advertising but had a difficult time monetizing in other ways, which is when they started thinking about other business ideas. It was while travelling for that business that founder Todd Sullivan had his lightbulb moment, because every time they went to a new place it took them hours to find a “price-sensitive” flight.
“I thought about the current business, and I thought about the flight problem, and it just clicked that we should build a crowdsourced flight search platform, a marketplace where these flight hackers can make a serious income stream, and for that they can help the average person get flights that generally aren’t accessible to them,” founder Todd Sullivan said in an interview about why he started the business.
There are a few potential downsides to the platform. Since users are relying on flight experts to search instead of finding fares themselves, there’s always the possibility that by the time they book the flight will be full, or the price will have gone up. Another issue is having people pay a finder’s fee up front. Sullivan said it’s definitely affected their conversions, though he said the target markets they’re going after, namely frequent global travellers, already know they’ll have to spend hours to find a deal, and are more than willing to pay the money up front. Now that they’ve launched and have early traction, they’re looking to build more tools for experts, and add a layer of gamification and reviews. Sullivan said they’ve also been in talks with tour operators to form partnerships, so travellers could book a tour with a major operator, and then book their flights using Flightfox.
Flightfox’s Sullivan said it all comes down to getting advice from locals, something crowdsourced travel apps are increasingly trying to do. ”Local expertise is huge and both the online and traditional travel agents miss it,” Sullivan said. “If you get someone who’s local, who has local knowledge they have access to coupons, discounts, they know the best airlines, they know the budget airlines. It all boils down to having a human touch.”
And then there are apps that try to crowdsource advice from friends – European startup Tripbirds launched in March to help travellers get advice on what to do, where to stay and what to see, exclusively from their online friends. And TripAdvisor recently debuted a feature that shows people ‘Friend of a Friend’ travel recommendations based on their Facebook contacts, furthering the idea that travellers want advice from locals or people who have traveled to a specific destination before.
The big question is whether travellers would rather trust a local in a certain location, or a friend (or friend of a friend) who has been to a destination before. Crowdsourced travel apps rely on the wisdom of the crowds, but the quality of that advice needs to remain reliable and valuable in order for the trend to continue.