Category Archives: Site Reviews

A Review of Plnnr.com, A New Site for Planning a Few Days in a City

Over the past few years we’ve seen lots of sites launch to help with trip planning.  Some help you plan with friends, or try to guess what you might like based on some criteria.  In the end, these sites all basically come up with a list of activities or destinations within a city that may (or may not) meet your needs.  Trip planning is extremely complex, and sometimes the best solution is to remove the complexity.  That’s where plnnr.com comes in.

Here’s the pitch:  For 18 cities, plnnr.com will come up with an itinerary for your trip based on the number of days you’re there and (roughly speaking) what kind of traveler you are (traveling with kids?  looking for outdoorsy stuff?).  That’s it.  The site will then show you a map with a detailed, day-by-day itinerary of what you should do, including how much time to spend in each, detailed directions on how to get from one activity to the next, and help you find a hotel (though this is really about trip planning, not hotel search).

You can then go through each activity and say whether you like it or not; if you don’t, it will slot something else in.  The clever part of this is that the itinerary makes geographic sense — it is not sending you all over the city from one activity to the next.  It groups activities together by location, so each day seems to be typically spent in one part of the city to reduce the amount of travel each day.  Smart, right?  And much better than a list of activities you typically find from these types of sites (which can be useless if you have no idea where they are in relation to each other).

You can also edit the amount of time you want to spend on any activity, in which case the site will re-calculate your day based on the new requirements (ie, an activity that was suggested for 3 hours in the morning may work better if it’s slotted in the afternoon if you only want it for 90 minutes).  Yes, yes, I know:  if you haven’t been to the Louvre, how could you know how long you should be there.  Answer:  I have no idea.

The other kinda quirky drawback:  the itinerary assumes you don’t eat.  No time is left for meals, which is odd, especially since it would be useful to recommend places to eat along the way.

Even so, plnnr.com has taken a guidebook staple:  the “what to do if you have 3 days” guide, and made it a bit more customizable and interactive.  I think it’s a really smart way to go, rather than trying to make it infinitely customizable.  Sure, they can add nightlife and food options – I assume they’ll get there.  But it’s a great early step for people trying to get an outline for a short city break.

A Review of Room77.com (Imagine Seatguru for Hotels, Kinda)

Continuing my brief series of reviews of new travel sites (following this recent review of Hipmunk.com), today I’ll share a review of Room77.com, a site that is trying to do for hotels what Seatguru does for airlines.  In short, they will give you a floormap of a hotel and, more impressively, a photograph of the view from the room (or at least it’s an approximation of the view using a mashup of Google Maps’ satellite imagery to show you the view outside the room.  Kinda neat.

Room77 also allows for some personalized recommendations, asking you to input what’s most important to you about a room (ie, whether it’s on a high floor, etc) and they’ll give you room recommendations in the hotel that best match your needs.

The idea of this is interesting, though I have to ask:  What problem is this actually trying to solve?  If you’re interested in a room with a certain view type (ie, ocean view room), you can generally book that category of room already.  If there’s a specific room you want, just about every hotel of any size will tell you they can’t guarantee a specific room (the complexities of maximizing occupancy make that a challenge).  Room77 even acknowledges this in their “tips” section about the Sheraton Chicago: “River view rooms can’t be specifically booked online. Reserve the room type you prefer, then call ahead and/or request a river view upon arrival at the hotel…”  Well, duh.  Isn’t this what we’ve always done?  Why do I need another site for that?

To be fair, the site just launched, and the content is very, very weak as of now (“The higher the floor, the quieter your room is likely to be.”  Who knew?).  But if they can strike a deal with hotel chains where you can reserve a specific room, it would become more interesting.  And if they can do this for cruise ships (where you’re stuck in a room for 7 days), that, too, would be very interesting.

This does feel more like a feature of another site than a standalone product, which may certainly be the idea.  But as I said about Hipmunk, any innovation in how we book travel online is a good thing, and Room77′s idea is one that has not yet been tried.  I’m just not sure anyone really needs it.

A Quick Review of Hipmunk

When Orbitz launched in 2000 it signaled a revolution in how consumers shopped for airfares.  Previously, online travel agencies simply listed a huge number of flights and it was up to the customer to make sense of which airline was charging how much; how many stops there were; and when flights were leaving.  Orbitz changed all that by introducing the fare matrix at the top of the page which gave customers a quick understanding of the tradeoffs between price, stops and choice of airline.

At the time, I remember speaking to staff at Orbitz and they said that customers either understood the matrix right away and it changed their life (I’m paraphrasing) or they didn’t understand it at all.  I always felt the matrix was an amazing leap in information architecture, and other OTAs eventually agreed, as they have all adopted a matrix display for airfares.  I can’t imagine looking at airfares without it.

Fast forward about 10 years, and we’ve basically seen no change in how airfares are displayed to consumers.  Until now.  A little company called Hipmunk is trying to take Orbitz’ idea one step further, displaying airfares in a graphic that displays a grid based on the duration of flight (go over and check it out.  I’ll wait here).

Back?  Good.  Interesting, right?  They’re putting a lot of weight on measure they call “Agony,” which is an index of tradeoffs between price, stops and duration.  I’m not sure customers are going to get that (especially since I think a nonstop in a middle seat on a Continental 757 from Newark to Paris with little legroom may be more agony than a 1-stop on KLM Economy Comfort through Amsterdam…to each his own).

Putting the Agony measure aside, I admire that they’ve taken an entirely different approach to the amazingly complex problem of how you display multiple-factor options when choosing a flight.  I appreciate that the focus is not on price, and that they’re focused on helping understand tradeoffs – that’s a great thing for travelers, especially when Hipmunk introduces some level of understanding the fees involved in each flight (they don’t have that now, but how do they not roll that out soon?)

That all said, while I admire what they’ve done, I don’t actually think it will take off in its current form.  Why?

- Orbitz was a hit pretty quickly not only because the matrix display was brilliant, but because they were the first OTA to be tied into ITA Software.  Why did that matter?  Especially in the beginning, ITA simply brought back more and better fare options.  That’s less true today, but in 2001 web fares were a big deal, and fares really did vary by site.  That’s not really the case (much) anymore, and Orbitz brought back lower fares more often.  Hipmunk is hit-or-miss on fares.  That can be solved over time, but it’s not solved yet.

- The fundamental idea of the Hipmunk display is that customers will graphically understand the tradeoff between fare and duration.  Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.  The lines they use to connote how long a flight is all look pretty similar to my eye (check out a longer flight, say New York to Paris).  It’s not the obvious that one flight is two hours longer than another because of a stop.  In fact, I think the way that most OTAs just tell you the flight duration actually works better (perhaps if Hipmunk put the duration of the flight within the horizontal bar connoting the length of time it would help).  However, most people can’t easily suss out the difference in length of flight based on the length of line.  They just look too similar.

But this is still a Version 1 — I imagine this site will look quite different in a year.  There’s been so little innovation in airfares over the past year, that I really admire a company taking a different approach to visualizing a very complex problem.  I’m not convinced they’ve solved it yet, but they’ve raised some money from some impressive folks who know what they’re doing.  I look forward to watching them grow.

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