At last, online travel planning is becoming (a little) easier

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While the internet has made it easier to plan a trip yourself — and see how much you’re saving — it also demands you slog through hundreds of pages of destination research, hotel and home rental options, and myriad flight-routing alternatives, becoming an amateur travel agent along the way.

But this summer, a few travel platforms have instituted or announced fixes designed to make travel planning easier, by refining searches, creating more informative maps and streamlining loyalty programs.

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Now, if you want to find a vacation home on an island, a hotel 15 minutes’ walk from your nephew’s bar mitzvah locale or an electric car, Airbnb, Google and Skyscanner, respectively, make that easier.

Analysts say those and other platforms aren’t done yet. “Travel information, pricing and booking is still so fragmented and disjointed that I fully expect we’ll continue to see more brands developing and upgrading these types of features in the future,” said Madeline List, a senior research analyst at Phocuswright, a travel market research firm.

Refining rental searches

Finding the right vacation rental can feel like hunting for a needle in a haystack when it comes to sifting through search results. Among the measures Airbnb has adopted this summer to make renting easier: the creation of 56 categories of homes that aim to help you find rentals identified as, say, tiny homes, castles, “ski-in/out,” near national parks, homes with “amazing pools,” and even an “OMG!” category for architecturally unusual options.

Additionally, the new “split stay” feature aims to help renters who want to divide their time away between two locations. The tool suggests nearby rentals available for part of the trip, making it easy to pair two rentals over longer stays and streamlining the booking process for both.

“People are much more location-agnostic than they were prior to the pandemic,” said Jamie Lane, the vice president of research at Airdna, a market research firm specializing in short-term rentals, noting the growth of extended trips linked to working remotely. “Airbnb is making it easier to piece together a longer-term trip by helping you find listings that meet your criteria and are open over the length of that trip.”

Another new addition, a free policy known as AirCover, automatically included with every rental, protects consumers by guaranteeing a similar stay or a refund if a host cancels within 30 days of your trip.

“I see it as wanting to compete better with hotels,” Lane said. “Guests can feel comfortable knowing they’ll get what they booked or get a refund.”

Expedia’s new “unloyalty” program

Expedia Group wants your loyalty. Named for its flagship online travel agency, Expedia, the collection of travel companies includes the online agencies Travelocity and Orbitz, the vacation rental platform Vrbo, the hotel discount booking site Hotwire.com, the rental car site CarRentals.com and more. In early 2023, it plans to unite them under One Key, a loyalty program spanning its 12 brands, meaning points earned booking a flight on Expedia could be applied to the cost of a future rental on Vrbo.

“It’s so hard for people to keep track of programs and rewards,” said Jon Gieselman, the president of Expedia Brands, the consumer division of the group, who added that the idea of an integrated loyalty program occurred to him when he opened his own travel wallet stuffed with dozens of membership program and credit cards.

“It struck me that our superpower opportunity was to create connections between all of our brands in the minds of customers and at the same time make it easy to make sense of disparate programs,” he added.

A few of the brands, including Expedia, Orbitz and Hotels.com, already have loyalty programs — with a collective enrollment of 154 million members — and the company has not yet disclosed conversion formulas or One Key’s rates for earning and using points.

While most loyalty programs encourage members to stay with one brand, One Key will allow users to apply points across categories in a scheme Gieselman called the “unloyalty program,” making it distinct from competitors.

“Expedia’s expanded loyalty offering can draw more people to the brand umbrella with flexible options to earn and burn points on whichever Expedia brand offers the most fitting options for a given trip,” said List of Phocuswright, adding that the loyalty program eases “friction” between Expedia brands that often overlap.

Google’s tweaks

New features on Google Travel, announced in May, map things like road trips and restaurant-dense neighborhoods, providing a visual sense of geography in areas visitors may not know before they book.

When searching for hotels on the platform, a Google map already showed hotels with associated prices. New icons that represent transportation, dining, attractions and shopping — what Google calls “interest layers” — allow users to, for example, overlay a public transportation map to see where transit lines are relative to hotels. Engaging shopping or dining icons shade the map in neighborhoods with many shops or restaurants. Clicking on the attractions icon adds things like museums to the hotel map.

At the bottom of the map, users can slide the bar beside a walking figure to see the radius the average person can walk from a given location in up to 30 minutes (there’s also an option to map the driving radius). The feature might be useful in identifying hotels near a wedding or meeting venue, the company suggested.

“There was always the option to figure this out in Google maps using addresses, but this takes a lot of the guesswork out,” said Craig Ewer, a spokesperson for Google.

Its new Explore tool identifies destinations within a few hours’ drive. Clicking on a road-trip destination brings up attractions, hotels and directions there.

“We saw during COVID an increased preference for road trips and trips that didn’t involve the airport,” Ewer said. “With the Explore tool, we tried to bring in inspiration.”

For bargain-seekers, Google Flights now allows you to track prices between a pair of cities — departure and destination — and click on “any dates” to have the platform monitor fares for the lowest prices over the next six months.

Using tracking, like most other Google functionalities, requires you to sign in or create a free account with Google. For travel purchases, such as flights and hotels, the platform links users to those businesses or online travel agencies.

Electric options and inclusive stays

Two more platforms are helping consumers refine their searches by providing more targeted results.

The travel search engine Skyscanner has added a new filter in rental cars for electric vehicles. After inputting dates and location, users can check the electric box — alongside other search filters like unlimited mileage or 4-wheel drive — to see all available EVs.

The initiative sprang from a similar green filter Skyscanner launched in flight searches a few years ago, showing choices with fewer carbon emissions than average for each search.

The car rental filter helps travelers “understand the environmental impact of travel and how to reduce that,” said Martin Nolan, the sustainable travel expert at Skyscanner.

The online travel agency Booking.com aims to make it easier for LGBTQ travelers to find welcoming accommodations. It has introduced a partner training program for hotels on its platform on the challenges LGBTQ travelers face.

Since last August, the free program, known as Proud Hospitality, has certified more than 10,000 properties in 95 countries and territories. Certification includes a digital Travel Proud badge on its listing.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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