Arranging to get from point A to point B has become a whole lot easier with the help of widely used travel-planning websites such as Expedia, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz and Travelocity. Indeed, among U.S. business travelers, 45 million are online--40 percent of whom are bookers--according to a survey conducted by Forrester Research earlier this year.
But what if you also need to stop at point C or point D along the way, or need a restaurant for dinner that's within walking distance of your hotel and quiet enough for a business negotiation? Such a trip could take hours to research and book yourself.
Enter a new breed of travel websites that use both technology search tools and human support to help travelers piece together or keep track of more complex, personalized itineraries.
Josh Steinitz was inspired to start his site, NileGuide, after traveling as a management consultant to such far-flung locations as Bora Bora and seeing the disconnect between the amount of information available to travelers and how difficult it was to plan a trip. "A good travel agent does a lot more than put together the plane tickets and other bookings," says Steinitz, 32. "This is someone who understands your personal preferences."
That philosophy is echoed by the handful of online trip planning websites considered in our chart (below). Some handle reservations; some don't. All account for the fact that every traveler and trip is unique. Think of these online resources as the best sort of travel agents, concerned with making your next business trip manageable for the right reasons.
At Your Service
AXIOM (American Express Intelligent Online Marketplace)
Web Address: americanexpress.com/axiom
Elevator Pitch: Powered by Rearden Commerce technology, American Express' service can be used to book flights, hotel rooms, restaurants and entertainment from a single browser interface. The service also handles audio- and web-conferencing arrangements when holding a meeting online is a better alternative to the trip being considered.
Pros: Changes and cancellations to itineraries are sent out proactively to e-mail, as specified.
Cons: Your company will need to set up a private account to use this service.
Mobile Support: Offers optional BlackBerry app
Calendar Features: Booking details are automatically added to the traveler's electronic calendar.
Pricing: Contact American Express for pricing.
Compete 4 Your Seat
Web address: compete4yourseat.com
Elevator Pitch: Narrowly focused on providing travelers with tough-to-schedule flight plans. You submit your destination preferences; a network of travel agents then bids to accommodate you.
Pros: A time-saver for someone traveling to a tough-to-reach destination, especially as airlines cut back on flight options
Cons: There's a chance that no one will bid for your business. Plus, you don't get results instantly.
Mobile Support: Alerts are sent via e-mail, but you have to visit the website for more information.
Calendar Features: None
Web Address: nileguide.com
Elevator Pitch: Positioned as a personal travel planner that will make recommendations specific to each traveler's needs; you assemble your trip by selecting the types of things you'd like to do from expert recommendations and aggregated content.
Pros: Travelers can create a permanent archive of all itineraries.
Cons: Focuses on what you do when you arrive somewhere; it doesn't help you get there. Services are currently limited to major cities worldwide.
Mobile Support: Working on mobile integration
Calendar Features: You can print a free itinerary on paper or download it as a PDF to take with you, but the site's calendar doesn't currently integrate with other calendar apps.
Web Address: placely.com
Elevator Pitch: A social network that lets you see who's in the cities you're visiting. You could use it with business associates or colleagues to keep tabs on where client meetings are taking place.
Pros: The service integrates with Google Maps, the Weather Channel and Yelp, so once you enter an itinerary, it will send you relevant information about your destination. You can also keep tabs on all your frequent flier accounts.
Cons: Doesn't focus on making actual reservations, so you'll need to do that elsewhere
Mobile Support: Not available
Calendar Features: Offers integration with iCal so you can sync information with existing calendar apps
Rearden Personal Assistant
Web Address: reardencommerce.com
Elevator Pitch: Covers the entire spectrum of travel services--from airline reservations to car services--through a network of more than 160,000 merchants and service providers. Tracks specific travel preferences, much like your travel agent would do, and plans are in the works to support social network features.
Pros: Broad support for travel and entertainment service bookings
Cons: You can use Rearden as an individual, but its focus is on business-level relationships.
Mobile Support: Sends weather updates and flight status to your mobile device
Calendar Features: Integrates with widely used calendars and address books
Pricing: Contact Rearden for pricing.
Web Address: zicasso.com
Elevator Pitch: Service for handling complex trip requests that involve multiple destinations or other variables. Once a traveler submits a request, agencies bid for his or her business.
Pros: Saves entrepreneurs from having to research complicated trips
Cons: It takes typically two to three business days for agents to submit trip itinerary bids.
Mobile Support: Not available
Calendar Features: Not available
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This article was originally published in the November 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Cyber Agents.
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