International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Clearly, Google is moving into the travel planning space.
This development comes less than a week after the search giant bought Zagat, a leading sources of user-generated restaurant reviews, and only two months after Google began testing its Hotel Finder tool.
Hinting at the company's plans, Google's head of travel Rob Torres recently told the travel tech blog Tnooz: “When you look across the phases of the travel cycle – Dreaming, Researching, Booking, Experiencing and Sharing – the potential for innovation, particularly in the early stages of dreaming and researching, is astounding.”
A lot seems to be brewing for Google's role in travel. In the meantime, which of Google's new tools are worth using?
What's new: At google.com/flights, you can search between major US cities and Google will list flights and fares, much like other travel metasearch sites. But a few inventive tools help narrow down options: a calendar, a slider that filters time and price, and categories on the left hand side for selecting the number of stops, frequent flyer programs and preferred outbound/inbound times. Once you find a fare you like, Google will direct the user to the airline's site for booking.
Coolest perks: Google's flight and fare results are lightning fast; no other online travel site returns fares and flight information so quickly. Using Torres’s theory, the tool also stands out for helping travellers when they're in the "Dreaming, Researching and Booking” stages by allowing open-ended searches. For travellers who are unsure about where they want to go, the Flight Search map displays destinations within certain time and cash boundaries. For example, a traveller from Dallas could scope out where she might fly within three hours for under $300. To exclude long and costly flights from the search results, she could take advantage of Google's unique innovation, the "limits" slider graph (search for a flight and then look for the chart icon under the map on the right-hand side). Adjust the sliders back and forth to determine the price and length of the flight. Fare geeks who are familiar with using airport codes will want to follow the tips laid out by PhoCusWright analyst Robert Cole for doing advanced-level searches through the tool.
Downsides: For now, other metasearch sites like Kayak and Bing, and major online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity, are often finding cheaper flights and more thorough options than what Google is offering. Plus, some airlines, like Southwest, are only showing schedules and not fare information, and others, such as Delta, seem to be sharing only partial flight schedules.
The forecast: Google has only begun to dip its toes into flight search. If the past is any guide, the search giant will probably become more competitive and innovative in displaying fares as the months go on. My BBC Travel colleagues and I have already noticed more destinations available today than on Tuesday's launch day.
What's new: Find a hotel in a specific neighbourhood by visiting google.com/hotelfinder. Type in your US destination to see it appear on Google Maps. You can search for hotels by budget and preferred location to stay.
Coolest perks: In an ingenious feature, you can use your computer mouse and cursor to spotlight the area or neighbourhood you are most interested in staying in by drawing a box around it on your screen. Google will then fetch rates for hotels located in that district for the travel dates you request. Google will even tell you if today's rates at those hotels are above or below the average going rate for the hotel.
Downsides: There is limited inventory of hotels so far, and only for US destinations. If users want to book a hotel, Google points them to the hotel’s website for rate and availability information.
The forecast: Loads of money is being made by websites that refer customers to hotels in exchange for commission. Google is nearly certain to be making hotel search results an integrated part of its general search sometime soon. But the biggest growth opportunity is in mobile search. In the same Tnooz article, Torres also pointed out that, "the number of mobile users researching travel is expected to grow 51% in 2012". I can foresee Google integrating hotel rate information into the Maps tool on mobile devices, allowing travellers to see properties near them with real-time availability for quick booking, rivalling other apps that do the same, like Expedia and Hotel Tonight.
What's new: Google bought Zagat (pronounced Za-GAT with an emphasis on "gat," which sounds like "cat") soon after its failed attempt to buy rival user-generated review service Yelp, which has roughly ten times as many contributors. Zagat has reviews in 100 major markets, mostly in the US. A Google executive told a crowd at a TechCrunch event that the company plans to showcase Zagat's reviews in more appealing and relevant ways.
Coolest perks: Zagat reviews are edited for relevance and usefulness, making them distinctive from other user-generated content on the web. If Google's users learn to love that, it will conflict with Google's efforts to generate Yelp-like opinions through its knock-off Hotpot service, launched in November 2010.
Downsides: The merger has just been announced, so there are no known plans as to what the product will be.
The forecast: Picking a restaurant is one of the ultimate "social" activities, where most travellers tend to trust particular people they know -- not anonymous Internet strangers -- to provide smart insights in where they might like to eat. If Yelp, Facebook, TripAdvisor, or another company can find a way to for people to receive restaurant recommendations that are heavily weighted toward the opinion of people they respect, those companies will defeat Google in the restaurant review race. As Google's stumbling efforts in social networking tools Google Plus and Buzz show, the company doesn't quite understand how to make such tools work.
Sean O'Neill is travel tech columnist for BBC Travel