Tools that (almost) make travel easier
Uptake.com, a travel information aggregation site, unveiled a free tool last week for more easily sourcing travel advice from friends.
The competition is heating up among travel-planning sites, as many debut tools aimed at winning your time and money.
I recently took a look at three of the newest innovations – one helps travellers find better aeroplane seats, another finds better hotel rooms and a third finds personalised destination advice – to uncover which one will truly simplify your travels.
ExpertFlyer: Nab the best aeroplane seat assignments
ExpertFlyer has long been a subscription service for frequent fliers. But as of last week, the website began targeting leisure travellers who hate the middle seat.
Seat assignments change frequently prior to take-off -- with any given seat being reassigned, on average, at least once. ExpertFlyer’s new free Seat Alert system notifies travellers via email when your ideal type of seat — such as "any aisle seat" or "any two seats together" — or a specific seat, like "32A", opens up. Then you can then contact an airline official and request a new seat assignment. To help pick the right seat(s) to track, you can match the seat ratings from user-generated review site SeatGuru with ExpertFlyer's online seat maps for more than 100 airlines.
While the new tool sounds great, it won't likely be worth the time of the typical economy-class passenger. Considering that some airlines charge premium prices for their most desirable seats, the “ideal seat” may not always be the most affordable. Leisure travellers may be better off just frequently checking the seat map on their airline’s website to see if a better option has opened up. But the alerts will be useful to frequent flyers who can qualify for certain seats based on their mileage program status.
Another note of caution: if you sign up for the free e-mail alerts, you may also be blitzed with offers to take advantage of the company's paid subscription services, which mostly apply to elite frequent flyers.
Room 77: Improve your chances of getting a better hotel room
After you book a hotel stay online, travellers face a game of "room roulette". Will the room have free wi-fi, a skyline view and a spare cot – or will it be the worst room in the house? Enter Room 77, a hotel booking site similar to Expedia, which aspires to boost your chance of nabbing a great room. The website reveals room-by-room amenities and floor plans for thousands of three- to five-star hotels in 30 North American, European and Asian hotels. Use filters such as "connecting rooms", "great view" and "distance from elevators" to scan the rooms that are a match.
Since last week, travellers who book hotel stays through Room 77 can take advantage of a free "concierge" service. The site will pass along your request for a specific type of room to the hotel’s front desk.
While nice in theory, Room 77 remains unnecessarily complicated to use. You have to be truly tireless about getting the exact room you want, and then frustratingly, there’s no guarantee your request will be met. Another word of caution: paying for your hotel through Room 77 means you may pay higher nightly rates than what you'll find by searching on your favourite travel site, as there is no lowest price guarantee.
Uptake: Get trip advice from your friends more easily
Facebook users who wanted to source travel advice from friends used to have a simple way of doing it: post a status update asking for help, and then wait for the responses to roll in. But as news feeds become more crowded with status updates, news items, photos and reports on what people ate for lunch, that technique has become less effective. So Uptake, a travel information aggregation site, unveiled a free tool last week for more easily sourcing travel advice from friends.
Here's how it works. Go to Uptake.com and log in with your Facebook account. You'll be invited to enter in the name of a destination that you're interested in, and with a single click, you'll see which of your friends have familiarity with that destination, based on Uptake's ability to scan your friends' Facebook profiles, status updates, photos and other information. For example, when I type "London" into Uptake's search box, I find out that 13 of my friends know something about the city. Uptake then invites me to send a short question to these friends, and it offers to post this message directly on those friends' Facebook walls — a method that increases the chance of your friends actually seeing your message.
On the downside, Uptake automatically subscribes you to its email newsletters and you have to send an e-mail to unsubscribe, which I was unable to do when I tried.
Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel