A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single app

Insights and tips to improve your travel app

The word ‘travel’ sparks different feelings for different people. For some, it’s their commute to the office, for others the work-related business trips, sometimes even ‘bleisure’ trips (business+leisure). For the majority of people, it’s synonymous with ‘vacation’. To me, travel is going anywhere from one place to another, and being open to what I discover and learn during that experience. The first flight I took was 11 years back, thanks to Google. Not in a way you’d imagine — searching and booking flights, but relocating to a new city to join Google India. I remember arriving at the airport with a bunch of printouts for flight tickets, maps to get to and from the airport, maps and notes about places to visit, maps to get to the office, and a notepad of contact numbers in case I got lost. I had a hand-me-down phone with expensive interstate roaming charges. Do you remember your first travel experience? Look how far we’ve come with a phone and a data plan!

In a world where it’s becoming increasingly hard to look up from our mobile screens, travelers are getting very comfortable planning all aspects of their travels on their mobile device. That’s where mobile apps come into play, making it easier for travelers to find the relevant information at their fingertips. A recent study from Fuel shows 31% of North American leisure travelers have used at least on mobile app in planning travel, and 52% would also use a mobile app to purchase additional services while traveling.

The travel and local companies who are committed to providing the best and most enriching experiences across the user journey on their apps, are more likely to drive new and repeat bookings, thereby increasing user engagement.

In this article, I’ll focus on the user journey through the stages of travel, and share some tips around how travel apps can drive new user growth, facilitate repeat bookings, and drive greater engagement and innovation across products and services.

The ‘stages’ of travel experiences, or the user journey

According to nearly 60% of leisure travelers, a trip is their largest discretionary purchase. Over the years, the reasons why we travel have not changed much, but what has changed the most is how we engage with technology through all stages of our travel experience.

Let’s use the example of a traveler looking to plan a vacation. Note that these stages are relevant for any type of travel, not just vacation.

Dreaming

Those who like traveling are in this stage very often! It can be triggered by a recent trip, an ad, movie location (mine’s the Griffith Observatory from La La Land), social media. When thinking about a personal trip, 1 in 3 travelers say that they haven’t decided on a specific destination.

Is there anything new and engaging I can try to inspire people to travel?

Heard of Virtual Reality, and the power to transport people to places they never dreamed possible? According to MarketingWeek 2016, 56% of consumers mention “the ability to travel to different cities proves the most popular VR application.”

  • YouVisit VR is a travel focused app available on Daydream. They use interactivity in VR content to help facilitate better insights. Apart from building the content around experiential travel, they’ve created a whole suite of analytics that enable brands, destinations, and hotels to understand what’s happening with their virtual experience. They not only track what devices people are using to see the VR experience, but how much time they’re spending on it, and which elements of the experience they’re most interested in.

Planning & booking

Once the user has narrowed down the place they wish to travel, the next stages are planning and booking. These stages involve multiple devices, such as starting their search on mobile, and later switching to a computer to continue their travel planning. According to a Google survey, 44% of people planning their summer trips anticipate using a mix of devices to plan their trips.

Criteo published a study on app and web conversions to booking for travel companies where they observed that apps convert almost 2 times more than mWeb. On apps, companies can focus on driving better user experience and re-engage users.

How can I ensure my travel app is driving high bookings?

We see many instances of travel apps replicating desktop and mobile web experiences. Think of your mobile and app experiences from the ground up since the user experience and expectations from mobile are very different from desktop. Travel companies who have really taken a mobile-first mindset to their app and mWeb strategies see better success than those who haven’t.

Keep user experience and product design as the foundation of your app experience. On Google Play, you can find some of these best practices to develop and continue refining a great app.

Remove friction for users at crucial points within the app, namely, signing up, logging in and making payments:

  • Google Sign-in helps users log in, or sign up for your app quickly using a registration system they already use and trust — their Google account.
  • Smart Lock for Passwords allows you to programmatically save and retrieve credentials, and automatically sign users in across devices and websites in Chrome. For example, HotelTonight saw a 23% higher conversion rate for Smart Lock users compared to email address sign-ups.
  • Enable your Android app users to make quick, easy, secure credit and debit card mobile payments with Android Pay. The Android user base of Grab in Singapore increased by 40% between January and May 2017 in large part due to a growth in new Android Pay users.

Experiencing

As the user gets closer to their trip, they experience ‘I can’t wait to explore’ moments. They read up on local attractions and experiences and make reservations ahead of time. 85% of travelers decide on activities after arriving at the destination. What’s crucial is how users engage with their travel apps at this point to complete actions that are necessary for their trip to be as seamless as possible.

How can my app stay relevant during this stage?

Let me highlight some examples:

  • Airline apps offer native app features such as check-in, change seats, buy upgrades, access boarding passes, in-flight entertainment, relevant flight information and more.
  • The Trip.com app shares personalized recommendations that allow users to toggle between being a tourist or a local.

Android features such as Awareness API and Nearby Notifications can help enhance these contextual experiences and drive greater personalization.

Sharing

Sharing is usually considered the last stage to the user journey, however, one traveler’s share is another traveler’s inspiration, and therefore sharing fuels the dreaming stage. Reviews are also important and most travelers read reviews before finalizing a trip. Most obvious, social channels full of pictures, videos and experiences greatly inspire others to travel!

How should I think about sharing content and feedback within my app?

  • Ask for user feedback on their travel within the app itself and make it very simple for users to input their thoughts.
  • Offer the option to add pictures and make it easy in terms of pre-selecting ones taken at the location.
  • Review user ratings and reviews shared on the Play Store and address them directly. Check out all the in-depth information that you can access on the Play Console around ratings and reviews.

Is it important to build for all stages of travel?

Short answer: Not really, unless it makes business sense.

Long answer: One of the more popular trends in the Travel & Local space is the race to become a single platform by providing an end-to-end experience for travelers. This helps companies not only differentiate beyond price, but it also facilitates more bookings and long term engagement. Many companies are approaching it in two ways — building and offering everything in-house or offering complementary services via partnerships with other companies.

  • Through the Hilton Honors app, guests can book a room, check-in, choose their desired room from a digital floor plan set against Google Maps, request additional items to be in their room upon arrival and even use Digital Key which turns their smartphone into a remote control for their room.
Do what you do best in the space, then evaluate if you want to build the additional offerings in house, or enable cross-product or services via partnerships.

How users book travel has changed over the years. Has the traveler changed much?

The traveler has changed, and so have their needs and expectations from the products and services they use when going from place A to B. Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are important audiences for long stay vacations, however, when it comes to mobile travel, it’s the Millennials and now the Gen Zs to look out for.

Millennials and Gen Zs have a mobile-first mindset and represent a significant portion of users who seek new and authentic local experiences while they travel. It’s not the places, but the experiences that they care the most about. They care about making an impact and can be found on all major social platforms. In the US, Gen Zs make up over 25% of the population and hold an annual purchasing power of $44B9. Mobile is their predominant shopping platform and they are comfortable planning every aspect of a trip on their phones.

Know your customer/user is a no-brainer mantra, but it’s now more important than ever given the shift in user behavior and expectations.

Wait a minute, why have you not talked about the latest industry buzzwords yet — Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning?

That’s because the concepts of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are not new in travel, especially when you think of how companies have been delivering real-time search results and pricing information for years. More and more, users don’t want to be bombarded with choices, but they prefer personalized search results. There is a growing trend in travel companies to incorporate advanced AI and ML within their own platforms, messaging platforms, and other voice-based assistive platforms, to improve booking, customer service, and long term engagement.

  • Hopper is an app-only airfare prediction and booking company that sells over $1M of flights per day. 90% of their revenue comes from push notifications. Hopper claims to forecast future flight prices with 95% accuracy up to a year in advance.

A recent feature they launched suggests nearby alternate locations that are cheaper than the original locations you sought out. This feature uses AI to understand user needs and anticipate other attractive locations. For example, a user looking to fly from Boston to Miami might be suggested a flight to Fort Lauderdale available at a much lower round trip fare.

We’ve come to the end of this traveler’s journey, but our conversation has just begun. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions as you try out some of the tools and features to enhance your app experience for travelers! Learn more best practices to improve user experience and drive engagement on Google Play.


What do you think?

Do you have questions or thoughts on developing quality travel apps? Continue the discussion in the comments below or tweet using the hashtag #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.