Four types of non-destination based search and what it means for online travel

globe searchThe future of online travel is that the industry is moving from a transaction fulfilment model to platforms, systems, content and technology that cover the whole spectrum of the travel cycle/funnel/bow tie.

This is to incorporate inspiration, recommendation and discovery into the online consumer experience as much as transactions.

After 15 years of online travel being about online transactions, we are moving from answering closed questions (“How much for a ticket to New York?”) to answering open ones (“Where should I go next?”).

For consumers to get an answer to an open-ended question it will be necessary for them to use a booking or query widget that does not require the customer to know where they are going.

To start the online travel process from a search box based around something other than selecting a date and destination (the traditional online travel agent starting point).

In the last year I have met a number of startups and mature companies building, launching and promoting travel sites exploring this area. And through this I have spotted four approaches to non-destination base search.

1. Drag, click, build and recommend from as many sites as you like

The use of plug-ins or apps to build up a trip idea, notion, inspiration and plan without actually having an engine at all.  By just dragging ideas from a site to a planning product.

Add links, add comments, add thoughts, share with others and build up from a broad notion to a detailed plan.

Gliider is very active in this space. They have a tool for collecting, collating and sharing travel plans using a plug-in that follows you while you surf.  It has taken search off one site and allowed all sites to be used in one experience.

2. Multi-click criteria selection

Using something other than a destination but still requiring a click and selection.  Instead of clicking on a destination these sites are getting consumers to start the inspiration or shopping experience using different criteria like:

  • Date – Joobili wants a date first, eses the time period you want to travel in as the starting point for trip inspiration (Joobili founder interview);
  • Experience ranking/rating – Asking consumers to rank in some sort of order a traveller’s holiday activity preferences. Triporati wants consumers to start with a stack ranking of up to 64 interests.  Tripbase is trying a different angle with a slider on five variables.
  • Price – the ability to search based on budget first is being talked about but we have not see it. Planetism (Alpha presenter at the PhoCusWright Travel Innovation Summit in 2009) is still just a static page. Cost4travel has launched and I am expecting more sites to emerge in this area.
  • Images – have been trialling their hotel visualiser were search starts with pictures and images (Alex Bainbridge has some detail).

3. Organisation and history first

Instead of starting with a search box, in this category sites start with the bookings already made by travellers.

Providing travellers a service for collating and storing all the bookings made on various sites. Currently this is being used to provide a travel management service and social networking space.

In time, this will expand to a recommendation service as players in this space collect more and more historical information about traveller behaviour – opening up a powerful data mining and merchandising resource.

TripIt is the first in this space and a tool I used with every trip (product review). A place to store and share all travel information with tracking and sharing tools.

Traxo has entered this space focused more in the leisure sector by building login in links to the major OTA customer information screens.

Allowing them to access a traveller’s account details directly from the OTA. Nokia’s Dopplr is coming from a more networking and “where are my contacts” approach but they too are collecting historical information about a traveller’s habits and desires. Tripcase scored a lucky break in this tight start-up battle when they made their way into iPhone app advertising.

While none of these sites are aggressively moving into the recommendation space – it is only a matter of time before they use the collected data for directing consumers to purchase paths.

4. No search – just a push

The latest version of non-date or non-destinational search sites are those with no search at all.  Sites with no mechanism for conducting any form of search of investigation.  Just a limited list of deals targeted at a select user group.

Playing on the strength of the user base and the ability of the company to select the right deals for the user base.

Biggest example is the Gilt-backed Jetsetter (interview with CEO). Start-ups are emerging regularly in this are. I have an example even closer to (my) home when some ex-Orbitz staff recently launched BonVoyou.

It is far too soon to call the death of the date and destination based search interface but there is a lot of venture money and start-up energy being spent on finding a new way to search for travel results.

This entrepreneurial push is evidence of the emerging desire from consumers for exploring new ways of exploring different areas of the inspiration, research and purchase funnels.

I predict we will see this start to change the UI, design and flow of the OTAs as they seek to chase this consumer desire and fight off the start up response.

Any other search approaches or companies you have noticed that are trying non-destinational search?

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Tim Hughes

About the Writer :: Tim Hughes

Tim Hughes is an online travel industry executive who has been blogging since June 2006 at the Business of Online Travel (the BOOT).

The BOOT covers analysis of online travel industry trends, consumer and company behaviour and broader online/web activity of interest to online travel companies (with a bias towards Tim’s home markets of Asia and Australasia and with the odd post on consuming and loving travel thrown in).

In late-2010 the BOOT clocked its 1,000th post, 200,000th visitor and 300,000th page view.In his work life he is the CEO of Getaway Lounge - a premium travel deal site based in Australia.

Tim has worked for both Orbtitz and Expedia. Prior to the travel industry Tim was a commercial lawyer and venture capitalist. Tim’s views are his alone and not necessarily the views of Getaway Lounge or any of its investors.



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  1. Sean

    Is there a website where I can put in my dates of travel and my departing city and then I can be given rates to multiple destinations?

  2. Jodie Gateman

    Is there any websites that you know of, right now, that allow you to search with travel dates only? I always have days I can travel (usually later then earlier) but want to know what destinations are available and at what price. But I can’t find a site that allows me to do this and, typing in every destination I can think of is time consuming, frustrating and discouraging.

    Even when I phone the airlines and say, here’s when I can travel what do you have available? They ask me; where do you want to go? It is very frustrating!

  3. Raymond

    I am wondering if there is a website where you can fill in a date (or period) for departure, the amount of time you wish to travel and for example, a continent or region (Caribean for example), followed by the best deals in that area (so i can see prices for tickets to several cities in, say, Asia)..

  4. Artur

    This is our approach to non-destination based search:

    As you can see, the geographical destination is second importance. What is more important are the individualistic needs and expectations of travellers. Just use the mixing console and get inspired in terms of suitable destinations.

    Furthermore a crucial part of our business is the unique and handpicked portfolio of authentic travel experiences: Beyond standard packages of conventional booking platforms and mass tourism, offers trips with character. For this we aggregate all this smaller but authentic tour operators on our site.

    How do you like this?

  5. Ollivier

    Very interesting piece! is also building its travel website with a non-destinational search approach. We let travelers decide. We offer a multi-criteria: destinations, activities & interests or holiday type (luxury villa rentals, luxury hotels & resorts, yacht charters….)

  6. Deepankar Biswas

    One approach, which we have taken, is to let the user evolve his tour itinerary, and keep customizing it in terms of the route he wants to pick, the hotels he wants to choose and the transports he wants to pick. (

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  8. Régis

    one more congrats for this article… very inspiring.
    BTW, did you see the home page? all drop down list (destination, dates…) are all by default on “I don’t mind”. I found this symptomatic of the trend you described here

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  11. Ramon

    Tim, although we haven’t still translated our website to english (we are a spanish startup), you might be interested in taking a look to our site, where we do a bit of everything you explain in your excelent article: activities + dates + prices = recommended destinations

    We are also facing some of the challenges (conversion, users habits, …) described in the comments, but we are also seeing that most users are happy with this new approach. In Spain (and I guess in most countries) people usually travel always to the “same” destinations, and with our tool they are always surprised to find that there are many other destinations that are actually more adequate to their needs.

    Best regards,


    • Tim

      Ramon – thanks for comment. Even though I dont speak Spanish I am very fluent in “online travel UI” so can get a feel for your site. The challenge for any start up but search a results ones in particular (as opposed to content sites) is how to generate traffic. Content sites can (eventually) rely on SEO but search and results sites have to be very lucky or skilled in word of mouth or (more usually) need to buy traffic through SEM or affiliate marketing. What are your plans for traffic growth?

  12. Emmanuel Marchal

    Excellent article Tim, I very much agree that the standard travel search model is going to evolve a lot in the coming years. While I’m surprised you didn’t mention advances in leveraging the social graph (We often ask our friends, don’t we), I would argue that your 3rd category will become the biggest.

    We can look at how the major retail, music and movie sites have evolved over time to get a glimpse of what could happen with the way we start our online travel journey. Amazon acknowledges that over 30% of their revenues come from their well known recommendation engine. One wouldn’t think of a music or movie site without personalized recommendations or filtering attached to it (Apple Genius, Pandora, Netflix, Lovefilm and so on).

    You are right to point that the first thing to do is collecting more and more historical info, which in the travel space takes months or years rather than days or weeks to acquire. I like tripit and they do a great job at collecting this info. I’d say all the OTA already have some of this data, and so do hotel chains with their loyalty programs.

    The next step, using machine learning to deliver outstanding personalization or recommendations that one would trust instantly (after all you got only one chance to win a user’s trust) will certainly be a whole new challenge for these companies.

    At, we are focusing on this next step and making it easy for these companies to embrace it. As experts in computer science, semantic, scalability and having focused on the travel space, we offer the first SaaS recommendation engine for the travel space, which a website can license to make the most of their hard-earned user data to deliver a fully personalized experience to their visitors., the European leader in local business review sites with about 18m visitors, is on board, already experiencing the benefits, and so are their users, with some qualifying the recommendations as 10/10, spooky or bang on the money.

    • Tim

      @Emmanuel email me at timsboot [at] gmail [dot] com. I would be interested in a demo of LikeCube

  13. Michael Raybman

    Tim, great article, I think that soon there will be a lot more than 4 types of non destination-based search. Leisure travelers often approach travel booking with a set of goals, preferences, a time frame and a budget. So, there’s a ton of redundant searching a user has to do to get from “vacation in California with my kids in August for $5k” to a concrete itinerary.

    We hope to solve that problem with our product ( when we launch this summer, but I am sure lots of other companies will enter the field.

    @Mark, @Jack, and @Irfan – I agree that content is key, but there is still a large gap between the inspiration and the booking phases of the travel planning process.

    @Jared – great points on conversion and habits, but I think quantity will mean quality. More startups will push the big players to respond, and I think the market will unavoidably move in the right direction.

    • Tim

      Michael – thanks. Tell us more about WaySavvy

      • Michael Raybman

        Tim, thanks – definitely hope you’ll hear more about us as we launch over the summer.

        We want to help people go from travel ideas to optimal itineraries in a single search – through highly personalized optimization technology we developed.

  14. irfan ahmad

    I agree with those who say that content is the essence of travel decision making. A picture of puffins on an iceberg in Longyearbyen (78 degrees North), a rainbow colored parasail set against the azure blue sky of Bali with wisps of cloud to complete the picture, or a story about a backpacker’s budget trip to Paris can all contribute to the travel decision making process. We are experimenting with just that.

    A month back we launched – a bilingual (Arabic/English)site meant for outbound travelers from the Middle East – and within 4 weeks we generated over 100,000 visitors (with an advertising budget of less than $1,000). We have been interviewed by local TV and newspapers and have just been interviewed by BBC TV.

    We are not promoting transactions on our site – although one can book a hotel on it – we are just providing “relevant” travel information. “Relevant” to the Middle East – Arabic content, prayer timings and Halal restaurants which serve food that meets the dietary requirements of Muslims. While a month is too early to tell, the response we have had so far is very encouraging.

    Admittedly, a traveler will need to book an airline ticket and a hotel – eventually – but it is the content site where he will decide where he wants to go.

    • Tim

      irfan – great to hear from the ME market. If you get a chance tells us more about how you think you will balance user generated and editorially driven content for the ME market

      • irfan

        The Middle East market has very little in terms of arabic content on travel. is probably the largest collection of destination/city guides in Arabic – and that is what is attracting visitors to our site – particularly from Saudi Arabia where there are a large number of Arab internet users who prefer to browse in Arabic.

        As far as UGC is concerned, most of the travel content currently available is on forums and blogs. We expect some of these bloggers will migrate to our site and add their own experience to benefit others. But this is an area which we probably need to “feed” before users catch on and start suggesting new hotels, halal restaurants and tourist attractions.

        We have already got some traction from hotels and travel agencies and they have started sending us their Press Releases and I expect they will also respond to users who pose questions on the site. When travel agencies and hotels see genuine enquiries on the site, we expect a buildup of more user generated content. We will look into issues of moderating this and perhaps integrating some of the content into our site once we have the luxury to pick and choose! For now, we will let people add what they want without any moderation.

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  16. steve sherlock

    thanks for putting that together. it starts to describe a face to what is a bit intangible..

    for example i just had this sort of experience. have couple weeks to spend in asia and didn’t know where i wanted to go but didn’t know about any tools i could search for my desires etc

    as luck has it, at the asia travel summit i sat next to Hamish from Exotissimo (se asia specialist) at lunch. he generously allowed me to pick his brain for twenty minutes and then had my list of options!

    one thought comes to mind though, is whether this will develop as a branded solution or more of an open source intelligent data platform that could be integrated across many sites?

    just seems for this sort of area to work, the bigger the networks the better with massive data needed to ensure we get relevant and consistent results from our desire queries. though either way i guess it just needs people courageous enough to experiment and evolve it.

    • Tim

      I think data and content is going to become a competitive advantage making a shared service like a GDS of content hard to implement

  17. Jack Wilson

    Hi Tim,
    I partially agree with Mark Hodson. Content that is authentic and believable is the key. I believe the most authentic and believable content is not from travel writers but from local first-person experts (insider information).
    Albuquerque, New Mexico has a page with ten (10) topics from local experts. This is an extremely well done example of how to provide “insider information” to visitors in a form they will find authentic and believable: Albuquerque – ABQ Experts has a similar approach using “Travel Insiders.”

    I see all of this is the context of the “pull” model of marketing within a set of Social Media components. All the startups you mention have to get their recommendations from somewhere and I see lots coming from the content of Destination Marketing Organizations.

    • Tim

      Agreed – number one content challenge for DMOs is balancing editorial with UGC. UGC gives scale and speed but quality will be lower.

  18. Mark Hodson

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for an interesting piece. I entirely agree with your intro, but I can’t help thinking you’re barking up the wrong tree in looking only at technology solutions. The way for travel websites to “incorporate inspiration, recommendation and discovery into the online consumer experience” (your words) is surely to create great content. The question is how to generate, present and monetise that content.

    Over the past few years there has been an assumption that the best way to generate content is to let users do it. Never mind the quality, feel the width.

    More recently we’ve seen the emergence of auto-generated spam content on successful sites such as Aaron Wall wrote a spiky and interesting piece about this:

    But surely what consumers want is content they can trust. If users don’t trust information they won’t act on it, particularly for a big-ticket purchase such as a holiday.

    To my mind, it is old-fashioned media professionals – journalists and guidebook writers – who are best positioned to provide trusted content. And you don’t need to look far to find underemployed and underpaid travel writers.

    This is an area that has been exploring, and one that I’m focussing on with my own site, This is a genuine attempt to use expert recommendation by experienced travel writers to create high-quality content, to address the “where to go on holiday” question, and – as you rightly suggest – to “incorporate inspiration, recommendation and discovery into the online consumer experience”.

    • Tim

      Mark – agree with you on the content piece. The creation of content is clearly now a huge part of every online travel companies marketing, sales and customer retention strategy. The challenge though is that whenever a consumer seeks to answer an open ended question online they are confronted with an overwhelming amount of information and content in response. Type in “things to do this weekend” into Google and you will find 53 million responses. Impossible for a consumer to sort through yet something consumers are very keen to have answered in an online query. This is why I see a future of a different search interface and of a results display that points to answers from different locations not just one site answers.

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  20. Jared Salter

    Excellent analysis, Tim. Obviously we’re excited by the potential of non-destination based search or we wouldn’t have started Joobili, but I think the challenges of this emerging space are also worth mentioning. First, the entire GDS fee structure is based on point A to B search which creates a cost barrier for companies like us trying to answer open-ended travel questions. Second, there are still question marks about booking conversion rates given that non-destination searches are higher upstream in the purchase funnel. Third, all the companies you highlight are trying to change search behavior in some way. Old habits are hard to break.

    All that said, if everyone accepted the status quo there would never be any innovation, and I think we all believe there is a lot of potential for disruption in the travel industry. All the companies you mentioned are attacking the problem from different angles and it’s exciting to see what emerges in the coming months and years.

    • Tim

      Nice one Jared. I had not thought about the GDS fee structure as an impediment before. I also agree that the complexity of answering an open ended question will mean that conversion rates will be much lower compared to simpler itineraries.

    • Mercedes Forrest

      HI Jared and Tim,

      I stumbled across this blog because I am researching non destination travel options in the market. I have an concept for a non destination travel website. I’m trying to learn more about the GDS fee structure as I realize it is barrier to entry. Are there any specific resources I can leverage that you have found useful i? Thanks in advance.

  21. Joe Buhler

    Excellent overview, Tim. The changes you describe are, in part, the result of expressed consumer disappointment with the still prevailing date/destination experience. This presents a great opportunity for new thinking and new approaches as we can see.

    This can’t come soon enough to take the online travel market to the next level where the technology enabled transaction is no longer the driving factor. A key challenge for all these start-ups is to get traction in the crowded travel arena where a majority of traffic still ends up on the top players sites. Will they offer new alternatives themselves and re-work their sites? I doubt it.

    As the last week’s developments with Google/ITA, Apple’s iTravel patent application, Facebook Open Graph have shown, the solutions are more likely to come from outside the established industry players. I could imagine a Gliider being acquired by Facebook which would immediately give it enormous exposure.

    It will be fascinating to follow what develops in this area down the road.

    • Tim

      Absolutely agree – the pressure for online travel search revolution is bringing in players from outside the traditional search and OTA sectors

  22. Guillaume

    Hi Tim,

    Love the name of that new travel startup BonVoyou founded by an ex Orbitz colleague of yours.

    For your information, BonVoyou in French means good rascal !!!

    Cheers, Guillaume


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