Travel suppliers and the online agencies that sell their bookings are targeting a new breed of jet setter who cannot be bothered booking trips in advance.
These travelers are relying more on their mobile smart phones — the iPhone, BlackBerry or Android — to negotiate, book and manage trips they have already begun, perhaps even from the parking lot of a hotel where they hope to stay.
“They are booking at the last minute. They are booking near where they are located,” said John Caine, the senior vice president in charge of mobile development at Priceline.com. “I think they’re staying shorter because they have flexibility.”
Priceline says 82 percent of its customers with smart phones book their hotel rooms within one day of arrival, compared with 45 percent of the customers who do not have mobile devices. Fifty-eight percent of Priceline customers with mobile devices were within 20 miles of their hotels when they made a reservation.
This shift in consumer booking habits extends the trend in online travel buying that has put many brick-and-mortar travel agencies out of business over the last decade.
The top U.S. online travel agencies — Priceline, Expedia Inc, Orbitz Worldwide, Travelocity – all have some kind of mobile access to their websites to let travelers with the appropriate gadgets book trips while en route.
Priceline’s popular Apple iPhone app allows users to book reservations from the road. An app is a software application that can be downloaded to a mobile phone. Expedia offers an iPhone app called TripAssist, which is similar to Priceline’s.
Orbitz Worldwide, the smallest of the three publicly traded U.S. online travel agencies, launched a mobile version of its flagship travel site Orbitz.com in 2006.
An Orbitz spokesman said the company is seeing more transactions in the mobile space and plans to unveil a “comprehensive mobile strategy” later this year.
THE CUTTING EDGE
For years, travelers have used mobile phones to access the Internet where they can check flight schedules or rental car availability.
More recently, however, online travel agencies have ramped up their mobile offerings to allow more extensive planning. That effort took flight with the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and the opening of Apple’s App Store in 2008.
Meanwhile, airlines, hotels and other travel suppliers also have begun launching mobile applications.
AMR Corp’s American Airlines, for example, has an iPhone app that lets travelers check departure times and play games such as Sudoku while they wait at the airport. It also has tools that enable users to book flights.
Delta Air Lines on Wednesday launched its own iPhone app that allows customers to check in for flights and check a flight’s status. The world’s largest airline said the app would eventually let travelers book flights.
Companies do not generally disclose what they spend to develop their mobile capabilities. But Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Forrester Research, said it is becoming a much bigger part of the business.
Forrester data show that 21 percent of U.S. leisure travelers who use the Internet also own a smart phone, up from 13 percent a year ago.
In some ways, a travel company’s courtship with smart-phone users reflects its market savvy, Harteveldt said.
“If you insist on forcing everybody to your website, you look out of date,” he said. “You’re not in touch with how your customer is thinking and how they’re living their lives.”
Harteveldt noted, however, that currently, relatively few people use mobile devices to make travel bookings. But the number is growing, he said.
“Managing the trip — getting information about where the traveler may be and nearby points of interest and things like that — is important,” he said. “We expect in the next year that it’s going to change as apps get easier and people get more comfortable with their devices.”