|By Wailin Wong, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
September 21, 2010 - --Glenn Strachan may have been driving from his hometown of Washington, D.C., to New York, but his mind was on a future trip to Michigan to visit his daughter.
So while in the car, the 53-year-old information technology consultant compared airfares on Kayak, booked a flight on AirTran Airways, made a rental car reservation, studied hotel reviews on TripAdvisor and picked a place to stay -- all through his iPhone.
"I had the time and I wasn't going to be at a desktop and I really needed to get things done, plus I'm planning other trips," said Strachan (who added that he doesn't endorse using a mobile phone while driving). "I'm constantly making airline reservations. It's just so much easier from my phone than waiting to be at a desktop."
Strachan, who earned million-mile status on two airlines, could be the archetype of an emerging segment of traveler: the smart-phone-toting business road warrior or vacationer whose mobile device is an indispensible travel agent, concierge and problem solver.
Within this group, there are signs that travelers are shifting their bookings to the very last minute thanks to mobile devices, scouting cheap airfares on Twitter that require travel within a few days or waiting until after arriving at a destination to find a hotel.
The early tech adopter and the business traveler are longtime kindred spirits, as executives were toting BlackBerrys before the iPhone and other Web-enabled devices entered the mainstream. Norm Rose, senior technology and corporate market analyst at PhoCusWright, said his firm's research shows 75 percent of frequent business travelers -- those making at least five trips a year -- are smart-phone owners. Roughly half of frequent leisure travelers have smart phones.
"The key thing is the fact that the smart phone, as a category, has a much larger population of users who are using the Web browser and downloadable apps," Rose said. "Those apps are all about giving the consumer or the business traveler control over the process while they're traveling."
Some early data also suggest that mobile consumers are developing distinctive travel habits. Priceline.com, which has an iPhone app that allows users to book hotels and rental cars, studied a two-week sampling of its app activity and saw that 82 percent of customers with mobile devices booked their hotel rooms within one day of arrival. The figure dropped to 45 percent among people using Priceline's nonmobile "Name Your Own Price" feature.
"As technology enables us to provide tools like this, we're both filling a need for last-minute rooms and also enabling a behavior change that lets people look for these last-minute rooms," said John Caine, Priceline's senior vice president of marketing who also heads the company's mobile development.
In some cases, Priceline observed that customers may be waiting until they arrive at a destination before choosing a hotel. The company said 58 percent of customers with mobile devices were within 20 miles of their hotel when they made the booking -- and 35 percent were within just a mile.
Some companies in the travel and hospitality industries also are experimenting with social media platforms as a new way to connect with tech-savvy clientele and enhance customer service. JetBlue Airways and United Airlines offer limited-time deals on Twitter in which users have to act quickly because the promotions can expire within hours. Hyatt Hotels has a Twitter concierge account, staffed around the clock, that answers questions, resolves problems, and even makes spa and restaurant bookings for guests.
At Expedia, which launched a mobile booking site and iPhone app this year, the marriage of mobile phones and travel seemed inevitable. Joe Megibow, the company's vice president of global analytics and optimization, said a small but noticeable number of Expedia customers were booking travel through their smart phones even before the company had a Web site optimized for mobile devices.
Mobile and travel "are just made for each other," Megibow said. "The mobile device is always with us; it's always on. When you're traveling, you're out and about and often in uncertain scenarios. ... They're built for each other, and it's something we take very seriously."
Travel companies with mobile offerings say ease of use and good design are crucial for attracting customers, especially as smart phones become more mainstream. The expected proliferation of tablets presents another opportunity.
"This is a customer that may well be running like mad down the jetway, trying to grab that hotel before they have to turn off their device on the plane," Caine said. "We're shooting to be the simplest, the fastest, the best-priced and really try to keep our customer in mind."
Although advances in mobile Web browsing have made e-commerce easier, not all travel services seamlessly translate to a hand-held device. Megibow noted that the popular grid layout used by travel sites to display flight options, for example, can be tricky to replicate on a small screen. Most booking is still done via computers rather than Web-connected phones.
"I'll do initial trip planning (on my phone) just to see what's available," said Keith Crawford, 32, a network engineer based in Little Rock, Ark. "I'll usually go back to the computer to finalize plans or to pay for them, but (the phone) does give me the ability to pull it up right then."
Crawford said the appeal of his iPhone is how it keeps him informed and organized while he's on the road. He uses an app called TripIt to store his itineraries and confirmation numbers. He also consults his phone for airport maps to locate gates, searches for recommended restaurants through Yelp and Urbanspoon, and finds cheap gas through an app from AAA.
"It's gotten to the point where the laptop is optional these days because I have so much functionality built into the iPhone," said Crawford, who believes mobile technology has made him "a much more educated spontaneous traveler."
Will Aldrich, vice president of product at TripIt, said the data collected by his company also point toward more spontaneity.
"We definitely see the trend toward people making their plans closer and closer to their departure date," Aldrich said.
With the phone, "you feel like, 'OK, I've got this under control,'" Aldrich said. "You've got some of the rough edges taken off."
For the mobile traveler
Expedia TripAssist: Stores itineraries, even those not booked on Expedia, and provides flight status updates. Available as an iPhone app. Mobile site allows customers to book flights, hotels and rental cars.
Kayak: Compares flights, hotels and cars and provides flight status information. Available as a mobile site or an app for the iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry platforms.
Priceline: Allows travelers to book hotel rooms and rental cars by naming a price. Available as a mobile site or an iPhone app.
Travelocity: Provides itineraries, flight information and a hotel locator through an iPhone app. The mobile site allows customers to book flights, hotels and rental cars.
TripIt: Organizes travel information such as airline and hotel bookings into a master itinerary that can be shared with contacts. Available as a mobile site and as an app for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry platforms.
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