With so many websites vying for the opportunity to book your next trip, TripAdvisor is hoping its recent makeover will help it stand out from the ever-expanding crowd.
Not that the self-described “world’s largest travel site” is hurting for attention, with 390 million average unique monthly visitors and over 500 million reviews for hotels, restaurants and other travel destinations. But standing pat is never an option in the highly competitive travel booking industry.
Which brings us to TripAdvisor’s new look, which comes with additional search features and a more personalized app for iOS and Android devices. With nearly half of TripAdvisor’s traffic coming from mobile last year, an increase of 29 percent, according to the company, it’s no surprise that the most noticeable changes are seen on its revised smartphone and tablet incarnations.
But does new really mean a better experience for prospective travelers?
I used the new TripAdvisor to help plan a recent trip to North Adams, Mass., and for the most part, the change was good.
Before the Trip
On TripAdvisor’s new desktop home page, a cleaner design and simpler layout are instantly noticeable, and once you start searching for travel accommodations, you’ll encounter a new “Best Value” filter, which is a ranking using TripAdvisor-specific data such as its user ratings, prices, popularity, location and your personal user preferences. You can also still sort results based on user reviews, cost and distance alone.
Restaurants are now filterable by “Cheap Eats,” “Fine Dining,” “Mid-Range” and a host of other categories. One could quickly find a vegetarian-friendly, family-friendly restaurant that has free Wi-Fi with just a few clicks. You can then reserve that table (if it allows online reservations) without leaving the website, thanks to integration with the restaurant booking service OpenTable.
Once you pick a city, you are placed into what is essentially a mini travel guide for that city, with the ability to smoothly switch between filterable results for vacation rentals (which can be booked directly on TripAdvisor), restaurants and things to do. As I was heading to North Adams, I could quickly toggle to see top hotels, like the Porches Inn, restaurants such as Public eat + drink, and attractions including MASS MoCA. This seamless search experience cannot be found on some other popular travel sites.
The search experience is replicated on the app, which also offers a host of cool features not found on the desktop version or on many other travel apps (though it would be nice if they were available on both desktop and mobile).
One such feature is “My Trips.” By creating a trip, which requires only a name and the dates, I was able to bookmark places of interest and schedule them on a trip-specific calendar. You can easily share your trip via email or SMS with your traveling partner(s) so they can see what you’re interested in and add their own preferences. This may not seem as necessary for couples, but in a large group, the feature would be a great way to keep everyone on track.During the Trip
Once I was in North Adams, I mainly stuck with the app version of TripAdvisor and appreciated that all of my bookmarked attractions and restaurants were easily accessible and placed on a map within the app. For directions between locations, TripAdvisor used Apple Maps on my iPhone, which is not my preferred maps app, but it was better than nothing.
The app’s standout feature, depending on how paranoid you are, is the “Travel Timeline” option, which will allow you to “check-in” at places along your trip (similar to features on Swarm and Facebook), but tracks your journey in timeline form. As with most apps that track location, you must give the app permission to do so, and the app promises the timeline is only visible to you (though you can share portions of it with friends via SMS or email).
The travel timeline will ask you if you’re at a restaurant or attraction; it will never assume you’re anywhere unless you confirm. If you forget to check your app while at a location, it will give you an opportunity to go back and plot previous stops. Should you be taking photos along the way, it will automatically package those near the times and places on your timeline.
While my wife was a bit spooked by the timeline tracking our every move, I liked that it was creating a record of where we were. If you’re like me and tend to forget the name of that one restaurant while you’re attempting to recommend it to a friend, you’ll appreciate the timeline.
You can also give your mother one less reason to check your Facebook page by easily, and privately, sharing parts of your timeline via SMS or email, photos included.
As promising as I found many of these features, some things could be a bit more intuitive. I drove myself slightly crazy trying to turn off the timeline once my trip was over (waiting for the train on the Monday back to work is not a memory I want to retain). The on/off toggle on the timeline page goes away after you turn it on. To turn it off, you have to go to the app’s settings.
And while the ability to download city guides is great in theory — giving you access to information and maps offline when you lose cellular service or just want to save on data — I spent several minutes poking around trying to download the North Adams guide, but realized there isn’t one for every city. But it would be nice to be able to download maps regardless of whether there is a city guide.
If you’re able to download one of the over 300 city guides that are available, you will have convenient access to them in an appropriately labeled tab within the app.The Bottom Line
The average user of the new TripAdvisor should be impressed with its intuitive layout and improved search capability, and the app has enough promising functionality that already distinguishes it from other travel-booking apps like Expedia’s and Kayak’s. TripAdvisor says new features like better mapping technology are coming soon, which should only strengthen its case for being a premier all-in-one online travel planner.