COTA: Get out of town ... but click first

December 5, 2009

Here in Indiana, it’s December. Which means it’s cold, gray and wet outside. Naturally, our minds begin to turn toward warmer climes and distant shores. Or maybe just Fort Myers.

Either way, winter in Indiana is a great reason to travel.

By now, you’re probably adept at using the bevy of travel sites available online. There’s Expedia (www.expedia.com) and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) and Kayak (www.kayak.com) to help you find the best price for hotels and cars and flights. But if you’ve ever purchased from any of them, you may have experienced the buyer’s remorse that goes along with it. “Is this the best price I can get? What if it goes lower? How much was it yesterday?”

With these questions swirling around in your head, simply hitting the “Confirm Purchase” button can be a test of will.

There are several strategies to help alleviate these feelings, but the most palatable is the one where you just keep checking prices up to the point where you simply have to buy.

Instead, wouldn’t it be great to have a personal travel assistant? Well, yes, it would, and that’s exactly what Yapta (www.yapta.com) is. (In fact, “yapta” stands for “your amazing personal travel assistant.”)

Airline prices and hotel rates are highly volatile, as a function of the automated supply and demand systems that have been designed to maximize revenue. Yapta offsets this problem by checking prices for you on a daily basis and alerting you when the price changes. By helping you evaluate the purchase prices, Yapta provides a gauge so you can buy with confidence, knowing you’ve gotten the best price available. And even if you’ve already booked the airline ticket, Yapta can still help you save through the little-known “guaranteed airfare” policies in place at most airlines. If the price drops after you purchase, most airlines allow you to claim a travel credit for the difference.

Does it work? Since it launched in May 2007, Yapta officials claim they’ve alerted hundreds of thousands of travelers to more than $150 million in travel savings. Not bad.

Once you’ve decided how you are getting there, it’s time to find out where to stay. Most of the standard travel sites offer descriptions and pictures of hotels, but it can be difficult to know what (and whom) to trust. I’ve often used Travel Advisor (www.traveladvisor.com) to get some hands-on reviews from other travelers, but even some of those can be suspect. I’ve been happier with Oyster (www.oyster.com).

Oyster isn’t crowd-sourced like other sites. Instead, its reviews are written by a staff of reporters who visit the hotels anonymously. And since they don’t allow reporters to accept free lodging or services, the reporters present the facts in an unbiased, professional manner. 

These reviews are extensive: It’s not uncommon to find them topping out at more than 3,000 words. They go in-depth on a variety of topics, including the ambience, reservations, cleanliness, family-friendliness, service, and several others. They also provide extensive photo libraries to help you see exactly what the property looks like before you get there. In fact, one of the more entertaining and informative sections of the site, “Photo Fakeouts,” shows altered marketing photos next to the spots as they appeared when an Oyster reporter was there. It’s a little sobering to see how some of these pics are doctored, especially considering that the reviews are focused on some of the finer luxury hotels in the world. So far, it has reviews of 720 properties in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York City, San Francisco and throughout the Caribbean.

Finally, after you’ve booked the flight with the best value and checked into the prime location near the beach, double your pleasure by sending envy-inducing postcards to all your friends. Going down to the gift shop, buying a card, writing something pithy, then finding a stamp and a mailbox is too much of a hassle. But there’s an iPhone app for that, too. Several of them, in fact.

Personally, I’ve found Postino (www.angurialab.com/) to be the best, but Hazelmail (www.hazelmail.com) is also well-regarded. Either will work with photos you take using the built-in camera or one that is in your photo library. Simply crop and arrange the photo you like, choose a nice motif, write your message, and select the recipient from your address book. The application will send the entire message to their printing service and print an actual physical postcard which they’ll then mail on your behalf. In a few days, your workmates will find a surprise in their mailbox without your ever having to leave the poolside chaise lounge. You’ll get the credit for being thoughtful (or spiteful) while working on your tan.•


Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.


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