Find your own online concierge or virtual travel agent with SnapTravel, Hello Hipmunk or Pana.
Need to book a hotel on the go, or a friendly dinner recommendation while exploring a new city? There’s a bot for that.
Now, the booking services Expedia, Kayak, Skyscanner and many others are allowing potential customers to seek recommendations on hotel rooms and flights and book them via Facebook Messenger.
Here is what three of the more interesting options have to offer so far:
SnapTravel aims to find you a hotel based on your budget and preferences via SMS, Facebook Messenger or Slack. It uses a combination of artificial and human intelligence to search Expedia, Priceline and more than 100 other sites for the best deal, and claims to have “secret deals” of its own.
Most Read Life Stories
- Carbon offsetting while you travel isn’t perfect — but it’s possible
- Spike in vacation scams prompts Better Business Bureau to warn travelers
- Travel Wise | Connecting flight woes? You might be facing a minimum transfer time — here's how to cope
- Yoga for the body you have: A Seattle program is changing the way we talk about yoga, health and eating-disorder recovery
- Hot pot is hot in Bellevue right now, but good luck trying to get a table at Liuyishou and The Dolar Shop
The bot first asks for your travel city and dates, whether you have a specific hotel brand in mind and if you have any neighborhood preferences in the city.
I texted SnapTravel while I was looking to book a few nights in my hometown, Binghamton, N.Y., during Thanksgiving week. Based on my initial responses, SnapTravel gave me a cost estimate for three- and four-star hotels in the area. I was sent what it deemed my four best options, with photos and links to more details and booking options for each hotel, a link to a map with more options, and I was asked if I wanted to be put in touch with one of its travel agents (who can offer some human insight).
The entire process from start to finish took 16 minutes.
A spinoff from the Hipmunk booking website and smartphone app, Hello Hipmunk offers up a cute chipmunk to help you book travel from Facebook Messenger, Slack or Skype.
Just be careful what you ask for. You will need to be specific if you want to get relevant results.
I used Messenger to converse with Hipmunk, and before I had a chance to say hello, the critter asked me what airport I usually fly from. I said La Guardia, assuming it would understand that I meant La Guardia Airport in New York City. But it came back with: “Looks like you’re planning a getaway from Laguardia, Spain.”
I tried again, asking for some flight deals from New York to Chicago for the next week. He came back with: “You’re looking for the best time to go from New York City, NY, to Chicago, IL. Hold on, I’m digging through the data now. :)” Not really there. Next I tried: “I need a flight from New York to Chicago, leaving tomorrow and coming back on October 9.”
That seemed to do it.
The bot said, “I searched 736 itineraries. The least agonizing itinerary flies from LGA to ORD.” Below were nine itineraries, rated one to nine in order of “least agonizing” with times and prices.
For the business traveler, there is Pana, which, like SnapTravel, combines artificial and human intelligence to plan your trip. The human factor seems to play a more significant role than it did with the other bots I tried.
You don’t need to be a business traveler to benefit, but you do need to be a frequent-enough traveler to justify the cost: $49 per month ($499 annually) for its “concierge” plan. But there is a seven-day free trial to start.
Pana gives you three ways to start: through email, SMS or its app. I chose SMS and received an introductory hello. I then texted that I wanted to fly from New York to Chicago, leaving next Monday and returning Friday.
I got a response from “Jo” and learned that she is “a Canadian transplant in Hong Kong, avoiding the snow and loving the urban island life.” About an hour later, I received four flight itinerary options, sorted by price from lowest to highest.
This was as far as I took it, but Pana is designed to be a long-term relationship. Your virtual travel agent can check you into flights and suggest hotels, and then can pivot to concierge-mode to recommend restaurants and activities in your destination city.