I started out with an update on Hipmunk’s flight search tool yesterday, and today I continue with an update on Hipmunk’s hotel search tool, which I had more problems with but has also seen more improvement to fix those problems. Also, I forgot to mention it yesterday when discussing Hipmunk’s incorporation of ITA’s advanced routing language, but I’ve already written a thorough review on how to use these codes.
A few weeks ago I took the opportunity to compare Hipmunk, an up-and-comer in the world of travel search, to the 800-pound gorilla we know as Kayak. Although I liked a lot of what I saw in Hipmunk, it fell short in a few critical areas. The events that followed really knocked my socks off. Maybe it’s because I’m a newbie blogger, but I was not expecting the folks at Hipmunk to email and call me to talk about the shortcomings I saw in their product. I was happy to chat with them because, as I said, the product overall is very promising even if it still needs a few changes.
I had a phone conversation with Hipmunk CEO Adam Goldstein and will continue to stay in touch with them as new product developments are rolled out. Adam seemed genuinely interested in some of my concerns, explained why certain decisions were made, and pointed out a few features I may have overlooked. I discussed Hipmunk’s flight search engine yesterday and today will talk about their hotel search.
In my original review of the flight search engine, Kayak was the winner by a small margin, and I updated that yesterday to indicate that for a variety of reasons there is a case for ceding that title to Hipmunk even if some things could be improved. Let’s contrast that with hotels. I originally felt Hipmunk and Kayak had some pretty big differences: Hipmunk came out with a somewhat revolutionary map that Kayak tried but failed to copy; and Hipmunk also provided clear information on ratings and location. However, it failed on several critical features that I am glad to say are in the process of resolution.
When I last reviewed Hipmunk, there were no links to hotel booking sites other than the online travel agency (OTA) Orbitz. This won’t do. Casual travelers may not care much, but I really want to be able to collect credit for hotel stays and nights, which requires you to book with the hotel directly. Since the prices offered by hotel websites and OTAs often don’t vary by much, I would be happy to use Hipmunk to search for a hotel and then go somewhere else to book it, but Hipmunk won’t get any commission off the sale if I can’t link through from their site. I figured Hipmunk knows this and is working on agreements with hotel companies, and in fact when I took a second look earlier this week I found links for at least three hotels, including the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero in San Francisco, an InterContinental, and a Radisson (owned by Carlson) a few blocks away. A few other brands I tried like Starwood and Hilton only linked to Orbitz or a few other OTAs. So, this issue is being slowly fixed.
More significantly, the most annoying feature of Hipmunk was that it included dozens of listings for Airbnb, a service that puts you in touch with other people who are willing to rent out their apartment or even just their couch. This can be a lot cheaper in expensive cities, and it’s a feature worth including that makes Hipmunk unique. But only if you can turn it off! I couldn’t find any switch to turn off the Airbnb listings and only show hotels, which are my preference when traveling. When I brought this up with Adam, I told him that I had only just found the button that lets me do this. His response was that they had added it that morning! So whether I instigated this change or not, I’m glad to see that Hipmunk is being responsive to its customers and continually working on improvements.
I’d like to add that my biggest complaint in the original review was that I couldn’t search by price when using Hipmunk. I certainly hope I was wrong, since that seems like a basic feature and I got justifiably upset about it. But such a feature does exist and probably existed back then, too. I must have overlooked it, so I apologize. But… I have this ongoing complaint in the back of my head about text not standing out. Blue and grey text on a blue background is not always the best, and I think key pieces of information like the name of an airline or the ability to sort by price should be displayed in orange or some other color.
Something didn’t look right when I reviewed Hipmunk last time. A lot of the dots that indicate individual hotels were grey. When I first looked at Hipmunk last September, all of them were colored. I mentioned this, and Adam said they made this change to simplify the search results. Only hotels that best meet your search criteria will show up as colored dots. As you restrict your criteria by adjusting your preferred prices or brands, some dots will turn grey and other dots will gain color. I guess this makes sense. I would still prefer the old way since I am generally not a fan of hiding results, but Hipmunk’s approach is simplicity. I give them credit for coming up with new ways to achieve that.
Things I Didn’t Mention
I mentioned the live help feature and “Agony” metric in yesterday’s update on Hipmunk’s flight search. The support line is obviously still there when you perform a hotel search although I didn’t test it. And unlike “Agony,” which Hipmunk tries to minimize, it tries to maximize a metric called “Ecstasy” in your hotel results. This includes a combination of price, reviews, and amenities. Remember, you can still overrule Ecstasy if you want to search by some other parameter.
Things I Didn’t Know
Although Adam didn’t bring it up, when I later revisited Hipmunk I took closer attention to the tabs at the top of the page that let you start a new search without closing your first one. I may have noticed this earlier but didn’t really consider just how useful they can be. If you try starting a new search in a new browser window with most travel websites like Kayak, ITA, or Orbitz, cookies get in the way and essentially block you from changing anything in the first window. The data on the page won’t go away, but you can’t click to go back and change a date or something like that. You are stuck with whatever search session is most recent.
With tabs, you can open three different hotel searches at once for different weekends and go back and forth between them to fine tune the results and compare your options. Maybe it pays to visit earlier, or later, or to go to a different city altogether. You can also open up a new tab for a flight so that you can have a flight search and a hotel search going on at the same time. If you wanted to do this with another site, the only real workaround I know of is to use Google Chrome and open an Incognito window that basically lacks cookies and creates a separate browsing session. But that still limits you to only two.
I was this close to recommending Hipmunk in my original review but was stopped by the inability to toggle off Airbnb listings as well as the absence of links to hotel websites. Putting these aside, I thought Hipmunk clearly had potential as a leader in hotel search features when compared to Kayak. Now that the Airbnb situation has been nicely resolved and agreements with the hotels are being signed, I no longer have any major reservations. In fact, I’ll probably make it one of my first stops when searching for hotels in the future.
Unlike ITA, there is no real one-stop tool for hotels that travel hackers have flocked to (at least not one that I’m aware of). The only recommendation I gave Adam is that he should add a calendar feature like the one Travelocity uses. Although I don’t book with Travelocity, I do use the calendar feature on individual hotel pages to find the cheapest date when I’m looking for a mattress run. If Hipmunk could provide something similar along with a link to the hotel’s website, I think that would be some real ecstasy!