Katherine Boehret

Two Ways to Keep Track of Your Travel Plans

When it comes to booking travel reservations online, numerous companies are itching to help. But many travelers prefer to use the same site each time because they know what to expect and because that site holds their user-account information.

This week, I tested two free Web sites that don’t try to steal users away from their trusted travel Web sites. Instead, these sites attempt to make your already booked reservations more useful and accessible.

I tested two such sites: TripIt Inc.’s www.TripIt.com, which acts as a virtual assistant to generate schedules using your reservations; and Groopvine (http://Groopvine.Groople.com), a feature offered by Groople, Englewood, Colo., that brings social networking to group travel plans. Both travel aids became available in September, though Groopvine has been released only in its beta, or testing, stage.

As someone who makes travel arrangements for about 10 work-related or personal trips every month, I paid close attention to the simplicity and usefulness of these sites. TripIt’s straightforward approach makes it addictive: When I forwarded travel confirmation emails to plans@tripit.com, the information in each reservation was automatically assessed, compiled and organized into a schedule, which was emailed to me in seconds.

Groople (a mashing of the words “Groups” and “People”) started four years ago as a site that helped big groups book hotels, flights and other travel arrangements. Groople’s new Groopvine tool offers group booking, but it focuses on working as an online forum where trips can be discussed among those in the traveling group. Photos, polls, videos and Web feeds can be added to each group’s trip page, prompting everyone to participate in the trip planning — or at least get excited about it.

I found a few hiccups on both sites. TripIt duplicates plans on a schedule if you accidentally forward a confirmation email more than once, and it works with most but not all reservations. Groopvine’s trip pages are rough around the edges in some places, obscuring key features and making certain flight and hotel ideas impossible to share with the group. But each site is helpful in its own way.

TripIt is a refreshing switch from the Web sites that force people to create usernames and passwords before doing anything. I started using TripIt by forwarding an Expedia email reservation to plans@tripit.com. Less than a minute later, I received an email from TripIt that included a link to my itinerary of flights, local weather forecasts for the duration of my vacation and maps related to where I was going. This email also included an assigned account ID (the email address from which I forwarded the reservation) and a password that I easily changed from within the account’s Web settings.

Along with this first test from Expedia, I forwarded a variety of other reservations to TripIt including bookings for a hotel in Atlanta, a rental car in Washington, D.C., and a round-trip Amtrak train from D.C. to Wilmington. I forwarded the reservations from various email addresses (as long as they were listed in my account), and each reservation was added to the right itinerary according to date.

TripIt can also accept forwarded restaurant reservations made on OpenTable or TopTable and will sort these into the itinerary.

This Web site’s idea of asking users to do very little to get a fully organized schedule works well, though everything can be edited. I unknowingly forwarded the same car rental to plans@tripit.com twice and two car reservations appeared on my itinerary, making me think I booked two cars until I saw the confirmation number repeated and deleted one. Attractive pre-loaded icons or your own photos can be added to the top of each schedule, as well as other plans for while you’re traveling, including images and Web links.

A feature called TripIt To Me lets you retrieve anything loaded into TripIt by simply emailing a command to the site, such as “Get Flight Tomorrow.” This worked well on my BlackBerry.

I started using Groopvine by signing up and creating a trip page for an annual vacation. I walked through steps to create my page, which I titled and set to a certain color scheme. I chose pink hues and added various sections to my page for displaying polls (to get votes from invited travelers), photos, videos, RSS feeds (for news related to the trip destination, for instance), weather, group discussions and useful Web sites.

I invited a group of friends to join my trip, and everyone accessed the trip page without needing to first become a member of Groopvine. Instead, usernames and passwords are automatically created for return sign-ins. In a few short steps, I made one poll asking friends where they thought we should go and another to ask them how many days they preferred to spend on vacation.

My fellow travelers and I added photos to the page that showed up in handsome Web 2.0 fashion, popping out from the screen in a box overlaid on the page at the click of a button. But I was disappointed that more of the site didn’t take advantage of this technology, which saves users from jumping to new Web pages. While browsing hotels and flights — two important parts of travel arrangements — I was directed to sites away from my personalized trip page.

Users can share hotel suggestions with the group by selecting up to five at once and asking others which they prefer, including details like room rates and amenities. When starting a trip, you must choose from a list to tell Groopvine what the trip is for (i.e. class reunion, sports team travel, family vacations, etc.). From that information, Groopvine suggests certain hotels depending on your group. A school trip, for example, would automatically return results with hotels rather than motels because motels don’t keep kids as contained and safe.

But in a search for Arizona hotels, I couldn’t share any of my choices with the group without first booking rooms. Groople says 70% of its hotels are shareable before booking, so I guess I picked the wrong city. I looked at flights and fares from various airlines, but (again) couldn’t share my findings with the group unless I booked a trip first or knew specific details about flight options. Groople says sharing flight information before booking — as is done with hotels — isn’t possible yet, though the company is working on finding a way to do it.

I’d prefer to share flight options with my group as I came across them. But it’s understandable that flights are difficult to share because fares change so often and various seats and fares are offered to members with different airline statuses. Another challenge with airlines is that only six reservations can be booked online at a time. Groople Agents, reachable by phone, can assist with challenges like these at no charge.

On March 11, Groople plans improvements for Groopvine, including fixing the hotels so that all of them are searchable and sharable. A new opt-in feature will automatically notify each traveler via email of changes on the trip site.

If you wish you had a personal assistant to arrange your travel reservations into a neat itinerary, TripIt does a great job and requires minimal effort and time. Its itineraries look polished, combining reservations into one neat list per trip that can be retrieved at any time. Groople’s Groopvine will encourage groups to get excited about their coming trip, whether they booked it through another favorite travel Web site or through Groopvine, itself. Hopefully, the impending fixes due in March will make this site’s pages more user-friendly.

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