European Travel Costs To Fall As Rideshare Arrives On Rome2rio

Travel around Europe is set to become less expensive and easier to plan with the integration of ridesharing options into rome2rio.com.

Ridesharing is typically a much more affordable choice than air and rail services, and we’ve made it easy to compare the cost of a rideshare trip to those more traditional options in our search results.

Take for example a trip from Frankfurt to Munich, Germany. Deutsche Bahn’s Inter-City Express train service is an obvious first choice, but at an average price of €80 one-way*, it’s an expensive option. At €113 one-way, flying is also expensive and requires getting to and from the airport, security lines and all the stress that goes with modern air travel. At €19 the bus is the least expensive alternative but it’s quite a slow journey and may be less attractive to some travelers.

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That makes rideshare a really interesting option. At €20 it’s as cheap as the bus, yet it offers the potential for a relatively fast journey in the luxury of a late-model vehicle, pick-up and drop-off in central locations, and perhaps a more personal, friendly experience all round.

The initial release of ridesharing features offers from BlaBlaCar and Carpooling.com. Each operator has built a loyal and fast-growing army of drivers; collectively they manage almost 2.5 million rideshares each month. (See below for more information on the rideshare market.) Rome2rio users wishing to book a rideshare are linked directly to the relevant booking page on the selected rideshare site.

Both Carpooling.com and BlaBlaCar offer a filtering option so that female drivers may choose to only carry female passengers, and female passengers may choose to only see rides driven by a woman. Both sites verify both driver and rider contact details, and a description of the car and the driver’s plans regarding snack and bathroom breaks are listed along with departure time and the ride fee. Riders are able to review their driver after the ride, and drivers may also review riders.

We plan to expand geographic coverage for rideshare across Europe and into other markets over the coming months. In the meantime, Rome2rio users making travel plans in Europe will already see the new rideshare option on their results page for many journey plans.

About The Rideshare Market

BlaBlaCar and Carpooling.com are the most popular rideshare services in the European marketplace, providing Rome2rio with over 15,000 routes, all with daily rides. With a focus on France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and the UK, rides are offered in a total of 40 countries. Carpooling.com estimates that over the last ten years its rides have helped avoid some 1.4 million tons of carbon emissions.

* Holders of a BahnCard, Eurail Pass or InterRail Pass would pay a significantly lower fare for this journey. On Rome2rio.com all fares are estimated unless specific dates are entered.

Rod Cuthbert

Multi-Modal In Europe: A Wrap-Up

I’ve just returned from Berlin, where I gave a presentation on the state of the multi-modal sector at the annual ITB Conference. Being in Europe was a good opportunity to meet some of the companies I talked about in person, and get a better handle on how and why they’re taking the course they’re on.

My presentation is online and viewable here, but it’s boring without the text. So here’s an overview of what I said about the various players, with the addition of what I learned afterwards as I met with some of them and heard their opinions on where the market is headed.

SNCF-Mytripset

I met the Mytripset team in Paris at the SNCF Headquarters. Frankly, I had been surprised that SNCF, a big and conservative rail company, had developed such a cool product, and done it so quickly. During my visit I learned from Alexia Boulot, Project Leader for Mytripset, that the initial development was done by a very small team in only four months. That’s quite an achievement, although on the minus side the site remains French-language only, and is still in beta. I suspect there are competing views within SNCF about the Mytripset product: some who see multi-modal as being an obvious progression, while others wonder why SNCF would even consider selling air, bus, carpool and ferry! In any case I was impressed by the team and expect this product will gain in popularity as they bring the complete vision together. Whether that popularity extends beyond France is another matter, but maybe SNCF aren’t too worried on that point.

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Waymate

I met with founders Maxim Nohroudi and Tom Kirschbaum at Waymate’s very central, very fine offices in Berlin, and found myself in the middle of a company that had recently split itself in two, though in a good way.

way1

Maxim demonstrated their (relatively) new Allryder app on the iPhone: it’s a journey planner focused on mass transit and other options (taxi, carshare) in cities all across Germany, and it’s very impressive. Allryder is one half of the picture; the other half is the “traditional” Waymate business, the one I was familiar with and which I worried might be getting less focus in the re-shuffle. Not so, Maxim told me, however the emphasis will be switching to more focus on air-related functionality and user feedback / reviews. I have to admit I’m not quite sure about that shift; I’m a fan of Waymate’s excellent UI (Maxim confirmed they were heavily influenced by Hipmunk) and hope they stay fully engaged as a multi-modal player.

FromAtoB

Thank goodness they have an English name, as the original German name of this Munich-based company—VerkehrsmittelVergleich—is beyond my limited ability to pronounce German words. I met co-founders Johannes Grassman and Veit Blumschein for lunch at ITB (it’s hard to get a decent lunch at ITB, by the way; lots of sausages and pizza and not much else). Like me, they are firm believers that all the boats in the multi-modal space can rise on the same tide, and we had a good discussion about their progress and where they see the market heading. Having been around since 2008 these guys know more about the market than most, and they’ve garnered great SEO juice along the way.

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That means strong traffic to their B2C site and has them well placed as the current leader among the European sites, I think. (By that I mean the multi-modal site that’s generating the most traffic to its booking partners.) One interesting topic of conversation was the constant issues they have with suppliers who change their APIs without notice, creating unexpected results and errors on connected sites like FromAtoB. Given Rome2rio’s strategy of no API connections until the user (optionally) enters dates, I admit to a little schadenfreude (a German word I can pronounce) when I heard this! In any event, I predict continued growth and success for this very focused and experienced team.

GoEuro

Naren Shaam, GoEuro’s founder, was all across the media earlier this year with news of further investment in his Berlin-based startup, and kept the party mood going by hosting an event on Tuesday night prior to ITB, in concert with the Travel Massive meet-up that attracted hundreds of industry revelers. I suppose throwing a party is a good way to spend a VC’s money, but Naren says his real focus is building API connections to rail and bus operators in Germany, Spain and the UK. GoEuro currently list 37 completed connections on their site and Naren tells me they have plenty more in the works. Based on feedback I got from competitors and various rail operators during my trip, no-one is taking GoEuro lightly. With 49 staff (and counting) this is a typical VC-backed play with the “go big or go home” strategy that can lead to big wins… or savage implosions if things go wrong. One thing I can’t get my head around is where the traffic will come from: GoEuro claim a current average of 1.8m unique visitors per month, which seems remarkably high for a site that currently focuses on only three markets. To get ahead of that spending curve they’ll need plenty of traffic and great conversion, and I wonder if the balance (high overheads : narrow geography) can work. Time will tell, but for the moment they seem to be on track and confident in their progress.

ITB2

Routerank

I described this Swiss company as the grandfather of the sector; they’ve been around since 2006 but differ from the other European players in that they are B2B only; the consumer facing site is essentially an advertisement for their B2B services. They’ve had success signing partnerships and count BCD and Hogg Robinson as clients, along with Zurich Insurance, the Swiss Government and the World Economic Forum. CEO Jochen Mundinger is a little like a Swiss banker: he doesn’t let on any more than he has to, so my understanding of Routerank and how they’re faring is somewhat limited. I’m going to guess that delivering customised multi-modal solutions for licensees is essentially a services business and Routerank’s outlook is a lot different to that of the other companies listed here.

Wanderio

We know a little about this Rome-based startup because they use our API. We’re not exactly sure what they do with it as they add their own data to ours before displaying results. Still, we love their UI and think their step by step approach to itinerary building is a real winner, or at least a good first step. Their focus is naturally enough on Italy and the next-door states, but tests I’ve done for journeys across Europe have all worked well. We expect to see more of Wanderio; they will benefit from the fact they’re not in Germany and don’t appear to have any major competitors in their home market. This tiny player could end up a big winner by simply being very good at multi-modal in Italy and the immediately surrounding countries.

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Deutsche Bahn – Qixxit

This was a surprise. I knew DB had released a product back in September last year, but I guess the day I looked at it the site was down and then I forgot all about it. Fast forward to Europe two weeks ago and everyone is asking the same question: what do you think of Qixxit? Well, I’m pretty impressed. Both the web and app versions have beautiful UIs; it’s fast; the data, coming mostly from DB is of course super-reliable; and the coverage across Europe is comprehensive. But there are minuses too: it’s still in beta, and it’s in German language only. And there’s no flights, either, which in my opinion means it doesn’t really qualify as a complete multi-modal site yet.

qx1

And finally the name is sorta weird: I don’t think it means anything in German, and it’s hard to know how to say or spell it in English. DB had a 3rd party developer create Qixxit for them and it’s easy to see that the people who designed bahn.de were not involved (that’s not a criticism, just an observation; Bahn.de is an amazing site!). But I wonder what will happen to the product once it comes back in-house, under the wings of the myriad committees that hold sway in a huge corporation like DB? On the one hand I worry that if Qixxit is managed like a startup it could easily crush competitors in the European multi-modal space, while on the other hand I think it will be interesting to watch DB attempt to compete against nimble, focused competitors like GoEuro and FromAtoB, who really are startups!

Multi-Modal: Different Architectures

There’s a stark difference between the technology approach the European sites have taken, and the approach we’ve taken here at Rome2rio. The European sites use an API-based approach, where—just like in traditional flight search—they connect in real-time to third party APIs (eg a rail operator, a bus operator, a rideshare operator) in order to collect the data they show in their search results. The clear upside of this approach is that their results have a lot of information that’s really helpful for bookings: availability, exact schedules, exact fares. The downsides, however, are real, and the market has yet to determine which approach it prefers best.

Rome2rio sees multi-modal as a search engine problem. We hold indexed data in a vast memory store and produce results almost instantly, just like Google or Bing. We consider the sacrifice we make in terms of booking-related data—we show frequency, not schedules, and estimated fares instead of exact fares—is reasonable given the benefits of an instant result.

This trade-off—speed of results vs. booking-related data—also impacts coverage. API connections take time to build, and many suppliers (think buses and ferries in particular) simply don’t offer them. That means Rome2rio has quickly built broader (and deeper) geographic coverage, while the European sites are largely focused on major operators in Europe.

As stated, the market has yet to determine which of these approaches it likes best. Chances are there’s enough room in the space to accommodate winners from both sides of the coin.

Booking Ground Transportation

One of the slides in my presentation is a headline that says “Why is booking a trip through Europe such a nightmare?” There’s a common perception, reasonably held, that booking trains and associated transportation is just not as straightforward as booking a flight. That view is compounded by the fact that some national rail sites are really, really bad. (I’m in the business and I can’t make a booking on some of these sites! Who designs them? Have they ever done user testing?)

itb13

Anyway, it’s not all bad. Bahn.de, for example, is an amazing site that processes about €2bn in bookings each year; clearly the team at DB know what they’re doing. And new sites like Ouigo are beginning to show how cool a train booking site can be. My personal favourite is Loco2, the UK-based site that has normalised the booking process across a growing number of European operators. On Loco2 you can make a single booking from Oxford, UK to Tarragona, Spain; that used to be three separate sites and three separate bookings.

Without real improvements in the ground booking process multi-modal sites will find there’s a brake on their progress, but I’m seeing enough good work being done here that I suspect I shouldn’t worry too much on this point.

Summary

The multi-modal sector is off to a very strong start, with most—though not all—of the activity based in Europe. The fact we’re not seeing US-based entrants enter the fray is no surprise. The US travel market is air-centric and Americans have historically viewed ground transportation alternatives as déclassé. That presents a real opportunity for companies in other parts of the world to steal a march on their US counterparts, who have led the field in almost every other sector of the online travel industry. That this particular sector might turn out to be of vital importance is an interesting footnote to the unfolding story.

Rod Cuthbert

Our Coverage Blossoms: Even In South America

When describing Rome2rio to someone new, it was common to hear “Ah brilliant! I can use this for my upcoming trip to South America”. But I couldn’t help but cringe on the inside at that response. Rome2rio’s South America coverage had always been lacking. Whilst the site would still show flight, drive and taxi options, no multi-modal search experience is complete without bus, train and ferry options.

That’s all changing thanks to our growing content team. Kate currently has 11 data researchers working on adding South America content to Rome2rio. Coverage has vastly improved in the last few months, especially in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Columbia. Rome2rio now also has a variety of bus routes in Central American counties such as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Cuba and Jamaica.

This image provides an overview of our South America coverage today. Orange represents bus routes, purple represents train lines and blue represents ferries. Not surprisingly, the Amazon rainforest stands out as a region with little transport coverage.

South America

Another region where our content has greatly improved recently is Greece and Turkey. These highly fragmented markets are served by a range of bus, ferry and train operators which our team have painstakingly added.

greece-turkey

We’re making good progress in Asia too. Andrew has a team of 15 researchers adding routes in the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, Taiwan and Malaysia.

south-korea

South East Asia

Finally we’ve continued to drastically improve our coverage in Italy. This is our crown jewel market with over 207 operators. It is also our most popular search destination on Rome2rio.

Italy

Our content team is now adding over 200 routes a day to Rome2rio. One new challenge as our content grows is maintaining the freshness and accuracy of the data. We are now developing processes to check for stale data where website URLs are broken, companies have shut down and routes have stopped or changed and new routes have been created. As always, user feedback is a valuable tool for identifying inaccuracies, but even our users can’t be expected to find and report every inaccuracy.

We are also looking forward to observing changes in user behavior as coverage grows. Will our users search more often in countries where train, bus and ferry routes have been recently added? Will Rome2rio become more popular in South America and Asia as the user experience in the region improves? We hope to share our observations on this topic in the future.

Rome2rio To Present at Berlin’s ITB Next Month

Rome2rio CEO Rod Cuthbert is making one of the keynote presentations at the upcoming ITB / PhoCusWright Conference, to be held in Berlin on March 5th. Titled “Multi-Modal Travel Search Has Arrived… Now What?” the presentation will offer a wide-ranging overview of the marketplace, including the key players in the space and the various challenges they face in promoting industry-wide adoption of multi-modal search.

Among the sites featured in Rod’s analysis will be Waymate, GoEuro, FromAtoB, Routerank, Wanderio and SNCF’s Mytripset. Rod will examine their strategies, areas of focus and the unique attributes of each of the sites.

He’ll also be talking about the relative complexity of multi-modal search vs. the prevailing “air-only” search model, and discuss why it’s understandable that multi-modal search solutions have taken so long to emerge. Finally, he’ll talk about the key hurdles the industry needs to overcome before widespread adoption is achieved.

The PhoCusWright Conference is held in Hall 7.1c of the Berlin Exhibition Grounds, starting at 10:30am. Last year’s ITB Berlin Convention had more than 12,000 participants, and is regarded as the most important travel trade show in Europe.

@rome2rio your site is super duper fast. You should blog about your trickery.

Earlier today a fan of Rome2rio tweeted @rome2rio your site is super duper fast. You should blog about your trickery. That sounds like a good idea. While we don’t want to share the nitty-gritty details, we can describe three of the “tricks” we use to make Rome2rio “super duper fast”.

Autocomplete guess system

Sometimes making a system appear faster is just as effective as a real speed increase. The textbook example of this is the installation of mirrors outside elevators, so that users are distracted and the wait for the elevator seems somehow shorter.

Rome2rio’s “elevator mirror” trick is to guess a user’s search before they have finished typing their destination name. This feature was integrated into our purpose built geocoder and autocomplete technology. Unknown to most users, it gives the appearance of even faster (and sometimes almost instant) search results.

Once the user has typed in enough letters, such as the first five characters Melbo of Melbourne, our front-end assumes that Melbourne is the user’s intended search destination and quietly transmits a search request to our backend system.

Autocomplete guess system

Melbo traffic

If the user finishes typing Melbourne and presses enter, then the response from the earlier backend request is displayed. If the user instead types in a different destination, such as Melbot, Nepal, the assumed response is discarded and a new request to our backend system is issued.

In practice, the algorithm’s guesses are surprisingly accurate. When making a guess after the first 5 characters, the assumed destination is correct around 90% of the time.

Carefully optimized graph search

In the first couple of years developing Rome2rio, we spent considerable time carefully refining our algorithm for finding transport paths between A and B. It was important that the search algorithm was fast, typically taking less than 400ms.

The Rome2rio transport network is represented as a graph (a computer science term). Various graph search algorithms exists, however searching a multi-modal graph introduces a variety of unique complexities. For train, bus and ferry routes we closely studied several academic papers including Fast Routing in Very Large Public Transportation Networks using Transfer Pattern (2010) by Google employees.

Graph search

We developed our own algorithm for assembling flight schedules into itineraries, and selected a particularly fast driving directions algorithm based on Open Street Maps data. Tying all the modes of data together, making trade-offs for travel time, cost, diversity and transfers is another component of the algorithm that we needed to develop and refine.

Everything is coded up in low level C# algorithms based on custom in-memory data structures; we avoided using out-of-the-box 3rd party system such as SQL databases for these speed critical parts of the system.

We have also invested in tools to help us analyze search performance, such as our query performance breakdown visualizer:

Performance visualizer

Cloud infrastructure

We’ve also experimented with different cloud hosting solutions, settling on a solution which provides very fast search performance. We are using dedicated i7-4770 machines with 32Gb of RAM provided by German based Hetzner. Since our search algorithm is largely CPU bound, these powerful boxes are perfect for our needs.

We use CloudFlare‘s reverse proxy service, which provides both a CDN for static content such as images as well as load balancing between our backend servers. Our backend machines serve queries independently from each other, whilst background processes ensure that the latest data is synced between each of them.

Finally, we rely on Pingdom to provide up time and search performance data on each of our servers.

Pingdom

We’re Going To France. But Not Really.

Rome2rio is presenting a paper at the upcoming La Rochelle Mobility Forum conference in La Rochelle, France.

(Actually, we’re not. Our friend Veronique Seel, who is the integrated mobility projects coordinator at EIGSI in La Rochelle and one of the conference organisers, is making the presentation our behalf, and Michael will appear briefly on video. It’s likely that Veronique will be wearing one of the much sought-after Rome2rio t-shirts while speaking on our behalf, thus lending her speech infinitely more street-cred.)

laRochelle

Image courtesy Fred Le Lan

The forum is part of the www.climatlanticproject.eu project, aimed at fostering the development of strategies at regional and local levels to reduce the carbon footprint in the European Atlantic Area. Rome2rio is one of a number of organisations, including BlaBlaCar, Rail Europe, Eurolines, CanalTP, Le Group La Poste, ALFA-ACI and others who are supporting the initiative.

The February 2014 forum will focus on local and regional carbon footprint reduction as a mobility priority, and provide insights into existing and future trends in interregional mobility. Presentations will be made by commercial entities like Rome2rio, and regional bodies such as the Port of La Rochelle and the region of Pays de la Loire.

If you are interested in journey planning and “mobility” this is a great opportunity to meet and hear from a wide variety of experts in the front lines of European thinking on the topic. You can find the registration pages here.

Mapping The Most Photographed Places In the World

I recently stumbled upon this article about a neat tool that visualizes photographed locations around the world as a heat map:

sightsmap

Looking at the visualization, it struck me that it correlates quite closely with the train, bus and ferry transport coverage in Rome2rio. That’s not surprising; regions with developed transport infrastructure are also more likely to be visited and photographed. We have also focused on improving our coverage in popular tourist areas.

It also struck me that the photography visualization can also help us to identify popular regions where our coverage is lacking. We are constantly looking for new ways to help prioritize the efforts of our global content team. So, I decided to overlay the Rome2rio coverage map over the heat map:

photos-transport-combined 

A few regions where we should focus our efforts stood out: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Iceland, Jamaica, northern Algeria and northern Tunisia. The coast of the Black Sea, northern Pakistan, Taiwan, the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas also warrant greater focus.