Fruit Tray Wednesday

Over the last year a new tradition has evolved at Rome2rio team meetings and we call it Fruit Tray Wednesday. Each week a team member will present an analysis of some part of the Rome2rio site or user behavior. The results of A/B tests are often included. The rest of the team are then prompted to guess the results of the analysis, with a fruit prize on offer to the winner.

Past fruit tray questions have included:

  • How many rail tickets did we sell in January?
  • Which A/B tested text received the most clicks: “Sydney Hotels”, “221 Hotels”, “Hotels from $74″ or “Compare 221 Hotels”?
  • Which revenue source provided the best commissions: hotels, rental cars, flights, packages or tours & activities?
  • Which search destination has grown the most in popularity during 2015?

fruit-tray-photo

The name derives from an Australian tradition known colloquially as the meat tray where pubs, bars or the local bowls club will provide a prize tray of assorted meats for a competition such as trivia.

As a joke, the prize for Andrew’s inaugural meat tray quiz was a small can of Spam. As a sensibility towards our vegetarian team members we’ve started offering fruit platters instead, which tend to be devoured by the whole team during the meeting.

I personally love our fruit tray culture. It encourages team members to share interesting data in an engaging way. It also invites team members to think critically about user behavior and often provides surprising results that challenge their assumptions.

As careful optimization and A/B testing become more prevalent at Rome2rio I am sure we will continue have plenty of fodder for our quizzes.

From Responsive Design To Mobile Website

Like most travel sites today, providing a great mobile experience to users is increasingly important. Just two years ago, mobile devices represented just 13% of visits to Rome2rio.com. Today they represent 33% of visits, with desktop representing 54% and tablet representing 13%.

In 2012 we launched a responsive design which employed @media CSS tags to mold Rome2rio’s desktop design onto the smaller display. The resulting experience was passable but not optimal.

This week we’re excited to launch a new, separate web interface for mobile users. The layout is cleaner and easier to navigate with information laid out across more panels. The map is displayed on a separate screen, accessible from all pages via an array of button on the bottom rail. High resolution icons are now used. Most importantly, the performance has been substantially improved and the CSS and Javascript payloads have been reduced.

The screenshots below provide a comparison between the old and new interface for mobile visitors:

Old vs new mobile UI

In the process of developing the mobile site, we took the opportunity to refine parts of our desktop site. For example, we refreshed the hotel view, left rail itineraries and transit details panel.

Hotels new UI

We also made some improvements to Rome2rio’s multi-hop interface, which is perhaps the most complex part of the site’s design:

New multi-hop UI

Some aspects of the new design have yet to ship and will roll out over the next month or two. These include more mobile friendly configuration menus and auto-complete inputs.

Mobile autocomplete

 

Chris on our team created a short guide to the new mobile interface:

We hope you enjoy the new design and find Rome2rio even more useful for planning journeys and reviewing itineraries whilst on the road.

Visualizing Popular Travel Destinations Through Heatmaps

Rome2rio provides users with multi-modal travel directions to destinations that range from large cities down to exact addresses. With over 200,000 visitors daily, this provides us with a unique repository of data about travelers’ preferences for various destinations. Visualizing this data as heatmaps of popular destinations for users from specific countries allows us to gain some insight into the travel preferences of different markets.

We prepared heatmaps by processing all user queries on Rome2rio in 2014, mapping each query onto the user’s location (aggregated by country), and the co-ordinates of their searched destination. We visualized this data by producing per-country heatmaps for ten of Rome2rio’s top markets. Our heatmaps highlight regions that are more popular with users from a particular country than they are with users from other countries.

Rome2rio’s destination heatmaps show the relative frequency with which users search for destinations around the world, broken down by the user’s country. In this blog post, we explore some trends that we have observed in playing with this data, broken down by the country in which users are located.

United Kingdom: Brits especially love France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the coast of Spain and southern Turkey (around Fethiye). The east coasts of the US and Australia are also popular.

uk

United States: Americans love the UK, Italy (especially Tuscany and Umbria regions) and other non-coastal parts of Western Europe. The Greek Islands and Israel are popular, as is India (perhaps NRIs searching for journeys home). Cuba is noticeably less popular, though we can expect this to change in view of improving relations between the two countries.

us

Indian: Indians love traveling the US east coast. Switzerland, the Middle East, eastern Asia, Africa, and New Zealand also rate highly.

in

Brazil users: South and Central America are naturally popular with Brazilians, as is Florida, New York and California. Of course, Portugal is a frequently searched destination and Italy rates a mention.

br

Spanish users: Spaniards frequent their European and African neighbours, but Germany and Romania are also popular destinations. Spanish speaking regions of South America also rate highly.

es

In addition to the countries already mentioned, Rome2rio’s destination heatmaps also cover Germany, Australia, France, Canada and Italy. Share your insights and discoveries with us via Facebook and Twitter (@rome2rio)!

DB & Google Transit & The Best Laid Plans Of Mice & Men

Rome2rio CTO Bernie Tschirren and I have just returned from a couple of weeks in Europe; we visited Amadeus at their grand campus on the Cote d’Azur, attended the ITB conference in Berlin, and met with a number of companies in Paris. On the in-between weekend Bernie headed to The Netherlands while I visited friends in Italy.

All that travel was made easier by journey planning on Rome2rio — no surprise there — but we also took the opportunity to see what our friends at Google would suggest for our travels. And that, as they say in the classics, is quite a story!

There was quite a stir back in 2012 with the announcement of an exclusive data sharing deal between German Railways (DB) and Google. DB defended that decision in an open letter, saying (forgive the translation if it’s not quite perfect) “The quality of information for our customers is our top priority here.” By that, we assume DB meant that the schedule data must be displayed carefully and in line with various protocols that ensure customers are always seeing accurate, timely information. Restricting distribution of the data to a single partner, Google, was DB’s way of making the data more readily available to consumers while at the same time maintaining control over the quality.

Or so they thought. Check out this Google Transit result for “Amsterdam to Paris”:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 4.36.06 pm

Amsterdam to Paris via Cologne and Frankfurt? Eight hours? I don’t think so! I suspect that seeing one of their services proposed for this route is actually quite an embarrassment for the folks at DB. They entrusted their schedule data to Google to ensure just this sort of ham-fisted result wouldn’t occur, and here is their chosen partner doing exactly what they were trying to avoid. Of course the correct result for this journey is the excellent Thalys high-speed train, a direct service that takes just over three hours.

The wildly inappropriate use of DB routes doesn’t end there. For my trip from Turin to Paris, Google proposed a scenic, 22-hour route that included back-tracking to Milan, meandering through Switzerland, a handful of train changes in Germany, and… well, you get the idea. Here’s Google Transit’s suggestion:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 4.38.38 pm

Goodness me! Twenty hours, seven train changes… DB had sought to protect travelers from seeing poor quality information on 3rd party sites, but surely didn’t imagine that its schedules, even in cases like this where they are displayed quite accurately, could form part of such a bad result for users. They could be forgiven for feeling let down by Google, who don’t appear to be holding up their end of the bargain.

Anyway, back to my travels. I took the more obvious solution, the direct TGV service from Turin to Paris, which runs five times each day and really is a delightful, low-stress way to travel from Italy to the French capital. While on board, I poked around in Google Transit a little more. I found all sorts of routes where, rather than display no results — which might be a better option for their users — Google is displaying similarly inappropriate results along with this disclaimer:

“These results may be incomplete – not all transit agencies in this area have provided their info.

While some operators have joined DB in sharing data with Google — OBB (Austria) and SBB (Switzerland), for example — others, including France’s SNCF, have not. Laying the blame on the holdouts seems a little unfair, and is unlikely to convince any that they should play ball. All of this is clearly an argument for more data openness; after all, the sky hasn’t yet fallen in the UK, the Netherlands or Sweden, all places where government has legislated for public access to all transport data.

We hope the industry sees another lesson here: closed, exclusive arrangements deprive consumers of the benefits that flow from open markets. Making schedule data available to all comers, including highly focused and innovative startups like Rome2rio, Wanderio, GoEuro, FromAtoB and others will always lead to better outcomes for consumers than exclusive arrangements with corporate giants. The proof is out there, plain to see.

Rod Cuthbert

Political and geographic complexity in multi-modal search

We have blogged previously about two interesting challenges that present themselves when you get into the nitty-gritty of building a multi-modal search system:

1) Detecting landmasses. Accurate routing needs to be aware of landmasses and islands, and what is connected to what by land, road, ferry and air.This is critical for finding all possible routes between points, and what combination of ferries and flights will make that connection possible.

2) Political borders. Certain borders cannot be easily crossed; suggesting a driving route from South Korea to North Korea is both unrealistic and an embarrassing user experience. Similar complexities exist in places such as Israel, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Political data is also important for displaying accurate place names in our geocoder system. For example, North Elizabeth Station is located in New Jersey state in the USA, hence the fully qualified name of North Elizabeth Station, NJ, USA.

This week we launched significant improvements to the accuracy of our internal system for detecting both landmasses and political regions. Our original implementation utilized data from the Natural Earth dataset, however this data was limited by insufficient resolution and some landmasses were missing. We have now transitioned to the more comprehensive Open Street Maps (OSM) planet data.

The difference is illustrated in the maps below of the Puget Sound area near Seattle, with each landmass represented by a unique color. The original data (left) has much smoother, lower resolution coastlines that are missing much of the detail in the landmass shapes. Some of the smaller islands are completely missing. The new OSM data (right) is more detailed and includes the smaller islands.

landmasses

Steilacoom to Anderson Island is an example query that has been improved. The original, low resolution data caused the routing system to suggest a ferry to nearby Ketron Island instead of Anderson Island (left). The new data fixes this problem (right).

anderson-island

On the political front, Cairo to Amman was a problematic query where Rome2rio suggested driving through Israel (left). The more popular Taba-Aqaba ferry route is now displayed (right) as well as various bus and ferry combinations.

cairo-amman

Whilst developing the new technology, Miles on our team also tackled the engineering challenges involved with implementing a system for very fast lookups of this data. Each lookup provides the landmass and political information for a latitude / longitude co-ordinate, and a search on the Rome2rio site requires thousands of such lookups.

Miles learnt a few interesting facts in the process:

  • The OSM data contains 497,040 separate landmasses (that is, land with a closed coastline).
  • 89% of those landmasses have a coastline perimeter of less than 2 kilometers.
  • The longest bridge between two landmasses is the Donghai Bridge near Shanghai.
  • The region with the greatest density of separate landmasses is around Horsey Island in the UK.

Horsey Island

We will continue geeking out on geospatial data as we keep refining Rome2rio’s search results.

Rome2rio Partners With Loco2 To Provide Integrated Rail Fares & Booking

Thanks to a recently launched integration with UK-based Loco2Rome2rio users can now search and select European train tickets on the site. Try this new feature by clicking on the Schedules & Book button that is displayed for many train routes such as Paris to Avignon:

loco2-1

Rome2rio displays several train itineraries with fares and available classes of travel:

loco2-2

Choose to Book At Loco2 and we will send you directly to Loco2 to complete your ticket purchase:

loco2-3

We chose to partner with Loco2 because they are clearly leading the pack when it comes to providing simple, straight forward European rail bookings on a single site. Loco2 coverage is excellent in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark.

Until recently we did not imagine being able to link to a single site providing rail bookings across all of these networks. We’re thrilled to see Loco2 make great progress in turning this into a reality.

It is not perfect yet, however. Tickets by Loco2 for Spanish, German, TGV and many international routes are issued as Print-At-Home e-tickets and can be easily purchased by Rome2rio users from around the globe. Other rail tickets are sent by post to UK addresses only, or must be collected from a station prior to travel.

We’ll continue to work with partners such as Loco2 to improve this customer experience with the goal that anyone, anywhere will soon be able to use Rome2rio to easily purchase a rail, bus or ferry journey — anywhere in the world.

Rome2rio Announces Concur Collaboration

Rome2rio today announced a partnership with Concur, the world’s leading provider of spend management solutions and services, to bring Rome2rio’s journey planning solutions to Concur users worldwide. With this partnership, Concur customers will be able to plan a complete door-to-door trip with Rome2rio and have the itinerary automatically sent back to Concur as a travel request prior to booking a trip.

“This collaboration reflects a growing awareness among business travelers that looking carefully at all the transport options for a journey can have a dramatic effect on the overall cost and efficiency of a trip,” said Rod Cuthbert, Rome2rio CEO. “Most travelers focus on air and hotel costs, however in many cases air is simply not the best option. In other cases, the ‘final leg’ of the trip may have an outsize impact on trip cost. We enable business travelers to look at different travel options, compare costs, and then seek approval for the overall cost rather than only certain elements,” he said.

Concur release 1

​Screenshot example shows ​taxi (US$220) and train (US$20) options from Narita Airport
to a downtown Tokyo hotel.

 

Concur customers will benefit from Rome2rio’s comprehensive coverage of ground transportation options in Europe. “Travelers in Europe have many transport mode options, but it’s been difficult to quantify the relative costs on a side by side basis”, said Jigish Avalani SVP & GM, Developer Services, Platform Services. “Being able to quickly compare the relative costs and trip durations associated with air, rail, inter-city coach, self-drive and new options such as rideshare provides an unique benefit for our customers and aligns with our vision of the perfect trip.”​

concur release 2

​Screenshot example shows ​various transport options for a typical European business trip.

 

​We expect to complete the integration of the Concur interface for delivery in the first quarter of 2015.

About Concur

Concur is the leading provider of spend management solutions and services in the world, with 20,000 business clients and 25 million users. Through Concur’s open platform, the entire travel and expense ecosystem of customers, suppliers, and developers can access and extend Concur’s T&E cloud. Learn more at concur.com or the Concur blog.