New travel app Elude matches users and their budgets with affordable trips.
Herman Sheer | Elude
Thinking about finally taking that vacation, yet all you’re sure about is your budget? How about just your preferred activities, or that you want to pay for it with loyalty points?
There are now travel apps for that — or soon will be.
A new “travel discovery and booking service,” called Elude, which launched its mobile app Aug. 5, aims to match open-minded travelers who have a fixed dollar amount in mind with trips that fit both budget and interests.
Meanwhile, the new Una Travel app from startup firm XOKind curates collaborative itineraries for individual travelers and groups primarily based on interests.
Still in the works are Out of Office, which debuts in beta on Aug. 19 and will let users browse travel recommendations from trusted sources and then book them via OpenTable, and the new TPG App from travel website The Points Guy, due out in September and focused on maximizing the power of users’ accumulated loyalty rewards points.
Mitchell Stoutin, senior director of engineering for The Points Guy, said the site wants to stake out a central role in a rapidly evolving travel app landscape.
“Of course, there have always been apps to buy flights or book hotels, but what we’re seeing with the new generation is a revolution around integrations, discoverability and utility,” he said.
XOKind co-founder and CEO Arjun Bansal said “the travel planning and booking experience hasn’t fundamentally changed in the last 20 to 25 years.”
“Where we see things going with all the improvements in [artificial intelligence] is that in five years I should just be able to turn to my smartphone and say ‘Hey, Una, book me my next vacation.'”
‘Where can I travel for $500?’
One of the first next-gen apps out of the gate is Elude. Described by its founders as “the only booking platform answering the question, ‘Where can I travel for $500?’,” Elude is built around a “budget-first” search engine that offers users instant options for flights departing the nearest airport and accommodations, all within their desired price range.
Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco, said Elude’s “intriguing” business idea has been a long time coming. “I’ve been saying for more than 10 years that travel firms need to offer ‘budget-led’ shopping,” he said. “Better late than never, I guess.”
The iOS version of the Elude app can now be downloaded at the Apple App Store, and web booking at Elude.co will be available soon. An Android app is planned for early next year, according to a company spokesperson.
Elude co-founder Frankie Scerbo said he and co-founder and CEO Alex Simon were avid travelers with corporate jobs who’d become friends in college and liked to get away on several shorter breaks each year, rather than just one longer vacation.
Price and trip length for them were the primary concerns.
“For us, destination never really mattered,” Scerbo said. “It was just ‘get us wherever our budget could afford to get us.'”
A frustrating experience trying to book a group New Year’s trip with friends that met everyone’s budget and expectations led Scerbo and Simon to seek out an app to help.
Failing to find what they needed, they decided to “just do it ourselves,” Scerbo said.
There are three elements to Elude, according to Simon, the first of which is user onboarding.
“Basically, we ask a handful of fun, kind of quirky questions to better know the user so [the experience] is more personalized,” he said, citing WiFi, weather or cuisine preferences as examples.
You’re literally seeing everything you can afford to get to, instead of … everything you can’t afford to get to.
co-founder of Elude
Elude will use customer preferences to curate future trip requests.
“It’s basically to figure out what you like to do and what type of traveler you are,” said Scerbo. “Once we have more of that information, we can kind of get a little bit better with the A.I. [artificial intelligence] and suggest trips that’ll probably be really attractive to you.”
Next comes the main search functionality, wherein users input their budgets, travel dates and point of origin. “We then showcase all city options that match that person’s budget,” Simon said.
Users can choose a destination and fully customize their package.
“We have a recommended flight and a recommended hotel, but if you want a five-star hotel, great, you can upgrade,” he noted. “And let’s say you want a 7 p.m. flight versus one at 7 a.m. — you’re able to make that change within the app, too.”
For now, air and hotel are the focus; Elude will add activity and experience content at a later date. “We’re going to keep it very simple in the beginning,” he said. “We just want to get people out and going.”
The third component is direct booking via Elude.
“We are actually the merchant of record; we’re not pushing you out to someplace else,” said Simon, noting that many search engines present users with price quotes and then link them out to other sites for booking — where the price is often different. “It’s been our biggest hurdle but definitely what we’re most excited about.”
Sites like Skyscanner.com present users with a range of airfare and destination options but then direct them to supplier or online travel agency (OTA) sites for booking. Traditional OTAs like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, meanwhile, are destination- and date-based for initial searches, rather than budget-focused, that Elude incorporates.
Curation and integration are key
For their part, the developers of the Una Travel: Vacation Sidekick & Smart Trip Planner — alumni of Intel specializing in A.I. — wanted to create a virtual “personal assistant who knows you best” and crafts bespoke itineraries, while also allowing collaborative decision-making in a social network style for group trip planning.
Bansal at San Diego-based XOKind said Una, available at the Apple and Google Play stores, addresses “the travel planning and booking experience being very fragmented, and [people] having to use tools — like docs, notes and spreadsheets — to collect all the information and collaborate with their co-travelers.”
Una quizzes users on destination preferences, presenting product and price options and refining future choices as they’re given a literal thumbs up or down. Users can sort and filter options and add them to collaborative trip itineraries if planning group travel, as well as share notes, web links and other data.
The app’s A.I. comes up with the best matches for all and also pointedly offers info on free activities at chosen locales, noted Bansal.
“Other apps tend to focus only on the bookable portions of the trip, but we’re trying to provide a more sort of holistic perspective on all the things [travelers] could be doing,” he said, adding his development team “thought of Una as being both concierge and travel agent.”
We’re not just engineering designers who haven’t paid heed to the customer support piece.
vice president of product at XOKind
To wit, Sarah Harris, XOKind’s vice president of product, noted that streamlined, user-friendly Una — which should be equally intelligible to Gen Z and baby boomer users alike — will offer “more [customer service] support than probably the larger OTAs, because we know that’s such an important element of the travel experience.”
“We’re not just engineering designers who haven’t paid heed to the customer support piece,” she added.
At press time, Una Travel Planner allowed only hotel booking directly on the app, while vacation-rentals and activities booking is imminent, according to Bansal. Flight ticketing is planned by year-end.
Elude, based in Los Angeles, can be used to book air and hotel travel anywhere out of available U.S. and international destinations by anyone, according to Scerbo, although content is only available in English at the moment. (The firm is currently using Covid-restrictions data from TripsGuard.com to filter inaccessible or restricted destinations for given users from trip choices offered.)
“With just a couple clicks — when you want to leave and how much you want to spend — you’re literally seeing everything you can afford to get to, instead of … everything you can’t afford to get to,” said Scerbo, adding that a user will likely be surprised at what they can actually afford.
XOKind’s Una Travel: Vacation Sidekick & Smart Trip Planner is now available in the Google Play and Apple app stores.
Stoutin at The Points Guy said he envisions the TPG App and competitors as “far beyond simple tools for buying and booking.”
“Travel apps in the new generation are offering up things to do and experience in a contextual, just-in-time way,” he said. “We’re making one of our own: an award explorer that lets you see where your points can take you — and in what style — at the speed of your imagination.”
The TPG App will pull together users’ various loyalty accounts and offer suggestions to build up point balances and book trips. What’s more, the app will excel at “discoverability,” Stoutin added.
“You can now go to a new city and, with the scan of a QR code or an AppClip, get the local scooter rental, restaurant menus, or cultural experience reservations,” he said. “Your phone is your boarding pass, your room key, and your translator.”
Eyes on the future
Both Silicon Valley and Wall Street are taking notice of this new front in travel apps. Elude has attracted $2.1 million in investor funding from firms such as Mucker Capital, Unicorn Ventures, Upfront Scout Fund, StartupO, Grayson Capital and Flight VC.
Other backers and advisors include travel industry and social media veterans such as Jeff Hoffman, formerly of Priceline.com; former Airmap CEO Ben Marcus; former Instagram CMO Cliff Hopkins; and Snapchat head of international partnerships Juan Borrerro. Several sit on Elude’s Influencer Advisory Board, helping to shape marketing strategy, app design and more.
XOKind, meanwhile, has raised more than $3.25 million from a group of similarly high-profile investors, and Out of Office co-founders Janine Seale and Coabi Kastan just closed a $1.6 million pre-seed round of fundraising for team expansion and continued platform development, according to a spokesperson.
“We needed to have industry experts to really help us navigate the field,” said Elude’s Simon. “Getting ARC [Airlines Reporting Corporation] and IATA [International Air Transport Association] certified and … a lot of the regulatory hurdles we needed to go through, we needed to have guidance … and so we’re thrilled to have those individuals on our team, especially as we continue to scale.”
Elude backer Hoffman, a part of the Priceline team from before launch in 1997 through 2001, said in a statement that “as an active investor and advisor in the travel industry, I have seen numerous ideas and attempts to reframe the travel booking process, and none of them grabbed my attention the way Elude did.”
Simon, 28, and Scerbo, 35, are acutely aware of the evolving habits and needs of future travelers. Millennials spend more than $200 billion on travel annually, according to Elude, and 97% of today’s travelers post trip photos on social media.
Indeed, Bansal at XOKind said the very reason behind Una Travel Planner is to “address the pain points of a lot of millennial and Gen Z travelers.”
Many of those younger users, like Elude’s Simon and Scerbo, prefer many shorter trips to one longer one, and they want unique experiences.
“Our users are craving to explore the world differently,” Scerbo said. “Instead of planning trips to landmark locations, our users are searching for quiet treasures that offer refuge from the hustle of city life.”