Routehappy launches new features because price isn't everything...but it still matters

By Sarah Lacy , written on May 30, 2013

From The News Desk

In my many posts complaining about the dearth of innovation in the online travel industry, I usually focus on the need to make hotel browsing and booking better. I argue that online travel agents like Travelocity and Orbitz are fine for flights because flights are just a commodity to get from point A to point B. Hotels, meanwhile, are intrinsically tied to your entire travel experience and something that can't be sized up on a matrix of features.

Well, a new startup called Routehappy launched a little over a month ago to argue the first part of that premise: That flights are a simple commodity that revolves around just route and price. The company has painstakingly pulled together data on planes and routes and flights all over the world and assigns them a "happiness score," based on things like legroom, wifi, outlets and more. Traditionally, the industry has just focused on schedule and price, and while those are still important to everyone, Founder Robert Albert simply doesn't think they're the only things that matter.

He's right, but solving the problem is tricky. First, there was collecting all that data: bits and pieces here and there from myriad online sources with significant manual collection challenges. Then there's figuring out how to put it all together into a score because everyone defines happiness differently. One person's kid friendly flight is another person's romper room nightmare.

To date, people have mostly solved the problem the way I do: a complex system of if/then statements and tradeoffs that only I understand. Equations like: I'll fly United out of San Francisco but not early in the morning because terminal three is a mess.

Today, Routehappy is launching two features to make that process even more automated. The first is a flight comparison tool that allow users to compare all those little happiness factors of up to four flights side by side, along with route and price. The second is a simpler feature but gets to the heart of what I think most users want: a filter to maximize searching for flights that are both happy and cheap.

There's a lot to like about the approach. Before today, you still had to toggle between happiness factors and price to find something good enough for what you want to pay -- whatever that equation is to you. And the Happy & Cheap feature distills the compendium of flights into just a handful of picks. No more scrolling and paging through endless similar inventory.

We don't usually cover things as granular as new feature announcements, but these really help deliver on Routehappy's promise of optimizing to find the best flight no matter how I describe the word "best." It's all a series of trade offs and both tools highlight those trade offs for me and dramatically pare down the options. (Sadly there's no ability to filter out seats next to overly chatty fellow travelers.)

When you experience flight planning on RouteHappy, it becomes obvious that booking flights-- along with hotels-- is indeed deeply unsatisfying in the traditional Web 1.0 online travel world. The problem is most travelers don't consciously think about the fact that a Web site should be processing tradeoffs like price, duration, leg room and wifi for them. If you can explain the concept to someone, lighbulbs start to go off. Oh yeah, I do care more about having outlets on a long flight -- enough to pay $50 more a ticket, but not $100 more a ticket. 

Like a lot of startups, Routehappy can't rely on Albert making a very personal pitch to every consumer in hopes they get it. And changing online travel behavior when most people think it works well enough will be an uphill slog. Unfortunately the better product simply doesn't always win -- like booking a happy flight, success is a complex set of tradeoffs between timing, product, and awareness. While I'm sold on it, I think Routehappy has a gargantuan marketing task to convince everyone else there's a problem to be solved and then convince them that they're the startup to solve it.