There’s been one dominant way to plan trips since the 1990s: Search for flights online, based on desired destinations, add in a hotel, and voila, you’re on your way.
The Covid-19 pandemic has upended that long-held status quo. Even for those undeterred by public health concerns, flights are limited, thanks to border closures that change week by week. Airlines are taking scattered approaches to ensuring safety. Hotels require thorough vetting to make sure they’re open and taking appropriate precautions. Even planning a road trip can be exhausting once you start accounting for state-by-state checkpoints and quarantine regulations.
Enter Google, which on Thursday debuted a suite of new booking features to its flight, hotel, and trip search tools in order to help untangle the shifting rules of travel amid a pandemic. Type Los Angeles into any of those booking engines and, along with the usual options, you’ll also get real-time data on the number of Covid-19 cases there along with how many flights and hotels have resumed service. No other major travel provider is currently displaying this level of detail.
More common among its competitors but new to Google are filters for accommodations that offer free cancellation policies, adding to other insights such as government-issued travel advisories that had quietly rolled out at the pandemic’s onset.
“The No. 1 question we are getting is: Can we travel safely at all? And we’ve tried to address that by including advisory updates in travel searches,” says Richard Holden, vice president of product management for Google’s travel arm. “The next question is where? And when I do decide to emerge, what will be operational?”
The answers depend as much on a person’s exposure risk at home as on the risk in the desired destination. Google believes it owns the data needed to help consumers make informed decisions.
The tools are useful for domestic tourism as well, especially for U.S. residents, whose pandemic picture shifts state-by-state. As part of the new features, a search for trips to Denver will allow you to easily see that 63% of flights there are operational, along with 88% of hotels; clicking on “local cases” offers a snapshot into the city’s currently low Covid-19 transmission rates. In still-reeling Miami, 39% of flights are in service, and 65% of hotels are open for business.
Some basic things still require fleshing out. Google’s links to travel advisories are nationwide rather than state-specific, which means the usefulness of the information depends on the country you’re searching and can vary widely. Responsible travelers will still have to look up local testing and quarantine requirements.
And, while knowing the percentage of operational hotels helps, it doesn’t distinguish which of those available options is better equipped to provide a safe stay.
That might be the next step. “We’ve thought about adding amenity checklists that speak to Covid-19 safety protocols,” Holden says. “Hotels are very interested in sharing that information, and we’re eager to communicate it.”
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