Meet Your New Travel Partner: Google

We’re used to visiting Google’s (GOOG) (GOOGL) search engine to hunt for information about nearly everything — how to say “thank you” in Mongolian, the latest happenings with the Kardashians, the marital status of our first girlfriend or boyfriend, etc.

But with a recent revamp to one of its sites, the Internet giant is fast becoming part of the conversation about another busy corner of the online world — travel.


Google took the wraps off its new Flights site this past February, revealing a spiffy offering loaded with features for would-be travelers.

Among other things, there’s an expandable map tagged with a series of ticket prices, which change when dates in a pair of calendar dropdowns above are modified. Once you choose a destination, clicking on a calendar itself displays the lowest-priced ticket for that destination on every day in the selected month.

Once destination and dates are selected, Google’s engine often displays tips on how to get a lower price.

On the home screen, bordering the map, is a series of attractively-priced deals on tickets for popular destinations from the user’s nearest airport (assuming you have location sharing turned on).

The usual filters for trip searches (number of stops, price limit, duration of trip, etc.) are readily available. All in all, Google has done a good job with Flights; it’s clean and uncluttered, very intuitive, and quick to provide the needed information.

An Expensive Ticket

Google Flights has been evolving for quite a while. In 2010, Google inked a $700 million deal to acquire ITA Software. The company’s flagship software solution QPX, in ITA’s words, allows clients to “quickly, consistently and accurately identify the best available airfares.”

The acquisition was controversial at the time, not least because Google already had an irritating tendency to feature its own ITA-powered results at the top of searches for flights made through its famous search engine. At least, that was the contention of several big players in the online travel industry, including Expedia (EXPE), Kayak — now owned by Priceline Group (PCLN) — and Sabre Holdings (SABR). These companies formed a lobbying group,, in part to fight the acquisition.

Although they didn’t win the battle, they might have influenced the Department of Justice’s ruling on the matter. The DOJ approved the merger, but required Google to continue to license ITA’s software to rivals “on commercially reasonable terms,” and mandated that the Internet giant put safeguards in place to prevent it from accessing competitors’ “sensitive information.”

These days, Kayak is still listed as a client on the rechristened ITA Software by Google’s website, as is Orbitz Worldwide (OWW) — soon to be a unit of Expedia if a recent buyout clears antitrust approval by the DOJ. Carriers such as Alaska Airlines (ALK), American Airlines (AAL), United (UAL), and Delta (DAL) are also ITA customers.

Crowded Skies

Google’s new and improved Flights is yet another competitive hurdle that competing online travel agencies will have to clear.

At the moment, the two big companies are Priceline and Expedia, both of which have been busy acquiring assets. Expedia’s aforementioned deal to acquire Orbitz — announced earlier this year — will cost it a princely $1.6 billion, while Priceline paid $2.6 billion to acquire restaurant reservation site OpenTable last year in the latest of a series of buys.

The shopping sprees are due to recent developments in the market. Over the past few years, it’s come under pressure from the very suppliers the agencies use to provide the flights, hotel rooms, and travel packages they offer. The suppliers have become adept at getting customers to book directly on their websites, luring them with exclusive deals and promotions not available through the agencies. Effectively, they’re cutting out the middlemen.

At the same time, every week seems to witness the birth of a new niche travel website or mobile app. Look at the success of slick DIY lodging booker AirBnB, for example, or state-of-the-art online agency Hipmunk.

Billions in the Air

Companies like Google are spending a great deal of time, effort and money on their online travel efforts because there’s a lot at stake. According to comScore, the overall e-travel industry now brings in over $100 billion annually. Even a small increase in market share can be worth billions.

The new Google Flights site is very clearly designed with the end user in mind. It isn’t perfect — its alert system for price changes is fairly clunky, for instance — but it’s fast, powerful, and convenient. And it will certainly give the Pricelines, Expedias, and smaller agencies in the online travel business a real run for their money.

Motley Fool contributor Eric Volkman has no position in any stocks mentioned, and misses the days when he traveled frequently. The Motley Fool recommends and owns both Google (A and C shares) and Priceline Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

10 travel mistakes that will ruin your life

From contracting parasites and bedbugs to illegally crossing a border or racking up exorbitant cellular fees, these 10 travel errors could have serious health or financial consequences that will haunt you long after your vacation is over.

Crossing the wrong border

In some places, it’s easy to wander over an unmarked and unguarded border from one nation to another. While this might not be such a big deal if you’re in, say, the European Union, it can mean big trouble in other parts of the world. Take the case of three Americans who were imprisoned from 2009 to 2011 for allegedly crossing into Iran while hiking near the border in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iranian government accused the hikers of being spies and sentenced them to eight years in prison. (One of the hikers was released after 14 months, and the remaining two were let go after serving about two years and paying more than $465,000 each in bail money.)

Contracting parasites

You can’t see them, and you might not know you have them until months or even years later, but parasites can ruin your health. Microscopic parasites can be contracted by drinking contaminated water, by eating undercooked meats or improperly washed fruits and vegetables, or through a bug bite.

One SmarterTravel staffer experienced the trauma of a parasite, and his story gives us chills: “I don’t know where I contracted [leishmaniasis]. They think most likely when I was in Crete, since that timing seemed to fit and that was the only place I’d been where this disease occurs, although it’s still pretty rare there. If it was Crete, the symptoms didn’t appear until almost a year later. I was on and off sick for about four months until they figured out what it was. Went through lots of doctor’s visits and tests. They were going to remove my spleen for diagnosis but found out what it was right before that.”

Getting bedbugs

Contrary to their name, bedbugs can live almost anywhere—including in luggage, on clothing, or on furniture. All it takes is one bedbug hitchhiking from a fabric airline seat or hotel bed to infect your entire home. Getting rid of them once you have them can cost you more than your trip—think thousands of dollars in extermination fees, furniture replacement, and laundry bills.

Be sure to always check your hotel mattress for signs of bedbug infestation, wash your clothing immediately upon returning home, and consider using hard-sided luggage to keep bugs out.

Having your identity stolen

Opportunities for identity theft are everywhere while traveling. Making a transaction with an unfamiliar ATM, using a public Wi-Fi connection, or being the victim of a pickpocketing—these are all ways in which your identity could be stolen. Identity thieves can open fraudulent accounts in your name and ruin your credit for years while the matter is straightened out.

Use secure Internet connections; consider using an RFID-blocking wallet; and check your credit card, bank, and credit-report statements carefully and frequently after traveling.

Having your home burglarized

Being away from home for an extended period of time can make your house a prime target for burglars. Even something as innocuous as mentioning an upcoming vacation on Facebook can alert thieves that your house will be empty. Consider the case of a New Hampshire robbery ring, which used Facebook postings to target victims while they were out of town.

Limit who you tell that you’ll be gone (including out-of-office emails, voicemails, and social media postings) and freeze newspaper and mail deliveries so they don’t pile up when you’re gone.

Getting locked up abroad

The television show Locked Up Abroad may be entertaining to watch, but it won’t be so much fun if you have to live through it. Make sure you know the local laws wherever you’re going. For example, did you know that in Singapore, officials can legally submit anyone (including tourists) to a drug test—which means that you could get in trouble for illegal substances consumed before you even traveled? It gets worse: Some narcotics offenses carry mandatory death penalties in Singapore. Or, in the less-obviously-illegal department, a British couple received a one-month prison sentence for kissing in public in Dubai.

Familiarize yourself with local laws before traveling!

Getting kidnapped

Travelers, especially business travelers, can be easy targets for kidnappers looking for financial or political gain. Last year, an American tourist was kidnapped, robbed, and raped in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Four kidnappings in Honduras have been reported to the U.S. embassy in the last two years, and in 2011 the Mexican government reported a more than 300 percent increase in kidnappings since 2005.

Check the State Department’s website for travel alerts and warnings for regions that you are planning to visit—it will have good information on whether or not kidnapping is a high risk and which areas should be avoided.

Getting too drunk

Knowing your limits while drinking alcohol is important, especially while traveling. A drunken slip could mean lifelong consequences. Take the case of Joe Rickey Hundley, a former executive who lost his job after he got drunk and slapped a toddler on a plane. Be careful to always watch your surroundings while drinking as well—the State Department warns of reports out of Thailand of tourists being robbed after their food or drink was drugged with a sedative.

Drink alcohol in moderation while traveling (and remember that being tired, jet-lagged, or dehydrated can make you feel more drunk than you would under normal conditions), and never accept a drink from a stranger.

Not turning off cellular data

Don’t forget to turn off your cellular data (or set up an international plan) if you are bringing your phone with you on the road. Consumers have been hit with unexpected bills for exorbitant amounts (think $10,000) because they used their phones briefly while abroad or they forgot to turn off cellular data/roaming.

Consult SmarterTravel’s handy guide on using your smartphone abroad to avoid a surprise savings-ruining bill.

Consuming counterfeit products

Inadvertently buying a fake handbag in a foreign market may be annoying, but it’s nothing compared to what could happen if you consume a fake product. Multiple tourists have died in Indonesia after drinking methanol (a lethal substance) that was sold to them as regular alcohol in a money-scamming scheme.

Other travelers have experienced dire consequences from taking counterfeit medicines while abroad. The CDC, for example, warns against buying antimalarial drugs while abroad; many sold outside the United States are counterfeit and ineffective.

Stick to bottled beer in places where counterfeit alcohol is a known problem, and buy your medications before you go.

READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE: 10 travel mistakes that will ruin your life

State Department issues travel warning for Israel, Gaza, West Bank

The State Department on Monday strongly warned Americans against travel to the West Bank and Gaza after violent clashes in the border area last month played out amid current peace talks.

“The security environment remains complex in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and U.S. citizens need to be aware of the continuing risks of travel to these areas,” the warning said.

The statement comes after violence erupted in the Gaza Strip last month when Palestinians attacked Israeli soldiers with rocks and burning tires during a protest. The Israelis later opened fire, killing one protester and injuring another. 

The cross-border conflicts came during peace talks between Palestinians and Israel that began in July. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week and plans to soon present a framework agreement for peace in the Middle East. 

Meanwhile, the State Department warned U.S. travelers about the risk of “small arms fire, anti-tank weapons, rockets and mortars” being launched from Gaza toward Israel. U.S. citizens should leave Gaza immediately, the warning said, noting that the area is under control of the terrorist organization Hamas.

It also warned about potential rocket attacks from Lebanon in northern Israel, street protests in Jerusalem and potential protests and ensuing violence in the West Bank.

Americans should consider the following instructions for U.S. government employees in the region, the warning said: Personnel aren’t allowed to travel to Gaza and most parts of the West Bank, and they must notify an embassy before traveling in areas around Gaza and south of Beersheva as well as in the Golan Heights. Some personnel also are prohibited from using public buses anywhere in Israel due to the risk of bombings.

The warning issued Monday replaces one issued June 19, 2013.

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Top 10 travel scams to look out for

“Remember the days when a fanny pack and a “game face” could protect you from getting your money stolen? We don’t either! Vacationers have always been targets for smart, enterprising crooks, and the farther you get from home, the easier it is to fall for popular vacation scams like the dropped baby, the fake fight, and the I-need-five-euros-to-replace-my-lost-train-ticket. But these days, you are at risk for more than just some lost bills. Watch out for these scams from around the world that can put your personal safety–and even your very identity–at risk.”


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