Holidays on the go
The convenience of travel apps lets holidaymakers plan flexible vacations and snag last-minute deals
When Ong Boon Han began planning for a family trip to the United States that would take in multiple stops on the East Coast and West Coast, he went to his computer, not to a travel agent.
The 35-year-old, who works in finance, planned and booked the entire 21/2-week trip for nine people from his home.
First, he went to Skyscanner, an online air-ticket pricing aggregator, to compare prices. Then, he checked them against those offered by airline websites and travel websites, such as Expedia and Zuji. He also trawled such websites to rent cars and book internal flights.
For accommodation, he used Airbnb to book apartments in various cities. The only time the group will stay in a hotel is when they are in the Las Vegas Strip, because that is where the action is, he said.
When he is in the US, he plans to get a local data SIM card and use location services, such as Yelp and Trip Advisor, to get tips on eateries in each area.
While do-it-yourself holidays are not new, a growing number of apps and services make do-it-yourself trips a lot easier, especially for the first-time traveller.
Better yet, some apps offer unique experiences not available through a regular travel agency.
For example, Airbnb offers rooms, apartments and other types of accommodation for short-term stays in 108 countries. A travel agent might be able to book at six-star hotel, but many of them can offer a night's stay on a yacht and an accompanying sea tour in the waters off Santa Monica, in Los Angeles County? Or how about staying in a cave house in Greece; spending a weekend on a boat house in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands; or camping in a cave dwelling in New South Wales, Australia?
Meanwhile, location-based booking apps, such as Hotels.com and Expedia, can search for hotel stays in your vicinity during your travels, instead of tying you down to plans and reservations weeks in advance.
Foursquare and Yelp apps can help a traveller look for interesting places to visit right there and then, or recommend hole-in-the-wall establishments that do not make it to a published travel guide.
"The most troublesome part is getting everyone to agree to where to stay, but that's what happens when you travel in a big group," said Mr Ong, who has been planning his own trips with friends and family for the last five years.
Things have become a lot easier in the last two years, he says, with the availability of apps such as Airbnb, Skyscanner and Trip Advisor that serve unique purposes to travellers, instead of trying to be an ultimate travel companion.
They make it easier for travellers to customise their trips, instead of restricting them to fixed tour packages.
The trend has caught on with younger and more affluent travellers who seek unique travel experiences.
A Skyscanner spokesman said it has noted a rise in bookings from locals using mobile devices.
Airbnb said the average age of its users is 31, and the median age is 29. Since it was established in 2008, nearly 300,000 Singapore-based travellers have booked stays using this accommodation service.
Increasingly, they are seeking more unusual accommodation such as chalets, caves and, even, trains. Proportionately, these are booked more often from Singapore than from any other country, said a spokesman for Airbnb.
An Airbnb stay is the next booking that student Chloe Kwok, 21, is planning for her next holiday.
She has already gone on six self-organised holidays with friends. She prefers smaller inns and guest homes, not only because they are cheaper, but because they are great places to meet like-minded travellers.
"I have a friend who has stayed in someone's house in Seoul and got to enjoy Korean culture on a closer level with the host.
Best for non-hotel stays
If you have ever stayed at a friend's place and enjoyed the experience, then Airbnb is for you.
The website is an avenue for home owners to rent out rooms or whole apartments and houses for short-term stays. This can range from a no-frills room with a bed to a fully furnished home.
I have tried Airbnb twice and both times provided very different experiences.
The first, a South Korean Hanok or traditional house, was called Sopong Guest House. Six of us stayed for a week and paid a fraction of the cost of a three-room hotel stay.
Our host's grandparents had left him the three-bedroom place. He had it renovated for renting out to tourists and installed an electronic lock, so there was no need for keys.
The place had air-conditioning, an Apple iMac, a fully equipped kitchen, two toilets and a washing machine. There were eateries and a supermarket nearby, and the place was within walking distance of a train station.
We stayed there during Chuseok, the Korean Mid-Autumn Festival, and our host even brought us some home-cooked food one night.
As our booking was for a week, he came by on the fourth day to change the bedsheets and spruce up the place.
My second stay was in January, when I booked a room in a serviced apartment within walking distance to Disneyland in Anaheim, Los Angeles.
The person who posted the room on Airbnb used her Shell Vacation Club membership and made the booking under my name. I checked in at the reception as I would any hotel and was given keycards.
As it was a serviced apartment, the rooms were not made daily, but fresh towels and toiletries were provided. We also had access to a heated pool on the premises.
The only drawback was that the valet parking was managed by a separate company, so I had to pay a daily rate to the valet for my rental car for the next four days.
However, I still benefited because last year, I had stayed in another motel along the same road and its facilities were not as good.
I had booked my latest stay at the last minute, the day I arrived in Anaheim. One puzzling thing was that I was charged in pounds sterling rather than Singapore dollars as I had specified.
Once a stay is complete, you have the option to leave feedback. Feedback allows a traveller to determine the experience others have had, while the landlord's feedback about you provides assurance to those whom you may want to rent from in future.
But, as with any online booking, make sure you do your research. I have found cheap bookings that are far away from where I want to be, and if there is no feedback, they may be too good to be true.