If there is a segment that is ripe for integration it is travel. APIs in the travel segment have been around for a very long time. In fact, some of the earliest APIs are based on Electronic Data Interchange, which dates back to the 1960s. Granted many of these connections are highly complex enterprise only integrations, it is a history that should bode well for modern day integrations, should it not? Despite a long history of interconnectedness, much of the travel space still remains behind closed doors. The major global distribution systems, represented by Sabre, Travelport, and Amadeus all offer powerful APIs of their own, but their commercial requirements tend to be out of the league of most application developers.
In spite of the limitations the travel industry has effectively self imposed, there still exists many opportunities to monetize sites using travel APIs. There are several types of APIs available in the travel space. Most are transactional and some are content driven. Let's take a look a broad categorization of available travel APIs.
These types of APIs are fairly common across traditional ecommerce channels as well, but are particularly well suited to travel because of the relatively few strong brands that dominate the online channel. The most popular branded affiliate programs are through leading online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire, and Orbitz. There are also other affiliate programs available through second tier online travel agencies (not as big as the big ones, but still pretty big) like BookIt.com, Booking.com, Onetravel.com, and others. Although some of the tier one OTAs may have direct APIs for affiliates, most tier two OTAs will use a third party affiliate management system like Commission Junction to manage affiliate links.
Co-branded Affiliate / Partners
To me, these represent the best opportunity for developers to monetize their travel related applications. These co-branded partner programs, primarily offered by Expedia and Travelocity are powerful full featured APIs that support everything from product search and display right through to the booking process. This essentially means that you are able to provide a complete end to end travel booking experience for your visitors without the need to develop the back-end management and product feeds. Both the Expedia and Travelocity Partner Programs, for example have popular XML APIs and provide separate queries for flight, hotel, and car bookings. The Expedia API even provides access to Rough Guide licenced destination content (under a separate license agreement) that can be used to increase the travel related content on your site. It is important to note though that to date, I haven't been able to find any sample code floating around that would make the integration of either API “quick & easy” so expect to have to write the integration from scratch. For those of you who feel up to the challenge, there may be a good market for a packaged PHP or Ruby app that uses these two affiliate partners.
Other partnership opportunities include car and hotel specific websites like Cartrawler.com, a car rental booking engine which offers both an XML API (based on the Open Travel Alliance car rental messaging schemas) or an AJAX booking engine.
Air and Hotel Meta-search
The two best known brands for meta search are Kayak and Hotelscombined. Meta-search engines like these aggregate feeds together into a single stream and then provide comparison data for price shopping purposes. Think of these as the PriceGrabber.com of the travel industry. The APIs tend to be for search only since these sites don't provide direct booking capabilities, so expect that the final stage in the search will link off to one of the popular online travel agencies or directly to the airline or hotel website. Just a word of caution though, both these companies are quite choosy about who they have as partners, so be prepared to get rejected if your site isn't "high traffic" enough.
Although there was a big surge in travel planning websites and services over the last few years, I've seen many of these fall out of favor with consumers and outright disappear. That said, there are two success stories that seem to be holding their own in the travel planning space.
The first success story is Nileguide, a trip planning website that allows users to create custom downloadable travel guides for their upcoming trips. The guides can also be downloaded to an iPhone app that does not require bandwidth on the road. The NileGuide api allows developers to request content from NileGuide that is specific to a destination. The resulting content is returned as an RSS feed that can be integrated using any standard RSS reader or parsing code. Note that you only get access to the summary data, so your site visitors will link off to NileGuide if they want to read more.
The second success story in the trip planning space is TripIt, an itinerary management tool that helps travelers keep all their flight, hotel, and other travel information organized. The TripIt API allows developers to automatically add bookings to a user's TripIt account using OAUTH and a very well documented XML API. TripIt even includes a partner program that rewards you if a new member signs up for TripIt using your API and becomes a PRO customer. The added functionality on your site could be a nice draw to users looking for a convenient way to integrate itinerary management without building a system from scratch.
Just like any vertical, there are many segments to the travel industry. The most prominent segments are air, hotel, and car rental, but, in terms of size, the largest segments are air, hotel, and tours/activities. In addition to these segments there is vacation rentals, adventure travel, golf, hostels, and many others. As you move down the list, the APIs tend to become less accessible. For the most part, most of the APIs available for general consumption are focused on the booking of air, hotel, and car. Many newer APIs however are emerging that allow access to long tail product. The tour and activity segment for example can be accessed with APIs from Rezgo, TourCMS, Viator, and Kijubi. Viator and Kijubi are both online activity specialists (OAS) that partner with specific operators and resell their tours and activities to the public. Rezgo and TourCMS are reservation platforms designed for businesses who offer tours and activities directly to travelers, so their APIs tend to be better suited for sourcing direct to supplier products.
As we explore the travel industry in more detail, we'll look at some of these sectors and discuss specific opportunities for monetization. The beauty of the travel industry is that it is a diverse both in offering and in geography, so there are opportunities on a global scale. If you know of any other APIs that you've worked with or if you are a travel application developer who has an API, let us know in the comments.