Seattle based travel startup Yapta.com re-launched its homepage today as a full-service air travel search engine. Yapta originally launched in May 2007 as a browser add-on for bookmarking flight information and tracking price developments. The new site has retained this focus, but moved it away from the extension and made all of its core functions available on the homepage as well.
With the airlines cutting back their service in every imaginable way while raising their prices simultaneously, Yapta offers travelers another tool to at least try to save some money on their trips.
A Crowded Field
With its redesign, Yapta joins a crowded, but lucrative market. In terms of functionality and even design (especially in its color choices), Yapta most closely resembles Kayak and the now Microsoft owned Farecast, though unlike Kayak, it doesn't search for hotels and rental cars, but is completely focused on air travel.
It has all the basic functionality one would expect from a travel search engine. Like its direct competitors, Yapta gathers its information directly from the airlines, but then refers its users to the airlines to finalize the booking. This saves the users those pesky booking fees that sites like Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity are prone to charge.
Yapta's focus is still on tracking price changes and especially on alerting its users of price changes after the ticket has already been bought. Airlines will often give travelers a credit or voucher when prices drop significantly - a fact that was unknown to many before Yapta made it convenient to track these changes. All a user has to do is to enter the flight information and confirmation number into Yapta and it will track price changes until the day of the flight.
Yapta does a good job at combining some of the best features of its competitors in one. Searching for flights and bookmarking them for later is easy and convenient. Also, it seems to be very good at keeping track of any price changes. I created three alerts this morning while testing the site and by noon, it had updated the prices of all of them at least twice (every time, of course, the new price was higher...).
A lot of Yapta's more advanced functions are squarely aimed at frequent travelers. Travelers can, for example, combine various flights into one trip and have them tracked as one.
As Yapta is aimed at least in part at frequent travelers, it seems strange that their search functions are still relatively basic. Kayak, with its AJAX interface, makes it easy to quickly display only flights that leave and arrive at certain times, connect through certain airports, have short layovers etc. Yapta's search, on the other hand, doesn't even allow to search for flights to neighboring airports and has no filtering capabilities once the search in completed. One especially glaring oversight is that users can't search for flights by airline alliance. Yapta does allow for searching by preferred airlines, but a search by alliance would be very helpful for those of us who try to maximize our frequent flyer miles.
From a usability perspective, the homepage itself doesn't display any search functionality, but prominently features a sign-up form, even though the search is available through a link at the top of the page. While the site is probably most useful for those users who sign-up, I would assume that Yapta is going to lose quite a few users who just want to try it out without having to go through the (arguably very easy) sign-up process.
Yapta's focus on tracking fares makes it a very useful tool for both frequent and infrequent travelers. In many ways, it complements Farecast. Farecast will predict if prices will rise or drop in the future, while Yapta will keep you informed if Farecast got things wrong and prices do drop unexpectedly.
I will definitely make Yapta part of my travel planning routine, but probably more for tracking fares after I bought them than for booking through them directly, as Yapta is still lacking somewhat in flexibility when it comes to its search functions.