How Coronavirus Is Crushing Us And What We’re Doing

There was a bit of hesitance to even write a blog about this. Usually, I reserve these topics for achievements or optimistic updates and always find it easy to be friendly and upbeat. Today is different.

Instead of being in a social setting, I don’t get to paint a picture of a cheerful world, as with most of our blogs. Instead, I’m sitting in my home, hiding from the pollen and coronavirus. The high today was around 85 in Atlanta and it is very, very quiet outside.

By the end of 2018, we had put together a massive marketing/product plan to help us finally build the company we had always wanted. Momentum was building and things were finally starting to feel good. The last 6 months have all been records for Faretrotter and our traffic. We were about to reach a major milestone and slowly creeping on 1,000 daily searches. The uptick was going to warrant an additional hire.

And then Friday the 13th rolled around. Overnight, our traffic dropped 90%. Gulp.

As it would turn out, Faretrotter is just one of the hundreds of travel companies experiencing this. There’s a bit of comfort in the solidarity, but still a very sour taste abundant throughout the industry and flat out depression.

Most of our users search for transportation for one to two hundred mile trips. These are usually day trips, excursions, or weekend trips. We also serve quite a bit of travel within and around cities, as we have 90% of the top public transportation systems by ridership on our platform. Additionally, we serve long-distance trips just as much. Between the travel bans, social distancing, and stay-at-home mandates, nobody has a reason to simply travel anymore – near or far.

Over the past 18 months, the tools that proved themselves most valuable were our learned skills. Things we had studied and applied ourselves within. One of our best strengths is aggregating data and making something meaningful out of it, which is what we have been doing since 2018 to get on this growth curve. The only thing left to do was the marketing side of things, to be discrete. And now that the market is 10% of what it used to be, we are no different than a rudderless sailboat with shredded sails.

Out of thin air, I get an email from TJ at Standard Code, asking who had availability to assist in building a coronavirus dashboard for every county in the United States, called the Coronavirus Maps Project. He sent me two things – one to a spreadsheet with links to every state’s department of health website and second, a request to get polyline data for four or five states.

Faretrotter’s technology is best described as a geospatial multimodal route search engine. What that means is that we use geolocation and coordinates to make appropriate travel recommendations for every applicable mode of transportation a given query. We’ve worked quite a bit with various Postgres GIS extensions, Arcgis datasets, disparate data sources, scraping technologies, Mapbox integrations, and polyline derivations for every mode of transportation in the world. Based on where somebody is starting, there’s a level and threshold for how somebody will decide whether to fly or take the bus or train. These technologies allow our contextualizing-magic to happen. And that’s what this project needed.

The next day I harvested the polygons and political boundaries for every county in the United States. In the next two days, I built a small API to fetch, clean, and return (just about) every county’s coronavirus data.

In the past two days, we’ve integrated the Coronavirus API into the Faretrotter API – in order to give it higher bandwidth and user restrictions. But, despite the Faretrotter has different service levels and SLAs, we went on completely remove all usage restrictions to the API and make it open to everybody.

While there’s quite a bit of devastation happening in the travel industry, we can all do our small bit in the world to make it better. No idea whether or not the Covid API will gain steam or lose momentum, but it’s the best we can do with our skills.

You can access the API documentation here, where you can see examples and learn how to get started in accessing the API.

Interview: Andrew Beattie aka The Motelorcyclist

Winwam Motel Holbrook AZ

Yes, you read that correctly – it is, in fact, motelorcyclist.

Andrew Beattie, owner of the Motelorcycle Chronicles and author of Sleeping Around in America, tours the open road by motorcycle and is a vintage motel enthusiast. Given the lengthy history and disappearance of motels across America, we were immediately drawn to how Andrew chronicles one of America’s most authentic niche industries.

FT: What is your favorite moment from touring by bike?

AB: I can’t say there is a single moment. Every time I go out on my motorcycle it is like I’m reliving the freedom of my first two wheeled bicycle. Your senses are hyper tuned to all the elements around you – including the potential dangers. However if I had to choose one it was an early morning departure coming out of Tahoe approx 7,000 ft of elevation where I descended through a continuous snake of switchbacks to the desert below in Nevada. Because there was no traffic I was able to cut the corners on my way down like a slalom skier without any traffic to slow me down. That was a high!

FT: What has been the worst moment?

AB: From my Sleeping Around in America tour it would have to be riding from Manns Choice PA to Virginia Beach. I was heading down the interstate on a hot morning, cruising comfortably at 70mph when a lady came racing up beside me and was frantically trying to get my attention while pointing at the back of my bike. I looked behind me to see my panier was open and it’s contents gone. Inside had been all my electronic equipment – laptop, cameras, recording equipment, charging cables and my journal. I pulled over as soon as I could – backtracked thirty miles and retraced my steps in hopes that I could find it. Well I did. But the remains of my electronic gear were strewn a full quarter mile along the highway. I called that chapter Road Kill in my new book.

FT: What has been your most memorable motel that you have stayed at and why?

AB: On the favoured side I get this question a lot. The truth is there were 33 of the 51 motels on my journey that I characterize as true destination experience motels. And each offers something different making them really fun! Of the balance – these were standard experience motels that try and compete with the branded chains. Again it’s hard to pick one more memorable than the other – especially here because like chain hotels they have a tendency to blend into one.

FT: I realize this is a softball of a question for you, but we have to ask – what is your favorite mode of transportation and why?

AB: Clearly by motorcycle for all the reasons I mentioned above. However later this year Amanda and I are to be married and our honeymoon is a return crossing from Southampton to NYC on the Queen Mary 2. I am looking forward to the luxury, formal balls and dancing that we will experience on board this ship. I anticipate it will be tied with motelorcycling as my next favourite mode of transport.

FT: What is on your bucket list for motorcycle trips?

AB: For motorcycle journeys, I have three. First is to ride up to Tuk – the road to Tuk opened for the first time a couple of years ago and I am excited to travel up to the Arctic circle. I plan on making that journey in June 2021. For the other two my dates aren’t set yet. However I am in the very early stages of planning a follow up tour to Sleeping Around in America with a circumnavigation of Australia. Independent motels are very popular there but like the US they are endangered and in fear of extinction due to development. And finally to tour Chile and just ride from Viña Del Mar to Mendoza in Argentina. I grew up in Santiago as a teenager so I want to see how it is today – by bike!

FT: What is on your non-motorcycle trip bucket list?

AB: And non motorcycle travel – there are so many places in this world my list is as long as my arm and I can’t begin to list them.

FT: Has travel insurance ever helped you out during your travels?

AB: Well it has frustrated me. Fortunately I have never needed the medical insurance that I purchase. But the roadside insurance I did purchase turned out to be a bust when I blew a flat in South Carolina. I ended up having to pay out of pocket on what should have been covered 100 per cent. Fortunately I had the means to do so. But for a variety of reasons not everyone does and I would hate to think what I would have done.

FT: You used to work more heavily in the travel industry, what was the catalyst behind getting more into the journalism/blogging side of things?

AB: In the hospitality industry you get to meet a lot of people from all walks of life. And I like meeting people, learning their stories and building connections. I had risen to some senior executive roles and felt there was nothing left for me to accomplish- except that the stories of place and people that I uncovered over the years were fun and fascinating and needed to be told. Meeting new people and learning new things about each other with an open mind is what brings humanity together. So I set out to uncover and retell these stories. In each, I try to sprinkle them with fun facts that hopefully spurns interest in my readers to get out and experience new travel destinations for themselves. And besides it is way more fun to be a guest!

To San Francisco

Most frequently, you can find me in a coffee shop, where I find flow in the dampened banter.

At this very moment, I’m cruising at 28,000 feet from Atlanta to San Francisco, with eyes bloodshot from the lack of sleep. Although the flight attendants needed a doctor on board for a passenger who had been sweating and vomiting since takeoff, nobody on this flight has a mask. There isn’t the quietness you might expect in reaction to the coronavirus. Everything seems a bit normal as I’m headed west for a few things over the next five days. Maybe I’ll share the details later.

Though there is no banter or caffeine to make improve my flow, I’m finding a good spot to reflect on where we are as a company.

For 14 months now, we have had consistent, month over month growth. We have 1000% growth since January 2019. Our bounce rate has halved. Our time on page has doubled. Our pages per user has quadrupled.

While there is so much stuff we have done in marketing, engineering, data science, and product development in the past six months, I can’t just give away all of our secrets. I would, though, like to shed some light on our focus on user experience and user interface updates.

Looking back 5 years, we went to One Spark 2015 with our MVP. This was pitched as “real-time multimodal trip planning” to a bunch of confused faces. The product looked up real-time fares for flights, trains, buses, airport transfers, and estimated ride share surging. It then took all of these combinations and found an optimal route, which considered the train, bus, and flight schedules. It was quite the engineering feat, as we multiplied NP-hard linear optimization travel problems with real-time data access. Nobody had done that, yet.

After talking to thousands of potential customers, we determined that we missed product-market fit. At the time, it really hurt. But looking forward, it set us into motion that has determined where we are today.

You see, nobody likes a computer to tell them what to do, even if it’s right. Especially when they’re about to spend a few hundred, or thousands, of dollars on an upcoming trip. People have been, and will always be, shoppers. People want to know all of the options for a given route, not the best-combined itinerary. There’s so much more psychology underneath these rocks, but you can attribute it to why every single trip planning startup has died.

Taking our lessons learned, we did our first big rebuild after 2015. But even since then, we have gone on to embrace that mentality and psychology of why travelers expect certain things when they shop for a trip. They’re looking for information and each traveler weights different information with separate regards. Wealthier travelers might be willing to spend more for more convenient flights. Those on a low budget might be willing to take a 12-hour bus instead of a 2.5-hour flight and might be willing to take a lesser-known bus company. Environmentally conscious people want to know the impact of an upcoming flight. This is the information travelers want. Not an optimal itinerary.

So, taking a look at our last updates to our user experience and interface – it reads almost like a blog. It doesn’t really show in-depth fare comparison much more and is far from sleek. We’ve dumbed it down but the results have been amazing.

Interview: Angela Sterley of Destination Drifter

This is a throwback interview with Angela Sterley of Destination Drifter from October 2016. We thought this was a great interview to include and as we revive our blog, we want to include some of our favorite posts from before.

Angela Sterley owns and operates a travel blog called Destination Drifter, a destination-focused travel blog. She dives deep into what she likes and appreciates about each destination see visits and makes some great recommendations. Inspiring, to say the least.

1. Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself and your blog?

I am Angela Sterley and I run the travel and lifestyle blog Destination Drifter. I grew up in Seattle and the beautiful Pacific Northwest but am currently based in sunny Los Angeles. In a few months I will be finishing my degree at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. When I am not working on school work I can be found globetrotting, networking, and of course blogging.

Destination Drifter was created to inspire and guide other travelers throughout the world. Articles primarily focus on city guides, travel tips, as well as how to keep looking chic and put together while on the road. The blog is targeted to readers who want authentic travel experiences.

2. What motivated you to get into blogging?  And why specifically travel blogging?

I have been following fashion blogs since I was young and had found that most of the free time I was spending on the computer was spent reading articles on blogs and watching travel vlogs. I found so many great travel tips through travel blogs and Youtube channels that are not in most guidebooks.

Travel has always been a huge passion of mine, specifically going beyond the common ‘tourist’ attractions and trying to get authentic experiences in each culture. I really wanted to be able to share those experiences with others and inspire people to see the world. I am very interested in lifestyle design and my education and career backgrounds are in fashion, business, and marketing so starting a blog to be able to share my experiences seemed like a clear choice.

3. You recently took a trip to Europe.  Which countries and cities did you visit?  What were your favorite spots?

I started my journey in Oslo, Norway. From there, I flew to Dublin and took an unexpected trip up to Northern Ireland to see the coast and have a quick tour of Belfast. After Dublin I continued on to London and spent two weeks in England. I stayed in a cute seaside town in Kent called Herne Bay and also went up to Ipswich, Oxford, and took a day trip to Stonehenge. Out of London I took the Eurostar down to Paris where I spent a week exploring the City of Lights. From there I traveled to Chamonix in the French Alps and over to Geneva in Switzerland. After Geneva I visited the mountain village of Interlaken where I went hang gliding, paragliding, and explored the nearby villages of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen. Beautiful Lucerne was the next stop on my Swiss journey followed by Zurich. After Zurich I went up to Füssen, Germany to see the Neuschwanstein castle. Of course while in Bavaria I had to go up to Munich and drink at a proper biergarten. Vienna was next on the list, followed by the crumbling fairytale village of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic and ending in Prague.

It is so hard to pick favorites! I truly fell in love with the picturesque mountain villages of Switzerland and also the entire Czech Republic.

4. How many modes of transportation did you take and what is your preferred method for European travel?

For longer distances, I primarily used trains and planes. Within the cities I used their public transportation which was usually subways, trams, or buses. A few friends I stayed with had cars so we did a few smaller road trips within the country. I also took coach buses a couple times between cities.

I would have to say my favorite method is by train. The European train system is so well set up that practically anywhere can be reached in just a few hours. There were even stops in the complete middle of nowhere. Not to mention traveling by train allows you to see the beautiful European countryside that you would miss by plane and can’t be observed from the freeways.

5. Which apps/websites did you use to plan your trip?

Of course Faretrotter! Also I used the Rail Planner Eurail app as I had a Eurail pass. I had a Swiss Pass while in Switzerland and was using the website Sbb.ch to look up trains. This website was great because they not only showed times and what type of train you will be riding on but also the expected occupancy for different times which made it easier to avoid rush hours.

Downloading cities for offline use on Google Maps was probably the most important thing I did before my my trip and saved me from getting lost more times than I could count. For accommodations I primarily relied on Hostel World, Couchsurfing, and Lastminute.com. I also would not have been able to survive without WhatsApp to talk with Couchsurfing hosts and others involved in my trip.

6. What are your go-to travel accessories and technology?

My go-to technology is my Olympus Pen epl7 camera. I take it everywhere with me and it has captured so many of my favorite moments. A GoPro is also essential for capturing action shots, I use the GoPro Hero 4 Silver. In order to keep these as well as any other technology I have charged I absolutely always keep a portable charger with me when traveling.

For accessories, I always have a passport case to keep my passport from getting damaged. A cute and durable water bottle is also important to bring anywhere, especially when traveling in the warmer months. I would also never leave without a watch.

7. Any memorable travel experiences that you would like to share?

There have been so many incredible travel memories! A few of my favorite most recent memories were in Canada, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. A couple weeks ago in Banff Nation Park in Alberta I rock climbed the Via Ferrata on Mt. Norquay. It was utterly terrifying but the view from the top was breathtaking. In Interlaken, Switzerland I made friends with a group of hanggliders and paragliders and got the opportunity to paraglide off a mountain and above the village and lake. In Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic I met a group of Czech artists who showed me a secret lookout above the village. We brought up a bottle of wine one night and talked for hours while listening to the live Latin music that was being played at a festival in the village down below.

2019

Taking a look at our 2019, how our travelers got around, and what we did as a company.

A Multimodal First — Voice Enabled Multimodal Travel Search on Alexa

This must be how it was before Google built the front door to the internet.

In the old days, there was no link between websites, their information, and you. Nothing really solved the problem that well. Using the internet to find exactly what you needed was a rare feat.

When I asked our Alexa skill a question for the first time, I was in awe and still am. It wasn’t because I understand the effort it takes to build the services that make all of this possible, but because using your voice to search for travel is a vast, disparate, and difficult problem. It’s akin to shopping for groceries in the pitch black.

You see, the 90’s gave us a lot. Precious relics still exist on the internet, with things like the San Francisco fog cam and the original space jam website. But for these websites, you either had to read about them on a news source or know about them already. Otherwise, you were straight out of luck.

Today, the same situation remains for voice-enabled search and this is particularly true in the travel industry. Only multimodal search engines can solve this problem. If you want to search public transport to the airport, for a flight, for a bus to a neighboring city, or the cheapest way to go home for the holidays – you’d be, for lack of better words, stuck in the 90’s.

If you want to do this by voice, then you’d have to download dozens of skills and use them separately to piece together the solution you need. That’s not only atrocious but a headache in itself.

Cue Faretrotter.

Here we are – all 40 million Alexa Echo users together with Faretrotter – at the precipice of voice-enabled travel. Just like anything else on Faretrotter, Alexa will tell you every way to travel between cities or to the airport – flights, trains, buses, ferries, shuttles, and the list goes on. All you have to say is “Alexa, how to travel from A to B” and we’ve got you covered.

To read about all the commands associated with our Alexa skill, read our guide here. To download and enable the skill, visit our skill’s page here.

It’s getting easier to compare every possible way to everywhere

Back when there wasn’t the internet or Instagram, well before the advent of the 56k modem or smartphones, everyday people had to use travel agents and typically met with them in person. There would be a destination or type of trip in mind and then the agent would labor over all the places to make up your trip. Next, they would spend hours, if not days, reserving the transportation alone. While this type of business is, in fact, not dead, it is very much what the modern travel industry grew out of.

Fast forward 50, 60, or 70 years and the 56k modem comfortably fits into our history books. Our smartphones have more computing power than that of the first rockets to the moon. The old school travel agents have nearly gone extinct.

The only thing that has changed is the technology, access, and customer expectations. What has stayed the same are the expectations of the customer – they’re still looking for a personable and customary trip that fits their needs and budget.

Within travel, things have not really budged as they could. In order to effectively find the best way to your destination, you have to search every mode of transport. And while things are slowly catching up, they are much slower than we anticipated.

Still, in order to compare the bus, with the train, with flights, and estimating driving costs – it quite labor intensive. Stepping away from the O.G. travel agent, we are no longer using a combination yellow pages and rotary phones. Our efforts are now personalized and we are left browsing the first page results of Google – which, in itself, does not paint the picture accurately.

Cue Faretrotter.

With our latest release, we took a step back a few years and went to an old MVP. Simple question – what’s the cheapest way from New York to Boston? What’s the fastest way from Los Angeles to San Francisco? We answer these questions better than anybody. Here are two of our favorite examples:

New York to Boston

Los Angeles to San Francisco

Searching from Los Angeles to San Francisco – we compile every mode of transportation into one quick search

Faretrotter Multimodal Travel API 2.0

There’s soft banter in the background and an espresso machine grinding away in the distance. It’s a warm autumn day and the sun isn’t baking yet. I’m at Octane Coffee in Grant Park downing caffeine at an alarming rate.

And as the jitters help keep the status of Faretrotter up to date, it’s almost starting to feel a bit redundant when launching and relaunching.

For those who are unfamiliar, ‘API’ stands for Application Programming Interface. In short, every website, app, or any piece of technology for that matter, is built with the help of other pieces of technology (duh!). One of the ways that this is done with with a single or many APIs. It’s a way of systematically making the inner-workings of one piece of software available so that others can leverage the meaningful information provided to another service.

A couple use cases are Weather.com’s forecast showing up on Google, or how NextBus works with municipalities to alert citizens of when the next bus will arrive. These services power not only their respective websites so that their partners can provide value to their customers, too. It helps their partners not having to worry about the technical side of that service and focus just on their customers.

Faretrotter’s API digs deep sits on our platform and exposing quite a bit of information. That is, it gives partners, developers, and anybody else, access to 13,103,975 distinct transportation routes globally. In lieu of wrangling disparate data sources to make travel information meaningful, that’s where our API comes to play. We serve it up at under 1 sec (1000 milliseconds is our main goal).

Not to nerd out too hard, but the special part of the API is that it takes two geo-coordinates from anywhere on Earth (sorry, not interstellar quite yet) and regurgitates every mode of option between the two points. That’s a pretty neat thing given the complexity of what we are trying to solve – never mind all of the issues surrounding the integrity and upkeep of our data. Putting our API out there like this does make us a bit uneasy. But also equally as excited.

We’ve drummed up a few exemplary applications that we’ll be launching in the coming weeks as well. No sneak peeks just yet. In the meantime, feel free to give us a follow on GitHub.

Introducing Faretrotter 2.0

It has truly been a long time in the making.

I remember the exact moment in 2012 when I first thought of what would become Faretrotter — I was in Boulder, Colorado and I had just returned from a consulting trip to Belgium. Upon my return, we were in the living room in our small split level home off of Table Mesa in south Boulder. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but over a few glasses of wine, I shared with my friends the goings on of my latest trip.

The two week trip spanned three countries, two currencies, three languages, and seven modes of transportation – bus, flight, train, car rental, public transportation, taxi, and mitfahrgelegenheit. At the time, no tools were mainstream enough to make this planning easy and information readily available. So, to compensate, the preparation consisted of spreadsheets and multitudes of Google searches and translations.

“How’d you know how to do that?” asked one of my friends. I recalled the time I had spent in the area before, and knew it was something you could only known simply by having lived in the area before. As I answered, I remember feeling the gears turning.

There was an originating city, multiple arcs (modes) to get me to several other nodes (cities), and several more connecting from each of those. Compounded a few times over and I’ve arrived at my final destination. On top of that, all of these modes of transportation have several departures per day, over a few classes, and with various connecting cities. If you were to maximize things like convenience or comfort or minimize things like price or duration of travel time, combinatorics would tell you a trip like this could result in millions of combinations. College still wasn’t that far in the past at the time and as I was telling this story (while feeling the subsequent engineering gears turning), I can still vividly remember feeling the requirements of this being a quintessential Dijkstra’s algorithm, NP-hard, dynamic linear optimization problem. It composed all parts of the problems that really attracted me. The obsession with solving this problem has yet to leave.

Fast forward 7 years, involving a move to Atlanta, forming the company, researching, building MVPs, researching, forming partnerships, launching, studying, researching, relaunching, rebuilding, studying, researching, losing partnerships, rebuilding, relaunching, researching, rebuilding and relaunching. And we’re here. We’ve arrived.

The struggles that have ensued over the previous 7 years have seemingly accumulated into something far greater than the original idea that was conceived that night in Boulder.

As it would turn out, our suboptimal path has taken us through multiple iterations of what we wanted to test. We’ve managed to get our product in front of over 50,000 people in this time – executing hundreds of thousands of searches and holding thousands of conversations of how people expect to travel. And that has been the major battle all of these years – how to streamline a sophisticated algorithm into something that is useful to how travelers want to plan their trips?

And while we didn’t take the optimal path to where we are at today, it has been such an important trip.

Happily, I can introduce Faretrotter 2.0. Here are four things:

  1. We still search every mode of transportation – flights, trains, buses, ferries, ride shares, airport shuttles, public transportation, subways, and even dog sleds – although without live pricing like before. This is forthcoming.
  2. For travelers, there is more of an emphasis on human contextualization of these modes of transport. A ferry costs $15? Great, how can I get insider tips to make this information even more helpful?
  3. We now have an API that you sign up for today. This is for businesses who are looking to supplement their marketing initiatives, companies, startups, or developers who want to build apps using our data, or anybody else who might want to fill in the gaps.
  4. Every picture on our landing page? We’ve taken all of them. Just a personal touch 🙂

Cheers,

Justin