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Google’s New Travel Booking Tools Take a Pandemic Into Account

(Bloomberg) -- There’s been one dominant way to plan trips since the 1990s: Search for flights online, based on desired destinations, add in a hotel, and voila, you’re on your way.

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended that long-held status quo. Even for those undeterred by public health concerns, flights are limited, thanks to border closures that change week by week. Airlines are taking scattered approaches to ensuring safety. Hotels require thorough vetting to make sure they’re open and taking appropriate precautions. Even planning a road trip can be exhausting once you start accounting for state-by-state checkpoints and quarantine regulations.

Enter Google, which on Thursday debuted a suite of new booking features to its flight, hotel, and trip search tools in order to help untangle the shifting rules of travel amid a pandemic. Type Los Angeles into any of those booking engines and, along with the usual options, you’ll also get real-time data on the number of Covid-19 cases there along with how many flights and hotels have resumed service. No other major travel provider is currently displaying this level of detail.

More common among its competitors but new to Google are filters for accommodations that offer free cancellation policies, adding to other insights such as government-issued travel advisories that had quietly rolled out at the pandemic’s onset.

“The No. 1 question we are getting is: Can we travel safely at all? And we’ve tried to address that by including advisory updates in travel searches,” says Richard Holden, vice president of product management for Google’s travel arm. “The next question is where? And when I do decide to emerge, what will be operational?”

The answers depend as much on a person’s exposure risk at home as on the risk in the desired destination. Google believes it owns the data needed to help consumers make informed decisions.

When you search for, say, hotels in Rome, Google already tells you that a travel advisory is in place—as do Expedia, Kayak, and several other travel sites. (Kayak’s travel advisory tool is the most comprehensive, with detailed country policies visible at a glance on a color-coded map of the world.) Now Google is getting more granular by personalizing its data according to your point of origin.A New Yorker conducting the search, for instance, will get a heads-up that Italy’s borders remain closed to Americans; a resident of Milan, by contrast, would see no such stricture.

The tools are useful for domestic tourism as well, especially for U.S. residents, whose pandemic picture shifts state-by-state. As part of the new features, a search for trips to Denver will allow you to easily see that 63% of flights there are operational, along with 88% of hotels; clicking on “local cases” offers a snapshot into the city’s currently low Covid-19 transmission rates. In still-reeling Miami, 39% of flights are in service, and 65% of hotels are open for business.

Holden says lower percentages of reopened hotels or resumed flights indicate that the travel industry, from hoteliers to airline executives, is still treading with caution in that market. Higher percentages may be a sign that a destination is further along in terms of reopening.

“In a vacuum, this information alone it might not mean a lot, but in context it can help,” Holden explains. And because Google owns so many entities, that context can be robust; people using Google Maps to plan road trips will now find information about Covid-19 checkpoints along their routes, for instance.

Some basic things still require fleshing out. Google’s links to travel advisories are nationwide rather than state-specific, which means the usefulness of the information depends on the country you’re searching and can vary widely. Responsible travelers will still have to look up local testing and quarantine requirements.

And, while knowing the percentage of operational hotels helps, it doesn’t distinguish which of those available options is better equipped to provide a safe stay.

That might be the next step. “We’ve thought about adding amenity checklists that speak to Covid-19 safety protocols,” Holden says. “Hotels are very interested in sharing that information, and we’re eager to communicate it.”

Holden isn’t as bearish on the travel industry as Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, who believes the sector has been permanently changed. But in the medium term to long term, he says the pandemic will force travelers to ask different questions before going.

“Certainly, we hope some of these features are short-lived,” he says. But he regards colleagues in Europe as an indication of what’s to come. “My team in Zurich is doing more travel, the markets are more open, and people are feeling more free,” Holden says. But they’re not quite back to normal. “The anxiety is still there,” he says, “but it is less.”

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