Summary:

Nailing the mobile experience is essential for online travel services. Orbitz’s new free app aims to make it much easier for leisure travelers to do trip research and book hotel, airfare and rental cars all within one app without going to a mobile website.

Orbitz iPhone App Home Screen

Orbitz is charting a new path for its mobile travel booking product. On Thursday its first truly native iOS app is going live in Apple’s App Store. The free app aims to make it much easier for leisure travelers to do trip research and book hotel, airfare and rental cars all within one app and without going to a mobile website.

It’s obvious why the company is focusing on its app: mobile is absolutely huge for travel now. Traditionally a product at home in the desktop browser, Orbitz has looked at the data — which it relies heavily on for decisions like these — and has been very encouraged by how its current customers have been moving toward mobile bookings.

Orbitz has seen dramatic growth with bookings via its mobile product: they’ve more than doubled, according to VP of Product Strategy Chris Brown. The company’s overall share of mobile is still quite low; just 9 percent of its hotel bookings, for example, were through its mobile channel in the first quarter of 2012. So there’s clearly a broad opportunity and the company has decided to more seriously pursue the mobile app angle.

“With 953 million smart device subscriptions out there, there’s a lot left to go after,” Brown said in an interview.

The natural pairing of last-minute and mobile

One of the things mobile is great for and that Orbitz wants to exploit is last-minute travel arrangements. It’s why you see companies like Hotel Tonight, which is for same-day hotel reservations, as a mobile-only product. People aren’t generally sitting at a desktop or laptop when they have to book a hotel room for that night.

Brown said that for Orbitz “between 60 and 65 percent” of hotel bookings and half of car rentals via their previous mobile app were for the same day. For desktop browser same-day bookings, the number falls to 12 to 16 percent. Priceline said last fall it was seeing the same trend.

And that’s why Orbitz decided to undertake a major revamp of its iOS app. The old app was essentially a mobile web site wrapped in iOS code. Some of the most critical links, like My Trips, bumped you out of the app experience to Orbitz’s mobile website. With the new iOS app, the aim is to keep users in the app for all of the research and booking process, something the company hopes to use to standout from both its direct travel booking competitors like Priceline and Travelocity, as well as travel search giant Kayak, which doesn’t handle all of its airline and hotel bookings.

In addition to not being sent to out to an airline’s site to do the actual reservation after the initial research, Orbitz will keep the customer’s credentials within the app to make it a very short process — you only need to enter your credit card information, address and frequent flyer or hotel are car rental loyalty number once.

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