Hipmunk: A Big Step Forward for Travel Search


Earlier this week a small travel startup called Hipmunk got what was reported to be a $6 million venture round. I wasn't surprised. A friend had turned me on to Hipmunk a while back, and I loved it.

Aside from the whimsical name and catchy ads, Hipmunk is actually a new take on the stodgy business of travel search now populated by Kayak, Orbitz, Expedia and many others. Hipmunk provides travel search results with key twists that make it much easier and faster to find flights focusing on travel factors that really matter.

This is a second-act startup for founders Steve Huffman (co-founder of social news site Reddit) and Adam Goldstein (founder of BookTour with Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine). The team also includes Alexis Ohanian, another co-founder of Reddit. Hipmunk is one of many promising Internet startups helped along by Paul Graham, founder of the Y Combinator tech incubator. Graham may be the most powerful Internet venture capitalist on Earth.

You Can Even Sort by "Agony" Level

Hipmunk's appeal is simplicity and ease of use. The drop-dead simple homepage input section asks users to fill out origin, destination and dates. That's it. The flights are then returned in an incredibly simple-to-read stacked grid that lets you sift by price, departure times, arrival times, stops, duration and agony.

What is agony, you ask? It's a brilliant feature that accurately predicts the comparative comfort of a flight combo. A red-eye with three stops going into airports with high levels of delays tops the agony scale, while a nonstop in the daytime is judged to be quite comfortable. This is a very clever way to capture a key piece of information that often helps determine my flight plans.

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Other nice features include persistent search results during a session -- meaning you don't have to reload your trip data every time you hit the "back" button -- and nice use of color-coding, with night flights shown as darker color bars, to improve readability. Two separate tabs for departures and arrivals make picking the right time combination far easier.

For now, Hipmunk is linking back directly to flight listings on the websites of airlines. This has allowed it to gain the approval of American Airlines (AMR) to post flight listings. American famously pulled its listings from Orbitz and Expedia earlier in January -- and may soon do the same with the third big travel search engine, Travelocity.

The reported $6 million round could go a long way toward helping Hipmunk scale into a bigger player. Final monetization strategies remain something of a mystery, although it's likely Hipmunk will work quite well as a pure commission player should it gain sufficient traction.

Hipmunk already has a deal with travel information provider ITA for flight listings, and that could presage an eventual acquisition of Hipmunk by Google (GOOG), which is in the the process of buying ITA, pending antitrust investigations.