By Ariel Blum
Booking a flight these days is easy. You simply go to a travel website like Expedia or Travelocity, click a few buttons, and you’re on your way. Right?
Not so fast, says Jonathan Meiri, CEO of a high flying Tel Aviv-based startup called Superfly
What if you want to use frequent-flyer miles? Or maybe you’re getting close to scoring a free trip if you book on a certain airline, even if it costs $100 extra this time.
That’s the idea behind Superfly, which looks at a whole host of data, from airline and hotel membership programs to the cost of the different options for getting from your home to the airport.
The market for services that make it easier to track and use frequent-flyer points is huge, and mostly untapped. There are a staggering 17 trillion miles out there, but with a very low level of utilization, Meiri says.
“The market is not behaving efficiently. The airlines use miles like a drug, to point you towards making decisions, but they have no incentive to tell you when those miles are running out.”
Indeed, Meiri became interested in the field when his 40,000 Delta miles expired while he wasn’t paying attention. The need for Superfly became even more apparent when he realized he was using the wrong credit cards when booking into hotels.
“I was using my Chase United card and I’d get one mile for every dollar spent,” he explains. “But if I had used my Starwood Rewards card, I would have made three miles per dollar. So, if I’d used the right credit card, I could have saved $3,000 over a two-year period. I consider myself a savvy traveler and if I was leaving money on the table, I figured other people must be in a similar – or worse – situation.”
Mileage manager is a big hit
To sign up with Superfly, users enter their frequent-flyer program username and password to give Superfly access to their data. It’s read-only, Meiri stresses -- Superfly won’t go in and steal your miles.
Once registered, Superfly users no longer need to track their membership programs separately -- it’s all in one place. They can even manage an entire family or staff’s miles from a single account.
The mileage manager component launched in May last year. “We had what we thought were lofty goals to reach 100 million miles under management,” Meiri says. “We blew through that in 48 hours. We had half a billion points in the first six months, and as of right now, we’re managing 1.2 billion.”
The feature that’s been getting all the buzz since its debut in November is the ability to search for flights based on a combination of price, routing and membership rewards. Meiri calls it searching by “best value.”
When searching for flights at Superfly,
you’ll see how your points affect the price
Let’s say you’re a high-powered exec and you want to fly business class. You could pay the full fare of, say, $4,000. But what if you could buy an economy ticket and use points to upgrade to business for the equivalent of only $2,000?
To make these calculations, Superfly gives a “score” to your miles. Based on the number of miles that you might need for a free ticket, a point on United might be worth 55 cents, while one on El-Al might have a value of $1. Superfly remembers your preferences and presents your flight options accordingly.
Another example: You have to fly business class for work, but you also want to buy your girlfriend an economy class ticket. Would it be better to use points for the upgrade (a $1,000 value) or for her ticket (maybe only $400 round trip)? These are decisions that Superfly makes easier.
“No one else is ordering your options like this,” Meiri says, including mile-management systems like AwardWallet and MileWise. As for the booking sites, the usual way they operate is entirely price-based. Upstart Hipmunk has what it calls an “agony index” that factors in layovers and flight departure times, but not frequent-flyer points.
Users from 132 countries
Superfly doesn’t do the actual bookings. For that, the site kicks you over to Expedia. As an Expedia affiliate, Superfly takes a percentage of the sale. Superfly doesn’t manage points at hotels yet – that’s coming soon. But travelers can talk about their favorites and share other tips in the Superfly online “lounge.”
With revenues exceeding expenses, the four-person company isn’t looking for new investment. Superfly has tens of thousands of users from some 132 countries, and its marketing is done entirely via social media.
The service received a big boost six months before launch when Meiri presented the concept at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. “The response blew me away,” Meiri says. “For every minute I was up on stage, thousands of people were trying to sign up for the service, which was still in closed beta.”
No discussion of the online travel business would be complete without reference to the elephant in the room: Google, which recently purchased ITA, a major travel service. What if the search engine giant decided to compete?
Meiri, who has clocked his share of miles, isn’t worried. Born in Israel, he spent many years in the United States before returning home a few years ago. He held travel-intensive positions at eBay and its subsidiary PayPal, ReardenC ommerce (which does backend systems for American Express) and WorldBase, an Israeli startup building mobile travel apps.