With family in Los Angeles and friends -- and weddings -- all over the country, Boston resident Madelynn Sirbu loves to travel, as often as every other month.
But, like all of us who fly, she has sometimes anxiously wondered as airfare prices rise and fall just when to book a flight. “I've gone through the hassle of seeing the prices go up and go down so much, and then after a while, I’m just, like: I'm just going to buy it. Then my friends wound up buying a ticket for $100 dollars cheaper, and I get so upset,’’ Sirbu said.
She’s since become one of the first 500,000 to download a free new iPhone app that became available about two and a half months ago to solve that problem, called Hopper.
The big idea for flyers: “They can really find a great price and walk away confident that they did as well as they could,’’ explains Hopper vice president Alex Mozdzanowska (prounonce moze-da-nose-ka).
She took us thorugh the example of someone who knows they want to fly sometime from Boston to Seattle. By scouring vast airline databases, Hopper shows, by date, when you'll get the best airfare (days shaded green on the calendar) up through yellow and orange to red, the most expensive. Once you click on an actual day to look at a routing, Hopper will give you super-straightforward feedback like: “You should book now because Hopper hasn't seen a price this low for the past two weeks. This isn't a great price but you will likely pay more if you wait.’’ Or it may say, “You should wait for a better price, but book before June 27.
Hopper, and its big data geniuses in Kendall Square, Cambridge, where the company is based, glean this buy-or-don't-buy advice by scrutinizing prices for, and searches, for millions of seats, covering every major airline except Southwest (which doesn’t share flight prices with the so-called global distribution networks) and, for now, American, with whom Hopper is negotiating.
“We collect about 2 billion data points a day, and we've actually been collecting them historically and at this point have over half a trillion data points,’’ Mozdzanowska said. “It's quite a bit of data that we work on with this.’’ She said Hopper also checks its price trend predictions after the fact and has found it is about 95 percent accurate, and has been steadily modifying its algorithms and analysis to improve. The hardest prices to predict are on much more obscure or low-traffic routes. You can also set up an alert that has Hopper check a route every hour and notify you if a good price suddenly emerges.
“If they ever dip, it will tell you,’’ Mozdzanowska said. “It will notify you in real time and say, ‘Now is a good time. This price is unlikely to get any better.’ ‘’ Hopper makes its money from referral fees from airlines when people click on a price it shows to buy the ticket from the airline. Coming up next are a version that will work on Android smartphones, and potentially other features to answer questions like: I know I want to fly somewhere next month from Boston – what are the cheapest interesting destinations from here?
What Maddelyn Sirbu knows: She’s getting to save often $100 or $200 per trip, and building trips she knows she wants to take around the weekends when the prices are the best. “Going home, or seeing my friends around the country, I tell them, ‘This is the cheapest weekend. I'm coming to visit you.’’ And she loves arriving a little richer.
“It's the difference between a $500 and $300 flight,’’ Sirbu said, adding with a laugh: “It just makes you feel so much better once you get there.’’