Rather than just keep tabs on your far-flung friends, social media sites may now help you visit them.
Airlines, hotels and travel-booking sites are offering more exclusive sales and promotions to consumers who interact with them on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. In December, United began awarding 50 miles for each Foursquare or Facebook check-in at airport locations. New apps from Travelocity and Priceline, meanwhile, offer exclusive deals -- in some cases as much as 50% off -- not available on the site. Even JetBlue, which has offered Twitter-exclusive "cheeps" since 2009, recently sweetened its deals. On April 23, the feed offered a one-day promo code for 50% off fares that weekend and 30% off travel the following weekend -- the first time a cheep entailed a general promotion code rather than a sale on specific routes or packages, says Morgan Johnston, a JetBlue spokesman. "We've really doubled down on the offers," he says.
Experts say travel companies have good reason to get more social. Some 16 million Americans will book travel by cellphone or tablet this year, up 33% from 2011, according to a recent eMarketer report. And consumers are more likely to respond to offers that show up in their social network feeds, since they can appear to come with a friend's recommendation, says Jack Vonder Heide, chief executive of Technology Briefing Centers. Companies may find that retweets, check-ins and likes are more valuable than ads, both for the business and the data mining. "Once you [as a company] get someone to be your fan, you can use that fan as an entr e to their friends' information," he says.
With so many avenues new deals to compete with, companies say they've found that their social media offers need to be especially enticing to get consumers' attention, says Geoff Lewis, the chief executive of TopGuest, which works with travel companies to provide loyalty rewards for engaging on social networks. For example, checking in to an airport on Facebook or Foursquare now usually triggers coupons for in-terminal restaurants or half-price offers to local attractions as well as miles earned in the airline's program. Virgin America is testing tiered offers based on how influential a user is on social networks, he says.
The latest crop of deals won't benefit all travelers, however. Experts say the best travel prices typically show up three months out from departure, and most app and social media discounts are for travel within just a few hours or days. Priceline's "Tonight-Only Deals" app, for example, offers up to 35% off at named hotels booked on the same day you want to check in, versus up to 60% off online prices for a blind booking (the hotel name isn't revealed until after you've paid). Deals also end fast. When Southwest reached 2 million Facebook fans in February, it offered them a code for $10 off, good only for bookings arranged that day, says a spokeswoman. JetBlue's Tuesday cheeps end within hours of posting -- or when sale routes are booked up -- whichever happens first.
Before signing up, travelers should assess what kind of offers they'll get, and what hoops they'll have to jump through to claim them. Most travel operators use their feeds primarily to promote ongoing sales, with the occasional exclusive thrown in. "Generally, it's a very effective way of seeing if a sale has popped up," says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo. (The site is working on its own initiative to offer half-price deals for Facebook fans.) For example, earlier this week, fans of United on Facebook were told of a 40% discount for miles purchased, hours before sale-mail notification went out to frequent fliers. Claiming a deal may require just a click or two, or steps such as linking a loyalty account or sending a tweet.
Travelers should also consider how their deal pursuits might come across to family and friends who see those actions on their own social network feeds, says Vonder Heide. Activities like a check-in or like may show up in one's public feed, and some deals require more public action. Earlier this year, Caesars Entertainment joined other Las Vegas casinos in offering up to 250 loyalty points for a social media mention that triggers someone else to make a purchase. American Airlines is raffling off USB drives with WiFi codes to those who tweet using the hash-tag #Connectat30K. "Some companies are being really aggressive about it and even telling consumers what to say," says Vonder Heide. That kind of endorsement -- especially if you don't reveal there's something in it for you -- may annoy those in your network. Lewis suggests being picky about which offers to pursue, and then letting your network know you're getting a kickback in the form of points, miles or another deal.