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Responsive web or native apps for travel brands?

July 6, 2017
David Machale
David Machale

For travel companies whose customers are, literally, always on the go - mobile engagement is mandatory for survival and growth. While there are a number of emerging platforms to cater for this necessity such as Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), the two most widely adopted platforms in use today to engage with travellers via mobile are Responsive Website Design (RWD) and Native Apps.

Align your strategy to your business goals

For marketers in airlines and travel companies, they must make a choice and it is not a decision to be taken lightly. They want to know what solution best fits their mobile strategy, and colloquially speaking, they want to know if the juice is worth the squeeze of challenging the existing status quo within their organization.

This opens up a whole myriad of more granular questions e.g. do you want to increase revenue throughout the travel lifecycle? Is cutting operational costs a key measurement of success? Or are you simply after a one-way information platform?

Beyond business goals, the end-user experience also needs to be factored in, front and centre.

It’s not an easy decision to make so we’re here to offer our advice by making an impartial case for both so that you can draw your own conclusions as to which option fits your mobile strategy best.

The case for native:

1. Brand loyalty

Ever since American Airlines introduced their first class upgrades and discounted coach tickets for repeat customers, following the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, loyalty programs have been synonymous with the Travel business. The trend continues to this day and, according to research by Google, 60% of airline customers prefer to access loyalty programs via an app (as opposed to 15% who favour access via mobile website.)

Bar chart travel site usage site vs app


Another interesting finding from the Google research is that airline customers prefer native to accompany them through the various junctures of the travel journey: from booking a flight, using a loyalty programme and using a mobile boarding pass, to checking in to a flight or accommodation, checking flight times and booking accommodation.

2. Engagement through push messaging

Push notifications are a powerful messaging service via native apps, but it’s not something that’s available for iOS users through responsive sites. Why should an airline or agency care about push messaging? Because in travel, a good customer experience is all about personalized, one-to-one and continuous engagement throughout the customer journey: gaining and keeping attention.

easyJet app


Using push notifications is an incredibly powerful strategy to drive engagement throughout the journey. The impact of this native feature includes:

  1. Revenue generation - helps increase bookings through promotional campaigns.
  2. Ancillary sales - increases ancillary sales via contextual upsell and cross-sell messages based on the PNR. For example, prompt the traveller to purchase priority boarding or extra bags on the way to the airport.
  3. Customer Experience - keeps travelers engaged across the whole journey with notifications regarding delays, cancellations, gate changes etc.
  4. Duty of care travel alerts - sends push messages in region related to political unrest (for example).
Travel notifications

3. Paths to purchase

Mobile is dominating the path to purchasing and the trend is intensifying. In 2016, for the first time, mobile apps saw higher order values than desktop and mobile web. Airlines and travel brands have seen mobile spend increase dramatically over the last year. Mobile apps now see higher order values than desktop and mobile web, with an average of $127 spent in-app versus $100 on desktop and $91 on mobile web. This shift in spend to native helped easyJet generate more than £600 million through the mobile channel last year.

Native Apps not only have a proven ability to retain new users and sustain a stronger user base of potential buyers, but they also convert actions to sales at much higher rates than either desktop or mobile web. According to a report from, native apps convert sales up to 3 times more than their rival, RWD.

Products viewed per user

4. Offline capability

Travelers need to have access to information offline. They are often at the mercy of coverage and wifi blackouts, for example while underground in transit to the airport. Perhaps they don't want to incur additional costs from roaming across the globe. Simply put, for a more seamless and intuitive line of communication to travelers, you must account for offline usage. Native apps ensure this, responsive websites on the other hand fall at this hurdle. Technically there are a number of highly complicated (and resource-sapping) workarounds to create an offline responsive web experience. However, for travel brands who want to use mobile for real-time engagement, this is not really feasible today.

5. User experience

Time is the one variable that travelers won’t compromise on. From loading speed to bookings, the quicker and more efficient the process, the better the user experience. Native apps reduce the time that a customer spends trying to reach their end goal; for example, booking a flight or checking in.

Recent research highlights that app usage (90% of time) dominates browsers in mobile usage. This shift in consumer behavior should signal alarm bells to brands who continue to ignore apps. Additionally, within the native framework, there can be more control over the customer experience as better performing native platforms typically use fewer links branching out of the safety of its confines. This level of curation helps deliver meaningful engagement and a more focused customer experience.

Case study: Virgin America and customer demand

Virgin America delayed take-off of its native app until summer 2016. Before that, tech-focused travelers were stranded in the departure lounge wondering why - and how - the airline didn’t have an app that streamlined the check-in procedure (and didn’t require a printer.)

Up until then, the airline felt it was getting by just fine with their - admittedly, pretty darn good - responsive website, but even at that, many customers wondered if the airline could possibly be technically challenged. While Virgin America quashed this perception of its brand with a witty PR stunt upon the release of their app (the lead marketing message was “It’s finally ‘Appening”) they have entered a learning curve that could have been arrived at sooner had they made the investment earlier. Despite the teething problems, Virgin America’s customers now seem relatively ‘appy.

Virgin America check-in app

The case against:

Native apps require additional investment to design, launch and maintain. That investment takes time, resources, and budget from any travel brand. The time to market for a bespoke travel app can take months, and often it needs to be supported across iOS and Android. For many businesses and industries that level of investment does not make sense. If the pros outlined above do not apply to your travel business perhaps responsive web makes more sense.

Additionally, travel brands will be wasting money by investing in a native platform if they don’t spend time working on strategies to drive downloads, engagement and usage. A well thought-out strategy needs to include considerations around acquiring customers and ensuring users stay engaged. Added to that, you need to have access to data to analyse their behaviour and that the investment can be monetised for a clear ROI.

The case for responsive:

1. Immediacy – mobile websites are instantly available

Responsive sites are instantly accessible to users via a browser across a range of devices (iPhone, Android, Windows, etc). Native apps (if you exclude Android instant apps) require the user to first download and install the app from an app marketplace before the content or application can be viewed. This step adds a barrier for users to begin engaging with your travel app and requires innovative marketing, SEO and ASO strategies to help overcome this conversion hurdle.

2. Non-core information

According to recent mobile travel research - and despite Native having the majority in each of the travel activities reported on - the number of customers using mobile sites was marginally higher than those using app.

Interestingly, preference of one over the other depends on the travel activity being undertaken. Responsive is polled stronger for those aspects of travel outside the jurisdiction of the airline itself - where often the quality of information might have more depth in external sites e.g. looking at accommodation options, rental car options, videos about accommodation or the local area, reviews, looking up things to do and places to visit and tourist information while traveling, among other things.

That said, travel businesses should look to integrate much of this functionality on their platform to ensure they don't lose customers to third-party sites.

3. Quicker updates

A major advantage for responsive is the ease with which updates and new information can be uploaded and pushed out to users. There is no downtime waiting for your app to be approved, and any critical issues can be fixed there and then. Additionally, what if you want to snatch back some of those last minute bookings from aggregators? Web is the better tool, according to the same report.

The case against:

Mobile stat


The modern consumer has been groomed to expect fast, relevant results when searching for anything online. This is especially evident in travel, in all its manifestations, from inspiration to booking.

Travel booking has reached a point of no return in the battle for consumer spend. Consumers have grown accustomed to instant gratification and will not accept long wait times for search results to load, with 47% of online shoppers expecting a web page to load in 2 seconds or less.

Google tested 900,000 mobile sites globally and found that the average time it takes to fully load a mobile page is 22 seconds. They also discovered that 53% of people polled will abandon a mobile site if it takes more than three seconds to load.

Cart abandonment rates for the travel industry are notoriously high at over 80% and US travelers make 140 visits to travel sites in the 45 days leading up to a booking decision.

It’s clear that there is a need to optimize the booking experience in order to assure consumers advance through the path the purchase.


There is no debate over the importance of mobile for travel companies. All competent web development teams build websites to be responsive these days, but you need to ask yourself whether this sufficient to stand alone and meet your business goals and your customer’s expectations or not.

At the present time, although going it alone with RWD can make sense in certain industries, it lacks a lot of the key, contextual features of native apps, especially regarding the advantages of Push Notifications, UX and conversion optimization. Currently native apps can take advantage of operating system features and functionality, and without that deep integration, a responsive website cannot possibly offer the same level of functionality. Additionally, as the Virgin America case study suggests, your customers want an app - and their wants should immediately translate to your airline’s needs. That said, to appeal to all travelers and their varying priorities and preferences, the best advice would be to have a both a great responsive site AND native app.

While Google and Apple jostle over whether the mobile-first future will stay true to its roots or become browser-based, your customers continue to book flights, and your aircraft are preparing for take-off. From design, coding and development through to launch and marketing, you need to be sure at every step that you will have a mobile solution delivered on time, performing on time, and business-ready to deliver on key objectives.

With a specialism in creating engaging, revenue-generating apps across smartphones, tablets and wearables, as well as supporting services such as responsive web, real-time travel messaging and ancillary upsell, Travelport Digital works with some of the largest airline and travel brands worldwide.