7 San Francisco start-ups that change how we travel

Eleanor Aldridge

written by
Eleanor Aldridge

updated 25.03.2020

San Francisco is the undisputed home of the start-up. From the Silicon Valley powerhouses to growing tech clusters in Oakland and the Mission, the Bay Area is a hub for digital innovation. Apple, Netflix, Twitter, Dropbox, Pinterest, StumbleUpon and more all hail from this corner of northern California. It should be no surprise, then, that San Francisco is also home to a host of companies that are changing the way we travel. Eleanor Aldridge picks seven of the best.


In 2010, it was impossible to find a cab in San Francisco, so Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick came up with an idea. They created an app that would allow users to get a quote and hail a car immediately, track the driver’s arrival using GPS and pay with a pre-registered card. Uber, “everyone’s private driver”, has since controversially re-defined taxi services around the world. There are several levels of service available – the cheapest, UberX, usually works out 20–50% less than a regular taxi. Drivers and passengers rate each other out of five after each ride; if drivers drop below 4.5 stars, they’re in danger of being struck off, while passengers with poor ratings are likely to be passed up.


The HotelTonight app has been downloaded over ten million times since it launched in 2011, and covers cities across the US and Europe. Each day they offer unsold rooms from a selection of handpicked hotels to travellers looking for a last-minute bed. Prices vary, but are usually at least 20% lower than the rack rate. Aside from the sleek, easy-to-use interface, a big selling point is the quality of the properties, which range from “basic” and “solid” budget options to five-star and design hotels classified as “hip” or “luxe”.


This “visual guide to good food and where to find it” aims to take the hassle out of choosing somewhere to eat. Rather than writing a review, Foodspotting users upload a snap of a restaurant’s best dish. Think of the app as Tinder for the palate: if you don’t like what you see, then keep on swiping. Even with 2.5 million foods “spotted”, the community is still growing and tips can be patchy in places, but this is definitely one to watch.



Founded in San Francisco just a year ago by Brit and Oxford graduate Ruzwana Bashir, with backing from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Peek is expanding fast. The website and accompanying app are a visually appealing one-stop-shop for activities and experiences: walking tours, surf lessons, cooking classes, tickets to major attractions and more. They’ve also persuaded “tastemakers” in each city to write a feature on their perfect day; foodies can follow Mark Hix around London, while in LA you can discover how Diane Von Furstenberg or Piers Morgan would spend a day out.


Hipmunk has been making waves for the last four years, although you’d expect nothing less from a start-up run by one of the founders of Reddit. This new breed of search aggregator allows users to simultaneously trawl through Expedia, Booking.com, Airbnb and more. It’s set apart from the competition by its unrivalled user experience: new tabs open within the page rather than your browser, you can compare multiple flights and hotels side-by-side, results can be refined with intuitive filters and handy price graphs show you the best air fares in the next ninety days. If you register, your results are saved cross-platform, so you can pick up a search on your phone later on.


Airbnb is the success story many other start-ups aspire to emulate. The site simply allows anyone to rent out their spare room or apartment, with payments made securely through their system. These days browsing the listings can feel more like flicking through a Pinterest board. For less than the price of a hotel room you can usually get your own pad, with cool décor, stunning views and quirky furniture pretty much de rigueur. (We recently picked out some of the most unusual places to stay around the world.) Taking on companies like HotelTonight, Airbnb recently announced last-minute reservations.


Although founded in 2011, Jetpac changed focus at the end of last year launching an app that compiles Instagram-sourced guides to over six thousand cities worldwide. Their algorithms analyze public Instagram photos, pulling out top ten lists for each city such as “ten popular wine bars”, “ten hipster hangouts” and the slightly more dubious “ten bars women love”. The iPhone app has some bugs and the content is thus far somewhat unreliable, but Jetpac is a game-changing idea nonetheless – even if it just gives a flavour of where Instagram-addicts like to hang out.

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