Looking to find travel companions? This website connects passengers across the world

How Desi Travel Companion was born

By Anu Prabhakar

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Published: Fri 17 Mar 2023, 12:31 AM

Sailaja Boddu is unlikely to forget her trips between India and the US in 2016 in a hurry. She was travelling with her husband Ravi Kommineni and their then four- year-old son who, like most young children, did not love long-haul flights. “I had a tough time as he didn’t want to eat the food that was served on the plane, and was cranky. Ravi was there with me so we could manage, but I wondered how mothers with smaller kids, especially one and two year olds, manage while travelling alone with them.” She also witnessed first-hand the challenges that nervous, non-English speaking elderly passengers face while flying abroad for the first time, like struggling with transit flights and filling in forms. “When my parents came to the US in 2011 to visit us, my father was really stressed,” she recalls, when we chat via Google Meet. “So we trained him and told him what to do at the airport. He was also able to ask other Indian passengers for help.” Ravi adds that his father-in-law knows a little bit of English and thus, is slightly better off. “Parents who want to visit their children abroad but don’t know how to read or write English at all find it very hard to travel alone,” he points out.

Their travel experience stayed with them for days, long after they reached home, and the two discussed what they could do about it. “This is a big issue within the desi community in the US,” explains Ravi. “People ping each other on WhatsApp groups, asking whether they would know of someone who is travelling in the same flight as their parents’ flight and whether they can help them.”


They began to read up and research. “Websites do help passengers to find travel companions as one of their many services, but I wanted to start a website that was solely dedicated to this,” says Sailaja. They also learnt that none of the online platforms and travel websites catered to desis exclusively. “So I asked Ravi, ‘Why haven’t desi software folks created such a website yet’?” And thus, Desi Travel Companion was born.

Preparing for the launch


Sailaja, who is the founder of the website, was raised in Andhra Pradesh, India, and studied medicine there as well. She currently works as an ultrasound technician in Phoenix, Arizona while Ravi works as a software engineer.

The website, launched in January this year, was nearly six years in the making. Sailaja spends an hour driving to work every day and once there, often works 12-hour shifts and extra shifts. Her son is now 11 and she helps him with his homework at home, and drives him to and fro after-school activities. There was also a global pandemic to survive in between all that and yet, she stuck to her goal of launching the website. Ravi says he supported her dream by lending his technical expertise on weekends, but they quickly realised that this was not a job for a team of two people, no matter how determined they were. Soon, they started reaching out to tech companies to get the project off the ground. “It took us many years to get in touch with the right company and team,” says Ravi. “I reconnected with my engineering college batch mate who is the founder of the company Auxtomate Technologies (in Hyderabad, India). We had a meeting with the team there and things finally started moving.”

Solving issues with tech

The website works as an online space where passengers who need help and those volunteering to be travel companions can connect with each other.

Passengers looking for travel companions can post details of their trips, or can get someone to do it on their behalf. Volunteers, too, can post details of their trip and offer to help someone who’s taking the same flight as theirs. The website also allows passengers to ‘tip’ volunteers which, presumably, is a good way for younger passengers like students to earn a few bucks while helping someone out.

Sailaja admits that she is no techie, but she still had several valuable inputs to give about the website's design. “For instance, the initial idea was to display passengers’ email ids, age and phone numbers but I pointed out that most people may not be comfortable sharing such details. So now, passengers and travel companions exchange such details only after they agree to connect with each other and decide to take it ahead. And we also have age brackets instead of specific ages.”

“You also get notifications about trips that match your trip,” says Ravi. “And if you have cancelled your trip or are taking a different flight, you can edit your posting on the website and the travel companion/passenger will get an alert about the change.” He adds that although the term desi is used to refer to people from countries like India, Pakistan and so on, the website is open to people from all over the world, including the Middle East. “All airports and transits are listed on the website,” he says.

They explain that so far, the website has attracted 80, 000 visits — 55,000 of those clicks came from within the US itself — and that 1,200 trips have been posted on the website. Also, they add, 220 people have connected with each other. “Once you finish your trip, you can post your selfie but otherwise, we don’t get to know whether the trip has been completed or not,” explains Sailaja.

The whole idea, she continues, was to solve such issues faced by Indian communities across the world, using technology. “Tech giants will not solve such issues as they may seem too minor to them,” says Ravi. They say they may expand the website later to include other features like ticketing, depending on users’ feedback. “But right now I am happy,” smiles Sailaja. “We can finally take a break.”

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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