This App Can Identify a Destination Based on a Photo and Help You Book a Flight There

We put United Airlines' "Search by Image" function to the test.

An illustration of the United Airlines app 'Search by Image' feature

Courtesy of United Airlines

It's happened to all of us. You're scrolling on social media, and you come across a jaw-dropping image of some incredible place, but there's absolutely no indication of where that place actually is.

Well, United is here to help you out. The airline's "Search By Image" function in its app allows you to upload photos of a destination, and the app will identify the destination and show you how you can fly there.

"Meeting customers at the point of inspiration, Search by Image allows customers to upload photos to the United mobile app and find the closest airports to the destinations in the image," a United spokesperson told Travel + Leisure, noting that the feature launched last spring.

While it's a super cool idea in theory, I decided to put it to the test. Starting on the more obscure side of the spectrum, I uploaded a blurry photo of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis that I snapped through my car window on a cross-country road trip a few weeks ago (I was the passenger, not the driver!). It was, by all standards, an absolutely terrible photo, but to the human eye, the subject was clearly the Arch. Unfortunately, the app wasn't able to pick up on the location.

The United Search by Image interface on the iphone mobile App

iPhone: David Volkov/Getty Images; Inset: Courtesy of United Airlines

For my next test, I tried something a smidge more identifiable: Gillian Anderson's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I was curious to see if the app might be able to recognize the details — namely the pink star on a black background — and correctly identify Los Angeles. Again, no luck.

Knowing I wasn't quite playing fair, I decided to go a more straightforward route. I uploaded a photo I took of Bora Bora's Otemanu, knowing that the former volcano's silhouette is pretty distinctive. Bingo. It worked. And so followed a slew of identification successes from the app, including an artfully cropped photo of the Louvre's Glass Pyramid in Paris, a high-angle view of the Perth skyline in Western Australia taken from a hotel tower, and, impressively, a shot of the Crystal Bridge at the Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City.

While Google's reverse image search feature is perhaps a bit more comprehensive than United's app, I was pretty impressed by what it could recognize from my own photos. As the feature isn't even a year old yet, it's just going to get better with time — United plans to continually update its image database to return even more results.

To find the feature in the United app to try it out yourself, head to the "Book Flight" button on the bottom left, then scroll down to "Search by image." You can then take a photo in your current location or upload one from your camera roll to see if United finds your destination. Download the United app here.

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