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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, [email protected] CENTER CRM Solutions

[October 4, 2000]

Getting A Window Seat On Online Travel Planning

I'm going to New Orleans in a few weeks. It's a spur-of-the-moment trip and my purchase of airline tickets for a trip only three weeks in the future represents the least amount of time I've ever allowed between ticket purchase and departure. Despite the fact that I did most of my research online, I actually bought the ticket through Southwest Airlines' toll-free reservations number. My ultimate decision to do so was for the primary reason that I'm still not quite sure I trust online travel sites yet.

I know they often offer better deals. I know it means I don't have to wait on hold for 20 minutes, listening to Lite Musak renditions of Gordon Lightfoot songs. But I was somehow not yet ready to break the umbilical cord of having a live customer service agent lead me by the nose to the right flight and confirm my purchase and agenda over the phone.

What prompted me to start thinking about a comparison of the ways and means of different online travel companies was the news regarding Priceline.com's investigation by Connecticut State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. It appears that so many complaints have been filed against Priceline's airline ticket business, the Connecticut Better Business Bureau exiled the company as a member and the state could no longer avoid initiating an investigation. (I should point out here that the company does not seem to have broken any laws; this investigation is based only on consumer complaints of inefficiency.) Aside from the issue that the company just isn't making any money and, as a result, its stock has dropped through the basement, customers have filed complaints regarding their experiences with online ticket purchasing, which according to USA TODAY accounts for 85 percent of Priceline's business.

Are the complaints, most of which stem from the lack of good prices on airline tickets and lack of availability for desired dates, Priceline's fault? Partly. Do they stem from a shakedown in the Internet travel business? I think so.

Here's the scenarioa few years ago, when companies like Priceline, Travelocity and Expedia were forming, it was their business to keep track of cheap airline seats. They would buy blocks of flights at odd times (when it's cheaper to fly), on odd days, non-refundable flights, etc. They were making money, the airlines were getting rid of their odd seats, and everyone was happy. But in order to make money, these third-party travel sites had to charge you and me a commission, right? What's to stop the airlines themselves from selling their odd and leftover seats on their own Web sites? Not a thing, as the airlines themselves have begun to figure out.

This is exactly what is happening now. At the same time I was being old-fashioned and booking my seat to New Orleans through Southwest's toll-free number, my friend and traveling companion was on Southwest's Web site booking her flight. On top of the low fare she got, she earned double frequent flier miles for booking online. Now that's something Priceline or Expedia is not going to offer you. Hmmmextra incentives to book online at the airline's own site, along with the added security of knowing that your travel plans are less likely to become screwed up or your credit card number taken on a shopping spree by a hacker since you've eliminated the middleman. Can you hear the travel sites flapping their hands in distress?

Secondly, Priceline's model of committing to buying before you see when and what you're flying makes a lot of people uncomfortable. How happy am I to lay out my credit card number before I know whether my flight leaves at 5:00 A.M. or is with a troubled airline on which I'd rather not be flying? With many other sites, the prices are just as good (or bettercheck out CheapTickets.com), and you're not buying sight unseen.

There are upsides to these online travel sites. Travelocity and Expedia, along with other, lesser known sites such as Trip.com and BuyTravel.com, allow you to book your whole package online, including hotel and car rentals. Not only that, they apply the "search for the cheapest" principle to both these categories, as well, and include extra bonuses such as a rating system for hotels, the ability for regular users of the site to post informative ratings and/or complaints, information on package deals, travel tips, maps and even links to find good restaurants or tourist attractions in your destination city.

If you're looking for my opinion on how the travel sites stack up, it follows. (If you're not, then you can just go away.)

Travelocity. This is my favorite. The navigation is both quick and intuitive, the site design is a pleasure to use, there are many ways to browse and there are some genuinely good deals. (To determine a site's "good deal" rating, I input my travel agenda for my upcoming New Orleans trip and noted now many returns I got on fares lower than what I'm paying by buying my tickets over the phone.) Travelocity produced many results lower than what I'm paying.

Expedia. The part that irritates me most about Expedia is you cannot use the site unless your browser accepts cookies. Since I usually have my browser configured to refuse cookies, it makes me grind my teeth to have to turn the function on just to check a flight. But otherwise, the prices returned are good, though I didn't find as many bargains as with some of the other sites. The bargains I did find required departures at weird times, and usually either on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, for obvious reasonsthese are the least popular travel days, particularly for vacation travel.

CheapTravel.com. This site, which was unfamiliar to me when I began doing research, returned more bargain flights on my test query than any other site. It also encompasses hotel and car rental reservations, just as with the better-known sites. This site is very no-frills, but many users would consider that to be a good thing after dealing with the multitude of slow-loading graphics that parade across the better-known sites.

Trip.com. This was my least favorite site. Navigation took forever, error messages popped up with surprising regularity and I didn't see many bargains under what I had paid direct from the airline.

There's an alternative on the horizon, though it may be more distant than many of us anticipated. Orbitz, a planned travel Web site being founded by a coalition of major airline companies, recently announced that it is postponing its planned autumn launch to summer 2001 to refine the site and conduct testing with users. When launched, the site will theoretically offer flight information for 30 different airlines, and has formed partnerships with rental car companies, cruise companies, restaurant reviewers and hotels.

So good luck navigating the choppy waters of online travel. Here are some tips I came up with:

  • If you find a fare you like, it wouldn't hurt to check with the toll-free reservation number to make sure they don't have something cheaper or at a more convenient time.
  • When it comes to online hotel booking, prices vary widely. Many sites will tell you that the rooms range between "$89 and $389" per night (very helpful, huh?) It may be best to continue to make hotel reservations the old-fashioned way, so you don't find yourself stuck in a room in the basement, near the boiler and just underneath the hotel gym's weightlifting room.
  • Be suspicious if the Web site doesn't have live, online help. If your travel reservations are going into a black hole, they're not likely to emerge on the other side.
  • Do look for online bargains. Most of the sites have a "special deals" link you can click to find breathtakingly cheap flights to common destinations.
  • If you have flexibility in your travel schedule, definitely go the online route. Most people have specific dates and times when they need to travel; if you don't, you'll get some terrific bargains.

And as an end note, the first travel site to put a "click here if you don't want to be seated next to a small, screaming child" button on its Web site will have me as a loyal customer forever.

Tracey E. Schelmetic welcomes your comments at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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