Getting A Window Seat On Online Travel
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
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
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
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
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
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.