Once you decide to go online for your travel plans, things get more complicated. Mainly, which site do you choose? This depends on myriad factors: Are you planning for a vacation or is it business travel? Are you booking air only or the whole shebang? Do you want a package or do you want to piece your trip together yourself?
There are subtle differences to contend with as well. Do you prefer fare mail or fare trackers? Are the site's live travel agents onsite or contracted out? Which CRS do they use and does it matter?
Clearly, the best way to choose an online travel agent is simply to visit the various sites and see which work best for you. But to help you choose, here are some not-so-obvious differences I've found among the four leading sites -- Preview Travel, Travelocity, ITN and Expedia.
It's not the size of your content, it's how you use it.
Most online travel agents offer a plethora of content supporting their booking services. Every site features the usual guidebook fare -- where to go, health warnings, hotel listings, attractions and so on -- plus most offer a weather service, driving directions, currency converters and discussion areas.
But none of the sites' content is truly integrated with their booking engines. Say you're reading about a nice hotel in Spain in Expedia. If you want to reserve a room in this hotel, you'll have to go to the site's hotel reservations service and search for it there. This can be a long and frustrating experience. The same goes for Travelocity and ITN, which, along with Expedia, provide the most detailed and useful content -- specific listings of places to stay, seasonal events and so on.
Preview Travel is the only site in which content is married to the booking system. From an article on a vacation destination, for example, you can price a vacation specific to that story. However, the content is limited in scope and the booking options follow suit. Preview Travel is launching a partnership with Fodor's Gold Guide early in 1998, which should improve its content significantly. Whether the Fodor content will be directly connected to the booking engine hasn't been determined.
Which is better: fare mail or fare trackers?
I love fare mail. When it arrives in my in box it allows me to take a moment from my hectic day to sigh and dream of a quick trip to Mexico or a visit to friends in New York for unbelievably low prices. And it takes no effort on my part. I only have to choose my departure airport and desired destination once. Then the site's computers scan away on my behalf, informing me regularly of their findings. What could be more simple? It's like getting a fax from your travel agent every time a low price pops up for the vacation she just knows you've been saving for.
The problem with fare mail is that you rarely if ever actually wind up with the prices listed. Expedia -- my favorite because it's once a week, so it doesn't clutter my in box -- sends a weekly round-up of the sites I've signed up for. But I've never been able to match the prices they've offered. Part of the reason for this is the fact that exact itineraries are not provided with the mail (more on this below). But e-mailing exact prices would be difficult, since prices are constantly changing. Hence the real problem with fare mail: The prices are different by the time you get the e-mail. (ITN includes the flight's itinerary in its low-fare listings, but even so, the prices can change.)
Fare mail is an excellent way to get a general feel for what prices are out there. But if you're serious about getting a ticket, and want a good deal, live fare finders, which list the lowest fares available at the exact time you're searching, are your best bet. All the major online agents offer one of these.
In addition, ITN has a unique feature that enables you to search for low prices all day with its Java low-fare ticker. "Users click on a link, and a small Netscape window opens up and starts scrolling the lowest fares either from the user's home airport or just randomly cross-country," explains Joe Witherspoon of ITN. "After they've left the site, they can still monitor the fares as they change throughout the day. And if they see a fare they like to that destination, they can click on it and actually book it."
When putting together your itinerary, ITN also provides alternative routes and times if it comes up with a lower fare approximately matching your travel plans.
Is it easy to use?
The issue of actually finding a site's posted low fare, or reading about a hotel and then being able to book it immediately raises the subject of user-friendliness. Is the site designed in such a way that desired information is readily accessible and easy to make sense of? For users, this is a critical question.
"My feeling is that if I have to go more than three pages to get to the booking engine, it's not very accessible," says ITN's Lois Shore.
You can reach all four sites' booking engines in one click from their front pages, and this is crucial. But what I found to be more important was the way in which low-fare listings interacted with the booking engines. (The two are different. The former lists only low fares, while the latter lists all fares.) With Expedia and Travelocity, I'd receive a low-fare mail or listed price (on the site). From there I'd receive information on how to get that fare -- stop-over on Saturday, for example, or purchase by next Tuesday -- but in order to book, I had to click away from that page, enter the booking system and search for that rate all over again. Without specific flight information, finding the listed low fare was nearly impossible. At Preview Travel and ITN, you are provided not only with a low fare, but with the corresponding itinerary, so you know exactly how to get the price they're offering.
"We actually update [fare finder] four-plus times a day," says Ron Pernick of Preview Travel. "We show you the itinerary that created that price. So if I tell you you can fly from San Francisco to L.A. for $80 right now, we show you the actual itinerary."
Online agents are travel agents.
All this amazing technology can help to obscure an important fact: Online travel sites are registered travel agencies. There may be no eye-catching window decorations or piped-in calypso music urging you toward a cruise to Jamaica, but they are travel agents, and they can be phoned up just like your average agent -- a feature that comes in handy in an emergency.
"When you think about it, we have to do three different things," says Expedia's Erik Blachford. "We have to do good editorial to help people plan; we have to have a great software system so people can buy tickets; but at the end of the day, if someone's stuck in an airport and they don't have their laptop with them and their flight's canceled, they have to be able to pick up the phone. We've got to be able to provide that service, too."
Expedia, Preview Travel and ITN provide their customers with live travel agents they can phone with questions or -- God forbid -- emergencies. Travelocity is reachable only by e-mail, and urges its customers to refer to a Frequently Asked Questions page. A separate agency,
BTI America, handles phone calls to Travelocity regarding vacation and cruise packages.
Expedia, based in Redmond, Wash., contracts out its agency work to a firm in Atlanta (it uses additional agencies for cruise and vacation packages). If your tickets arrive on time and the service is good (Expedia even e-mails you a neat little guide to where you're going, listing major attractions, currency info, etc.), what difference does it make if your travel agency is located in one building or two separate states? Not much. I have used Expedia, and I can vouch for its efficiency and accuracy. But it makes me more comfortable knowing the transaction I send into a computer is being handled by people in the same building. Having worked in the online industry for almost two years, I'm well aware that what goes on in the technology department concerns me in the editorial section -- it's nice to know I can hop over and discuss matters face-to-face.
Preview Travel's agents are on the same floor and ITN just created its own travel agency, also located in its new headquarters. ITN used to contract to over 5,000 agencies -- now customers can choose between one of 3,000 agencies or their centralized one.
Even more important than agent location is agent availability. Can you call up and talk to a person when your flight's been canceled, your hotel's lost your reservation, the car rental agency's gone under and there's not a modem connection in site?
The availability of these agents is crucial. At both Expedia and ITN, the agents are waiting by the phone 24 hours, seven days a week. At Preview they're only "on-call" during the wee hours (meaning you can leave a message, but cannot reach anyone directly) -- but Preview is planning to have live operators available at all times soon.
Travelocity falls down in this department. Although its travel representatives are located within Sabre Interactive (the company that owns Travelocity), they can be reached only by e-mail. The company doesn't provide a phone number you can call for live assistance, unless you are booking a vacation or cruise package.
"If customers have additional questions, specially trained online travel professionals can be contacted by filling out the Customer Request Forms or directly at email@example.com," says Dawn Caesar, public relations manager for Travelocity. "These representatives are located within Sabre Interactive. They are available to answer questions during regular business hours."
Anyone who's ever needed to e-mail anyone from an airport can vouch for the inefficiency of such a system. And Travelocity's failure to provide any kind of customer support during off hours is a significant shortcoming.
Which database do you use? And does it matter?
Another factor that affects your travel planning is which Computer Reservation System your online agent uses. Both Preview Travel and ITN use the CRS system called Apollo, which allows them to show a full itinerary. That service is not available on other CRSs, such as Sabre, the one used by Travelocity, or Worldspan, which is used by Expedia. (For more on this topic, see Part 1.)
But according to Vanderbilt at Jupiter Communications, there are not many differences between the CRSs.
"They're only marginally different now -- they used to be biased, I'd say five or 10 years back, because they were owned by airlines. Sabre, which was owned by American, would show American Airlines flights first, for example. That has since gone away," she explains, adding, "Some of them vary on whether they offer bookability on some other kinds of products -- ancillary stuff like cruises -- but generally speaking, there's not a vast difference, and particularly as perceived by the end user."
But what I've found most troubling about using online agents is that, despite the fact that all CRSs should contain essentially the same information, the prices I get are wildly disparate. For example, on Jan. 26 from 11 a.m. to noon, I searched for round-trip tickets from San Francisco to New York. Departure was Feb. 1 at 6 a.m. and return was Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. I also requested a hotel and car rental for the same period. The "lowest fares" matching these specifications ranged from Expedia's $1,476.94 grand total to Preview Travel's $2,653.44. (Travelocity priced the whole trip at $1,744.95; ITN priced it at $2,551.46.)
Obviously, if I'd been flexible with my schedule and used low-fare searchers, I might have come up with a better deal. But that doesn't remedy the problem that unrelated agencies, using similar databases, are coming up with radically different numbers for the exact same trip. My personal experience has been that Expedia gives the lowest prices, but other people I know prefer ITN or Preview. With online shopping, as with everything, the best thing to do is shop around. And until these systems become more consistent, it would be prudent to bite the bullet and also call an agent and/or some airlines to ask: Can you beat this price?
Of course, if you're faithful to one airline -- whether due to its frequent-flier miles program or just because it provides reliable service -- you might want to skip the travel agent altogether and go directly to the source. Airlines provide the CRSs with all their pricing, so if you know you want to fly United or TWA, you can just head to their site to book a flight. The benefits of this can be great specials on flights that aren't filling up quickly, or Web-only specials, as through Alaska's site. The downside is that you can't compare their pricing with other airlines' -- and of course, if you need more than just a plane ticket, you'll need an agent's assistance after all.
Online agencies truly fall short when it comes to purchasing a vacation
package -- as opposed to a plan you put together. Only Expedia allows you
to book a limited number of packages online; you still need to pick up the
phone to order many of its cruises and vacations. This is the norm: All the
other travel sites require a phone
call in order to book your vacation. Expect this to change soon, though.
According to Vanderbilt, with CRSs charging every time a user checks out an airfare, online agents are going to have to rely increasingly on high-profit-margin sales -- such as cruises and vacations. And users can always build their own packages.
Beyond vacation packages, online agents can't -- or at least, don't -- do much in the realm of specialty travel. For a trip to the Amazon, an African safari or even a backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon, you're going to want to plan with an agency or tour operator that specializes in these fields.
Of course, the world of online travel agencies is rapidly transforming itself to meet customer needs. After all, as little as three years ago, Expedia, Preview, Travelocity and ITN didn't even exist. Who knows what they'll be offering a year from now?
At this point, it seems like the best advice is simply to dip into the world of online travel and see how valuable it can be for you. Online sites don't offer magic wands; but they do offer some powerful tools that can help you get the best trip at the best price.
Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif. MORE FROM Jenn Shreve
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