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Virtually Stranded: Booking Trips Online Not Perfect

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
August 2007 Issue
July 12, 2007

Virtually Stranded: Booking Trips Online Not Perfect

Half of all long-distance trips and vacations in the United States are planned online, according to Forrester Research analyst Henry Harteveldt. I’m among the Americans who has booked flights, reserved hotel rooms, and arranged car rental online. I’ve even made dinner reservations online.

Harteveldt recently told the New York Times that 77 million Americans taking trips in 2007 will buy their airline tickets and book hotel rooms online this year, up from 62.4 million in 2005. By 2009, online travel spending in the U.S. alone is projected to reach $110.5 billion — making it the leading form of e-commerce. Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, Orbitz, and HotWire dominate the online business.

I’ve used Priceline and HotWire, but I have found that booking directly with airlines was often cheaper. In the last few years, I have flown with American, Frontier, Alaska/Horizon, and Northwest. Frontier was much cheaper via their company Web site than though an online broker. Northwest Airlines, however, was slightly cheaper through HotWire for some reason.

The real challenge online was discovering which airlines flew non-stop or limited-stop routes from Fresno-Yosemite International to my destinations. One of the airline Web sites required that I recall Fresno’s designation is still FAT; thankfully, most Web sites let you select airports by city name. I spent more than an hour online dealing with a trip from Fresno to Minneapolis-St. Paul. When I finally booked the flight, it was more an act of surrender than the result of finding the best price.

I actually gave up on the airline’s site and went to HotWire. I’m glad I did, since it turned out to be cheaper. But I went to HotWire and Priceline because I was frustrated, not because I thought of them first. The online brokers are lucky the airlines can’t seem to locate good Web designers. Airline Web sites are examples of the worst designs possible.

There are too many fields for input and some force you to use pop-up calendars when I find it faster to type a date. Good Web sites allow you to tab through data fields, never forcing you to fight the interface. There are more than a dozen data fields on some airline Web sites. One site I’ve checked has nearly two dozen fields on the main search page.

By comparison, HotWire displays only four fields, including the ability to type dates. I love the design, which follows the Google concept of simplest is often best. Priceline is okay, but they do force you to select dates from six separate lists. I’d rather fight a pop-up calendar than try to select day, month, and year using my laptop’s trackpad. I’m that dying breed who finds typing faster than clicking. The simplicity of the broker sites is one reason I don’t plan to price shop on the airline sites anymore, even if I save a few dollars.

One reason airline sites are a better buy, at least in theory, is that you are guaranteed a level of customer service. Basically, I think this is a ploy to keep you from using the brokers for every flight.

Last year I was honored to represent Fresno State at a convention in Lubbock, Texas. After booking a flight through a broker I was asked if I wanted to buy something called “cancellation and connection insurance.” This was offered because I had to switch carriers during a connection in Dallas. I had always assumed that if I missed a flight through an act of nature or the airline that I was protected. It turns out that’s not always the case. I read the contract several times before deciding the few dollars was worth the cost. I wasn’t going to navigate the airline Web page to save less than twenty dollars.

Before airlines were deregulated, there was a federal requirement known as “Rule 240” that protected passengers from cancellations and missed connections. Apparently this rule is now “voluntary” (you can guess what that means); most airlines post their Rule 240 (or “Schedule Irregularity”) policy online. Read this policy! Some airlines treat you differently if you buy the ticket from a broker instead of through the airline’s Web site.

As a result of such policies, the online broker Travelocity is offering more customer support specialists to resolve travel problems. You can call their phone number and a human will help you deal with the airline, hotel, or car rental agency. Priceline and HotWire have also announced expanded support services and guarantees without an extra charge.

Of course, these companies are now doing what travel agents once did. When I wanted the lowest fare from Visalia to Denver years ago, an agent compared prices and handled all the confusing connections choices. Starting in the mid-1990s, airlines cut the commissions agents received. Agents today focus on tours, groups, and the booming cruise industry. I’ve been told by two travel agents that it’s easier to tell potential clients to use the Internet for one-time business trips.

The irony is that the online brokers do receive commissions, but they are very small payments as a percentage of ticket prices. Like Amazon selling books at a discount, the travel brokers depend on volume. Also, the brokers hope you book everything through them, not just your flight.

Like so many industries affected by the Internet, travel agencies have been forced to evolve or close. Personally, I feel stranded by most travel Web sites. Maybe other people know airport designations, memorize their frequent flier accounts, and enjoy reading pages of flight options.

I’m not sure if things are better without an agent’s help. I appreciated not having to spend an hour online to take care of a trip. The thrill of finding a low airfare might be like locating a collectible on eBay for some people, but I’m not a compulsive “hunter” on the Internet. The Web is supposed to make my life easier, not force me to become a de facto travel agent.

My feeling is that if airlines want me to deal with their horrendous Web pages, they should serve me a full meal and not charge me for the movie headphones.


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