- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Q: I’ve been booking travel online for years, but keep going back to the same sites. Am I missing out on potentially better deals and services and, if so, where might I find them?

A: Of the roughly $40 billion spent online for flights, hotel rooms, rental cars and cruises in 2003, more than 75 percent of this shopping took place at three sites: Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz, according to PhoCusWright Inc., which tracks the industry.

The reason for this, PhoCusWright surveys have found, is that a majority of consumers consider online travel agencies the best places to find the lowest prices and widest range of choices.

In truth, flights and lodging options that are as cheap, or cheaper, can be found on the Web sites of the airlines and hotels supplying the services. Moreover, consumers who have used supplier sites consider them more reliable and easier to use than the third-party sites, according to PhoCusWright.

But because bargain hunters like to comparison shop, they go to Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz to get a long list of the inventory available from all the major airlines, hotels and car-rental companies, rather than visiting hundreds of individual Web sites.

Trouble is, there are some gaps in what’s available at Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz, particularly when it comes to the low-cost airlines such as JetBlue, Southwest and others that do not sell their tickets through third-party sites. (They do this to keep their distribution costs and ticket prices low.)

Fortunately, there is an easy way to fill in this incomplete picture: Just visit one of the growing number of travel search engines, or aggregators, whose software scours the offerings on thousands of airline, hotel and car-rental Web sites. Some well-known travel search engines include SideStep, Mobissimo, Qixo (which adds a $20 fee) and Yahoo, which recently bought the aggregator FareChase.

“Yahoo’s acquisition of FareChase indicates that the potential value of these travel meta-search engines is becoming stronger,” said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Once visitors to these sites find a flight or hotel room they want to book, they are redirected — with the click of a mouse — to the supplier’s site, where the transaction is completed and any loyalty points are rewarded.

“I think this is the direction online travel is heading,” said Phil Carpenter, vice president of marketing at SideStep, whose software also allows customers to conduct side-by-side flight comparisons with other sites — including competing aggregators.

“With the travel search-engine model, we can offer the best of both worlds,” Mr. Carpenter said.

Of course, there are limits to the benefits of SideStep and its rivals.

They are not built for one-stop shopping like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz, which promote package deals as a way to save and give customers who are booking flights, hotels and cars just one company to deal with in the event that any itinerary changes need to be made.

“Frankly, it comes down to convenience,” said David Dennis, Expedia product manager.

Perhaps the best course of action for penny pinchers is to search multiple sites, including at least one traditional online travel agency and one aggregator.

If price is the only important factor, make-your-best-offer companies such as Priceline or Hotwire also are worthwhile, although these sites do not offer information upfront about what airline or hotel is being offered.


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