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Is Booking Over the Web Worth the Trip?

A look at how online Travel Websites measure up

JIM SHELTON FLIES BACK AND FORTH BETWEEN LOS ANGELES AND ATLANTA once a month on business. Almost always, Shelton books his flights online. "They [online travel agencies] give more flight options and lower prices," says Shelton, a principal of TBC Capital in Atlanta and vice president of business development for Knowledge Universe Inc. in Los Angeles.

More and more travelers are turning to the World Wide Web to research and/or make travel plans. Online travel agencies promise cheaper hotel rooms, car-rental rates and airfares, more flight options and special discounts. According to PhoCusWright, a Sherman, Connecticut-based research company that tracks Internet use, only 18% of wired travelers purchase airline tickets online. However, the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington, D.C., estimates that online bookings for air, hotel, car and other travel products will increase from $827 million in 1997 to nearly $9 billion by 2002. And according to Michael Shapiro, author of Net Travel: How Travelers Use the Internet (O'Reilly and Associates, $24.95), by 2000, 50% of travel-related sales will be made online.

But how well are online consumers being served? Are some Internet travel agencies better than others? BLACK ENTERPRISE wanted to determine what value, if any, online travel agencies really provide. Here's the scoop.

CLICK, BOOK AND FLY

The array of online travel-planning options can be dizzying. Besides the airline Websites, there are four big online travel agencies--Preview Travel, Internet Travel Network, Travelocity.com and Microsoft's Expedia Travel--that enable users to book flights. These pull low fares from various airlines, car-rental agencies and hotels. Online providers such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy also offer travel services. And there are niche sites, such as Biztravel.com, targeted at frequent fliers.

These sites are battling for your business. The airlines want fliers to log on for, rather than phone in, flight bookings. Earlier this year, Delta Airlines announced a surcharge for tickets not purchased through its site, then dropped the extra fee after receiving a slew of consumer complaints. Nevertheless, air carriers are trying other ways to lure travelers online, including frequent-flier bonuses. Book a flight on TWA's Website, for example, and receive up to 15,000 miles.

SURFING THE WEB

BE assessed how six online travel agencies service users when they book flights. They were each rated for speed, user friendliness, the selection of airline carriers and the quality of extra options. It took nearly four hours just to scan these few. With each, users must register and fill out a profile, which supposedly helps formulate flight options and make other travel product suggestions. If the service allows fliers to input frequent-flier, hotel and car-rental account numbers, registration can be more time-consuming. Then comes the perusal of the flight choices, paying and receiving confirmation. The process can take longer if you're renting a car and booking a hotel room, or planning a trip with multiple legs. Compare this with the few minutes it takes to phone a travel agent, and you may be less inclined to book it yourself.

But frequent online bookers such as Jeffrey Chappelle, a legal researcher in Los Angeles, find it's worth the time. "Once you get the hang of it and are registered, the services are faster and easier to use. They put you in control," says Chappelle, who booked at least six leisure round-trips--including flights to San Francisco, Virginia and New York--via America Online last year. Chappelle finds the e-mail notification of specials--a feature offered by most online travel services and airlines--helpful. He contends, "These are great for last-minute trips."

WEEDING THROUGH THE WEB

While many of the online agencies feature similar products, there are standouts. Business travelers may prefer Biztravel.com (www.biztravel.com) (see "Have Modern Will Travel," Techwatch, April 1999). It offers various perks. Users can input an unlimited number of legs as well as frequent-flier and corporate-discount numbers; it has a miles tracker; it lets users download their selected itinerary into an electronic calendar; and its bizAlerts sends you a page indicating your flight's status (as scheduled, delayed or canceled). It also allows users to indicate whether they're most concerned about flight times, low fares or booking with a particular carrier. In March, Biztravel became the first online agency to offer exclusive prenegotiated hotel and airfare discounts. Members get 5%-30% off the regular rate at 8,000 hotels (including Hilton, Westin, Radisson and Sheraton) in 3,000 cities in 140 countries. At this site, airlines such as Air New Zealand and SAS offer special discounts to Biztravel members.

Of the sites, Travelocity.com (www.travelocity.com), however, works more like a travel agency. That's because it uses Sabre, the same reservation system used by agencies. It's also faster now--Travelocity cut the number of screens needed to book a flight from 13 to three. Because it's easy to use, it's Shelton's favorite. "They keep a profile and give me flight options reflecting past travel patterns. It also keeps credit card info on file and displays seat layouts," he says. The service allows users to order by importance--price, time, nonstop and airline preference--before searching for fares. However, the site doesn't always show hotel cancellation policies until after a user has booked.

Internet Travel Network (www.itn.net) also displays airplane seating arrangements on-screen, but highlights include real-time flight tracking and travel agent tie-ins. This provides users with an actual agent to direct their questions to and a "real-life" location to pick up documents. Unfortunately, ITN stores only four frequent-flier numbers and no car or hotel membership account numbers.

Microsoft's Expedia Travel (http://expedia.msn.com) will screen for both nonstop and one-way flights, a site perk A limitation, however, is that round-trips are bundled rather than separated into outgoing and incoming flights. Also, the site's car-rental rates tend to be high.

Preview Travel (www.previewtravel.com) stands out for its array of vacation packages, which most others don't feature. Its Farefinder lets you search for the best fare for over 30 flights per departure query. And even after a flight itinerary is selected, it'll attempt to find a lower fare.

With American Express' online service (www.americanexpress.com), travelers can change an itinerary through any AmEx office or its 800 number. Also, if you find a lower price on a similar vacation within seven days, AmEx will beat it. But there are no discounts for cardholders, and it cannot store credit card numbers from one screen to another. Prices for vacation tours are fixed, and any changes are extra.

COMPUTER GLITCHES

One drawback to online services is that they generally search only for fares for the exact time and day you plug in. "In the long run, users are getting very little savings. You actually save more with an agent," says Hal Salfen, director of consumer affairs for the International Airline Passengers Association. "Unlike a travel agent, who will check around, these services offer limited options."

Bill McCoy, executive editor of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine (www.frommers.com), which also offers an online list of travel deals, agrees. "It may be cheaper to fly out on a Thursday instead of a Friday, or during the afternoon rather than morning, or [have] a Saturday stay-over. The online service won't consider that," says McCoy. "A good agent will."

Some site promotions can be misleading. A few advertise fares "as low as ...," but when you actually sign on, those fares are typically unavailable. Good Morning America host Charles Gibson recently shared on-air an online ticket snafu he experienced. He had his credit card charged three times the amount he thought he was paying. Such mishaps can even happen to online veterans. When booking a Los Angeles-to-Atlanta round-trip, Shelton mistakenly selected a fare nearly $100 more than the lowest available. "I booked one for $375 instead of $279," recalls Shelton, who does not buy full-fare tickets online. "I'm at the premier level in most frequent-flier programs, so I get great service and I'm prone to change these tickets at the last minute."

Last-minute changes aren't typically allowed with online travel agencies. "What you book is what you buy," Salfen points out.

ONLINE TRAVEL CHECKLIST

As with all major purchases, it's best to comparison shop and research before buying. Also, go through your own travel checklist of questions and concerns before you buy: Is the ticket refundable? Can you make changes without incurring additional fees? Are you clear about the exact fare you're paying? Are credit card numbers secure? If you're uncomfortable with punching in credit card information, can you phone it in? Is there a contact number, preferably toll-free, to call in case of a problem? Are you able to reach the online service anytime, or are the hours of operation limited? Is the service associated with a nearby travel agent? Can you use your frequent-flier miles to book or upgrade? Will you get a confirmation e-mailed to you? How will your ticket arrive, by express mail or as an e-ticket (electronic ticket)? Are you happy with the airport, both for the departure and the return?

DOWNLOADING DEALS

According to the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, the only "way to find the best deal online is to sign up for every e-mail notification list and periodically check the top agencies and the airlines you fly most often. Or visit Websites that aggregate fare and rate information," such as Smarter Living (www.smarterliving.com). As a free service to registrants, Smarter Living collates airline specials departing from your desired gateway and e-mails a report to you weekly. You then book through the chosen carrier.

If you find a great deal, says McCoy, act fast. "Fares can change quickly," he points out. McCoy says the best time to surf for travel is between midnight and 2 a.m. "That's when airlines update their systems and put back discounted seats that were reserved but canceled."

RELATED ARTICLE: How online travel agencies measure up
 AmEx Biztravel
 www.americanexpress.com www.biztravel.com

Speed 3 4

User 3 4
Friendliness

Selection of 3 5
Airline
Carriers

Quality of 3 5
Extra
Options(*)

 Expedia Internet Travel Network
 http://expedia.msn.com www.itn.net

Speed 3 3

User 3 3
Friendliness

Selection of 3 3
Airline
Carriers

Quality of 3 2
Extra
Options(*)

 Preview Travel Travelocity
 www.previewtravel.com www.travelocity.com

Speed 3 5

User 3 5
Friendliness

Selection of 3 4
Airline
Carriers

Quality of 2 4
Extra
Options(*)


(*) Extra options include providing destination information, special tracking services, travel tips, etc.

Rating: 1-5, 5 being the best

RELATED ARTICLE: Additional Online Travel Tips

* Get a recommendation from a friend.

* Save time by writing down your travel specifications before you go online.

* Limit searches to airlines you're most likely to fly.

* Instead of plugging in one day and time, compare several itineraries for the best deal.

* Pay close attention to computer prompts.

* Before plugging in credit card information, carefully read restrictions.

* If possible, e-mail questions to the service and wait for a response before you book.

* Keep receipts, records and a printed itinerary. Travel with a copy.3
COPYRIGHT 1999 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:BROWN, ANN
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Aug 1, 1999
Words:1853
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