Travelers: What We Hate Most About Travel Sites


BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Angry online travelers are starting to make protesters at town hall health care meetings look like Care Bears.

Forrester Research reports that 15% less travelers enjoyed using the Web to plan their trips in 2009 than two years earlier, mostly because only a third can immediately find what they're looking for once they get to the site. That's down from a dismal 39% who believed Web sites did a good job presenting travel choices in 2008.

Even worse, despite the nearly 50% of online travelers who prize low prices over convenience or even their preferred destination, 26% would consider costlier offline travel agencies just to remember what it's like to have someone ask them questions again. That's up 3% from 2008 and, considering that more than 75% have the brand loyalty of a mercenary army, the news for sites like Orbitz and (Stock Quote: PCLN) and carriers including Continental (Stock Quote: CAL), Delta (Stock Quote: DAL) and American (Stock Quote: AMR) is about as well-timed as a delayed flight.

"People want to make sure they're getting exactly what they want," says Henry Harteveldt, Forrester's vice president and principal analyst for airline and travel research and author of the report. "Travel Web sites just don't do a good job of this."

It didn't help matters when many of the 47% of U.S. travelers who said they planned to reduce their travel budgets this year and 44% who wanted to take fewer trips actually kept their word. Despite the fact that it was 7% cheaper to travel this year than in 2008, according to the U.S. Travel Association, domestic air travel dropped 10%, with international flights slumping 7.4%. They're not spending nights with InterContinental Hotels Group (Stock Quote: IHG), Wyndham Worldwide (Stock Quote: WYN) or Marriott (Stock Quote: MAR), either, as hotel-room demand has dropped more than 8% and room revenue has checked out at double that rate.

At a time when travel sites should be making it easier to access low rates and helpful features, they're either hiding useful information as if it were classified or eliminating it altogether. Harteveldt says common examples are hotel sites that tout a room's view in print but never show it in photos or video, or cruise Web sites that double their bookings by showing video, but banish the clips behind a veil of click-throughs and drop-downs.

He lauds Expedia and Travelocity's bundling of flight-and-hotel information, but says Travelocity downplays a feature that lets travelers "have dessert first." The Experience Finder breezes past flights and hotels to activities grouped in categories like Romance or Active Lifestyle. It recognizes that you're not going to Vegas to sit on a plane and stay in hotels, but to see Elvis impersonators, gamble and eat somewhere with Wolfgang Puck's name on it.

"The trouble is Travelocity has this great tool buried on the Web site like they're ashamed of it," he says. "They should be pushing it with all the pride that the parent of a newborn baby would have."

While offline agents charge a fee that Web sites don't, overworked and time-deprived travelers who don't feel like adding travel agent to their resume will pay just to have someone else take care of the details, ask questions and access discounts closed off by site partnerships with certain airlines and hotels. Sites are taking the hint, with boutique stop TravelMuse asking its customers questions about cost and destination prior to displaying options and TripKick and offering comparisons for flights and hotel rooms that encompass amenities and ambience as well as price.

As travel companies streamline operations -- as Orbitz did earlier this year by cutting $40 million in operating costs -- Harteveldt thinks they can spare their users some turbulence by refocusing to provide as many details as possible and making clear, highly visible connections to a beefed-up customer-service staff.

"If you've got useful content, for goodness sake, it's not a good time to play Easter egg hunt," he says.

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