Ticket to Ride: Booking Travel on the Internet

Friday, June 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Here's an interesting fact: According to a recent article on ZDNet/Yahoo! Internet Life, in 1978, only 11 percent of the adult U.S. population had ever set foot on an airplane -- most of them jet-setters or business executives. 1978 was the first year of airline deregulation, and deregulation put airfares within reach of everyone. Today, the percentage of adults who have flown tops 84 percent.

Today the Internet is causing another travel boom, and not just in air travel. Travelers are using the Net to research and book vacations, cruises, honeymoons, bed and breakfast getaways, cycling tours, and so on, in staggering numbers. According to the Travel Channel's Peter S. Greenberg, nary a day goes by without at least five new Web sites appearing that are devoted to travel for a specific interest or group.

In 1998, Americans spent $1.9 billion on travel purchased over the Internet. By the end of 2001, Greenberg says that will reach a whopping $6.5 billion! It doesn't take a rocket scientist to calculate how powerful the marriage of the Internet and travel has become.

But keep in mind this is an emerging trend. According to PhoCusWright, an industry research firm, only three percent of all travel is currently booked online. The figure is expected to grow to eight percent by 2001, but right now, what's out there are mostly window-shoppers -- over 52.2 million of them!

Admittedly, most of the Web's impact has been on the airline industry. According to the same ZDNet article, of last year's total online travel transactions, 73 percent were for plane tickets. Greenberg says since the cost of processing an e-ticket is just 30 cents, compared with $9.49 for a ticket purchased from a traditional travel agent, there is little doubt the trend will continue, as evidenced by new airline marketing partnerships such as Buytravel.com, which teams United Airlines and Buy.com.

Hotels came to the Web after the airlines and are playing catch-up. Only 1.5 percent of all rooms booked last year were booked online. Nevertheless, hotels have taken advantage of the Internet for more than bookings. A well-designed hotel site can show you exactly what your money will buy. Go to a Four Seasons site and you'll see virtual tours that let you look at room interiors or the spa.

The cruise business was one of the last travel sectors to go online, in part because more than 96 percent of all cruise sales are made by travel agents, who can guide novices through what can be an expensive and complicated purchase.

While that may be true for cruises, some travel agents are starting to feel like an endangered species. Travel agents can still be tremendously helpful, particularly for complex international journeys, but the Internet has put powerful tools for trip-planning into the hands of average computer users, enabling them to plan their own trips, at any time of the day or night, without sales pressure.

For example, rather than using brochures or guidebooks from an agency, some travelers are using the Net to compile a personal guidebook. A superb site for destination information is Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, where the man who wrote Europe on $5 a Day ($60 a day, in year 2000 dollars) delivers a wealth of valuable tips for budget-conscious travelers.

The Internet's greatest impact on the travel industry has been the emergence of bargain-basement, last-minute fares distributed online. The concept is simple: airlines fly with lots of empty seats and they want to get bodies in those seats, even for a fraction of the discount fare.

After choosing a destination, travelers can use the Net to find schedules and fares for airlines, hotels, and rental cars. Then, if they so choose, they can book online or reserve their travel through a toll-free number.

Leading booking sites such as Expedia and Travelocity let travelers compare rates among hundreds of airlines, hotel chains, or car rental companies. So it's much easier to find the lowest fare at one of these sites than by going directly to a supplier's site, such as Delta, Hilton, or Hertz.

One of the biggest sites for late-breaking bargains is Priceline.com. Fueled by a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign featuring actor William Shatner, Priceline urges buyers to "name your price" for airline tickets and hotel rooms. If an airline or hotel is willing to match your price, you get the flight or the room. Simple.

But some experts say Priceline has drawbacks. If you overbid, Priceline pockets the difference. For example, you might bid $400 for a February roundtrip from New York to Paris. If Priceline can get this ticket for $250, it will keep the $150 difference. Tickets are non-refundable and can't be exchanged. If you want to change your travel plans, you're out of luck.

E-mail alerts are also used to promote last-minute travel deals. Airlines can alert online subscribers about special fares. Travelers sign up at airlines' Web sites; then, typically on a Tuesday or Wednesday, they get an e-mail listing of bargain fares for that weekend. The savings can be substantial. For example, US Airways recently offered an E-Saver fare of $249 roundtrip between San Francisco and Baltimore -- the cheapest non-Internet-booked fare for the same time period was $1,203.

More sophisticated cyberfare programs enable users to specify cities or countries of interest. At a site called 1travel.com, travelers can input their home airport or city and get a list of all super-discount fares leaving from those airports.

Email alerts aren't the only way to be notified about low fares. American Express Travel offers an electronic newsletter called AMExcursions about special travel offers, super last minute getaway fares, and entertainment offers.

For real-time online booking of hotel rooms and hotel accommodations worldwide, another interesting site is Turbotrip.com, formerly Roomfinders, established right here in New Orleans in 1996.

Have I covered all the sites you should visit for your travel planning? Not even close. Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, and Priceline.com were the front runners in an informal survey I conducted at Channel 4, but keep in mind that four or five new travel sites are launched every day. Your best bet is to visit an official travel portal, like Yahoo! Travel, or an independent web page that compiles useful travel links, such as Krislyn's Travel Site or Starting Page to the Best of the Web. Before you know it, you'll be bragging about your trip to Tahiti for only $799. Bon voyage!