The prospect for one-stop shopping for travel, à la Amazon, doesn’t seem so far-fetched. As sites upgrade their offerings with more content, more transparency and more alternative channels, it's easier for people to search and book travel.
So many Web sites, so little time.
Take travel planning. You’ve got your destination sites and supplier sites. Your online travel agencies (OTAs) and meta-search sites. User-review sites, deal-aggregator sites and opaque sites where either the price or the specific provider isn’t immediately revealed. You can even follow the parade of real-time tips on Twitter.
All of which can lead to a serious case of TSFS — Travel Search Fatigue Syndrome, that dizzying condition in which you’ve clicked on so many links, you can’t even remember where you found that great place or really hot deal.
feel your pain, which is why I wonder, can’t somebody just invent an Amazon.com for travel?
On the hunt for an affordable hotel
I had a TSFS relapse just the other night while looking for a hotel for a family trip to Washington, D.C. We knew we wanted to be near the major museums and monuments; we assumed that meant a higher-star hotel than we’d normally book, and we figured late summer would mean painfully high prices.
So I started on Kayak to get a sense of the market and found a nice four-star hotel near Dupont Circle. (This, of course, prompted serial detours to the likes of TripAdvisor and TravelPost to vet our choice.) Punching in our travel dates brought up four booking options, three at $259 per night and one (Skoosh, a UK-based site) at $212. With taxes and fees, the latter came to $764 for a three-night stay.
The choices, however, didn’t include the major OTAs, so I figured I should check them out, too, and found the following: $640 on Travelocity, $880 on Expedia, $948 on Expedia’s Hotels.com and $951 on Orbitz. Taxes, fees and third-person charges were wildly inconsistent, as well.
At those prices, further shopping was a given. I checked Hotwire and Priceline, but wasn’t in the mood for mystery. I tried Getaroom, the new site that posts published prices but offers opaque-style discounts, if available, to people who call an 800 number. (Alas, no deals for our dates.) And I called the hotel, where I was quoted $259 per night, until I asked if they could do any better, at which point, the reservation agent offered $234.
Which is how I ended up on DealBase, another recent addition that scrapes the Web for deals published elsewhere. Apparently, they’d come across a deal in an e-mail promotion that was bookable (although not publicized) on the hotel Web site. The price: $119 per night, plus $52 in tax, for a grand total of $408.
And, poof!, my TSFS went away.
Bargains, bargains, who’s got the bargains?
That’s not to suggest that DealBase will always have the best rates, only that the proliferation of travel Web sites and alternative distribution channels means that deal-seekers have more options than ever. Tomorrow it could be Expedia or Kayak or BubbasBestDeals.
Moreover, with occupancies and revenues tumbling, hoteliers are moving their inventory like chess pieces — a Web special here, a last-minute sale there and more hidden discounts via the opaque sites. Hotwire, for example, added 4,000 hotels to its opaque inventory in the first three months of the year, up 20 percent from 2008.
All of which suggests that price parity, i.e., the idea that all channels have access to the same prices, will remain more elusive for hotels than it is for, say, airfare. “Meta-search is more complicated for hotels,” says Carroll Rheem, director of research for PhoCusWright, “because the hotel decision is more complicated. Even in this day and age, people want to be sure they’re finding the best value, and they’re willing to shop around to make sure they’re getting it.”
Ultimately, suggests Yen Lee, president of Uptake.com, the number of sites you search may come down to one fundamental decision: Are you an eBay- or Amazon-style shopper? “eBay is about getting the lowest possible price, even if it’s a little more work,” says Lee. “Amazon is about ease and convenience over always having the lowest advertised price. And Amazon is kicking eBay’s butt.
If that’s the case, then the prospect for one-stop shopping for travel, à la Amazon, doesn’t seem so far-fetched. As sites upgrade their offerings with more content, more transparency and more alternative channels (e.g. Expedia-owned TripAdvisor offering meta-search), fewer people will find themselves facing the dreaded TSFS. “If you’re comfortable that the price is in the ballpark, and it’s a better shopping experience,” says Lee, “you might not bother with the other sites.”
“Rich content will get better and better,” echoes Rheem. “Things that give a better sense of what you’re getting into — virtual tours, better photography, interactive maps so you can see what’s nearby — will become more integrated into the shopping process. As that happens, it’ll become easier to come to those decisions.”