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Still No One-Stop Travel Search

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Though travel bookings remain the largest component of e-commerce, generating over of third of the $145 billion US online market, no single travel search engine (TSE) has emerged as the best one-stop shop for finding the best rates on airfare, hotels, or car rentals, says Consumer Reports WebWatch. The bottom line is, says WebWatch, you’d better shop around.

According to Yahoo Travel, some 76% of all online travel purchases are preceded by some sort of search function. That search can begin at specific airline/travel websites, a search engine, a third party site like Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity, or a fourth party search engine that searches several sources for fares and rates.

It was the fourth party travel search engines Consumer Reports WebWatch chose to examine for its report. The report examined the performance of and issues associated with 11 of the most popular fourth party travel search engines.

WebWatch looked at AOL Pinpoint Travel; BookingBuddy; Cheapflights; ITA Software; Kayak; Mobissimo; Pricegrabber; Qixo; SideStep; Travelzoo; and Yahoo FareChase.

Kayak has garnered a lot of attention recently as it has shown the largest six-month increase in market share, up over 6000% between October 2004 and April 2005. Yahoo FareChase rose 659%.

“Consumer Reports WebWatch found reasons to be concerned about this newest segment of the largest sector of online commerce: no TSE can capture all or even most of the available fares and rates; certain itineraries may not be filtered properly; and questions remain about how leading TSEs are compensated and whether or not this affects the unbiased listings of travel products,” reads the abstract for the 29-page report.

The report also found:

None of the sites searched fares and rates from all available sources, from travel aggregator sites to those of individual airlines, hotels and other suppliers of travel services. Although some TSEs search low-fare airlines like JetBlue, other low-fare carriers like Southwest were often left out of the results.

Many of the sites do not encourage direct communication with consumers, creating a potential “customer service vacuum” which may create situations difficult for consumers to resolve.

Questions remain about potential bias on display screens – a problem common to many search engines in general, where consumers may have difficulty determining which results are for real and which are paid placements, or advertising. For example, Yahoo has a relationship with Travelocity for Yahoo.com, but has a completely separate search engine for FareChase.

Some of these search sites have browser compatibility problems that prevent many consumers from using them.

Although some TSEs search low-fare airlines like JetBlue, other low-fare carriers like Southwest were often left out of the results.

The limited number of sites that are crawled by these sites is the biggest issue. If all available resources aren’t utilized, then the best deal can be missed. This is a problem acknowledged in the report by Cheapflights vice chairman Hugo Burge.

“Meta-search sites are searching in real time, but with a limited number of sites. They can’t guarantee the best deal. It’s a huge challenge,” said Burge.

Though none could be said to guarantee the best deal, 5 of the 11 TSE’s examined emerged as most completely addressing all aspects of a planned excursion. BookingBuddy, CheapFlights, Mobissimo, SideStep, and Qixo, all offered search for foreign and domestic airfares; search for hotel rooms; search for car rentals; were compatible with most browsers; and provided direct links to sites while saving search criteria.

AOL Pinpoint Travel missed two of these categories, lacking in car rental search and in browser compatibility. ITA Software scored the worst, lacking in hotel room search, car rental search, and direct links.

Still No One-Stop Travel Search
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