The Evolution of Buying Travel Online

Will it get any easier?

In late 1995, Microsoft moved into the travel arena and launched Expedia. Overnight, consumers felt empowered – they could search and buy their own air travel. It was a revolution.

While other retail players soon followed, the Expedia brand was synonymous with online travel – not just how you and I plan and book travel, but how the entire travel decision and sale is made.

Fast forward to 2010 and some of the shine of shopping online has tarnished. Although many advances have been made in delivering ‘real time’ accurate pricing, and you can now search everything from beach packages to cruises to Himalayan hiking expeditions, searching online requires a great deal of patience – and time.

Travel purveyors are aware of the need to make the shopping experience faster and more user friendly. They grapple with translating the decision making process a consumer goes through when narrowing down their vacation choices into an online experience.

The reality is, a machine can never quite match a human experience, but advances are being made in integrating various elements.

Dynamic Packaging is the latest buzzword in online travel shopping. It follows the trend for consumers to look for more experiential travel options, allowing them to create their own travel packages – customizing hotel and air options in a mix and match style.

To help limit the number of websites consumers have to refer to during their search, rich content such as maps, videos, pictures and reviews are overlaid onto travel booking portals. These links allow you to quickly get a visual on exactly where the resort is located, what people have to say about it, and even drill right down to a Google Maps view of the property – without leaving the site.

According to Paul Durrant, Director of International Development for Comtec Travel Technology, “The new systems are geared towards getting the consumer to the check out button as quickly and painlessly as possible in one integrated website.”

Durrant also stresses the importance of standardization of back-end methodology to help create a consistent web journey for consumers surfing to different websites. There is nothing more frustrating for consumers than having to figure out each portal’s search requirements when trying to get a price.

Another important advance in travel shopping is in the area of mobile applications. Consumers can now receive pricing alerts, book seats, and even get their boarding card on their iPhone or Blackberry. Dan Langevin, V.P. Sales & Marketing for Softvoyage – a major Canadian travel software company – says, “We have to provide all the tools for consumers who want instant access to travel information.”

The major obstacle to creating a more intuitive shopping experience is that the travel inventory systems differ for each supplier. Langevin says that “No two suppliers are alike. So we spend every day working on big picture ideas to streamline the process. That’s what we do. Shopping online has to be a no brainer for consumers.”

So, what does the evolution of online booking really mean for us consumers? Without a doubt, we have all seen increased choice in booking channels: the option to self-book or to use traditional options like agents or call centres.

But funnily enough, the proliferation of every type of online travel site imaginable has seen many consumers returning to their travel agent down the street. For a growing number of us, the sheer volume of online choices has lengthened the booking process for all but the simplest of journeys.

By: Robert Kokonis, President & Managing Director, AirTrav Inc.

Photo Credits: scorpion26, Pgiam

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