Is Booking Over the Web Worth the Trip

A look at how online travel websites measure up

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Jim Shelton flies back and forth between Los Angeles and Atlanta once a month on business. Almost always, Shelton books his flights online. “They [online travel agencies] give more flight options and lower prices,” says Shelton, a principal of TBC Capital in Atlanta and vice president of business development for Knowledge Universe Inc. in Los Angeles.

More and more travelers are turning to the World Wide Web to research and/or make travel plans. Online travel agencies promise cheaper hotel rooms, car-rental rates and airfares, more flight options and special discounts. According to PhoCusWright, a Sherman, Connecticut-based research company that tracks Internet use, only 18% of wired travelers purchase airline tickets online. However, the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington, D.C., estimates that online bookings for air, hotel, car and other travel products will increase from $827 million in 1997 to nearly $9 billion by 2002. And according to Michael Shapiro, author of Net Travel: How Travelers Use the Internet (O’Reilly and Associates, $24.95), by 2000, 50% of travel-related sales will be made online.

But how well are online consumers being served? Are some Internet travel agencies better than others? black enterprise wanted to determine what value, if any, online travel agencies really provide. Here’s the scoop.

The array of online travel-planning options can be dizzying. Besides the airline Websites, there are four big online travel agencies-Preview Travel, Internet Travel Network, and Microsoft’s Expedia Travel-that enable users to book flights. These pull low fares from various airlines, car-rental agencies and hotels. Online providers such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy also offer travel services. And there are niche sites, such as Biztravel. com, targeted at frequent fliers.

These sites are battling for your business. The airlines want fliers to log on for, rather than phone in, flight bookings. Earlier this year, Delta Airlines announced a surcharge for tickets not purchased through its site, then dropped the extra fee after receiving a slew of consumer complaints. Nevertheless, air carriers are trying other ways to lure travelers online, including frequent-flier bonuses. Book a flight on TWA’s Website, for example, and receive up to 15,000 miles.

be assessed how six online travel agencies service users when they book flights. They were each rated for speed, user friendliness, the selection of airline carriers and the quality of extra options. It took nearly four hours just to scan these few. With each, users must register and fill out a profile, which supposedly helps formulate flight options and make other travel product suggestions. If the service allows fliers to input frequent-flier, hotel and car-rental account numbers, registration can be more time-consuming. Then comes the perusal of the flight choices, paying and receiving confirmation. The process can take longer if you’re renting a car and booking a hotel room, or planning a trip with multiple legs. Compare this with the few minutes it takes to phone a travel agent, and you may be less inclined to book it yourself.

But frequent online bookers such as Jeffrey

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