Traveling Second-Class Via the Internet

One of the Internet’s great promises in the e-commerce arena has been that it will make travel more convenient and cost-effective. The logic is compelling: Eliminate the middlemen (travel agents) and the order takers (airline, hotel, car-rental agents), and the traveling public will share in the bountiful savings.

For the logic to work, though, two key ingredients are required:

  1. Consistency. The Internet must consistently provide the best selection of the best deals, day in and day out. The weekly emails from the major airlines about their various national and international travel deals certainly give travelers a feeling of being in touch with the latest and greatest in travel.

  2. Trust. The traveler must have trust in the online reservations system that, in exchange for doing it yourself, you are being rewarded with the best possible deals. For example, US Airways recently alerted subscribers via email to some special fares to Florida from Boston -$181 if you reserved via the US Airways site. When I encountered some technical glitches making my reservations and called US Airways, the agent gave me a tip for bypassing the problem (apparently a Netscape problem) and encouraged me to try again. When I asked him if he could simply make the reservation, he said he could, but the ticket price on this special fare would be $8 higher. I went back to the Internet and made the reservation, but I felt okay about it because I now trusted that I was being rewarded with the best deal.

Thanks to a recent warning and my own travel experience, though, I’m getting this queasy feeling that the major Internet travel sites – Expedia and Travelocity in particular, along with some airlines – are failing to regularly provide the two ingredients. It takes only a few missteps to gum up the entire works. If travelers begin to doubt that the Internet is delivering on its travel promises, then the system becomes undone pretty quickly as people doubt the promises of all Internet sites and either waste time doing more surfing around or revert to the old ways – calling travel agents and ticket agents to hone in on the best choices.

The warning about Expedia comes from Lisa Price, coauthor of “The Best of Online Shopping.” On a recent writers’ listserv (which she gave me permission to quote), she wrote that while doing research, “I found that some travel sites (like Expedia) were offering 30% off your next United Airlines ticket when you book one with United today (or in the near future). Good deal, no? No! When I did some tests, I found that IN EVERY CASE the original United ticket was significantly higher than say Delta or American, so there really wasn’t any saving at all. (For example: R/T Albuquerque/Manchester, N.H., on Delta and American was $400; on United, $1,000.)”

I had a similar experience with Travelocity. I wanted to reserve a roundtrip between Philadelphia and Boston for mid-October and on Travelocity discovered under its “Fare Watcher” a special $198 fare. I immediately hit “Book It!” only to learn the fare is available just on Saturdays and Sundays. Since I wanted to travel in one direction on a Friday, I asked Travelocity to search out other options, and provided my dates. I indicated that US Airways was my preferred airline, since I know it has the most flights between the two cities.

My options? The cheapest was American Airlines at $388.50 (on its American Eagle unit, which likely meant a prop plane). US Airways was a whopping $525.50.

Just for the heck of it, I decided to check out the US Airways web site. Interestingly, I could get the $198 fare for the days I wanted (including the Friday that Travelocity said was off-limits), though I’d have to leave several hours earlier in the day each way than I preferred. But the $327.50 difference had my interest, and I made a reservation. Then a funny thing happened. The next day, I ran into a glitch trying to confirm the reservation and buy the ticket, and was advised by the site to call a customer service number. When I got through to an agent and gave him my reservation number, I decided to inquire about getting that $198 fare at my preferred times later in the day. No problem, he said. While he couldn’t get it exactly the way I wanted, he was able to move both flights back a couple of hours each day to the point where they were within an hour of my ideal times all for $198. I was all set, even if the process was circa 1994.

Most significant, though, the seeds of doubt have been well sown. Bait and switch? Incompetence? I’m not sure, but you can clearly see an old marketing axiom at work here – a brand that takes years to build up can come unraveled very quickly from lack of consistency and trust. Just look at what’s happening to Firestone. Nobody looks good in the examples I just described – Expedia, Travelocity, United Airlines, US Airways. Their missteps cast doubts over an entire emerging industry. My travel agent is looking better all the time.

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