Which are the best and worst travel websites for accessibility?

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Image via Pixabay, public domain image

A new report into the accessibility and usability of 10 top travel websites, released by digital user experience agency Sigma, shows that many travel companies are dropping the ball when it comes to making their web presences accessible.

Every year, the UK spends a total of £31 billion on international tourism, the fourth highest in the world after China, Germany and the USA, according to the World Tourism Organisation. The Association of British Travel Agents also found that between 2014 and 2015, 89% of UK holidaymakers booked their holiday online.

With such huge revenues overwhelmingly coming from online portals, it’s vital for travel companies to provide the best and most inclusive user experience to potential customers. But research released this month shows that many of the top travel sites are still missing many of the features that will make their websites accessible to users with disabilities.

How did travel companies fare?

In the report, Sigma assessed the user experience and accessibility of 10 randomly-selected top travel websites: Skyscanner, Expedia, Virgin Atlantic, Booking.com, On the beach, Last Minute, AirBnB, British Airways and Co-operative Travel.

They looked at 11 different areas of accessible web design, such as logical headings, clear focus areas, descriptive alt text and colour contrast, assessing whether or not they were present on each site. Most of these design elements were geared towards accessibility for blind or visually impaired users, but others looked at accessibility for users with motor impairments, attention disorders or learning difficulties.

In addition to the checklist, Sigma hired an independent consultant, Molly Watt, to test out the accessibility of each website by completing a holiday booking on each one.

Molly Watt is an IT and accessibility consultant and public speaker who lives with Usher Syndrome, meaning that she was born deaf and is partially sighted.

The Sigma report checklist showing how each travel website fared in terms of accessibility features.

The majority of travel websites had clearly thought about partially-sighted users in their design process. Six out of 10 sites had good colour contrast, and seven of the sites had large enough text, using bold where necessary.

Text which is small and not bold can be difficult for blind and partially-sighted visitors to decipher, so this is crucial for businesses to get right if they want the majority of people to be able to use their websites.

Six of the travel sites in the study also used logical headings which go down in size – a key element of easy to navigate page design – and descriptive alt text for images. But four out of the 10 websites still didn’t feature these very basic design considerations.

Co-operative Travel, Expedia, Last Minute and On the Beach all fell down on alt text, which means there is no available substitute for images if they fail to load, or if users can’t see them.

For travel websites not to have descriptive alt text is a huge oversight, given the extent to which they rely on images such as pictures of hotel rooms to communicate important information. Alt text is also read by search engines, making it an important SEO consideration as well.

A resort listing for Los Patos Park on travel website On the Beach, with a large image showing a water park, with a carousel of smaller thumbnail images below it. To the right of the picture is a booking form.Travel websites like On the Beach rely heavily on images, yet most don’t have descriptive alt text that will let users with sight loss know what the image contains

Most of the sites fell down even further when it came to navigating via a keyboard or screen reader. Keyboard navigation is a big part of web accessibility, as users with motor impairments may rely on a keyboard to browse websites, and visually impaired users might use a keyboard, or a screen reader to navigate around.

It needs to be possible to navigate web pages with a keyboard or screen reader in a predictable and logical way, and not just that, but to skip irrelevant parts of the navigation rather than waste time scrolling through them.

Six of the travel websites had the ability to tab around the site, but only four sites – AirBnB, Expedia, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic – contained skip links, such as ‘skip to content’, which allow users to bypass unnecessary menus to reach the main content.

One of the worst offenders in this area was the Co-operative Travel website, which forces users navigating with a screen reader or keyboard to go through at least 100 links in the mega menu (e.g. ‘Holidays’ or ‘Destinations’) which aren’t even visible unless you mouse over them, making it completely unclear where you are within the page layout. The drop-down menus are also inaccessible to anyone using a keyboard because they don’t have a focus area, and won’t allow users to make a selection.

A screenshot of the co-operative travel website showing the 'Destinations' drop-down mega menu, which lists 65 different travel destinations. The Caribbean is currently selected.Tabbing around the Co-operative Travel website forces users to scroll through mega menus of over 100 links, which are only visible when moused over

Overall, only two of the 10 websites examined in the study, Expedia and Virgin Atlantic, were considered to be ‘screen reader friendly’. In the UK alone, there are around 2 million people living with sight loss, a number which is predicted to rise to over 2.25 million by 2020, and nearly 4 million by 2050. So websites which fail to accommodate the technology used by people with sight loss are excluding a huge and growing demographic from their business.

The winners… and sinners

The travel website that scored the highest by far on accessibility across the board was Expedia. It scored a 10 out of a possible 11 in Sigma’s checklist of accessible features.

Surprisingly, the only area in which it fell short of the mark was having descriptive alt text for all of its images, something which is time-consuming but fairly straightforward to fix.

Here are some of the features which make Expedia’s website so accessible:

  • Users are able to zoom in on the website, meaning they can enlarge it when necessary
  • Headings are clearly presented and the font is easy to read
  • Overall, the layouts are simple and information is presented in a two-column layout (a sidebar on the left and the main content in the middle), which makes it easier to scan the page
  • Users aren’t confused by add-ons like car hire or insurance when going through the searching or booking process
  • Calendars are easy to follow and have good colour contrast
  • The website allows users to easily make special requests through an open text field, such as noting that they require a guide dog

A screenshot of the booking process on Expedia, listing hotels in Copenhagen. The site has a two column layout, with a narrow sidebar listing the trip specifications, and the second, larger column showing hotel pictures, details and prices.The Expedia booking process is clearly laid out and free from unwanted distractions

The second-highest scoring website was Virgin Atlantic, which scored eight out of a possible 11 for accessibility features. Virgin Atlantic, like Expedia, is one of the only travel websites which is screen reader friendly.

It generally has good keyboard navigation, with skip links and ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite) roles which allow users to skip over unnecessary menus, although the ‘one way flight’ radio button on the homepage can’t be selected by keyboard users.

Molly Watt, the report’s independent tester who is partially sighted, also found the Virgin website layout to be visually confusing when making a booking, and the colour contrast also needs to be more accessible to users who are partially sighted or colourblind.

A screenshot of the top of Virgin Atlantic's website, with a link reading "skip to main content".

The travel website which scored the lowest on accessibility features was Co-operative Travel, which only managed to hit one out of the 11 points on the checklist – zoom functionality on iPad.

Some of the features which make the website less accessible to users with disabilities are:

  • The colour contrast of the site makes it difficult to read text
  • The layout of the site is busy, which combined with the colour contrast makes it even harder for partially sighted users to follow
  • When searching for a holiday, the drop-down menus don’t fit properly on the screen, meaning that some of the wording isn’t visible. This causes issues for users trying to find destinations, and choose the number of nights for the holiday
  • The inconsistent user interface across different pages makes it a struggle to keep up when searching for a holiday, and means that some people will need to learn new layouts as they make their way across the site. This prolongs the searching process and could leave users frustrated, to the point where they abandon their booking
  • When tabbing around the site with a keyboard, there is no “skip to content” option, and users are forced to scroll through huge, invisible menus before they can reach certain parts of the interface

A screenshot of the Co-operative Travel website, with an orange navigation bar set against a picture of a dock at sunset. The navigation bar has a drop-down menu listing destinations, but the destination text doesn't fit inside the menu, meaning that a horizontal scroll bar is needed just to read the full name of each airport.The Co-operative Travel website has poor colour contrast with a busy visual display, and drop-down menus don’t fit properly on the screen

The second-lowest scorer for accessibility features was Last Minute, which scored two out of 11 on accessibility. The Last Minute website has a simple, easy to scan layout and headings which are logical and descend in size, but the site has a white background, which can cause glare and make it difficult for some users to read.

There is no clear focus area when tabbing around the site, meaning that keyboard users are ‘flying blind’ for most of their navigation, and the images on the site do not have alt text descriptions to help partially sighted users or screenreader users to understand what they are showing.

How travel sites can improve on accessibility

How can travel websites which want to be accessible to a wider audience up their game? The report recommends taking the following steps:

  • Adjust colour contrasts to avoid all-white pages, especially where forms are concerned. Users will need to clearly see which parts they need to complete, so marking those a different colour would be a good move
  • Enable the ‘zoom’ function so that people living with sight loss can view the site without assistive technology
  • Use a simple and uncluttered layout
  • Make all elements on the page accessible for visitors using a keyboard or screen reader – this includes adding descriptive alt text to all images
  • Introduce skip links to allow users to reach the main content quickly and easily

While many of the websites assessed by Sigma and Molly Watt have implemented some features which improved accessibility, most are a long way away from putting it front and centre of their design process. As the number of people living with disabilities such as sight loss continues to grow, the importance of making websites fully accessible to them is impossible to overstate.

As Molly Watt wrote in her response to the report,

“When I’m trying to book a holiday on a travel site, I quite often feel like I’m going in the wrong direction. Travel sites with bad accessibility have stopped me from making purchases in the past and hampered my experiences.

“I do think in general accessibility is starting to be talked about more, but in the grand scheme of things there’s still lots of websites that are totally inaccessible. I think businesses are guilty of not considering accessibility from the beginning of the design process, and almost trying to incorporate accessibility features as an afterthought – which shouldn’t be the case.”

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