In late 2000, I was wrapping up one job in Memphis and starting another in Silicon Valley -- a feat that involved several months of flying back and forth. As far as I can remember, it was the first time I had ever booked travel online, and I was wowed. It was actually fun -- trying all the different sites, finding the cheapest deals. It was like scouring second-hand stores for that great vintage purse.
Now it's 2006 and I'm busy. The fun of exploring travel sites has long worn off. In fact, I've grown to hate it. Every time my husband and I even think about going somewhere I know hours of scouring Web sites is coming up. I'll be comparing rates and flight times, then calling him and asking for his preferences, then waiting for the sites to inevitably stall and crash a few times.
WANTING TO BE WOWED. So when my boss asked if I wanted to vent my rage...umm...and help review some travel Web sites, I knew I'd have plenty to say. It was going to take a lot of gee-whiz features to restore the "wow" factor I had back in 2000.
Lots of Web sites have cute names that don't give a clue as to what they offer. There are even services that will splice together random words for them. CheapTickets isn't one of them. The name says it all: It aims to get you a good deal on travel. It has been doing it longer than most, too. It was started in 1986, when an ad agency in Hawaii got discounted airline tickets because a client couldn't pay its bill. The owner of the agency put a notice in the local classifieds and the tickets went like hot cakes. Michael J. Harley started CheapTickets soon after, reselling discounted tickets in kiosks, newspapers, and over the phone. When the Net went mainstream in 1997, so did CheapTickets, now a part of Cendant Corp. (CD), via Cheaptickets.com (see BW Online, 4/25/06, "Easing Cendant's Bumpy Road").
Although the look and feel has evolved, the site largely works the same way. It gets discounted listings from hotels, rental cars, and airlines and passes on the savings, much like Expedia (see BW Online, 4/25/06, "Expedia's Helpful Lift") and Travelocity (see BW Online, 4/26/06, "Travelocity's Helpful Human Touch"). Many of the fares are the same ones you'd get from the airlines and hotels themselves, but these sites save you the time of going to sites like Delta.com and Hilton.com one-by-one.
AIMING TO PLEASE. So what does CheapTickets do to stand out? Not a lot so far, but it's trying to separate itself from competitors through service. It highlights a "Cheap of the Week"—a destination with hotel and air travel for an extra-low price. It also has Price Alerts. For example, I get an update every time the price that I would have to pay to fly and visit my parents in Memphis drops to under $200, instead of periodically checking rates. Nice features, but not exactly distinctive.
The site has also recently added details like suggestions for entertainment and nightlife when you travel. Now, a lot of sites boast this feature, but it's rarely done well. So I tested out recommendations for my hometown of Memphis and current home of San Francisco. There was nothing for Memphis, the 17th-largest city by population in the U.S.-- not even a shout out to Graceland. Come on!
As for San Francisco, the site did a bit better. But most of the recommended attractions were touristy, not hip spots locals frequent. Any good concierge could tell you about a tour of wine country or Alcatraz and probably more, so CheapTickets isn't adding much value here. Given the results of this litmus test, I certainly wouldn't go to CheapTickets just for this feature.
SHOP AROUND. Few travel sites show off hotels well. I've booked hotels that were a steal, and others that were hardly as nice as advertised. CheapTickets does an admirable job in this area -- it probably comes closer than other sites to giving you a true sense what you'll be getting from a given place. It plots a hotel on a map and provides both user reviews and professional reviews, broken down into such categories as amenities, hotel staff, and room comfort. This is way more content than I'm used to. But the photos for many of the hotels were of lobbies and dressed-up banquet halls. I care about my room when I travel, and that's about it.
There are a few other irritating things about CheapTickets. My husband doesn't like the fact that it posts the pretax fare in bold, while the total is displayed underneath in less-noticeable light green. And while Expedia has a guarantee for lowest fares, refunding your money if you find a cheaper one online later, CheapTickets does this only for hotels. And it isn't always the cheapest. One from San Francisco to Cincinnati was cheaper on CheapTickets, but a trip from Memphis to San Francisco was cheaper on Sidestep. It still pays to shop around.
In short, CheapTickets hasn't restored the "wow" factor for me. It works well enough, has lots of travel options, and is far better than the old-school travel agent alternative. But there's little difference between it and the other sites out there. When it comes to flights and rental cars, they all have the same inventory. Every once in a while one site has a cheaper flight, but no one is consistently best. Plus many of the sites have the same format for entering information and displaying it in the same matrix-style. If CheapTickets really wants to stand out, it needs to try a lot harder.