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Don't SideStep This Site

Editor's Rating: star rating

Easy to use and offering a wide range of listings, travel site SideStep meta-searches its way into the hearts of those looking for flight or hotel deals

Is it just me, or does travel get less fun the older you get? I guess if I had an assistant, a jet, and an infinite travel budget, I'd feel differently. But the bulk of my travel is schlepping to the East Coast for work or family visits and always flying coach.

The overpriced "snack boxes" and screaming kids are just two of the pains. Scouring four or five travel sites to find the cheapest deal or ideal hotel location has gotten old, too. We all know by now that no one site ever consistently has the cheapest price or best selection for any given destination. So in order to avoid the nagging feeling that you overpaid, you must spend some serious time doing serious Internet research.

I remember vividly the first time I saw SideStep, the latest subject in our series of online-travel-site reviews. It's different from online travel agents like Expedia and Travelocity. It's a so-called travel meta-search site that aggregates lots of listings from lots of sites into one easy-to-use search. It was like clouds had parted. You mean, I only have to search one time on one site? It seemed too good to be true!


Searches on SideStep to several citiers turned up less than a dozen entries. SideStep is legally precluded from spidering Expedia (EXPE), Sabre's (TSG) Travelocity, or Cendant's (CD) CheapTickets, so to call this outfit the Google of travel isn't really accurate. You're still missing out on a ton of inventory if you just rely on them -- particularly when it comes to hotels. Searches to several sites turned up less than a dozen entries. Even on flights, several searches showed that the traditional sites are occasionally cheaper, and they have features SideStep lacks, like multi-city search.

Still, SideStep comes closest to making me happy out of any travel site I've ever used. It aggregates listings from thousands of sites, including ones that also share listings with the traditional online travel agents and ones like JetBlue (JBLU) that do not. So overall, you're getting a better selection, even if you may miss out on a few deals.

And then there's the user interface. I love it. All travel sites can be buggy. But in my tests, it was always faster than other travel searches and crashed far less often. It automatically searches airports near your point of departure or destination, and has an easy-to-use left-hand navigation bar that can slice and dice hundreds of flights by price, number of stops, when the flight leaves, or carrier.


I would note that it has gotten buggier over time -- perhaps the result of growing pains. One search for travel from San Francisco to Memphis turned up an astounding "no results." I hit refresh and immediately got more than 200, ranging in price from $381 to $2000.

SideStep can't afford to lose a step. It's the oldest meta-search site, but there are others cropping up and catching up fast, mimicking much of what makes SideStep great. Kayak is one popular one I'll be reviewing soon. Both are vying for greater brand awareness, and together they'll be spending some $30 million in ad dollars over the next year.

But, as of now, SideStep edges Kayak out because of its toolbar. You install it, like some 8 million other people have done, and it just sits silently in your browser until you search any competing travel site. Then it pops up and automatically does a side-by-side search of its own inventory. In other words, it's one big step closer to my personal nirvana of entering search parameters one time and picking a flight. And it ensures that I will always search SideStep's inventory -- I mean, I don't have to lift a finger, so why wouldn't I?


The downside for SideStep is it gives me little incentive to go straight to the site. In theory that could jeopardize its ad revenues. But Chief Executive Rob Solomon says he'll take it for now. It keeps SideStep in the game while the site works on differentiating itself through new features like the just-launched entertainment search. Similar to travel, this feature scours the Web for fun things to do in different cities.

This is hard to do well, and other sites are trying to expand into entertainment and restaurants too, so it'll be a challenge. But I hope SideStep cracks it, because already it has lessened my travel headache more than any other site.

Lacy has been a business reporter for 10 years, most recently covering technology for BusinessWeek. Her book, Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0, was published by Gotham Books in May, 2008. She is also Silicon Valley host of Yahoo Finance's Tech Ticker.

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