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It could be a long, hot summer for the travel industry -- and for travelers. Airlines are cutting routes and hiking fares, and of course gas prices are sky high. According to a May 18 Travel Industry Assn. survey of 1,500 adults, 31% of travelers are looking for cheaper destinations and 22% plan to shorten their trips. Worse, 10% of those surveyed said they might cancel their trips altogether if gas prices hit $3 a gallon -- and it has hit that in several places.
But the urge to pinch travel pennies is benefiting one pocket of the industry: travel Web sites. Unique visitors to online sites have risen 13%, to 80.3 million a month, in the last year, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. The online travel industry now books $77 billion, or about 29%, of all travel revenue, according to JupiterResearch. Interest in the sites is likely to keep rising, says Diane Clarkson, an analyst with JupiterResearch. "You'll see people researching [more], and there will be a bit more sticker shock," she says.
The sites are happy to oblige. Online vendors from Expedia (EXPE), the world's largest, to newbies like Kayak.com let Net surfers compare prices and order up a wealth of information on airfares, cruises, packages, and more. And they're getting more user-friendly than ever. Bigger sites will let you take a virtual tour of a hotel and view the layout of your cruise ship and stateroom. Expedia, visited by 25 million travelers a month, offers 120,000 user-generated hotel reviews (see BW Online, 4/25/06, "Expedia's Helpful Lift").
Reps at Travelocity.com, a property of Sabre Holdings (TSG), will answer any questions via e-mail within 24 hours. SideStep.com lets you download a toolbar that sits on your browser and activates when you visit a rival travel site. It provides side-by-side comparison results from SideStep's inventory (see BW Online, 5/13/06, "Don't SideStep This Site").
Unique price-comparison features like that are increasingly driving travelers to metasearch sites like SideStep.com and Kayak.com in particular (and they recently became the No. 10 and 11 most visited travel sites, respectively, according to Hitwise). Crawling the Web for the best deals, these sites often offer wider selection and are easier to use than the more established sites. It took Kayak.com less than a minute to come out with a list of 800 flights from San Francisco to New York for early June (see BW Online, 5/22/06, "Kayak: A Step Behind SideStep").
And more cool features may be on the way. "If we're a site that enables someone to upload pictures, share videos, talk about places they'd like to visit or have visited, we are more likely to get [travelers] to come back three or four times a month [instead of a few times a year]," says Steve Hafner, co-founder and CEO of Kayak.com. "No one has done a good job marrying a community site with a search site, and we're eager to be the first site to do that."
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