Taking In The Travel Sites

How good are the top three online agents at helping plan a trip?

It is summer in New York and on company time here I sit planning my vacation. According to scads of surveys that cross my desk, I'm not the only one--some 80% of surfing is done at work. And it's that time of year. But unlike you, fellow cubicle rats, I don't need that boss-is-coming backup plan--that one-click way to put something that looks like work on my computer screen. This is a review of the top three travel sites on the Web: Microsoft Expedia, Travelocity, and Preview Travel. So--get this--I am working. (At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.) I spent 10 luxurious hours surfing travel sites where the average visit is just seven minutes. Now I'm here to tell you wage slaves all about it. Some days, I like this job very much.

Naturally, there is a deadly serious purpose to all of this worktime goofing off: to size up the state of one of the Internet's most popular pastimes. Preview, Travelocity, and Expedia are among the Net's 44 most-visited sites, attracting audiences between 3.7 million and 3.9 million people monthly, according to Media Metrix. Are these the best travel sites? Depends on who you ask. We picked them for a simple reason: They're the ones people use the most.

BEST OF TEST. Of the group, I like Preview. It manages the best balance between the three reasons a good commercial Web site exists: content, community, and commerce. I also found it the best-looking and easiest to use. The Web is moving toward weaving the three C's together tightly, because Web merchants think content and community will move goods. But it also makes for a logical, coherent experience for the user. It simply makes sense to have travel information as close as possible to where you can do something about it, and to match it up with chat, bulletin boards, and the other cornerstones of online communities. Preview's balance of the three C's is far from perfect, but it's the least wobbly of the three.

With that standard in mind, I crafted a way to test the sites: I planned three different trips. One was a theater weekend in New York at a good hotel, another a long October weekend in Montreal, and the third a weeklong 10th-anniversary trip to London in the fall. The good news for my wife--and for at-work slackers everywhere--is that I booked one of them. (Which one? I did this on the company's time, not the company's tab).

The bad news is that all three sites flunked basic elements of what people should be able to insist on from a well-rounded Web site. None of the three could get me to Montreal the way I wanted to go--by Amtrak. All of them are too packed with press releases to provide objective, high-quality content. And only one of them (Expedia) even tries to do a decent job of creating a community where I can swap information with fellow travelers.

"DINGY"? Let's start with content. I want Web content to do three basic things: teach, entertain, and inspire trust. And in the first two areas at least, Preview had the clear edge. All of the sites offer city-by-city content about popular destinations, but Preview's alliance with Fodor's Travel Publications Inc. lets it consistently serve up the best-written copy of the bunch. Like a good vacation, it's fun. Fodor's four-paragraph introduction to dining in New York is enough to make you buy a ticket. Travelocity was second, thanks to content from Frommer's.

Microsoft has its own writers, and their work can be iffy. Right around the corner from my office is Broadway, and every night I walk to the bus through throngs of thrilled-to-be-here tourists. To Expedia, New York's theater district is "a small (and unfortunately dingy) section of the city." Hey, no one knows better than I the smell of Eighth Avenue on a hot summer morn, but the out-of-towners seem to like it--and Times Square has changed a little in the past few years. (It's been in all the papers). Plus, Microsoft takes too seriously the idea that Web writing has to be terse. What's with all the bullet points? Travel writing is supposed to be fun, not software code by another name.

All three sites share one serious content flaw: Their "news" sections rely too much on the latest press releases on fare sales. This speaks to a trend sure to hamper the Net sooner or later: It's hard to trust what you read on the Web because everyone has a commercial motive. If you only publish what the industry wants you to say, it's tough to stay relevant enough to keep people coming back. That's why it makes sense for a Travelocity or a Preview to dish up tough coverage of air safety or carry-on luggage rules along with the restaurant reviews--something they just don't do.

The natural complement to content is community, which ought to work especially well on travel sites because people love to tell vacation stories. But Expedia is the only one of these sites that really plays the community game. I went to its United Kingdom bulletin board and asked for advice on where to go in the English countryside. Within 24 hours, I had two E-mails from Expedia members about their trips and three postings to the board. It was genuinely useful stuff. And it's unavailable on Preview (which has customer reviews for hotels) and Travelocity.

But let's face it: People use these sites to buy tickets. So how are these sites at commmerce? At what they do best, which is selling tickets, these sites are good. But they're not great.

TRAIN IN VAIN. First, none of the three could deliver my fall weekend trip to Montreal. The simple reason: None has a deal with Amtrak. One reason for the trip is the train ride through upstate New York's fall foliage. Holding hands. Romance, en route to a city where French is spoken. If I want to fly, no problem. If I want to reserve a concierge-level room at a Renaissance hotel, all three sites delivered the same room for about the same price. But no train.

In New York, the same issues kept nagging. Preview served up a suite with a king-size bed and a Central Park view at the St. Moritz for $190 a night. Expedia quoted $240 for an economy room. But neither could sell me theater tickets. Again, I have to do half the work myself. Isn't the whole point of surfing at the office to ditch work?

The trip to London showed me which sites are easy to use and which aren't. Bad news, Travelocity. Both Expedia and Preview let me start by choosing the hotel I wanted. Like most tourists, I'll typically buy a package to save money. Then both sites delivered packages within a few dollars of each other. Travelocity was a different story. It seemed determined to make me start my package by choosing an airline. So I spent a useless 20 minutes trying to figure out how to build a package by first picking a hotel and then finding an airline. I'm on the plane for seven hours or so, yet in the hotel all week. Finally, I gave up. I never did get a price, though I'm sure I would have if I had looked harder. I just got annoyed. It was practically, gasp, work.

Now, it's a fair question whether I'm judging these sites by the right criteria. I don't doubt Travelocity President Terry Jones when he says focus groups tell him they want price, price, and more price and don't care about content or community. Certainly the market cap of Priceline.com Inc., which lets you try to "name your own price" for travel and offers no content at all, gives 15 billion ways to argue that the three C integration is bunk. But that's today's Net. Not tomorrow's.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.