"The online travel agencies have a challenge: to be as good and as trustworthy as the offline agent" in tailoring their information to an individual's needs and preferences, says online expert Henry Harteveldt, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "They're 75 percent to 80 percent of the way there."
Many offline travel agents and their customers disagree with Harteveldt, of course.
Here are some recent and planned innovations by Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, the big three travel sites:
Multiple destinations: It's been difficult to use Web sites to package a complicated trip with several legs. In what analyst Harteveldt calls "a terrific enhancement," www.expedia.com has made this easier. You click on "vacation packages" in the top toolbar and choose "two destinations." From there, it's fairly simple to assemble flights, hotel rooms, car rentals and other options into a single package with a single price and book it.
Car rental disclosure: In a small but notable victory for consumers, www.travelocity.com has added taxes and fees to its car rental quotes. They appear when you hit the "Book Now" button, although they are not in the initial quote under "Select a Car." Such taxes can increase the cost of a car rental at Boston's Logan airport, for instance, by more than 25 percent.
Exchanging air tickets: In a service that mimics traditional agents, Expedia allows airline travelers to rebook e-tickets online without having to phone customer service. It researches alternate plans, calculates change fees and price differences between the old and new tickets, and makes the switch.
Choosing a hotel: When you search for hotels on www.orbitz.com, you now see them neatly plotted on a matrix that includes prices, ratings and distance from your target area. This gives you a quick answer to a complicated question: Can I find a cheaper hotel or get a four-star hotel for the price of a two-star by staying a little farther away? The matrix may not be as informative as a local travel agent who knows the area, but it's a timesaver for bargain-hunting cyber-travelers.