Take extra step in searches

Search sites can point out low fares, but visit travel supplier, too


October 29, 2006|By James Gilden | James Gilden,Los Angeles Times

Searching online for the best travel deals can be a time-consuming proposition. On average, most consumers visit more than three Web sites to compare prices.

The promise of travel search Web sites such as Kayak, SideStep and Mobissimo is that they help with some of the heavy lifting of finding the best travel deals online. But they are not yet perfect.

They differ from online travel agencies such as Travelocity and Orbitz in that they do not actually make bookings but send consumers directly to other Web sites, where travelers can finalize and pay for the deals they find.

They comb through dozens of Web sites, including Travelocity and Orbitz, as well as so-called travel supplier Web sites such as those operated by the airlines or hotel chains.

The deal-finding Web sites have been popular with consumers.

SideStep has been around as a pop-up application for six years. It has been downloaded by more than 9 million users and, since launching a search Web site two years ago, has become the 11th most popular travel site as ranked by Hitwise, a New York-based research company that tracks individual usage of the Internet.

Kayak's Web site, which has also been around for two years, is the 10th most popular.

This popularity has gained the attention of Forbes.com, which last month announced a partnership with SideStep to provide its travel booking function on Forbes' new Web site, Forbes Traveler.com.

It builds on the Forbes brand of Web sites and aims to appeal to higher-end travelers.

ForbesTraveler.com will feature original content aimed at helping the high-end traveler create better vacations.

And although folks in these tax brackets probably are not looking for the cheapest way to enjoy a vacation, they are not averse to finding a good deal on a four- or five-star hotel, which is where SideStep becomes useful.

Rich people usually don't get that way by being foolish with money.

The search results for those using SideStep via ForbesTraveler .com will be filtered to show those four- and five-star properties first, said John Robison, senior vice president of product development for SideStep.

"We've modified the default content to appeal more to their higher-end customer," he said. If someone wants to see results for hotels with lower star ratings, they can click a button to change the search.

It is one example of how these search engines are not yet the end-all and be-all in one-stop travel shopping.

They are powerful and useful tools, but they still require consumers to make certain they are getting the best possible deals for their travel preferences.

Also, while the sites search the vast majority of the Web sites selling travel, doing a little legwork on your own might still save you money.

A recent survey by Hitwise found that about 40 percent of the search results at Kayak went to an online travel agency such as Travelocity, while only 20 percent went directly to a travel supplier site.

The remaining 40 percent visited non-travel-related sites after leaving Kayak. (SideStep sent 28 percent to agencies and 19 percent directly to suppliers.)

These findings matter to consumers because, unlike travel supplier sites where you buy directly from the source, online travel agencies add booking fees. And although the fees are not outrageous, they do add up.

I went to Kayak.com to test this principle for myself. I found an example on my first search.

I searched for a flight between Los Angeles International Airport and London's Heathrow International Airport in mid-October. I was given an array of choices, all around $700. (These prices are for illustration only and may no longer be available.) I was also given a choice of a $576 fare, including taxes and fees, if I was willing to fly into London's Gatwick Airport on Northwest Airlines with one stop in Minneapolis.

That seemed like a great deal, so I clicked on it and was taken to the online travel agency Cheap Tickets.com (cheaptickets. com), an advertiser on Kayak. There was no direct link to Northwest Airlines, though Kayak does search it for fares, said Drew Patterson, vice president of marketing for Kayak.

I then went to Northwest's Web site (nwa.com) to see if I could duplicate or better the fare. I found the exact same flights for $7 less -- the cost of the booking fee at Cheap Tickets.com.

Certainly seven bucks isn't a lot of money, but multiply it by two or more tickets and it starts to add up. And although it took only five minutes to find that fare at Northwest, Kayak should have taken me there to begin with.

"I acknowledge that the technology on the site is still growing and maturing," said Kayak's Patterson. "We're not foolproof yet."

And in its defense, Kayak alerted me to the lower fare option to begin with. Fortunately, I knew enough to take the search a step further.

Here's what consumers should do: Always check with the supplier's site directly, whether you are sent there by a search engine or you go there on your own. The money you save may not always be huge, but it is, after all, your money.

Even the well-heeled travelers who visit ForbesTraveler.com can appreciate that.

James Gilden is a freelance reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

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