Tourism Industry News

Bigger may be better for booking online travel

16/10/2008 16:07

Given today's steadily increasing airfares and hotel rates, using the big "opaque" online travel-buying sites makes more sense than ever. Hotwire and Priceline are called opaque because, for their lowest rates, you have to make a firm nonrefundable commitment to buy before you know the details.


With accommodations and rental cars, you don't know the name of the supplier before you buy; with airfares, you don't know either the airline or the flight schedule. Although both sites have been around a long time, they've recently added features and functionality.


In today's economy, airlines and hotels face a double whammy of escalating costs and weakening demand. Opaque sites are an ideal way to sell off some capacity at cut-rate prices that would otherwise go unsold while keeping advertised and published rates high. Both sites also sell at published rates, but as far as I can see, they have about the same offerings as the big conventional sites. The real interest is in the opaque offerings.


Airfares: Opaque sites make sense in today's climate. Hotwire says its opaque fares - which it calls "limited" fares - cut "30 percent or more" offregular rates; Priceline shows reductions of more than 50 percent in some cases. Given the possibility of that big a deal, you might be willing to forego selecting the exact schedule you want. Still, for many, lack of schedule selection is the deal breaker. Also, you don't get frequent-flier miles.


Hotel accommodations: I've recommended opaque sites for hotels for years. You choose a "star rating" range, and in bigger cities, you specify one or more areas where you'd be willing to stay. In Boston, for example, Hotwire gives you a choice among Quincy Market, Logan Airport, Boston Common, Back Bay, Waterfront and several suburban locations. I've found star ratings to be reasonably accurate.


The main drawback is that - if you're traveling with your significant other - you can't specify whether you want two single/queen beds or one queen or king. Also, you can't specify that you need free parking, Wi-Fi access or a business center.


Rental cars: Given the commodity nature of rental cars, an opaque site - as long as its price is right - seems a no-risk proposition. The main drawback is that you can't take advantage of the counter-bypass systems several of the big rental companies use.


Priceline is the "name your own price" operation: You tell Priceline how much you're willing to pay, and Priceline responds with whether you've been successful. Its site has two interesting new features:


-- Inside Track displays average "savings" from published airfares experienced by recent Priceline users on hundreds of routes. My check indicated that the biggest reductions are on tickets purchased only a few days before departure - in effect, Priceline lets you avoid the worst penalties for late booking.


-- The hotel page links to a display of recent successful hotel bids.


Hotwire is less opaque than Priceline, in that you see the price - but not the supplier - before you commit. Hotwire's Web site offers two especially useful tools:


-- TripWatcher allows you to search for airfares, hotels and car rentals over a range of dates to find the best deals, and it posts lower airfares that might be available to/from nearby airports in other cities.


-- TripStarter displays a year-and-a-half graphing of airfares and destination hotel rates for a trip you specify, as well as climate data, that allow you to decide the "best" time of the year to visit.


The biggest caution in using either opaque site is that your purchase, once made, is completely nonrefundable and nonreusable - no money back, no applying the value to a future purchase. You can, however, buy trip insurance; Hotwire links to Access America.


Related Link: San Francisco Chronicle



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