By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/15/2011 11:00:31 AM ET 2011-02-15T16:00:31

According to a new poll, Americans are increasingly satisfied with their online travel experiences, although a handful of entrepreneurs still see room for improvement.

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Out Tuesday, the new American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) reports that the online travel industry has hit an all-time high with an aggregate score of 78 (out of 100), up 1.3 percent from 2009. Among the major sites rated, Expedia led the list (unchanged at 79), followed by Travelocity (up 3 percent to 77), Orbitz (down 1 percent to 75) and Priceline (down 4 percent to 73).

Still, as anyone who has spent a few hours wading through multiple websites can attest, satisfaction with the online travel experience itself is just the beginning.

According to Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, which produces the ACSI survey, the biggest frustrations with online travel fall into two main categories: “First and foremost, people want to know they’re getting the best deal. Second is the selection process, the ability to navigate through a trip, sort it this way, sort it that way.”

The importance of context
The industry has done a better job with the former than the latter. For one thing, price remains the top priority for many travelers; for another, it’s a lot easier to aggregate and compare pricing data than other qualitative factors.

“The industry has been phenomenal at response times and getting you a ton of results, but it hasn’t done a very good job of discerning the quality of those results,” said Dave Pelter, CEO and founder of InsideTrip.com. “It’s a little like ‘Home Alone’ with supercomputers. There’s no adult in the room providing any guidance.”

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Take flight search, for example, where thousands of websites have access to the same data, prioritize the results based on price and tend to overlook the qualitative differences between competing itineraries. In that context, a little guidance can mean the difference between a good flight and a god-awful one.

“If a flight that’s a little more expensive has in-seat TV or other amenities that you feel are worthwhile, you may say the premium is worth it,” said Henry Harteveldt, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “It gets into the importance of context and user control.”

Rate the airlines
Last month, TripAdvisor.com (which is owned by Expedia) became the latest player in the airline-ratings game when it rolled out a user-based system for TripAdvisor Flights, the site’s meta-search engine. Users can rate airlines in eight categories, including check-in, baggage handling, in-flight service and amenities, seat comfort, etc., on a scale of 1 to 5.

To rate an airline, users must be TripAdvisor members, sign in and include information on when and where they flew (although the latter isn’t displayed). “Could you lie? Yes, you could, but we take a number of measures to ensure we’re not receiving fraudulent reviews,” said Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights.

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The results skew more positive than negative, with most U.S. airlines scoring between 3.5 and 4 points — somewhat surprising given the vitriol the industry typically engenders. “When people think about what an airline delivers vs. what it was supposed to deliver, they tend to be a little more objective than when they’re complaining to their friends,” said Counter.

While TripAdvisor rates airlines in general terms via the wisdom of the crowd, other sites get more granular, focusing on individual flights and proprietary algorithms to show the pros and cons of assorted itineraries.

At Hipmunk.com, for example, search results are typically ranked, not just by price, but by an “agony index” that combines price, flight duration and number of stops. Displayed in a Gantt chart — essentially a bar graph over time — the highly visual site packs dozens of itineraries onto a single page, hides ones it deems worse (e.g., have longer layovers or more stops) and lets you compare the options at a glance.

It's about choice
“Searching for travel is ultimately about understanding the trade-offs between choices,” said CEO, cofounder and self-described “flight nerd” Adam Goldstein. “Listing a flight that’s slightly cheaper but has a five-hour overnight connection higher in the rankings doesn’t make sense.”

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InsideTrip.com takes a similar approach, but goes even further, returning results based on up to 12 parameters, grouped by speed, comfort and ease. In addition to the familiar measures — e.g., duration, number of stops, etc. — it factors in on-time stats, legroom, historical load factors, even aircraft type (and age) and gate location.

The site also lets you toggle individual parameters on and off to provide more customized results and assigns each itinerary a “TripQuality” score (out of 100) to facilitate comparisons. “The ‘perfect’ flight,” said Pelter, “might be a wide-body aircraft that just rolled off the Boeing assembly line, has great legroom, is flown by an airline that doesn’t lose your bags and departs from a convenient terminal.”

Of course, the real test for any flight-rating site will come down to how potential users rate the online experience itself, just as it does for the more traditional websites measured by the ACSI. (Both Hipmunk and InsideTrip send users to Orbitz for booking.)

“A lot of people’s satisfaction with online travel comes down to navigational aspects,” said Freed. “The capabilities are there, but the big question is can they find what they’re looking for and how easy is it to do.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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