A Tripadvisor.com user posted a picture of himself posing in the bathroom of his London hotel room. Despite how that might sound, there's nothing dirty about it, unless you count the fact that in the picture he's filling up a bucket with water to help him flush the toilet. See, in his review of the Garden View Hotel, the user from Barcelona says that the toilet wouldn't flush without pouring a bucket of water on top to get the plumbing moving.
There are thousands of candid pictures like this available online, as even the most established online travel sites are harnessing the Web's collaborative potential to enhance their offerings. The Barcelona-based member of Tripadvisor and his hotel bathroom photos are just a few of the millions of similar contributions. Never before have prospective travelers had an opportunity to look this candidly into potential travel destinations.
User-generated content has exploded over the Internet, and, from blogs to Wikis to My Space, real-life user commentary is trumping established media and brands. A few years ago, there was talk of the death of traditional travel agents, as people around the globe clicked their way to e-tickets at online travel-agent sites, like Orbitz and Expedia. Now the established travel guide sites are under attack, as are hotel, restaurant and resort-sponsored Web sites. Travelers have taken to the Web and are now providing real-time, illustrated, no-holds-barred travel guides.
"Collective intelligence," is what Jasper Malcolmson, director of product development for Yahoo! Travel, calls the movement. With features like Yahoo! Shoposphere, an add-on to Yahoo! Shopping that gives users a chance to make lists and guides for others, Yahoo! is tapping into its 400 million users to create content and foster communities that will keep the Web traffic flowing. In addition to reviews and photos from Flickr, the service includes a trip planner, where people can create itineraries for trips that other users can then vote for in Yahoo! Travel's listings if they like the trip plans.
Because of its large audience, these user-powered travel reviews and itineraries give Yahoo! an edge in the $60 billion online travel market. Yahoo! is trying to expand its footprint in Web-booked travel and compete with other big portals, like Cendant's Orbitz , Expedia, which was spun off by Interactive and Travelocity, which is owned by Sabre Holdings.
Currently, the online travel business has evolved into three distinct groups of Web sites.
With online travel agents, like Orbitz and Travelocity, users buy tickets directly from the site, which acts as a middleman and maintains customer relationships. There is also a new generation of travel search sites, or "meta" travel sites, like Sidestep, Kayak or Mobissimo, which find and then refer you directly to airline and hotel Web sites for booking. The last group is old-line travel guides — content oriented sites, like Fodors.com and LonelyPlanet.com, which are increasingly being threatened by user-generated guides, like Realtravel.com and Expedia's Tripadvisor.com.
The big online travel agents still have the lion's share of the market, which was $52.1 billion in 2004. Citigroup Investment Research estimates that for 2005, the U.S. online travel market will increase to $62.3 billion and represent more than one-quarter of the overall U.S. travel market. Despite the meta sites' efficiency at finding the best deals, Forrester Research reports that they haven't yet gained acceptance and presently account for less than 5 percent of all online travel that is booked.
Meta-search sites operate like comparison-shopping pages, in that they aggregate pricing data from many retail sources. Thanks to Google, searching has become the most widespread Web application, so it is likely that these new-and-improved travel search engines will gain share.
Search for a plane ticket on Kayak.com, for instance, and you'll get results from more than 100 sites, in addition to results from online travel agent Orbitz. The sites pay Kayak (and Sidestep and Mobissimo) fees for searchers who click over, but that doesn't affect the prices you'll find. This can save a lot of time compared with searching through the sites of individual airlines that service your destination. These meta sites believe that they offer better choices to travelers, because big travel agent sites, like Orbitz and Expedia, don't include every airline or travel-booking agency. You won't find any JetBlue flights on Expedia, for example. (Low-cost airlines generally don't participate with online travel agents.)
In fact, meta-search sites are staffed by a lot of defectors from the online travel agencies. Among them is Steve Hafner, CEO of Kayak.com, who was one of the founders of Orbitz. He left the company two weeks after Orbitz's $316.7 million IPO in late 2003.
Orbitz CEO Mitch Truwit says that where his company adds value is in its services for consumers. Because Orbitz customers buy from Orbitz (which then buys at travel agent discounts from airlines and hotels), the company is able to offer services after the time of purchase. For example, Orbitz customers can submit their cell phone numbers and be contacted if there are flight delays. Truwit says that seven out of ten customers are willing to give the company their cell phone number for these kinds of services. Similarly, Travelocity advertises its ability to help customers when there are hotel reservation problems. Customer service has become the main selling point for online travel agents. Online travel firms also continue to promote bundling, in which a site's search engine scans available offers to create packages of deals on airfare, hotels, car rental and even entertainment at your destination.
All of the sites, including meta-search sites, make better margins from hotel room sales and car rentals than from airfare. So visitors should expect heavy upselling of rooms and car rentals when surfing these sites. As the owner of Hotels.com and Tripadvisor.com, Expedia is a leader in this pursuit. Fueling the strength of Tripadvisor.com is its community aspects, which feature more than 3 million user reviews.
Given the rise of new applications for online travel, the best way to plan a trip may be to use one browser window to search user-generated reviews and another window dedicated to a fare and travel-booking search engine. In the case of Yahoo! Travel, you can do it all at one site. The Internet giant bought travel meta-search site FareChase in 2004 and offers fare comparison searches to its users alongside all of its reviews and trip planners.
If you don't find the fare you want today, you can set up an automated e-mail at Kayak.com and get notified when the fare changes. Yahoo!, too, will soon be matching Kayak's notification service on its MyWeb RSS pages.
The bottom line is that online travel resources are getting better. This should help most of us avoid many of the travel nightmares, which often occurred in the days when most consumers were forced to rely solely on the judgment of a chatty travel salesperson or a glossy brochure.