Is Booking Over the Web Worth the Trip

A look at how online travel websites measure up

Chappelle, a legal researcher in Los Angeles, find it’s worth the time. “Once you get the hang of it and are registered, the services are faster and easier to use. They put you in control,” says Chappelle, who booked at least six leisure round-trips-including flights to San Francisco, Virginia and New York-via America Online last year. Chappelle finds the e-mail notification of specials-a feature offered by most online travel services and airlines-helpful. He contends, “These are great for last-minute trips.”

WEEDING THROUGH THE WEB
While many of the online agencies feature similar products, there are standouts. Business travelers may prefer Biztravel.com (www.biztravel.com) (see “Have Modem Will Travel,” Techwatch, April 1999). It offers various perks. Users can input an unlimited number of legs as well as frequent-flier and corporate-discount numbers; it has a miles tracker; it lets users download their selected itinerary into an electronic calendar; and its bizAlerts sends you a page indicating your flight’s status (as scheduled, delayed or canceled). It also allows users to indicate whether they’re most concerned about flight times, low fares or booking with a particular carrier. In March, Biztravel became the first online agency to offer exclusive prenegotiated hotel and airfare discounts. Members get 5%-30% off the regular rate at 8,000 hotels (including Hilton, Westin, Radisson and Sheraton) in 3,000 cities in 140 countries. At this site, airlines such as Air New Zealand and SAS offer special discounts to Biztravel members.

Of the sites, Travelocity.com (www .travelocity.com), however, works more like a travel agency. That’s because it uses Sabre, the same reservation system used by agencies. It’s also faster now-Travelocity cut the number of screens needed to book a flight from 13 to three. Because it’s easy to use, it’s Shelton’s favorite. “They keep a profile and give me flight options reflecting past travel patterns. It also keeps credit card info on file and displays seat layouts,” he says. The service allows users to order by importance-price, time, nonstop and airline preference-before searching for fares. However, the site doesn’t always show hotel cancellation policies until after a user has booked.

Internet Travel Network (www.itn.net) also displays airplane seating arrangements on-screen, but highlights include real-time flight tracking and travel agent tie-ins. This provides users with an actual agent to direct their questions to and a “real-life” location to pick up documents. Unfortunately, ITN stores only four frequent-flier numbers and no car or hotel membership account numbers.

Microsoft’s Expedia Travel (http:// expedia.msn.com) will screen for both nonstop and one-way flights, a site perk. A limitation, however, is that round-trips are bundled rather than separated into outgoing and incoming flights. Also, the site’s car-rental rates tend to be high.

Preview Travel (www.previewtravel .com) stands out for its array of vacation packages, which most others don’t feature. Its farefinder lets you search for the best fare for over 30 flights per departure query. And even after a flight itinerary is selected, it’ll attempt to find a lower fare.

With American Express’ online service (www.americanexpress.com), travelers can change an itinerary through any AmEx office or

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ACROSS THE WEB