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Travel web sites: You still need to compare

After closely evaluating the six largest independent travel web sites, we wish we could recommend just one as your one-stop shopping tool. But while several excel in certain areas, none outshines the others in all aspects of booking.

Consumer Reports Travel Letter, in conjunction with Consumer WebWatch, has examined the six largest integrated travel sites: Cheap Tickets, Expedia, OneTravel, Orbitz, TravelNow, and Travelocity. In the end, we found that to get the best fares you have to comparison shop. Not only does no one site do it all, but Southwest, the largest low-fare airline in the country, is not listed in any of them. However, our study clearly explains which are the best and worst sites.

CRTL found that Expedia beat its competitors in providing the greatest number of lowest fares but that Travelocity offered the best array of low fares coupled with viable flight choices. Travelocity had the best booking tools. Expedia and Travelocity also had the best customer service and privacy & security policies.

Our full report is available in our Consumer Reports Travel Letter Electronic Edition. It provides answers to these questions:

  • Which site provided the greatest number of lower fares?
  • Which site suggested that the best flight between Miami and Atlanta included a stop in Newark?
  • Which was the only site that provided flights and fares for every query?
  • Which two sites did not allow us to cancel bookings via a toll-free number?
  • Most important, which were the best overall sites?

Orbitz, which is owned by five major airlines, performed well at providing lowest fares and viable flights, but it was edged out in most tests by either Expedia or Travelocity. The technological divide between the larger three sites and the others-Cheap Tickets, OneTravel, and TravelNow-is so considerable that CRTL cannot recommend the smaller sites at all, unless the consumer is looking for deeply-discounted and nonrefundable fares.

The CRTL study also found that it is getting harder to find the best fares through a travel agent. Between 24 and 78 percent of the time, each of the six sites offered prices equal to or lower than those posted in the largest computer reservations system used by travel agents. That’s a big change from when CRTL tested travel web sites in Oct. 2000, when the range was between 6 and 22 percent.

CRTL has brought an unprecedented level of expertise and repetition to its testing of travel booking methodology. First we selected 10 busy domestic nonstop routes and created itineraries likely to be used by both leisure and business travelers. Then we simultaneously requested flight and fare data from the six sites during nine separate test sessions, for a total of 540 flight queries. All testing was done in real-time conjunction with our outside consultant, who made identical queries via a DOT-regulated computer reservations system. When undertaking such testing, CRTL has called upon the full resources of Consumers Union, including the Research, Statistics, Survey, Fact-Checking, and Legal Departments. We conducted these tests anonymously and off-premises, at various times of the day and week.

Once again, our extensive testing raised serious questions about potential bias and the way in which flight information is displayed, due to the relationship between travel web sites and the airlines that own or advertise on them. Consumers Union has expressed these concerns by officially requesting that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulate integrated travel web sites the way it regulates computer reservations systems used by travel agencies.

CRTL, which is published by Consumers Union, accepts no advertising and has no marketing ties to any travel companies. The publication accepts no free gifts or trips.

Through its grantors, Consumer WebWatch funded the research for CRTL’s latest examination of independent airline ticket-booking web sites. Consumer WebWatch staff also participated in the research. Consumer WebWatch (www.consumerwebwatch.org) is a project of Consumers Union, supported by grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. Its mission is to investigate; inform; and improve the credibility of information on the web. The project will accomplish that mission through research, through establishment of guidelines for better information practices on the web to benefit consumers, and through ratings of sites based on their compliance with those guidelines.