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Has Online Travel Booking Lost its Luster?

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Green keyboardThe days of do-it-yourself online travel booking may be on the wane, according to a new study by a well-known research firm.

Frustrated with the sometimes difficult and time-consuming process of trying to find the lowest prices and best deals on the Internet, many travelers are increasingly turning to old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar travel agents to navigate the maze of options, fees and restrictions.

But should you?

According to Forrester Research, a market research firm, 7 percent fewer people used the Internet to book travel this year than in 2007. And only 33 percent of American travelers feel that travel Web sites do a good job presenting travel choices, down from 39 percent in 2008.

In the late 1990s, the advent of online booking sites like Expedia and Orbitz caused a rush to the Web. Millions of travelers relished the idea of cutting out the middleman—the travel agent—and gained a sense of control by being able to comparison-shop multiple sites to find the lowest price.

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As a result the number of offline travel agents fell by more than half over the last 15 years, from 37,000 to 18,000. Some experts even believed that travel agents would eventually become completely obsolete.

However, in the last couple of years travelers have been slowly crawling back to live agents, as they have inevitably realized that the Internet is not a perfect solution for all their needs.

Computer screenSpecifically, travelers are getting increasingly fed up with confusing and complicated Web sites that often force them to wade through endless pages of data, don’t disclose fees and fine print, and don’t help them differentiate between a good deal and a bad one.

While other industries such as banking and retail have made a concerted effort in recent years to simplify and improve the planning and booking process, the online travel business has not really done so well in this area.

“Travel organizations’ focus on generating revenue has come at the expense of the selling and customer engagement process,” the Forrester report says.

Henry H. Harteveldt, a Forrester travel analyst, notes that travelers are realizing that many travel sites force them to be their own travel agent, a job not everyone is willing or able to do.

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“With so many travel companies … failing to provide adequate content or context regarding these choices—it’s getting to the point where only Ph.Ds will travel,” an excerpt from the report states. “Ph.Ds will be the only people smart enough to navigate the increasingly complex, difficult travel shopping process.”

Businessman workingSo, in the same way that people turn to accountants for help with taxes or real estate agents to sell a house, travelers are reminding themselves of the value of hiring a professional to help them plan a trip.

Travel agents often have access to prices that are better than those found online, and generally don’t charge change fees when a traveler wants to change dates. They can also help troubleshoot when something goes wrong and the traveler needs an advocate or a refund. This rarely happens with online booking services, which are difficult to reach or get refunds from.

But more importantly, travel agents can give personal attention to a customer to help guide them to the best places, flights, and options. This one-on-one attention is particularly helpful for those planning complicated overland itineraries, or for specialty niche areas like cruises.

“Cruises … are not a commoditized experience … it’s not as simple as going from point A to point B,” said Brad Tolkin, co-chairman and co-CEO of World Travel Holdings, which includes CruiseOne, Cruises Inc., Cruises Only and others. “Customers today want to feel that they are making an informed decision and getting the best possible value for their money. They are calling on us repeatedly because of our knowledgeable, service-oriented travel agents.”

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To reverse the trend, Forrester recommends that companies rethink their approach to travel eBusiness by investing more money in online portals to make them more user-friendly, and putting more thought into ways to connect with the consumer.

In their defense, online travel companies claim to have made functionality improvements in recent years. Sites like Expedia have begun waiving ticket change fees and have added features that allow travelers to see the insides of hotels and gauge how much leg room is on a plane.

Despite the small shift back to bricks-and-mortar travel agencies, online companies are not going away anytime soon. In fact, Expedia’s air transaction business grew by 22 percent in the last quarter, and Forrester predicts that online travel spending will increase from $111 billion in 2008 to $117 billion in 2009.

But it seems that the march toward an all-online travel world is being tempered by increasingly savvy travelers who are learning when it’s best to click and buy, and when it’s best to leave it to the professionals.

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

Related links: CNN, MSNBC, New York Times

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