Online travel finally clicks

Booking a holiday or a flight on the internet is rather like diving into a pool from a high board: scary at first, but once you`ve done it, you can`t see what all the fuss was about. And then you can`t wait to do it again.The stock-market mania for dotcoms may have subsided, but the technology itself is working better than ever. Websites that used to crash regularly now run with barely a hitch, and fears that online fraudsters would get rich siphoning cash from our bank accounts have proved largely unfounded. Behind the headlines of doom and gloom, the online travel industry is growing at an astonishing rate. Last year, Britons spent £592m booking holidays on the internet, and, according to the research group Forrester, that figure that will rise to £3.7 billion in 2005.
If the number crunchers are correct, in four years` time, 14% of all our holidays - and 45% of flights - will be booked and paid for on the net. The 1.6m of us who currently book flights online will swell to 5.7m, says Forrester. Within a decade, people who use a so-called bricks-and-mortar travel agent may be considered eccentric or quaint. But which of the hundreds of travel websites offer the best deals? Which can we trust to deliver on their promises? Which will go on to become part of our lives?
To weed out the dotcom survivors, the Travel section has asked dozens of internet experts, including website owners and e-commerce managers at some of Britain`s biggest tour operators to name their five favourite travel sites, based on content, design, trustworthiness and usefulness. We received more than 50 replies nominating 123 sites, and broke them down into two categories: those used for booking holidays and flights, and those filled with useful information. We also plucked 10 of our favourites from the nominations: sites that we think deserve a wider audience.
The best booking site - and overall winner - was Easyjet, which was widely praised for being “quick and simple” and “easy to use”, and for “offering consumers exactly what they want”. Many of those surveyed admitted that they regularly use the site to book flights for both themselves and clients.
EasyJet - the no-frills airline launched six years ago by Stelios Haji-Ioannou - has made the smoothest transition to the internet of any travel firm, and now takes 86% of its flight bookings online. The company says it has used “a combination of carrot and stick” to lure customers onto the internet: it currently offers a £5 discount on all return fares for those who book online, while customers who insist on using the phone can only book flights up to a month in advance. The policy has created a huge cost saving for EasyJet, which sells up to £1m worth of flights every day. Its website is maintained by a staff of three, in contrast to its call centre, which deals with the remaining 14% of bookings and employs a sales team of more than 200.
Other travel companies, eager to repeat its success, say EasyJet is making their lives easier by helping to break down suspicions about the internet. Customers who use its website then feel ready to buy other travel products online. EasyJet has extended its brand to sell financial services and car hire online, and there is even an official site dedicated to its founder (www.stelios.com). How long before we see EasyCola and EasyTrains?
The second-placed site in this category is also fronted by a high-profile chairman. Bill Gates launched his booking engine, Expedia, as far back as October 1996, using ground-breaking technology. The site, which was the first to run simultaneous searches of both published and discounted air fares, is now the world`s biggest online travel agent, taking annual bookings worth £1 billion. Its UK version was praised by our experts for consistently offering the best deals and being easy and “intuitive” to operate. “Once you`ve used it, you`ll always go back,” said one website owner. “It`s a clear long-term winner.”
Time and again, we were told that the best sites were the simple ones that offered value; fancy graphics and lengthy downloads were generally scorned. So, it was no surprise that third place overall went to Ryanair
, another low-cost airline that lures customers online by advertising internet-only fares. Some rated this site easier to use than any other, offering “genuinely the best value for money”.
By contrast, British Airways has built a more flashy, sophisticated website, and, despite being the only flag-carrying airline to pick up votes, had to share seventh place with Go, its own budget airline. Go, which uses the same computer reservations system as Ryanair and EasyJet, was praised for its design.
Fourth place went to Lastminute.com, the one-time darling of the internet share boom that eventually served to burst the dotcom bubble. The company and its youthful founders may be disliked by some investors, but the site is clearly admired by professionals, who found it inspiring, well designed and packed with interesting deals.
Next came the newly revamped Thomas Cook website, which was praised for its reliability and “strong brand”, making it the best of the “dotbams”. (Bam is an acronym for bricks-and-mortar: a dotbam is a successful high-street brand that has turned itself into an online winner.) Significantly, Thomas Cook did better than both its big-spending internet-only rivals, Travelocity) and Ebookers.
Bargainholidays.com is a last-minute booking site: rather dull but dependable.
Some sites were notable by their absence. Deckchair.com (www.deckchair.com), the booking site set up by Bob Geldof in a maelstrom of publicity in April 1999 - Geldof declared at the time that his main rival, Expedia, was “a load of shite” - failed to pick up a single vote. As did QXL ( www.qxl.com), the auction site that briefly enjoyed a stock-market valuation in the billions. Its shares, whose worth once topped £22, now sell for less than 10p.
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