More Internet Sites Add That Human Touch

By year’s end, an estimated 11 million Americans will have booked a trip via the Internet-an increase of 80% over last year, according to a new survey by online travel consultants PhoCusWright.

Although using a keyboard and mouse to buy last-minute weekend getaways may be becoming old hat to a few wired travelers, three out of four in PhoCusWright’s poll say they don’t plan to buy online anytime soon. Among the top reasons: the Web’s lack of human contact.

Fewer than a third of online travel sellers provide such basics as live phone support or e-mail response within 24 hours, estimates PhoCusWright’s Lorraine Sileo. That dearth of virtual hand holding may not matter when the purchase is a cheap ticket to a nearby destination, but experts say it can be a major sticking point for vacationers weighing their options among costly cruises or European ski packages.

“The whole concept of online travel was to get away from the phone,” but “buying travel-related products involves many issues, and customers need a lot of help,” says Kaia Delves of PeopleSupport, an L.A.-based company that uses live, text-based chat to connect online retailers with customers.

As a result, a small but growing cadre of Internet travel companies is heading in a new direction-by combining the do-it-yourself control and convenience of cyberspace with state-of-the-art, real-time help. A sampling of who’s offering what:
Veteran online agency Preview Travel (, which recently announced plans to merge with rival Travelocity, already provides customer service through a 24-hour, toll-free phone center and e-mails asking for travelers’ feedback when they’ve returned from a trip. But starting this week, Preview customers with a single phone line will be able to ask questions online while they’re buying the ticket.


Maverick Renaissance Cruises ( considers its recently revamped Web site an important part of a strategy to bypass travel agents and target consumers directly. Would-be passengers can click on an icon and exchange written “conversations” with a live agent from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. PST weekdays, or call seven days a week. A third option promises an e-mail response within one hour during business hours.

The Web incarnation of bricks-and-mortar retailer Uniglobe ( peddles about 750 cruises from nine cruise lines online. A new live chat function, available weekdays 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. PST and weekends 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., lets a staff of 10 Uniglobe employees dispense cruise details to potential customers. Need more information on, say, a Princess Mediterranean sailing? A Uniglobe agent can “push” the applicable Web page directly to your computer screen. (, an online agency aimed at corporate and small business travelers, now offers online chats, from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily PST, or the option of having an agent call you back in as little as 30 minutes.
Will this emphasis on immediate customer service-what one online retailer referred to as “training wheels for new users”-translate into happier customers and increased sales? Maybe. But as with any Internet-related innovations, expect plenty of glitches along the way.

Case in point: (, a site that invites online travelers to “let a live agent guide you to the best fare and itinerary.” I tried to do just that for a flight from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles-but gave up after waiting five minutes for an elusive “live agent” to appear.