It seems like a do-it-yourselfer's dream.
Just punch a few keys on your personal computer, and bingo: The lowest fares and most convenient flights, without waiting on hold for an airline reservationist or counting on your travel agent to investigate the options. You can even check the flight's on-time departure record, see what type of airplane is being used and get a seat assignment--then pay for your ticket electronically, with free overnight delivery.
That's the premise behind on-line, self-booking reservation services, which allow travelers to tap into the same powerful, complex computer systems airlines and travel agents use to book flights, rental cars and hotels. Now, with many travel agencies threatening to trim staff or tack service fees on to low-fare tickets in response to the airlines' recent caps on agent commissions, charting your own course by keyboard would appear to be the right idea at the right time.
Based on interviews with longtime users and my own tentative, often-frustrating forays, the services are aimed at computer-savvy road warriors on business trips, not vacationers searching for the cheapest flight to Grandma's. All too often, they require an affinity for alphabet-soup fare codes and a Zen-like patience when encountering such on-screen roadblocks as "incorrect response packet" and "could not connect to gateway host."
While consumer on-line reservation services--Eaasy Sabre, Travelshopper and Official Airline Guide Electronic Edition Travel Service--have been around for as long as a decade, they represent less than 5% of all airline tickets sold. Of the estimated 1.4-million subscribers to the largest and oldest service, American Airlines-owned Eaasy Sabre, more than 80% are still lookers, not bookers--people who simply browse, or who make an electronic reservation but call an airline or travel agent to double-check fares and issue the ticket.
And since most reservation services can be accessed only by joining a commercial network such as America Online, CompuServe or Prodigy, would-be electronic travelers must pay monthly fees or connect charges, which range from about $9 a month to $28 an hour (for prime-time connections to the Official Airline Guide's service on CompuServe).
The reservation services were designed for, and still cater to, frequent fliers more concerned with schedules than fares. What's more, access to information can be both cumbersome and slow.
"You have to have a familiarity with computers, and a certain personality type," notes Minneapolis resident William Byrnes, whom I met on-line through America Online's Travel Forum. "I drink beer, and I can finish a six-pack before I finish a reservation."
Another potential drawback for leisure travelers is that not all airlines are represented on the services. Some, such as Atlanta-based ValueJet, don't participate at all. Others, such as Southwest, may list schedules and fares but can't be booked by computer. (Starting May 1, however, Eaasy Sabre users will be able to book Southwest on-line.)
"We recognize that we need to make Eaasy Sabre easier," particularly for new computer users, says spokeswoman Debbie Weathers. "While it may be frustrating to use now, it won't always be."
Within the past year, three newcomers have addressed those frustrations by providing new ways to access existing reservation services.
Software programs from Personal ExpertWare and TraveLOGIX provide a graphical, intuitive approach to Eaasy Sabre. PCTravel, a North Carolina travel agency, offers Internet users free, text-based access to the Apollo reservation network, a competitor to Eaasy Sabre's parent, Sabre. A graphical version on the Internet's popular World Wide Web will be available by mid-April.
Scheduled to launch by the end of March, meanwhile, are new programs from American Express, which will offer a streamlined look for Eaasy Sabre on America Online, and United Airlines, which will provide Apollo access in partnership with CompuServe.
I was intrigued with Personal ExpertWare's Air Travel Manager, a $59 program for IBM-compatible PCs that taps into Eaasy Sabre via CompuServe and provides access to fares and flights with a true point-and-click Windows feel. An added sweetener: Travelers booking by computer get a rebate on each ticket--the lesser of 5% or half the commission paid to the Personal ExpertWare travel agency that issues the ticket.
Air Travel Manager isn't the only program that offers incentives to book on-line. Prodigy members get one hour of connect time (a $2.95 value) for each ticket purchased through Prodigy's Eaasy/QuickTix, and PCTravel offers clients special fares that, in some cases, may be lower than what they'd be able to book on their own.
Though I didn't take advantage of any special discounts, I came away from my own on-line explorations with something more than eyestrain: a $165 savings on a flight to Italy.
I'd already booked and paid for a ticket for my father from Madison, Wis., to Milan at what the American Airlines reservationist assured me was the lowest available fare: $878 round trip. But the next evening, eager to test an Eaasy Sabre feature called Quick Path, I logged into the service from America Online, clicked on the Quick Path icon, and typed: /fares,msn,mil,02may,all ('msn' for Madison, 'mil' for Milan, '02may' for his departure date, May 2, and 'all' for all airlines on that route).
In less than a minute, I pulled up a screen that listed fares in ascending order--beginning with one on American for $678 round-trip.
"Sure enough," an American agent told me when I phoned to ask about the lower price. "It looks like a better fare opened up after you booked your ticket." I could have the ticked rewritten to the new price, less a $35 service charge.
Would a travel agent have checked for a better deal after my first ticket had been issued? Perhaps. Could I have called American back, hoping I'd get lucky in the Russian roulette of constantly changing fares and inventory levels? Certainly.
I'm still convinced that the combination of a savvy travel agent and a flexible, knowledgable traveler represents the best--and easiest--way to land the lowest air fare.
But that night, by saving $165 with a few keystrokes, I got a glimpse of the travel industry's future.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Editor's note: This marks the debut of a monthly column devoted to helping readers navigate the expanding, often-bewildering array of travel products and services along the so-called information superhighway. Laura Bly, special projects editor for the Travel section and a "newbie" (novice in cyberspace), will gear her new column to travelers who'd rather head for an airport terminal than sit at a computer terminal--but who are intrigued by the idea of using electronic information as a tool in planning their journeys.
Electronic Explorer appears the second Sunday of every month. Laura Bly welcomes comments and questions; her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.