More people are grabbing their computer mice instead of the phone to buy travel these days as Web sites roll out products aimed at simulating the personal touch of traditional agents.
The number of Americans who researched trips on the Internet grew only slightly last year, to about 64 million, reflecting a leveling off of wired households, according to the Travel Industry Assn. of America. But more than 39 million did more than look. They booked. That figure was up 25% from 2001, the association says.
The leap was remarkable in a year when so much of the travel industry, battered by post-Sept. 11 shell shock and a rocky economy, lost ground.
The reasons for the growth include soaring service fees by offline agents trying to offset lost airline commissions; cost-conscious leisure travelers looking for a bargain; the migration of strapped business fliers to the Web; growing comfort with buying products online; bonuses offered by airlines for online booking; and the recent tendency to book at the last minute, when the nimbleness of the Internet can be an advantage.
In the last year, about two-thirds of U.S. adults planned at least one of their vacations within two weeks of departing on it, the TIA reported. As for economic worries, Americans are more negative than ever about being able to afford a pleasure trip, another TIA survey showed.
Web bookings may be up also because sites are providing more sophisticated, customized services. It's safe to say a machine will never match an actual dialogue with a live human. But travel sites are trying mightily -- and, some think, are close to catching up.
"The online travel agencies have a challenge: to be as good and as trustworthy as the offline agent" in tailoring their information to an individual's needs and preferences, says online expert Henry Harteveldt, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "They're 75% to 80% of the way there."
Many offline travel agents and their customers disagree with Harteveldt, of course.
"Countless customers have reached the conclusion that travel agents provide enormous value and time savings over the Internet and that we're worth every penny we charge for our value-added services," Roger Block, executive vice president of the Carlson Wagonlit travel agency conglomerate, wrote in Travel Agent magazine in August.
Here are some recent and planned innovations by Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, the big three travel sites:
Multiple destinations: It's been difficult to use Web sites to package a complicated trip with several legs. In what analyst Harteveldt calls "a terrific enhancement," www.expedia.com has made this easier. You click on "vacation packages" in the top toolbar and choose "two destinations." From there, it's fairly simple to assemble flights, hotel rooms, car rentals and other options into a single package with a single price and book it.
Car rental disclosure: In a small but notable victory for consumers, www.travelocity.com has added taxes and fees to its car rental quotes. They appear when you hit the "Book Now" button, although they are not in the initial quote under "Select a Car." Such taxes can increase the cost of a car rental at Boston's Logan airport, for instance, by more than 25%. Such options as insurance and refueling can boost the total higher. When I compared the two others, Expedia gave me information to calculate the taxes but didn't show the total. Orbitz added taxes only at the final stage of booking, after I had entered my credit card number.
Exchanging air tickets: In a service that mimics traditional agents, Expedia allows airline travelers to rebook e-tickets online without having to phone customer service. It researches alternate plans, calculates change fees and price differences between the old and new tickets, and makes the switch.
Choosing a hotel: When you search for hotels on www.orbitz.com, you now see them neatly plotted on a matrix that includes prices, ratings and distance from your target area. This gives you a quick answer to a complicated question: Can I find a cheaper hotel or get a four-star hotel for the price of a two-star by staying a little farther away? The matrix may not be as informative as a local travel agent who knows the area, but it's a timesaver for bargain-hunting cyber travelers.
More to come: Among products Orbitz expects to roll out this year are super-flexible searches that show you the least expensive dates to take a weekend getaway or a longer trip between two points in the next 30 days. Another product, called Deal Detector, will continuously monitor air fares for dates you want to travel and notify you when fares become available that equal or drop below a target point you've specified.
I recently visited an Orbitz market research facility in Marina del Rey, where the company, which is owned by the major airlines, tests new products on customers. I talked with Ken Keim, Orbitz's director of product strategy, who formerly worked for a computerized reservation system, or CRS, used by traditional travel agencies. One of his jobs at the CRS was answering technical questions from these bricks-and-mortar agents.
Can giant Internet travel companies replace agents entirely? Probably not, but aided by insiders like Keim, they're making progress, click by click.
Jane Engle welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.