Better Search, Blazing Fast, Tested

fast car searchTravel search engines commonly claim to produce the lowest prices or best selection. Some say they have the most accurate reviews or are quick at what they do. When we received a press release from hotel-finder Room 77 claiming “blazing fast” results, we put them to the test.

On our 25.5 Mbps DSL line, it took just 3.5 seconds for Room 77 to deliver 573 results for an overnight stay in a hotel in Miami later this month. That did seem fast so we compared it to a couple other hotel-finding sites. Hotels.com brought 437 in 3.6 seconds and Kayak returned 354 in 3.8 seconds – about the same speed-wise. But in addition to more results, Room77 delivered lower prices and included hostels in the search.

“Room 77 searches other sites for you and compares the prices right in the search results,” Kevin Fliess, Room 77’s general manager and VP of product development told Gadling. He added, “In addition to a fast and comprehensive search, we also allow travelers to earn loyalty points or pay at the hotel.”

Going a step further, Room 77 has their Room Concierge, a free service when booking a 4-star or above hotel that helps travelers identify a hotel room matching their preferences. Buyers specify what type of room attribute is most important – size, noise level or view – and Room Concierge staff goes to work finding just that room for buyers.

On Room 77 and other travel-related sites, it’s all about providing detailed, intuitive results that match what buyers want: a search process that is quick and easy.

Another site that delivers rich content fast in a very “we’re not wasting your time” sort of way is a new feature from Nerd Wallet that searches and compares airline fees.

Nerd Wallet, best known for finding and comparing credit card offers, says they “scour the financial universe to bring you any and every bank and credit union we can find, along with our own unbiased take on what various rewards programs or deposit accounts are actually worth,” on their website.

Now, Nerd Wallet’s Search and Compare Airline Fee finder, gathers information for pretty much all domestic airlines quickly and efficiently. Users can compare, say, the baggage fees of all airlines or find out all the details about one airline in a speedy and easy search.

The results at Nerd Wallet also are intuitive and consistent with predictions made earlier this year; new technologies may create changes for our future travel planning methods.

“Today, we stand at the forefront of a technological evolution in travel that we refer to as Online Travel 3.0, which recognizes the power shift from suppliers to retailers and to end consumers,” Stephane Durand, Director, Online & Leisure at Amadeus, a major provider of advanced technology solutions for the global travel and tourism industry told Gadling earlier this year.

That was just back in February when Gadling covered how travel search was becoming more personal, focused and nosy.

Then, we told of a global study that identified the online shopping behavior and future motivations of trend-setting travelers: micro-targeting information to specific consumers offering products that are actually relevant for the buyer.

Today, sites like Room 77 and Nerd Wallet’s Airline Fee Finder are delivering on that promise.

Up next, look for sites that learn from our online behavior over time and become interconnected, sharing information about us among each other.

Broadway Hotel and Hostel in New York

[Flickr photo via Viernest]

Travel Trends: Online booking for travel expected to increase through 2014

Like much of the rest of the travel industry, online travel bookings in 2009 took a hit. Spending by consumers dipped for the first time in recent memory, from $112.9 billion in 2008 to $104.3 billion in 2009 (down 7.6%), according to a report from research firm Forrester.

However, while online bookings for virtually every segment slipped — including air travel by a punishing 7.7% to $61.8 billion (can you say, “Hello, baggage fees“?) — online car rentals fared relatively well, sliding only 2.1%, to $12.1 billion.

By comparison, hotels tumbled a staggering 9.9%, to $28.6 billion. Cruise bookings were down a modest 3.4%, to $1.1 billion. Tours were flat, but at just over $600 million, it remains a tiny sector.

Why did online car rentals hold up?
In large part, online car rentals can thank the fact that gasoline prices moderated somewhat in 2009. Cash-strapped consumers still stricken with wanderlust had good reason to hop back in their car to take trips.Gasoline prices averaged $2.03 per gallon in late March 2009, for instance – significantly down from $3.26 per gallon in late March 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration. Currently, a gallon of gasoline sells for about $2.79 per gallon, on average — still down from those spasming numbers seen on spring of 2008 but helping to explain why online car rentals are not accelerating faster.

Fortunately for each segment of the travel industry, the outlook for online travel bookings is looking good, thanks in part to the (slowly) improving economy. In fact, Forrester is projecting that overall online bookings will trend up an average 8.1% each year from 2009 to 2014, when consumers will spend more than $153 billion booking travel online. Airfare will still be the lion’s share of online bookings, though hotels will take a small bite out of that stranglehold, as evidenced by the pie charts below.

See more Travel Trends.

Europe tells several different online travel stories

The EU may have brought us closer to having one Europe, but there certainly isn’t one European travel market. The latest report from travel industry research firm PhoCusWright sees the French market staying flat through 2011, with strong growth occurring in Germany. In the United Kingdom, the travel business will continue to tighten. Meanwhile, the mouse-clickers are in Scandinavia, which is leading the charge in online bookings.

The UK, France and Germany dominated the online leisure and unmanaged business travel market in 2008, accounting for 67 percent of all bookings. But, the UK’s position has been eroding and will continue to do so for the next two years. In 2008, it accounted for 31 percent of the leisure and unmanaged sector online, but PhoCusWright forecasts a drop to 26 percent by 2011. Blame the value of the pound for that one: devaluation will contribute to an erosion an actual buying activity. France owned 19 percent of this market in 2008 and isn’t likely to change. The real growth story, among the largest markets, is Germany. In 2008, it represented only 17 percent of the leisure and unmanaged business market … but PhoCusWright expects it to hit 20 percent in 2011.

Online penetration is greatest in Scandinavia, which now leads Europe. In 2008, this corner of Europe passed the UK, with 45 percent of travel booked online in Scandinavia compared to 40 percent in the UK. And, it isn’t slowing down. Click-and-buy is expected to break the 50 percent mark in 2010, while it will take longer for the UK travel market to get there. France’s online penetration is only 30 percent, with Germany at 24 percent but growing.

UK online bookings to grow this year

Yes, you read that correctly – online bookings are expected to finish higher in the United Kingdom this year! Even in this dismal economy – which has been particularly brutal for the travel industry – the web guys have something to celebrate. Sure, the forecast is only for 3 percent, but that beats the losses being posted elsewhere.

Travel industry research firm PhoCusWright’s new study puts the amount spent on leisure and unmanaged business travel (i.e., employee picks for himself) at £17.1 billion for 2009, comprising 45 percent of all bookings for the year in the UK. So, a hefty portion of the industry over there is seeing some growth.

Meanwhile, the overall UK travel business is expected to shrink by 8.9 percent this year, with gross bookings dropping to around £37.6 billion. So, the online world is holding its own while the rest of the market gets spanked. For the near-term, PhoCusWright says, the “outlook is bleak.” The UK travel business should reach 2007 levels in 2012 (ouch).

“British travelers have had to cope with currency devaluation on top of the recession, and both have driven significant changes in travel patterns,” says Carroll Rheem, director, research at PhoCusWright.

The situation isn’t as bad at home, though. Rheem continues, “The blow to domestic travel has been relatively soft while the fall-off in U.K. visitors to the Mediterranean has been significant.”

Airline websites beat other suppliers in the digital space, the research firm says, picking up more than half of direct online sales in the UK. Hotel company sites are expected to grow with the market, and tour operators are forecast to have the biggest wins (in terms of growth rate) on the web. They’ve invested heavily in marketing to bring customers online, according to Peter O’Connor, PhoCusWright’s market analyst, U.K. and France. “Selling a combination of pre-packaged, dynamically packaged and decoupled travel components, their share of U.K. online direct travel is expected to increase through 2011,” he says. Even with the jump for tour operators, though, online travel agencies are going to lead growth for all online channels in the UK.

It’s not time yet to celebrate an end to the travel recession; that will only come when the bigger recession has been resolved. Nonetheless, it’s great to see some hope in any part of the travel business. It means that people are getting on planes and heading either to old favorites or new experiences. Let’s hope that next year the stats are higher in the UK and everywhere else.

Gadling exclusive: Online vaca rental market to hit $4.6bn

Gadling gets the news first. According to a report that won’t be released for another 10 days, online vacation rental bookings are set to soar over the next two years. Thanks to an anonymous tipster, we’re able to give you an early look at this hot corner of the marketplace.

Online vacation rental bookings are expected to exceed $4.6 billion by 2010, according to a study by travel research firm PhoCusWright, which will be published at the end of January (you heard it here first!). That’s an increase of more than 50 percent from last year’s $3 billion. Travelers are voting with their dollars, it seems, preferring the flexibility of accommodation that comes with the rental market.

Currently, there are 1.26 million rental units (homes and condos) available in the U.S. vacation rental market, and 46 percent of them are on the beach or ocean. Obviously, these destinations are popular. Ten percent of the adult population of the United States (21.5 million people) use vacation rentals instead of hotels and spend an average of $1,300 per stay. The merrymakers who book these spaces account for 22 percent of hotel revenue in the United States.

When you think about it, the cost works out pretty well. Six nights in a hotel at $200 a pop will set you back roughly the same amount as the average vacation rental stay. And, let’s be realistic, when is a $200 hotel room only $200? In this tough economic climate, making the up-market move may actually be cost-effective!

The full report, Vacation Rental Market: Poised for Change, will be available for purchase on January 30, 2009.