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April 14, 2004: Online Travel: Is Bigger Better?

Do you get more by using big travel sites or airline and hotel sites? (part one of three)

Unless you have been living in a cave the past few years, chances are you -- or someone you know -- have used one of the myriad Web-based general travel sites like Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline or Travelocity, or an airline site to book a flight, or a hotel site like to snare a discount room.

Are there any inherent advantages or disadvantages for consumers who make their travel plans by going directly to an airline or hotel site versus using one of the big aggregators such as Expedia? That depends on whom you talk to.

Airline sites, for example, typically offer special Web-exclusive deals or functionality, such as email alerts. Also, many airline sites offer competitive flight information directly on their sites to compete with general travel sites.

Southwest Airlines is a prime example. Anne Murray, senior director-interactive marketing, says Southwest was the first airline to establish a home page on the Internet. In those days, five employees comprised Southwest's entire Web team, and they spent nine months creating that first site.

In 2003, approximately 54 percent of Southwest's entire passenger revenue was generated via For the fourth quarter alone, it was 57 percent.

What particularly distinguishes Southwest from other airlines is that its fares are not available on any general travel site.

"Our customers receive the highest level of customer service by dealing directly with our own Web site," Murray says. "They can earn credits in our frequent flying program and utilize various travel tools and offers only available at"

Southwest utilizes a number of interactive marketing techniques to drive traffic to the site. A weekly email product called "Click and Save" provides viewers with information on travel package specials. The company's Southwest Airline Vacations mini-site enables consumers to customize a vacation in cities served by the airline.

On March 30, started offering customers the ability to book a cruise on the nation's top cruise lines, including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Windstar, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Radisson, Disney and Crystal. The Southwest site offers information on various cruise lines, destinations, port cities and pricing -- and special offers and discounted cruise specials.

Murray says Southwest is heavily promoting the new product by offering customers a chance to win a free ocean-view stateroom  on a 3-7 days cruise.
Providing unique services not offered by the general travel sites is a trend other airlines are following, as well. Katie Roberts, general manager, interactive marketing for Delta Air Lines, says the key point of differentiation between and online agencies is that Delta offers its customers travel management tools and services that "either ease or make travel more rewarding during and after a trip."

She says Delta generates about 13 percent of its booking revenue from its own Web site, and another17 percent from major travel sites.

Delta customers can sign up for various email programs that provide them with tailored information on Web-only fares, and on special fares to cities hosting sporting events, concerts, art exhibitions and more. Users also can create a customized  profile that enables them to securely store up to five phone numbers, five email addresses, three mailing addresses, four credit card numbers, seating preferences, and up to 10 "preferred trips" with favorite departure/arrival destinations.

Other Web-only bells and whistles that help draw traffic include:

  • Checking in and printing a boarding pass 24 hours in advance of travel
  • Selecting or changing a seat
  • Accessing SkyMiles (Delta's frequent flyer program) account balance and activity
  • Redeeming miles for an award ticket
  • Qualifying for exclusive mile-earning or mile-burning opportunities.

Tomorrow: How hotel sites are making the Web work for them to save on commissions.

As eMarketer Daily reported on April 5, Keynote Systems monitored the transaction response times of and availability/success rates of 25 leading domestic travel, airline and hotel Web sites during the week of March 22. Continental, Southwest and American Airlines' Web sites were most responsive airline sites with times of 6.97 seconds, 7.87 seconds and 8.61 seconds, respectively. Availability/success rates for the three airlines were 99.46 percent, 100 percent and 98.74 percent. For online travel agency Web sites,, Expedia and Travelocity snared top honors for response times -- 18.04 seconds, 22.52 seconds and 31.68 seconds, respectively. Orbitz, and CheapTickets captured the top three agency site slots for availability/success rates -- 98.62 percent, 97.67 percent and 97.04 percent.

Neal Leavitt is president of Fallbrook, CA-based Leavitt Communications, an international marketing communications company with affiliates in Paris, France; Hamburg, Germany; Hong Kong; Bangalore, India; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He writes frequently on Internet and high technology topics. Contact him at, 760/639-2900.

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