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How does Orbitz, the controversial new Web site owned by five major airlines, stack up to its competitors?
Not badly. Not badly at all.
I tested Orbitz against three other travel sites – Expedia, Travelocity and Sidestep – on four city pairs. Result: Orbitz won one of the searches hands-down and tied with Sidestep for the other. Travelocity and Sidestep took top honors for the other queries.
Orbitz Expedia Travelocity Sidestep
Detroit $165 $173 $173 $165
Dallas/Fort Worth $263 $605 $227 $254
San Francisco –
Denver $312.09 $328 $328 $328
New York –
Los Angeles $426.50 $449.50 $349.50 $309.50
The winning fares are in boldface.
A few words about my methodology: these were searches for a nonstop, 14-day advance, round-trip, economy class fare. I discounted Expedia’s “Bargain Fares,” which were considerably cheaper, because they could have included up to one stop. Obviously, this isn’t an independent fare audit. Rather, it’s a carefully documented fare search conducted by a journalist between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5, 2001.
Orbitz might have won in another category, New York – Los Angeles, except that between the time I went to book the quoted fare ($230 on TWA) the price had jumped to $426.50. The change was rather sudden and frustrating. Expedia’s fares for my criteria were the most disappointing, and I would have certainly given its “white label” offerings a try before booking anything else on its site. And Sidestep actually offered a fare of $0 on one of its flights, but tickets weren’t available.
Presentation. Orbitz has a simple, airy, and almost minimalist look – a welcome change from the cluttered electronic storefronts offered by Travelocity and Expedia. Although it’s a somewhat unfair comparison, I think Sidestep one-ups Orbitz on presentation criteria because it’s even simpler (it takes up about an eighth of your browser window and displays nothing except fares). I would expect the open, uncluttered design of Orbitz to be widely imitated.
Fare displays. If Orbitz had launched a year ago when it was supposed to, then it would have won in this category without a question. But repeated delays left he likes of Expedia to imitate its trademark across-the top airline options (these were actually pioneered by ITA Software, which created Orbitz’s fare search engine). I think both Travelocity and Expedia could learn a lesson or two from Orbitz. Their fare displays are far too busy and confusing. But I still prefer Sidestep to the others; it’s even less intrusive and more intuitive than Orbitz.
Booking. It was impossible to book any of the fares requested from these sites, for obvious reasons. The lowest fares quoted on Orbitz were denoted as “Web-only” – meaning the only place you could buy them was online. I felt more confident with Sidestep’s booking mechanism because it usually took me directly to the airline site to complete the transaction. Of the full-service agencies, Orbitz’s booking mechanism was the best, although I wasn’t able to follow it until the end because of a limited budget.
Usability. How was the overall user experience? On Orbitz, I’m left with the sense that the people behind the site are absolutely convinced that there’s no reason to buy an airline ticket, hotel room or rental car anywhere else. That kind of arrogance might serve it well on the Internet, where the line between perception and reality is constantly blurred. By comparison, Travelocity, with its Sabre pedigree, is more tentative; Expedia, with its Microsoft roots, gives you more information than you’d ever need to make a booking. And Sidestep, which has been called a computer virus by some of its critics, seems only concerned with one thing: making sure that you see what it has to offer. Indeed, if you type in a fare search on any other agency Web site, Sidestep immediately launches. If Orbitz tried that, I think the government would shut it down tomorrow.
So what does all of this mean to you?
– Look harder before you book. Orbitz isn’t the only site worth clicking on. Sidestep’s fares are extremely competitive, and Expedia and Travelocity are also worth checking out. Now more than ever, it’s important to check multiple sites for the best airfare. Otherwise, you could be missing out on some excellent deals.
– Some of the Orbitz hype is true. Yes, it really does offer lower fares in many cases, but not consistently. It appears the “sky is falling” predictions that had Orbitz running every online agency out of business were exaggerated. This remains a fiercely competitive industry – for now.
– It’ll probably get better before it gets worse. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Jerry Hausman, who concluded that Orbitz would become a “market power ringmaster” for airline tickets, was partially right. There’s a new ringmaster in town: the traveler. With most fares in my search within only a few dollars of each other, I’m convinced that passengers are going to be able to throw their weight around more than ever. Are Hausman’s concerns justified? Only if travelers get lazy and don’t shop around.
Conclusion. If you want a cheap airline ticket, consider visiting Orbitz. It’s a thoughtful, well-designed Web site that often offers the lowest airfares. In light of my findings, I think the government should adopt a “wait-and-see” approach to this airline-owned venture. If, and only if, Orbitz appears to have a chilling effect on competition, then the Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation should act swiftly to close it. Otherwise, Orbitz is well on its way to becoming a very useful site for consumers.
As an Orbitz observer and an industry critic, however, I’m a little disappointed with the first draft of this site. The company has raised at least $100 million to essentially repackage a three-year-old technology. Other than a booking interface that’s marginally better than the ones offered by Expedia and Travelocity, there’s nothing groundbreaking about Orbitz. In many ways, I think Orbitz represents the past and not the future of online booking.