By Ronald Y. Perez, WC&P Associate Editor
With campaign promises flying fast in this hotly contested presidential election year, two things will be unequivocal at month’s end. You can bet candidates will have racked up enough frequent flyer miles jetsetting from one tossup state to another to win a free trip to the moon on the next space shuttle mission. And they won’t have had to deal with the record flight delays endured by the rest of us schmoes. But it shouldn’t be that tough!
Whether it’s the early-year business conference or a getaway to the Bahamas, you’re presented with two choices. You can use the trusty travel agent programmed into speed dial or—at the click of a mouse—try to barter the best rate off the web. Here will discuss a few of the best venues for doing it yourself.
First a few facts to consider. According to a survey by Runzheimer International, about 59 percent of companies spend $5 million or less on travel a year. Believe it or not, more than 1,000 sites currently exist to serve travelers with everything from hotel and car reservations to lavish itineraries in remote locations. Quantity alone, however, doesn’t signal the demise of person-to-person arrangements. Boston Consulting Group, which is designing the United/Delta/Continental/Northwest airline booking site, reports only about 3 percent of travel is handled online.
Last year, consumers purchased $4 billion in travel services on the Internet. Studies show online transactions are most popular with people who have a lot of free time and little money (such as Ralph Nader’s campaign staff). With so many choices available, though, we tend to miss a travel agent to ferret out offers that don’t suit our wants or needs. The following sites won’t only assist you on the best sources to contact for your trip, but a few also look at amenities or activities once you’ve reached your destination. And, as the old axiom claims, it’s best to book ahead to get the prime deals.
The name pretty much says it all. Geared to the small business, features of this site tend to be more informative than fun. It’s designed to be bookmarked to pop up as your home page when you log on to your computer. Under Office Operations on the home page, a subheading labeled “Travel” is where you want to direct the cursor. This is definitely for the person who is watching his or her p’s and q’s. Why else would there be a section devoted to expense and reimbursement forms? An introductory site, allbusiness.com will do more directing than actual supplying the best fares to designated cities. Under this section, you can jump to “Trade Shows,” for instance, which provides a link to Trade Show News Network to find trade shows of interest for you.
Brief articles in the “Travel” section cover everything from “How to Beat Jet Lag” to “Reporting an Airline Complaint.” Being an editor and hence a news junkie, I especially enjoyed reading the travel news page you can jump to with a link provided on the left side of the page. Here, you can read the latest “Travel Headlines” on airlines and more from various newswires along with “Executive Summaries” that flash periodically to the right. Before a trip of any kind, this can be good (“Legend Airline Launches First-Ever Fare Sale”) or it can be bad (“Tourist killed on volcano”).
An added bonus is a variety of other informational websites for business travelers are also listed at this website. And before you assume the site is only partial to Internet users when making travel accommodations, think again. It discusses three ways to book a ticket: using a travel agent, booking online and dealing directly with the airline (in that order)—you have to go to another site to use this advice, unfortunately, as there’s no way to book tickets here. Not exactly a site that’s trying to pitch the “convenience” of the web in an overt manner. Still, the overall site is rather expansive—with major sections on Employment & HR, Finance, Business Planning, Sales & Marketing, Insurance, etc.—and deserves more than a cursory glance.
The Book Your Flight Now boxes atop the home page mean only one thing. Have your dates and destinations ready because it’s time to go interactive. In addition to airlines, automobile and hotel deals are also included in this site. This is the sister site to travelocity.com, which is a general consumer website for vacation planning. If you have a specific city to visit, these sites are useful because they pinpoint dates, lengths of stay and the amount you’re willing to spend. A Fare Watcher listing to the right on the home page gives you a thumbnail sketch of the best deals from one, usually large hub city to another.
Traveler Toolkit, Travel Manager and Flight Status headings are also available. Business Travel News and Travel Resources offer articles “Traveling with a Laptop” and “Business Gift Giving Dos and Taboos,” as well as tips on weather, baggage claims and driving directions. Under “Planning Tools,” on the home page to the left, is a drop-down list of some features that may help you even further. Travel Store offers deals on luggage carts, computer cases and other conveniences to make your trip easier. You’ve even got a currency converter at this site for the international traveler among us.
This site presents a slightly different approach toward its clientele. Divided into four categories—Make Plans, Traveler Toolkit, News & Views and About Us—it gives you a rundown of what countries pose the greatest risk to foreign visitors. Vice presidents candidates, beware. I guess it’s nice to keep in mind when planning that annual spring jaunt to Albania (first country listed). It should be stressed the site is endorsed by Forbes Magazine, PC Magazine, smartmoney.com and has won many awards for its service and features.
Biztravel.com may not have the most extensive listing of cities—especially within the United States—but makes up for it in other areas. Upgrading is one of its specialties. Of course, you also get a running tally of your frequent flier miles as well as a promise of price protection. An alphabetical rundown of airlines supplies the best deals for those of you who like to stick with one airline, even if it means a few more bucks or giving up the aisle seat. All in all, it’s easy to see why the business community—or those that cater to the business community—loves this site so much. It may not host the cosmetics of a graphic-laden site complete with color photos of beaches and blue water, but the job of finding the best deal for your situation gets done.
A relative new player on the block (founded in 1998), much hoopla has been given to this upstart. Time will tell if it lives up to the billing. According to the site, yatra is Sanskrit for “journey, voyage or trip.” It boasts that dealing with it over a local travel agency will save you up to 40 percent. Further, once the site kicks off later this year, savings are to be procured through rates negotiated with airlines, hotels and rental-car companies. I’m sure the same build-up has been given to numerous sites that have since fallen by the wayside.
Touting itself as the premier business-to-business tool for busy travelers, yatra caters to this particular segment by offering discount rates and promising services previously reserved for Fortune 500 companies. It will even go one step further by providing a customer care staff that may serve as your travel agent over the phone as you both view the same screen. Admittedly, it’s too early to tell if this site will become the front-running candidate or just another Green Party nominee who sounds appealing but has no mainstream appeal.
I know, I know—you’re tired of all the television spots with William Shatner crooning Tom Jones-like to ’70s and ’80s tunes. It’s no wonder I kept this site for last. Besides, just imagine if Capt. Kirk were running for national office. God help us all. Generally regarded as the Ebay of all travel sites, this site allows you to pick the price you’re willing to pay for any given trip. Sounds real good in practice, doesn’t it? Just don’t try to bid $29.95 for a round-trip ticket to Bali.
The premise is simple: select your departing and arriving cities, specific dates and a couple of other variables. Submit a reasonable bid, and wait for the results. If your price is accepted, it will be automatically charged to your credit card account. For those with absolutely no time on their hands, this is where you need to be. The snag comes when your bid is accepted, but you have no idea what airline or hotel has been selected.
I’m sure we’ve all dealt with a travel agent at one time or another. We may even be lucky enough to find one that’s a keeper—someone who understands our travel needs and expense limitations. While it’s nice to speak with an actual person who can perform the legwork for you, the value of the Internet is its 24-hour/7-day access. Plus, who has the time to visit or at least call three or four agents to get a minutely varied degree of deals.
Another option not discussed in this column is that of visiting websites for a specific airlines. This serves well those who prefer one airline over another. Most of us may view all major airlines equally, though, and just want to pay a reasonable price for our business and pleasure trips. Word to the wise—stick with sites you recognize and trust.
Whichever method you use, the real key is planning early (months ahead, if you can) and reserving a good price before rates ultimately point skyward. As in politics, we’re usually left in the end with two candidates who bring different approaches to the same quandary. And, remember, the more choices presented to us can only make for a better and more prosperous decision on our part.