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Travelocity (Free) helps you spend money as easily as it helps you save it. Don’t take that as a complaint. When it comes to concocting innovative ways to plan and book a vacation, Travelocity is the most innovative online travel reservation site I’ve used. As with its competitors, Travelocity makes it easy to bundle flights, hotels, car rentals, and activities for savings; however, Travelocity stands out for the size of its online toolkit:
You can search for ecologically-sustainable hotels and hybrids (Travel for Good), build a vacation around a theme (ExperienceFinder), or travel daringly by booking a mystery ho-tel for a marked down price (Top Secret Hotels). And there are plenty of ways to access those tools, from a cross-platform desktop app to a deal alert add-on for Internet Explorer to mobile apps for iPhone and Windows 7 Mobile. The user interface hasn’t tamed all of these features—it can be a chore to find tools—but for the jetsetter who demands a globalized feature-set from their online travel site, Travelocity is a capable pilot.
Pros and Cons
- ExperienceFinder provides a new way to conceive vacations.
- Independent Green Hotel program.
- Great deals through Top Secret Hotels.
- Mobile apps for iPhone and Windows 7 Mobile.
- Inconsistent UI can confuse, cause you to overlook features.
- Low price guarantee requires you do the legwork.
- Hides actual costs.
Travelocity’s default mode of search uses looks a lot like Expedia (Free, 3.5 stars), sans splashes of yellow: Users select a package (flight, hotel, car, or a combination of the three), airports, dates, and number of passengers. Unlike Expedia, however, Travelocity automatically predicts airports as you type—so you needn’t memorize airport codes or select airports from a second screen—and provides the option to specify “flexible” travel dates or “+/- One to Three Days” to return the best airfare. In my experience, Travelocity wasn’t the quickest search agent: Expedia returned results slightly faster, and Orbitz (Free, 4 stars) noticeably so.
I began testing by searching for flights, but found that I could add hotels by clicking a link from the results page (listed below the lowest price). By default, flights list by lowest priced, though you can sort by departure time, arrival time, total time (duration), or air-line name. I like that Travelocity breaks from the tabbed sorting approach used by competitors and employs a simple drop-down menu.
A matrix similar to that of Expedia and Orbitz visualizes the best deals by carrier and number of layovers. Travelocity—like everyone else other than Kayak (Free, 3 stars)—plays it loose when it disclosing the final cost of your trip. The actual price is listed in a considerably smaller font than the price before taxes and fees. While Travelocity discloses flight and pricing details from the search results page, it does not deliver the same level of detail as Expedia, which goes so far as to provide seat maps.
Vacations—Flights + Hotels—sort, by default, by “Travelocity Picks,” with options to sort by price, ratings, or hotel name. If you’re looking for a specific hotel, you can add a hotel name. If you want a particular amenity, from shuttles to room service, you can add it as well. A dedicated Map View tab pins results to a MapQuest map. Unlike flights, vacations don’t hide the bill. Boldface prices include flight, hotel, taxes, and fees. One thing to watch: When booking for more than one traveler, Expedia reveals prices per person.
Top Secret Hotels
While you can maximize savings by bundling services and buying for more than one per-son, “Top Secret Hotels” presents one of the easiest ways to minimize vacation costs. Travelocity’s casino-style system captures the spirit of Priceline.com’s (Free, 3 stars) Name Your Price without the uncertainty of eBay-style bidding. Instead of booking a hotel with its name in hand, Top Secret Hotels asks customers to reserve based upon price, star-ratings, amenities, and area. The prize: up to 55 percent off the top. Once you book, Travelocity reveals the name. In my experience, the deals looked great, granted, I couldn’t exactly perform a one-to-one comparison without property names.
Not to be confused with Travel Deals (listed on the homepage), Deals Toolkit; stacks a collection of useful, though disparate links in one place. My favorite tool is Deals on a Map, which visualizes all the latest deals. It so out-shines the MapQuest-powered maps supplied in the Map View tabs that I’m surprised that Travelocity hasn’t rolled the technology out across the site.
Customize Your Deals links to the Travel Deals tab from the homepage, which enables you to locate the best flight and vacations packages across the site using general date, location, and pricing in-formation. Finally there’s a host of other ways to experience Travelocity, such as the Deal Alert Browser Tool, an Internet Explorer add-on, the cross platform Travelocity Desktop Application, and Travelocity Mobile, available for iOS and Windows 7 Mobile devices. I’m not entirely sure why these tools—with the exception of Travel Deals—are relegated to the toolkit, rather than highlighted on the homepage.
Travel for Good
Another example of an excellent, inaccessible feature is Travel for Good. Through this section of the site, you can donate to offset carbon emissions, rent hybrid vehicles, or learn more about the environmental ratings by which Travelocity designates hotels eco-friendly. There’s even a program through which the company awards volunteerism grants. As with Deals Toolkit, Travel for Good lacks presence on the homepage, making it difficult to discover, and thus use.
It took my three clicks to find the Travel for Good page: first, I clicked “Green Vacations” under “Destinations & Interests” on the homepage; second, I clicked the “Learn More About Green Guarantee” banner; finally, I clicked “Travel for Good Home” tab at top of screen. This doesn’t even begin to address the UI inconsistencies: on the first page, the navigation bar pins to the top of the screen above the Travelocity header; on the second page, it drops below the header; and, by the we reach the Travel for Good page, it’s a totally different theme, green with rounded tabs. The Home, once the first tab, is now the last.
Thankfully, the Green Hotel Directory, through which hotels are tagged “Eco-Friendly” based upon sustainable practices, threads throughout search results so you can’t miss it. Unfortunately, Travelocity does little else with the idea. I would love to see the company allow customers to search for “green” hotels as they would room service as an amenities.
ExperienceFinder, a beta feature, lets customers dream up vacations based upon destinations or themes. It’s a terrific idea and one of the most aesthetically enticing sections of the site. It also wins its own tab on the homepage, though Travelocity abandons its UI standards for an entirely different look and feel.
There are two ways to play. First, you can use a location (e.g. Barbados), explore Themes available for that location (Culture, Food & Wine, Romance, or Outdoors), or browse by Product (Hotel, Activity, and Vacation Packages). The other option is to begin with a Theme and build out a vacation. For example, I chose the Girl Getaways—alas, there are no Boy Bashes to be found—which returned a Charleston vacation, accompanied by an annotated map. From there, I customized my Hotel (I chose the Renaissance Charleston Historic District Hotel), Activities (Schooner Pride Sailing Adventure), and added the trip to a Wish List.
When it comes to making that wish list a reality, the site is real competitor. Travelocity includes a Price and Service Guarantee, which, if you’re an eagle-eyed consumer, ensures you’ll get the best deal available. Here’s how it works: If you find a better deal for the same trip online within a day of booking, you can fill out an online form to earn the difference plus a $50 credit. While this is the same deal offered by Expedia, Orbitz goes a step further in its Low Price Guarantee, adding automated fare updates to recent search results.
Ultimately, though, the results were surprisingly consistent in my experience. While I’m reticent to claim any sort of scientific authority in my testing—as anyone who travels knows, airfares fluctuate wildly—I did try and set up two basic controls in my testing: a domestic weekend trip, New York to Miami, a month from my search date; and a second international week-long trip, New York to Lisbon, scheduled six weeks ahead. For both flights, I avoided multiple carriers—who wants to miss a flight walking from one to the next?—and sought three types of airfares: 1) the least expensive overall; 2) the least ex-pensive non-stop; and 3) the shortest possible flight.
As denoted in olive green, the best deals are shared by a number of sites, and often little separates the least and most expensive options. For Miami, it’s a matter of a couple dollars; with Lisbon, $14 separates Expedia from the best-priced competitor (a three-way tie between Travelocity, Kayak, and Orbitz), though there’s no difference non-stop. The five minutes that separates the durations is too little to squawk about.
Bundling flights with lodging caused more variation. The challenge, however, was finding two hotels—one inexpensive, one recommended—available across the sites, especially difficult internationally. For the Miami vacation, I used the Days Inn Miami Air-port North for the least expensive common hotel and the Marriott Doral Golf Resort & Spa as the standard recommended hotel. For the trip to Lisbon, I chose Hotel VIP Executive Madrid as my baseline and Dom Pedro Palace Hotel Lisbon as my preferred option.
As you might expect, the greatest source of variation lies in the international vacation. Sites land within about $50 of one another with Miami; however, as much as $500 separates the least expensive bundles (Kayak and Orbitz) from the most expensive bundle (Priceline) to Lisbon. Travelocity delivers the second-best deal for the least expensive package ($1487) and the best deal for the best, recommended package ($2069). A final note on bundling: while I built my vacations around single occupancy, you can grow savings by booking for more than one passenger at a time. For example, searching for the least expensive Lisbon vacation for two people returned between $100 and $400 in savings per person—$200 to $800 for a couple.
What you draw from these preliminary tests should not be a decisive winner and los-er, but rather an aerial view of pricing, and a distant one at that. Each site excels at different with different variables. When it comes to airfare alone, you’re safe using any of the sites. If you’re building a vacation, I advise using more than one to scope out the best deal. And, naturally, booking for more than one traveler at a time only sweetens the deal.
The Scatterbrained Innovator
When it comes to toolkits, Travelocity is tops. Whether you’re looking to discover new vacations with ExperienceFinder or find undisclosed deals through Top Secret Hotels, Travelocity out-innovates the competition. The homepage can’t even keep up. If you do find the tools, you might mistake them for other websites. My hope is that, rather than adding more to their portfolio, Travelocity will enforce some UI best practices and channel everything through the homepage.
Users seeking a more cohesive website—albeit a less flashy one—should look to Editors’ Choice pick Orbitz (Free), which does a terrific job building an experience around ironclad deals through automated price assurance and fare updates. However, for those seeking the most innovative selection of online travel tools, Travelocity delivers the goods, and it delivers them today.