Technology

Orbitz: Cheap in More Ways Than One


Orbitz_110x100
Editor's Rating: star rating

The site offers some of the lowest fares available, but don't expect too many of the extra features and customer care you get elsewhere

Over the years, I've ordered more plane tickets through Orbitz than through any other online travel site. Why? Because my experience shows that Orbitz often offers the best and cheapest deals. But I've also found that you get what you pay for. In Orbitz's case, that means an overall shopping experience inferior to those on sites like Travelocity (see BW Online, 4/26/06, "Travelocity's Helpful Human Touch").

And because many people flock to online travel sites for more than just cheap tickets, we're doing a series of reviews of some of the most used Web services. Orbitz is our latest subject.

Overall, Orbitz keeps me coming back because it points to some of the lowest fares around. But it's got some drawbacks that might give pause to those who use travel sites for extras. During my test run, little annoyances started with links that didn't work. That was the case when I tried to look up hotel details and photos. For instance, when I tried to take a virtual tour of Clarion LaGuardia Airport Hotel in New York, the photo slideshow didn't display properly. I'd expect more sophistication from a travel site nowadays.

Orbitz's online customer service could have been better, too. I'm researching a trip to the Galapagos Islands (who doesn't want to see 100-year-old tortoises?). When I sent an e-mail requesting recommendations on that destination, a rep e-mailed me back within 15 minutes. But the e-mail simply provided me with a phone number to call for information on cruises in general. I mean, if I wanted to call Orbitz, I wouldn't have e-mailed in the first place, would I? A similar request of Travelocity produced a suggestion of a specific Galapagos cruise to check out.

DETAILS, DETAILS.

With competition in the online travel market heating up, these kinds of goofs are no longer acceptable (see BW Online, 12/29/05, "The Airlines' $5 Billion Showdown"). Performance pressure even greater for Orbitz, which is owned by Cendant (CD) and is expected to be spun off or sold, along with Cendant's other travel sites, later this year.

Another gripe: As much as I like the simplicity of Orbitz (unlike Expedia, it doesn't make your head spin with too much information), in some cases it had too little data. I searched for Portland hotels that allow pets and offer room service, but Orbitz didn't tell me exactly how many hotels that fit that bill. That's the kind of detail you need before you start scrolling through a list. Expedia tells you how many hotels fit your criteria.

Unlike other large travel sites, Orbitz also lacks an "activities" tab, that allows the user to, say, order Broadway tickets or Disneyland day passes. But to its credit, Orbitz in May did begin offering travelers who book packages an option to rent Harley Davidson motorcycle. But while I find that feature cool, I'm not sure how wide an appeal it has.

THE MATRIX.

There are several areas where Orbitz offers very useful information. Take hotel reviews, for instance. Orbitz has more than 50,000 of those. And only users who have actually booked a hotel through Orbitz can add to the compendium. In my view, that makes reviews on Orbitz more valuable than reviews on other sites, which in many cases allow anyone to post comments. (Orbitz even offers $25 travel coupons as an incentive for contributing a review -- but make sure to read the expiration date; those vouchers aren't good forever).

There are lots of other things to like about the site, such as extra flexibility in searches. When looking for airfare, I could click on a link called "find low fares for weekends and flexible trips" to search for cheap tickets from Portland, where I live, to anywhere on a given weekend. Hey, if they have cheap tickets to Vegas, I'm in! I could also specify days when I'd like to leave on my getaway, and view results in an easy-to-use matrix. Sites like Expedia offer this feature, too.

But where Orbitz one-ups Expedia is in its multiple destinations search option, which allows travelers to book multiple flight hops in one fell swoop. At Expedia, you can order five hops at once at the most. At Orbitz, the magic number is six.

REAL PEOPLE.

I also liked a section called OrbitzTLC, launched in January. Basically, it's a tab where you go to see if the place you are going to is affected by weather or your flight is subject to delays. You can find airport and airline guides here as well. In March, Orbitz also announced the TLC system which can inform as many as six of your friends of your arrival time or if your flight is running late, via phone, SMS, or e-mail. That's the kind of useful feature many other travel sites don't offer.

One other neat function to check out in the TLC section: "The People Behind OrbitzTLC" link, where you can see an interactive photo of a call center in charge of TLC alerts. You can point at individual staffers to read their names and see what they do. It's one of the extras that makes Orbitz feel more human and approachable.

I just wish online customer service felt as human. Orbitz clearly has work to do on improving the site. But then again, what most consumers -- me included -- are really looking for in a travel site is good deals. And Orbitz, from my experience, offers plenty of those.

Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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