Looking for a good airfare these days is almost as hard as finding venture capital for a dot-com startup. OK, nothing is that hard. But to find the right fare and the right itinerary, travelers have to shop around. And there are plenty of sites offering travel services, from Priceline.com Inc. to Expedia Inc. to Travelocity.com Inc. -- even Egghead.com Inc.
The heavy competition means that certain sites are fighting hard for consumer dollars. A competitive environment keeps these companies on the road to improving the customer experience and value.
Last month both Expedia and Travelocity announced major upgrades to their search technologies, offering new benefits to consumers. It's probably no coincidence that both announcements came on the same day.
Expedia rolled out Expert Searching and Pricing, a new platform the company says it's been developing for more than four years.
The platform, and the site itself, runs on Windows NT. A Microsoft Corp. spin-off, and still partly owned by the software giant responsible for Windows, Expedia is a proof-of-concept site for big e-commerce running on Windows.
Expedia executives say that the company's customers can now choose from an average of 400 itinerary combinations for each round-trip domestic air ticket search.
Travelocity also launched new fare-search technology on a new platform, which company executives say will show consumers when to travel to get the lowest airfare. Travelocity runs on e-commerce favorite Unix.
Both Expedia and Travelocity moved the fare-search processing off mainframes and onto other servers to create the new platforms. Expedia had been relying on a partner for the mainframe component of fare searches.
By moving the processing, the companies believe they've improved their ability to add new features more quickly in the future. They also say the move improves the complex search process for airline fares. Finding the right fare and the right itinerary is no easy task. Flights at different times are priced differently. Different kinds of tickets have different rules. And that's just a sampling of all the variables in any single search.
The airlines certainly understand how difficult it is. Faced with the onslaught of new travel sites such as Expedia and Travelocity, the airlines announced a while ago that they would create their own competing service, Orbitz. But plans to deliver that service have been postponed, citing the complexity of creating a sophisticated fare-search system.
I've used both Expedia and Travelocity, depending on a couple of factors. Sometimes I've searched for a flight on Travelocity and only gotten back itineraries with more than one stop. On those occasions, I've happily purchased from Expedia.
For my most recent trip I checked itineraries on both sites and found a much better deal from Travelocity -- several hundred dollars less for a nonstop, cross-country flight.
My focus group of one discovered that consumers care about the quality of itineraries and how good of a deal they get on the price.
Maybe in your own personal focus group you've noticed features of these sites that make you want to do business with the site.
Although these search upgrades at the still-unprofitable Expedia and Travelocity took years and huge resources, the payoff is big for consumers. As these systems improve, consumers will reward these companies with more purchases. In fact, that's already happening. In its most recent annual financial statements, Expedia reported revenues up 81 percent and Travelocity reported revenues up more than 100 percent. And the competition between these two big online travel services will keep them improving the features and performance they offer their customers.
So maybe someday soon finding the perfect airfare and the perfect itinerary will be much easier than finding venture capital for a business-to-consumer dot-com startup.
Jessica Davis is an editor at large in InfoWorld's news department. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.