WEB SITE REVIEW

Expedia Is Spare but Savvy

In this second installment in the E-Commerce Times’ series ontravel-planning Web sites, I’ll review the strengths and weaknesses of Expedia, a top aggregator.

My first impression of the site — one that I used to frequent but haven’t visited in at least a year — is that its design is refreshingly straightforward: a three-column layout relatively uncluttered with self-promotion. Not that it’s completely devoid of such ads. (Note to Web designers: Most people don’t care if you have “More Hotels in More Destinations.” We’d prefer some easy-on-the eyes white space).

Expedia’s streamlined site does have its disadvantages, though. I don’t see where to sign up for flight status alerts, for example, or how to find out about baggage fees the airline will charge — both options are available on Travelocity. The vacation package section on the Expedia page doesn’t seem to be as robust either, although it does have a fun feature — vacations by theme, including “mountain” and “world heritage” options.

I decided to drop on Expedia the mother of online travel challenges: a last-minute ticket purchase to Gulfport, a small town in Mississippi. Why this trek to a one-time fishing village? It’s now a pretty resort town on the Gulf Coast, boasting a number of casinos and — more to the point for me — a nearby retirement community where my mom lives.

The airport is very small and not exactly a must-have destination for airlines. By “small,” I mean I give my mom my arrival time but never bother mentioning what airline I’m flying because we can spot each other across the room. Yes, it’s a room.

I’ve been visiting Gulfport by car for the last year, so it’s been a while since I’ve priced tickets on this route. I opt for an immediate flight — one that is leaving in four days with a return two days later.

Decent Prices

I am pleasantly surprised to see flights reasonably priced — all under US$300 — and a decent selection of options, although nothing close to what you would see for a major city.

For the first leg of the trip, I opt for Delta flight 1879 from Baltimore Washington International to Atlanta.

As I continue to book my surprisingly cheap seat, considering the circumstances, Expedia spells out what my final price will be as I make my purchase — a touch I appreciate. For instance, a 4:25 departure on September 16 costs $270 without taxes and fees. Granted, the $270 is highlighted, and it’s the first price the eye moves to on the screen. Next to it, however — and large enough to see without squinting — is the information that an additional $30.90 will be added in taxes and fees for a total of $300.90.

I am also presented with the option of selecting my seat, another value-add feature I like. The second leg of the flight will be on a commuter plane, and the further up front I am, the happier I will be. This particular option is provided on the Seat Guru platform, a Trip Advisor service.

Alas, Seat Guru informs me that only a few seats are available, none of which look comfortable. 6D is a window seat, it points out — unnecessarily, as it also offers a graphic — and “windows seats can feel very cramped.”

Sidetracked by an Ad

As I go to pay, I am sidetracked by an alluring ad for a City PremierPass credit card (“the best card for travel rewards” according to Expedia and Smart Money magazine). I don’t really want or need another credit card, and perhaps the advertiser understands that my initial reaction is a common sentiment these days. The ad has been personalized for my trip; I can pay $201 instead of $301 if I apply now! The gimmick works, and I click through to investigate. The terms are good — 0 percent APR for six months — but given the upheaval in the credit card industry right now, I doubt that even Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke could qualify for the best rate.

I then go on to navigate my way through the myriad value-add purchases Expedia would like me to make before I pay for my ticket. Some are interesting enough that I don’t automatically relegate them to wallpaper status. There is a Travel & Leisure magazine subscription for $1; there’s a dinner at Hard Rock Cafe in nearby Biloxi for $20.

I can also pay for preflight airport parking at BWI on this page — a very handy item I have never noticed on other sites.

The offers work — my repriced total is $334.90.

Bottom line for Expedia: It’s streamlined — maybe a tad too much if you’re using the site as a starting point to build a dream vacation. When it does bombard users with promotions, though, it seems to be smart about it.

Blinders May Help When You’re Tooling Around Travelocity

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