Smarter than a travel agent? – Google and Bing search results

I often get asked by the investment community how one travel site varies from one another and why in the world you would ever need an offline travel agency/TMC.  Today I thought I would just show you.

Forget for a moment the other things that an agency/TMC does for you (policy compliance, ticketing, supplier negotiations, reporting, accounting).

Let’s start by looking at Google’s new ability to interleave actual flight availability into a basic search, using the data from ITA. In the search bar:  Flights TPA LGW (for those not familiar with airport codes, that is Tampa to London’s Gatwick and you can just as easily enter Tampa London in the same search for flights).

It used to be that you would just see the ads (like Cheap flights from Gatwick to Tampa (FL) right below the flight display.

Now the results is actually from the airline schedule (versus availability, since you haven’t entered the dates yet).  It shows that British Airways flies every day of the week non-stop at 6:45pm.  The flight takes 8 hours and 20 minutes.  

If I click on British Airways in this link, I have to enter the origin and destination information all over again on the BA site.  And as I walk through the BA site, I end up with a fare of $1,375.50, including taxes) if I use outbound on 7/8 and return on 7/10/2011.

So am I now as smart as a travel agent?  Not yet.  You wouldn’t know that this flight is operated by British Airways, but if you are an American Airlines frequent flyer, you can also book it as AA 6209 or even as Iberia 4682. And you still don’t know the alternatives on other carriers as a connection.

If you click All Flights from Tampa, you will also see that Delta and Air Tran fly through Atlanta,and Southwest, US Airways and United fly through DC and more than 3 airlines fly through New York.  You might think this means the connection to London, but you would be wrong.

You have to click on the Flights to London on the first screen to get the right information.  You would then see that you can connect through New York on BA, Continental and Virgin or backtrack through Chicago on AA, UA and BA. 

As the consumer, you now feel empowered.  Right?

Except you don’t know that the connections may actually be better through Charlotte or Philadelphia on US Airways, or even through Miami on American.  And by the way, you don’t know that these carriers may have paid to be on this display and your favorite carrier may not show at all.  Oh where oh where is US Airways?  Or if you are fond of Qatar Airways, that you could connect to them in Charlotte.  Or KLM or Delta via Atlanta, perhaps the most direct connection as the crow flies.

This is where a travel agent adds value, as they are operating with a more complete knowledge base.

So how does Bing fare?  (no pun intended) 

Their Bing Travel metasearch site is also powered by the ITA engine.  Right now they have a one up on Google (don’t expect it to last long), in that they already prompt for the date in the primary search results, so you can go right past the basic schedule display to availability (something that Travel Agents do without thinking).

The first flight that they display when you hit “find flights” is a Continental flight through DC for $1010.30.  When I click on that, I magically end up in Orbitz and it asks me to login.  If I had looked in the small print on the first screen (which I didn’t), it actually told me a few sites where I could get that same fare.

So this flight will take me 11 hours and 44 minutes, versus 8 hours and 20 minutes for the non-stop, as I have over 2 hours in DC and I have to give up a half day of work on this end, as the cheaper flight leaves at 136pm.  Is my time and half a day of work worth more than $300?

Now, more than 30 minutes later, all that I am sure of is that I don’t know everything that I need to make a decision.   Maybe I should call that travel agent after all.  I’m betting it will take less than 30 minutes to get to a set of flights that match my criteria.

You decide.

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