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Report packs tips for travel Web sites

A study by Consumer Reports finds the best services for air fare bargains, but issues caveat.

©Associated Press
June 7, 2002


NEW YORK -- The three largest online travel companies offered the best air fares and services in a Consumer Reports study that also raised questions about whether air travelers receive unbiased information on Internet sites.

Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity are far better than their smaller competitors Cheap Tickets, OneTravel and TravelNow when it comes to ease of use and finding the greatest number of inexpensive flights, Consumer Reports says in the June issue of its travel newsletter. Even these industry leaders still need to make improvements, however, in the areas of customer service, impartiality and the protection of consumers' privacy, according to the report.

Searches on Expedia yielded the highest percentage of lowest-fare flights, according to Consumer Reports. However, the consumer magazine pointed to a "troubling" number of search results on Expedia that either did not come close to the user's requested departure time or required out-of-the-way stops on what are traditionally nonstop routes.

Travelocity performed better than its rivals in listing the greatest number of affordable and "viable" itineraries, meaning travelers would fly with a single carrier, have fewer connecting flights and spend less time at airports during layovers.

Consumer Reports said it had "reasonable doubts" regarding biases stemming from marketing arrangements between the airlines and the online travel companies, which receive bonuses -- just like traditional travel agents -- for meeting sales targets for individual carriers. As a result, the magazine said federal regulation of the industry was "the only way to ensure fairness."

Orbitz, meanwhile, often did as well or better than its competitors in finding cheap and viable flight itineraries.

But the 1-year-old site, formed by the nation's five largest carriers, often failed to turn up less expensive fares offered by smaller carriers.

William McGee, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, said deeply discounted fares can be found on the three smaller Web sites, but that travelers should know they are often nonrefundable.

Since low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines often has the lowest fares on its routes but does not make its tickets available to the online travel companies, Consumer Reports said Internet air fare shoppers should remember to check the company's Web site independently in order to compare.

The best overall strategy, the study found, was to search Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz for the best fares and schedules and then check the Web sites of individual airlines for special deals.

The study compared fares for 10 popular domestic nonstop routes, using Sabre Inc.'s computerized reservation system as its benchmark. Travelocity is owned by Sabre.

Highlights of the report are available free online at www.consumerreports.org/travel, and the full report can be downloaded for $3.95. Consumer tips on how to get the most out of travel Web sites are available free from Consumer WebWatch at www.consumerwebwatch.org. -- Information from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was used in this report.

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