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TRAVEL TECH

Aggregator Sites: One-Stop Shopping?

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page P01

When Che Carsner wanted to find discount airline tickets for his parents from the Miami area to New York, he knew where to look. The Manhattan real estate agent logged onto Kayak.com, a new online travel aggregator, and typed in some dates. Within seconds, dozens of options appeared. Among them: a $140 round-trip fare from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to LaGuardia airport on US Airways, which he booked.

"I might eventually have found that fare elsewhere if I had done a lot more clicking," Carsner said. "But by putting in the right data, it came up instantly. And the interface [on Kayak] was a lot smoother than anything else I have come across on the Internet." Finds like that have turned Carsner into a devotee of aggregators, a growing class of search engines that scan the Web for bargains on airfares, hotels, car rentals and other travel services.

TESTING THE SITES

We searched for the cheapest flight from Dulles to Madrid for a date in late November, using aggregator sites and the "Big Three" booking agents.

AGGREGATORS:

Cheapflights.com $389

(Alitalia, via Milan)

Farechase.com $498.20

(US Airways, via Philadelphia)

Kayak.com $489

(US Airways, via Philadelphia)

Mobissimo.com $401.62

(Alitalia, via Milan)

Qixo.com $489

(Alitalia, via Milan)

Sidestep.com $514

(British Airways, via London)

Travelzoo.com's SuperSearch $496

(KLM, via Amsterdam)

BIG THREE:

Travelocity.com $447

(Air France, via Paris)

Expedia.com $448.28

(Air France, via Paris)

Orbitz.com $508

(US Airways and Lufthansa)

He's not alone. Between December 2003 and October 2004, the number of users who downloaded software from SideStep.com, the most established travel aggregator, rose from 3.25 million to 4.75 million, according to Phil Carpenter, SideStep's vice president of corporate marketing.

Aggregators are Web sites that function like travel-themed versions of Google. Besides Kayak, the major players are SideStep, Yahoo's Farechase.com, Cheapflights.com, Mobissimo.com, Qixo.com and SuperSearch (a subsidiary of the discount online agency Travelzoo.com). When a user logs on and inserts specifications for flights, hotel rooms, rental cars or other travel services, the sites scan their databases for possible matches. Most aggregators have ties to a much broader network of links than more familiar online agencies, so they offer users a wider variety of options. While the popular Orbitz has flight data from more than 455 airlines, SideStep includes 585 carriers in its network. Kayak searches 550 airlines, including fares from other booking sites. The newest of the group, this Connecticut company was started up a few weeks ago by veterans of Orbitz and other major online travel agencies.

Several other agencies useful for travelers offer more limited services. One is Travelaxe.com, which searches only hotels. Another is BookingBuddy.com, which provides links to Orbitz and the other familiar online agencies.

The aggregator offers a list of airlines, hotels or other providers, along with the providers' toll-free numbers or links to their Web sites. Bookings cannot be made on most aggregator sites; they act as search tools or referral services to airlines, hotels or online travel agencies. The customer can then select the best match and make reservations directly on the Internet or by phone with the provider.

For example, when we logged onto Farechase.com looking for airfares from D.C. to Hong Kong, the site listed fares offered by United, Continental, US Airways, Cathay Pacific and American. To find out the details or make a reservation, it was necessary to click on the airlines' Web sites and book through them. The other major aggregators function similarly.

Svetlozar Nestorov, president of technology at California-based Mobissimo, explained the difference between aggregators and such better-known online agencies as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. "They are companies that are trying to get you to book a ticket, a room or a car through them," he said. "We're neutral sources that search out all the information and present it so you can make the choice of which option best suits your needs."

SideStep's Carpenter was more blunt: "The agencies want to convince customers toward buying a particular product. We're trying to give them a sense of the range of options out there. We think they should have control over booking the options they prefer."

Experts predict a surge in aggregator use as more travelers turn to the Web to book trips and the technology becomes more refined. "They have already staked out their places and will certainly gain popularity as consumers develop more confidence in what they're offering," said Lorraine Sileo, an analyst with PhoCusWright, a Connecticut travel research firm.


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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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