Each month, ExpertFlyer sits down with an executive in the travel industry to provide insight to changes in the landscape and how it affects the way you do business. It’s another way ExpertFlyer is providing additional information to empower the business traveler.
This month ExpertFlyer talked with Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor® Flights. TripAdvisor® is the world’s largest travel site, enabling travelers to plan and enjoy the perfect trip. The company offers trusted advice from real travelers and a wide variety of travel choices and planning features with seamless links to booking tools.
“While we’re not fully out of the woods quite yet, we’ve been seeing increased airfare shopping on TripAdvisor Flights, and expect it to continue as we break in the New Year.”
– Jami Counter, senior director, TripAdvisor Flights
1) As the world’s largest travel website, what has contributed most to TripAdvisor’s success?
There are many factors that have contributed to TripAdvisor’s success over the past ten plus years, but the biggest factor is our passionate community of travelers who have contributed more than 40 million reviews and opinions of hotels, restaurants, attractions, destinations, and vacation rentals. It’s the advice of fellow travelers and the wisdom of crowds that our users have come to rely on when researching and making their own travel plans.
More importantly, TripAdvisor has continued to innovate over the years and has added new features to make it even easier for travelers to plan the perfect trip. Examples of this include TripAdvisor Flights, which launched in 2009, and TripAdvisor’s new Facebook integration, which just launched in December and allows travelers to get highly relevant travel advice from their Facebook friends through TripAdvisor.
2) Can you tell us a little about TripAdvisor Flights and how it fits into TripAdvisor’s overall business model?
TripAdvisor Flights launched in February of 2009 as a new and, we think, better way for travelers to find cheap airfares on the Internet. Our product is a flights meta-search engine, which pulls airfares from various partners, including top online travel agencies, such as Expedia and Travelocity, specialty ticket sellers, like Vayama and Airfare.com, and leading airlines like Delta and JetBlue. Travelers are able to shop for and compare airfares across a broad array of sources with one easy search on TripAdvisor Flights.
Our Flights product fits nicely into TripAdvisor’s existing businesses, and is right in line with our site’s mission of helping travelers plan the perfect trip. In addition to a wealth of information and travel advice, TripAdvisor now also has a very strong and compelling offering for airfare searches.
3) Does TripAdvisor Flights offer anything special to travelers in terms of pricing or fare content that other air travel sites do not?
Since we pull airfares from more than any other flight search engine on the Internet, we are able to consistently provide travelers with the broadest selection of itineraries and the lowest ticket prices. We also display a number of opaque fares, which tend to be lower than published airfares and can provide consumers with a true bargain if they’re flexible and simply looking for the lowest ticket price.
4) Are there any features that differentiate TripAdvisor Flights from other online flight search engines?
We’ve rolled out a number of features on TripAdvisor Flights to help you not only find the lowest price, but to also find the right flight for your travel needs. The perfect example of this is our Right Flight Finder, which launched late last year. This feature highlights itineraries that may better suit a traveler’s needs beyond the lowest price, such as flights at more convenient times or flights that will get them from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time. We also suggest alternate dates with lower fares if travelers can be flexible with their travel.
Also, airline fees are now prevalent for domestic travel and have become a big frustration for travelers, especially due to the overall lack of transparency as it relates to fees during the booking process on almost all travel sites. With TripAdvisor Flights we rolled out a Fees Estimator tool that allows travelers to incorporate the costs for checked baggage, in-flight food, entertainment, and other amenities, into their search results. We also allow travelers to enter their frequent flier status, as this often exempts them from most airline fees. The Fees Estimator allows a true apples-to-apples comparison of the all in cost for air travel. This has helped travelers better anticipate the total cost of their trip, and allowed them to avoid unpleasant surprises at the airport.
5) What kind of impact do you think airline fees have had on air travel and its perception among travelers?
I think airline fees are here to stay and have certainly become difficult for passengers to navigate. The perception is that airlines are nickel and diming travelers and are adding new fees on almost a monthly basis, and there is some truth to the perception. There have also been some new eyebrow-raising fees announced recently, like the carry-on baggage fees introduced by a domestic carrier. At the end of the day, though, I think most travelers have come to expect ancillary fees when they book air travel. What will be interesting to watch in the coming months and years is whether airlines have reached a breaking point for the fees they can charge. My guess is they have reached the limit on what they can charge for things like baggage and in-flight services, but you’ll continue to see new and creative fees introduced, which will make it even more challenging for the traveler to understand the total cost of the flight.
6) Do you have any tips that could help flyers avoid airline fees for things like checked baggage, advance seat assignment, in-flight services, etc.?
With new fees constantly popping up, my biggest tip is to be prepared and do your research before you book your plane ticket. Airline websites can be good starting points for getting to know the ins and outs of fees for a particular carrier. Tools like the Fees Estimator from TripAdvisor Flights, however, can be helpful in giving you a more comprehensive understanding of the cost of fees and how they impact your final “all-in” ticket price. SmarterTravel, one of our sister sites, also has an ultimate fee guide to help travelers navigate airline fees.
As for avoiding fees, checked baggage fees can often be avoided by packing light and packing smart. Only pack what you will need for your trip. If your whole family is traveling, see if you can condense your clothes and other necessities into just a few suitcases, instead of packing one or two bags for each family member. Also, packing a snack and bringing an iPad or mp3 player or a book can help cut back on some of the in-flight fees for food and entertainment.
7) This past summer, we spoke with Meredith Hanrahan, chief travel officer of CheapFlights.com, about trends in the online travel-booking arena. Meredith said, according to a company poll, that more than 70% of customers indicated that they were planning a summer getaway, but only 25% of people thought that summer travel was back in “all its glory.” What’s your take on trends affecting the online travel industry?
The recession certainly had an impact on the travel sector, but we definitely saw a bounce back in 2010 as business rebounded and consumers started traveling more again on the leisure side. Flights were fuller last year than in 2009, both due to capacity cuts by airlines and increased travel demand. While we’re not fully out of the woods quite yet, we’ve been seeing increased airfare shopping on TripAdvisor Flights, and expect it to continue as we break in the New Year.
8) How are these trends affecting the services and tools you provide to your customers?
At TripAdvisor Flights, we’ve been working to help our users not only find the cheapest airfares, but also find the right flight for their travel needs. As I mentioned earlier, we have a number of unique features as part of our flights search engine, including the Fees Estimator and our Right Flight Finder.
In addition, we’ve launched new ways for travelers to track airfares to their destinations of choice, so they can be alerted when fares drop. The primary way we do this is with our Air Watch e-mail alerts, which travelers can sign up for on a route-by-route basis. The free e-mail service alerts travelers when airfares either drop by a certain amount or drop to a certain level, as set by the individual. This helps take some of the work out of monitoring airfares, and to date we’ve had millions of TripAdvisor Flights users sign up for our Air Watch alerts.
Lastly, we have some great things in store for 2011 and some exciting enhancements to TripAdvisor Flights. We look forward to sharing those soon.