Spread the net for a wider choice

The best place to make your bookings need not be travel portals. Instead, let a metasearch engine do the trawling on your behalf.

Sushmita Choudhury        Print Edition: April, 2010

What is your first port of call when you start planning a vacation? If your answer is not 'Internet', you risk being branded a Neanderthal. But while the growing ranks of online travel facilitators have made travel planning and booking more convenient, the search for the best deal is becoming more time-consuming and painstaking. For instance, a recent survey on online travel consumer behaviour in the country revealed that Indians are fast evolving into deal hunters and comparison shoppers, a far cry from the days when the Net was just an information gathering tool. Commissioned by iXiGo.com, the survey was conducted between August 2009 and February 2010 and had a sample size of 2,500 respondents. Around 65 per cent of the respondents claimed to check three or more travel sites before booking and 18 pe rcent admitted to crosschecking over five sites. Further, Indian travellers have no clear preference for any travel site, be it an official airline, hotel reservation page or an online travel agent (OTA) site—over 61 per cent said that they book "where they find the best deals".

What emerges is a glaring need for deal comparison platforms that allow travellers to check deals across multiple portals. In fact, it would make life much easier if there was a search engine that could simultaneously trawl multiple airline sites, hotel, bus and car service providers, as well as all the leading OTA sites on your behalf. There is one. It's called the metasearch engine. It makes travel searches easier, faster, transparent and more comprehensive. Not only do you save time and effort but it also ensures that you never miss a good bargain.

Such an engine aggregates all relevant search results from its partner travel service providers, deletes duplications and compiles them on one page for easy viewing. Once you click on a deal, you are automatically transferred to the Website of the travel facilitator pushing the deal. Though none of the metasearch portals take reservations, you don't have to worry about starting your search from scratch at the linked Website; you will be directed to the relevant booking page. Says a Zoomtra executive: "Not enabling bookings is a boon because it means that meta sites do not compete directly with the travel facilitators. This allows us to partner with the leading providers since they see us as a search layer over their own offering and not as competition." The icing on the cake? It's a free service for customers.

Little wonder then that Indians are taking to this innovation really well. In 2008, iXiGo.com, the leading player in this space, was posting close to 25,000 searches per day despite being just an year old. This figure currently stands at around 67,000. Says Aloke Bajpai, CEO, iXiGo.com: "The growth has been astounding. We've quadrupled in the past 12 months and are very bullish about the future." According to industry insiders, it's the fragmented nature of the online market that is going to drive the demand for such engines. So, though just 3 per cent of the total online bookings currently flow through metasearch portals, some industry insiders predict that the figure will go up to 12 per cent in the next two-three years. The number of players in this niche area is growing steadily, with a few foreign players like Kayak entering the fray in the past couple of years.

So, which is the best metasearch portal? For answers we compared six leading names on the basis of product offerings, number of search results yielded and the best rates quoted. Hotel Best Western The Emerald, a fourstar hotel in Mumbai, was selected because it was one of the few properties that was featured by all the six sites. This allowed for a fairer room tariff comparison.

In the face of the increased competition, these portals are being compelled to invest in providing additional value. This could be in terms of better differentiator tools, say, fare prediction algorithms or the fare alert facility. In the case of the latter, you just name the travel sector, along with the price you want, and get e-mail alerts when an option meets your budget. In addition, these portals are also accessing offline inventory. For instance, iXiGo.com is trying to reach out to hotels and travel agencies that are not available online due to technology bottlenecks. All this means greater choice for the customers. Happy hunting!

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