Monday, September 25, 2006

Online travel agents criticised

Here’s a fine example of complaints many consumers have about booking travel over the internet.

Darren Cronian, the chap behind the excellent Travel Rants consumer travel blog, has produced a list of issues he has come across when dealing with online travel agents.

Chief culprits amongst the list are:

* Prices that don’t exist – advertised products that eventually have an inflated price once hidden charges are added when the payment page appears.

* Browser (un)friendly websites – problems with Firefox, other browsers and other usability issues.

* Phone referrals – trudging through a booking process only to be told to ring a call centre.

While it may seem a little unkind to shovel a pile of criticism at the feet of online travel agents, Cronian raises some good points.

Unfortunately he does shy away from naming and shaming any sites.

The inconsistency of online travel agent sites is in some respects borne out of how haphazardly the internet has itself developed.

Nobody, especially in travel, can lay claim to getting the user experience absolutely perfect, as our various Road Tests have testified.

* The Royal National Institute for the Blind looked at how sites catered for disabled users – there was not a good showing from the industry in general.

* Some of the pioneers of the last decade failed to inspire a usability expert from Netizen Digital

Our main story last Friday, regarding Internet Explorer 7 and usability issues for travel sites, also raises a whole host of problems.

There is clearly a lot of work to do…

Kevin May, editor, Travolution


Select World Travel said...

A good case for the "Old" fashioned Independent travel Agent. 1 Two minute telephone Call and everything can be booked with a minimum of fuss, and helpful advise, and fully inclusive Costs

Darren Cronian said...

Yes, I should of mentioned that in the blog article – I became frustrated, called Lee, and within 10 minutes, I had booked the holiday, and at a cheaper cost than what was available on the internet.

I’m a little hesitant, in naming companies, after an article I read about a blogger being taken to court – unfortunately, I don’t have the backing of a large company to back me up!

I’m just a little travel blogger ;-)

You make a good point about disabilities; I'm actually blind in my right eye, and have been since birth - I notice no difference, but it's important that the website navigation is good because it can be frustrating looking all over the monitor to get around the site.

Nick said...

Seems to me that it's more a case for site owners to recognise how critical the user experience is, and that detail matters. And, ask the customer. Don't assume that you can see your own business through the customer's eyes. It takes effort and cost to make a site easy to use.

Nick Gassman
Usability and Standards

Darren Cronian said...

Good points Nick.

I’m a little bewildered why travel companies don’t offer an online survey for its visitors – this way you can assess if your companies website is meeting potential customers requirements. There’s nothing worse than visiting a website all excited about your holiday, to be frustrated by browser issues or a badly designed website.

99.9% of holidaymakers will simply move on to another website, and that’s a lost customer and revenue.

I’d be interested to learn more about your role at, it sounds like an interesting job.

jetboy said...

An online survey is unlikely to provide the kind of detail you'd need to make usability improvements. It would also introduce its own set of issues: How would you get feedback that's representative of your user base? How would you implement the survey without introducing new usability problems? What's the incentive for someone to fill in the survey? What questions would you ask?

Glaring problems should be obvious to a usability expert. Secondary issues are only likely to be unearthed by traditional usability testing with real users.

Darren Cronian said...

Jetboy, I disagree that it would give you more problems - what it will give you are problems that non techie visitors are having with your website.

Not all travel companies can afford a usability expert - please don't forget that not all travel companies have the budgets that companies like BA and Thomson etc have.

It annoys me when people forget about the smaller travel companies that keep the industry running.

jetboy said...

You said it yourself: "99.9% of holidaymakers will simply move on to another website, and that's a lost customer and revenue." They also won't bother to stop to fill in your online survey. Those few that do will not be representative.

If you can't afford to hire a usability expert, then you need to become one yourself. How can something which has such an impact on your bottom line be considered optional?

As the larger travel companies move into more and more profitable niches, and more travel purchases move online, you'll need to learn to compete on the same level or be wiped out. One of the early allures of the internet is that it allowed smaller companies to compete in the same space as larger ones. That cuts both ways.

Darren Cronian said...

Ok good point - I am assuming that everyone is like me. Surely though, even if 1% of your visitors find a flaw or issue with your website, that you didn't see, this is a good thing?

>> How can something which has such an impact on your bottom line be considered optional?

I agree, but what you have to remember is small travel companies know how to sell holidays, but they lack experience or knowledge in web design.

Yes, they would get in a web designer to create their site, but how would they tell if a web designer knew all about usability.

Does anyone have any resources or sites that concentrate on website useability?

jetboy said...

Try Steve Krug's 'Don't Make me Think', 37 Signals' 'Defensive Design For The Web' and Jakob Nielsen's various books. You can also read Nielsen at

Another interesting site is:

Most web designers know very little about usability and accessibility. Those that do are often hampered by business owners who know even less!

By reading some of the resources above, you'll not only start to be able to spot designers that know their stuff, but also learn to give them the freedom to deliver their best work.

As for that 1% feedback ... I'd be very wary of changing things on my sites based on such a small sample. It could lead you into making changes that'd negatively affect far for users than you benefit. For usability testing on the cheap, check out the three chapters that Krug pulled out of the second edition of 'Don't Make Me Think':

Nick said...

You don't have to spend money to get an idea. Ask your mates, your mum, your next door neighbour to use your site. If you need to convince other people there's an issue, video them.

Nick Gassman
Usability and Standards
British Airways

Darren Cronian said...

Jetboy, it depends on how many unqiue visitors your website is receiving. ;)

1% of 60,000 visitors a month is 600 (sorry to state the obvious) visitors having issues with your website - that would be high enough for me to investigate it further.

Thanks for the resources, I'll take a look at the sites.

jetboy said...

Well, I was thinking that of the people that have issues with the site, you may be able to coax 1% of them to fill in a survey with worthwhile information ...

However, I'm guessing here, and you won't know unless you try it.

Nick said...

A questionnaire is mediated by what questions you ask in the first place, and the truthfulness and ability of respondents to answer. Also, a questionnaire by definition represents a biased self-selecting sample. That's not to say that questionnaires aren't useful, but they do need to be used appropriately.

Questionnaires are no substitute for watching someone struggle to use a page that you've put time into. And you'll learn a lot with very small numbers of respondents. Like I say, try it with people you know to get a feel for things.

Nick Gassman
Usability and Standards
British Airways

Darren Cronian said...

Without sounding patronising, the best type of people to test the site are non techie, non confident internet and computer users - if these types of people can use your site comfortably, then that's a good start.

I remember when I started my blog in April 2005, I annoyed the life out of my family and friends asking for their advice!

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