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Expedia Is Spare but Savvy

By Erika Morphy
Sep 11, 2009 4:00 AM PT

In this second installment in the E-Commerce Times' series on travel-planning Web sites, I'll review the strengths and weaknesses of Expedia, a top aggregator.

Expedia Is Spare but Savvy

My first impression of the site -- one that I used to frequent but haven't visited in at least a year -- is that its design is refreshingly straightforward: a three-column layout relatively uncluttered with self-promotion. Not that it's completely devoid of such ads. (Note to Web designers: Most people don't care if you have "More Hotels in More Destinations." We'd prefer some easy-on-the eyes white space).

Expedia's streamlined site does have its disadvantages, though. I don't see where to sign up for flight status alerts, for example, or how to find out about baggage fees the airline will charge -- both options are available on Travelocity. The vacation package section on the Expedia page doesn't seem to be as robust either, although it does have a fun feature -- vacations by theme, including "mountain" and "world heritage" options.

I decided to drop on Expedia the mother of online travel challenges: a last-minute ticket purchase to Gulfport, a small town in Mississippi. Why this trek to a one-time fishing village? It's now a pretty resort town on the Gulf Coast, boasting a number of casinos and -- more to the point for me -- a nearby retirement community where my mom lives.

The airport is very small and not exactly a must-have destination for airlines. By "small," I mean I give my mom my arrival time but never bother mentioning what airline I'm flying because we can spot each other across the room. Yes, it's a room.

I've been visiting Gulfport by car for the last year, so it's been a while since I've priced tickets on this route. I opt for an immediate flight -- one that is leaving in four days with a return two days later.

Decent Prices

I am pleasantly surprised to see flights reasonably priced -- all under US$300 -- and a decent selection of options, although nothing close to what you would see for a major city.

For the first leg of the trip, I opt for Delta flight 1879 from Baltimore Washington International to Atlanta.

As I continue to book my surprisingly cheap seat, considering the circumstances, Expedia spells out what my final price will be as I make my purchase -- a touch I appreciate. For instance, a 4:25 departure on September 16 costs $270 without taxes and fees. Granted, the $270 is highlighted, and it's the first price the eye moves to on the screen. Next to it, however -- and large enough to see without squinting -- is the information that an additional $30.90 will be added in taxes and fees for a total of $300.90.

I am also presented with the option of selecting my seat, another value-add feature I like. The second leg of the flight will be on a commuter plane, and the further up front I am, the happier I will be. This particular option is provided on the Seat Guru platform, a Trip Advisor service.

Alas, Seat Guru informs me that only a few seats are available, none of which look comfortable. 6D is a window seat, it points out -- unnecessarily, as it also offers a graphic -- and "windows seats can feel very cramped."

Sidetracked by an Ad

As I go to pay, I am sidetracked by an alluring ad for a City PremierPass credit card ("the best card for travel rewards" according to Expedia and Smart Money magazine). I don't really want or need another credit card, and perhaps the advertiser understands that my initial reaction is a common sentiment these days. The ad has been personalized for my trip; I can pay $201 instead of $301 if I apply now! The gimmick works, and I click through to investigate. The terms are good -- 0 percent APR for six months -- but given the upheaval in the credit card industry right now, I doubt that even Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke could qualify for the best rate.

I then go on to navigate my way through the myriad value-add purchases Expedia would like me to make before I pay for my ticket. Some are interesting enough that I don't automatically relegate them to wallpaper status. There is a Travel & Leisure magazine subscription for $1; there's a dinner at Hard Rock Cafe in nearby Biloxi for $20.

I can also pay for preflight airport parking at BWI on this page -- a very handy item I have never noticed on other sites.

The offers work -- my repriced total is $334.90.

Bottom line for Expedia: It's streamlined -- maybe a tad too much if you're using the site as a starting point to build a dream vacation. When it does bombard users with promotions, though, it seems to be smart about it.

Blinders May Help When You're Tooling Around Travelocity

Which type of online advertising is most likely to attract your favorable attention?
Straightforward display ads
Ads based on my interests
Informational articles on products/services
Video ads
Ads designed to grab my attention, e.g. pop-ups, autoplay
None -- I avoid all online ads