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Women in Tech

AA.com Sucks the Fun Out of Trip-Planning

By Erika Morphy
Nov 20, 2009 4:00 AM PT

It's fitting that the last stop on my tour of travel-planning Web sites for the E-Commerce Times was American Airlines. The site illustrates all of the problems that spurred this special look at travel sites in the first place.

AA.com Sucks the Fun Out of Trip-Planning

Travel sites have developed a reputation for being hard to navigate and poorly designed with cluttered user interfaces. Not all of the sites I visited for this series fit that bill, but American Airlines sure did.

After taking an initial look at the busy home page display, I decided to check out a small box labeled "Deal Finder" off to the left.

No Mac App for You

"Deal Finder," a desktop widget that let users input where they wanted to go and what they wanted to pay, might have been useful. When a fare matched the stated parameters, the user would receive an alert. However, Deal Finder was not available to me -- or any other Mac user.

I moved onto another box advertising "Fare Sale Alerts." One of the perks of writing this series has been the vicarious excitement I've experienced over trips I will probably never take. The American Airlines site quickly leached the joy from this exercise.

The circa-1990 design (think white space with blue underlined type) was unappetizing. Nor was the section intuitively organized; trips were grouped in unappetizing columns around geography -- very loosely defined geography, at that. I clicked on a column offering "Winter Flight Deals Across the US" to see what I could find.

The second page was more lively, although the destinations and flight paths were displayed in plain vanilla. Dallas to Corpus Cristi, Texas, one way: US$76; New York to Tucson, Ariz., one way, $153; Omaha, Neb., to Chicago, one way, $58.

I decided to click on the Omaha-Chicago trip to see the total round-trip fare (my guess was that it would be markedly higher than $120 plus fees if my experience with other sites was any indication). Unbelievably, I clicked for naught; this was not an interactive button.

So I entered the information into the "Book Flights" tool, using Dec. 2 to Dec. 5 as my travel dates.

I was rewarded with two dense panels of information on departing and returning flights. I picked the first two available: Flight 4276 leaving at 12:10 p.m. and Flight 4068, returning at 10:10 a.m. Before I clicked to see the final tally, I observed there was no rhyme or reason to how the flights were organized. Certainly they were not listed by time; the flights following my departure on Dec. 2 left at 9:40 a.m., 4:45 p.m., 6:55 a.m., and so on. If I were really booking a flight for, say, a business trip, and I had a schedule to meet, I would have to do a fair amount of squinting to find an optimal trip. Did I mention there were a lot of flight details densely packed into a small space?

The final fare came up, and for the first time since I logged onto the site I felt positive toward American Airlines. The final fare, at $132.70, matched the deal offer. An awful lot of travel sites do not follow through with their proffered bargains.

Innovative Design

Curious about the rest of the pricing, I navigated back to the main screen to type in my tried-and-true cross-country test: Baltimore Washington International to San Francisco International.

What happened next was somewhat interesting. I clicked on "More Options," and for once saw some originality in the site's design. Taking advantage of the "Dates Flexible" feature, I found I could leave on Dec. 2 on a number of flights with one-way fares averaging $173. Or, if I wanted to leave later, I could easily view the pricing for alternative departures. Dec. 2 was the cheapest day to travel. Leaving on Friday, Dec. 4, I'd have to pay an average fare of $228. Leaving on Sunday, Nov. 30, the tail end of the Thanksgiving weekend, would set me back $1,082, I shuddered to see.

Opting for the cheapest flights I could see, I booked a round-trip ticket for $422, including taxes and fees. Unfortunately, my flight home would be 10 hours long, with a layover in Miami. On this occasion, the vicarious thrill I've been experiencing through booking these pretend trips worked in reverse: I was supremely happy I would not be taking this flight. An alternative, at a $40 higher price, no less, would depart San Francisco at 7:30 a.m., with a layover in Dallas, and arrive at BWI at 8:10 p.m.

There was little elsewhere on the site to spark a positive reaction from me. One thing I liked was the flight notification service, which offered email, voice or text options in choices of one, two, three or four hours from departure or arrival -- but that was not enough to make up for the drabness and limitations that seemed pervasive.

Bottom line: My visit to AA.com was a bad trip. Go somewhere else.


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