Throwing Flowers at Expedia's Feet

Traveling With Wings rates the four airline-ticketing sites that TSC readers voted for in a recent survey.
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Last week, Traveling With Wings

reported the results of our

TSC

Online Travel Agency Survey, in which

TSC

readers gave the thumbs up to

Preview Travel

(PTVL)

, with

Travelocity

a very close second. The other two Web sites that generated the most use from

TSC

readers were

Expedia

, which is owned by

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

and

Biztravel

.

On Friday, Traveling With Wings sat down and put the four sites that got the most votes from our readers to the grueling Traveling With Wings test.

In this one-day, highly unscientific experiment, Expedia came out on top, with second place going to Preview Travel.

Specifically, we compared what the sites turned up for three theoretical trips: a round-trip coach fare from Dallas to Denver, leaving on March 31 and returning on April 5; a round-trip coach fare from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio, leaving on March 31 and returning on April 5, and a round-trip coach fare from New York's JFK airport to Prague, leaving on May 1 and returning on May 9.

What Traveling With Wings tested on each site is summed up in the chart below: competitiveness of the fares quoted, ease of use and navigation, ease of sign-in for both new and old users, technical problems encountered, site speed and any goodies of note. The greater the number of tulips (it is spring, after all), the better the site fared, with five tulips being the best possible score in each box. The overall ranking for each site is based on not only the scores in the six categories but also the basic question we wanted to ask ourselves for our readers' sake: Would we

want

to return to the site to book actual fares? (We did not go through the full booking process after checking for the best fares.)

First, let's address that mostly empty Travelocity column.

We tried four times to access the site on Friday morning. Every time we did, we got this message: "System busy. The system is unable to process your request at the moment." Bzzzzt! However, we could still look over the site and access a few of their goodies they offer -- one of which I love: the seat-selection process.

Traveling With Wings hopes that the site cooperates the next time. I must say, however, that I have had problems with the site being busy before.

So, now that one of the two major contenders is off the mat, what did we find with the other three? A mixed bag.

Biztravel was by far the slowest site. It also had the most "clunky and cluttered" feel to it. Searches for fares took a very long time. I think we could have cooked bacon and eggs in the time it took for the JFK-Prague quotes to come up.

And oh yes, we were using a 38.8K connection speed.

Hotel and rental-car options are also much more prevalent than on the other sites -- and, in my opinion, in the way on Biztravel's interface. The site would be easier to navigate if the hotel and car-rental options were removed from the main fare-search screens.

However, the site also offered a good assortment of paging, email alerts, and other bells and whistles. And if hotels and rental cars are an important part of the mix when you make reservations, then perhaps the placement of them on the main screens would be helpful.

As to fares, I give the nod to Preview Travel. On all the sites, we used Preview's version of the "quick fare search" mechanism to compare flights and fares. On the DFW/DEN flight request, all three had the lowest round-trip available listed, a roundtrip using

Frontier Airlines

(FRNT)

at $432.

However, Preview Travel gave me more options than any other site: five choices under $700, while Biztravel only gave me one choice, and Expedia gave me only two choices --the Frontier flights, and one

AMR's

American Airlines

(AMR)

combination of flights at $670.

On the ATL/CMH flight, again, all three gave me the lowest fare possible, which was $700 from Northwest Airlines (NWAC:Nasdaq), but Expedia, in this case, gave me another option that included a

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

/Northwest combo flight at $749, which neither Preview Travel nor Biztravel listed as preferred lower-fare flights. Biztravel's only Delta fare was at $800, as was Preview's.

Prices quoted from both Biztravel and Expedia for the Prague flight were virtually identical.

Aside from Travelocity's collapse, we had our second-worst technical experience with Preview. Every time we tried to enter the request for the JFK/Prague flight, the system came back and said, "That itinerary is no longer available. Please start over." We tried this three times. That's our limit. And we never did get a quote for the JFK-Prague flight as a result.

Traveling With Wings also had a crash immediately after we finished the sign-up process with Expedia and had to start over with the site.

But we found overall that Expedia, contrary to the negative comments we had received from a number of readers, to be easy to navigate. Its pages were also quick to load, and its interface was uncluttered and inviting.

Overall, technical glitches and slow speeds typified Friday morning's session. All the sites can use improvement in these areas. As for the fares, Traveling With Wings was generally happy with the results. But, again, it was interesting to note that some of the sites did not list all of the possible low-fare flight combinations.

Before we sign off for this week, just a mention of a service that Traveling With Wings particularly likes for getting email notices about fare specials. A free service at

http://www.smarterliving.com sends a weekly message with special fares -- after scouring many of the airlines for trips that originate from your designated departure city. It has alerted me more than once to special fares I didn't know about.

And the Care Package Goes To...

Arline Brecher, whose response to our Online Travel Agency Survey was the one the official TSC dart hit on our old-fashioned bulletin board. Arline will receive an ever-so-lovely

TSC

shirt and an always-useful

TSC

coffee cup.

Holly Hegeman, based in Dallas, pilots the Wing Tips and Traveling With Wings columns for TheStreet.com. At time of publication, Hegeman held no positions in stocks discussed in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. You can usually find Hegeman, publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter, buzzing around her airline industry Web site at

www.planebusiness.com. While she cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, she welcomes your feedback at

hhegeman@planebusiness.com.