Online Travel's Taken Off
Traveling always has its share of headaches, from finding convenient flights and dealing with last-minute delays to arguing over mysteriously missing hotel reservations.

The growing popularity of online travel agencies, however, is seeking to soothe the weary traveler with myriad booking options and expanded customer support, all at the click of a mouse.

So what secrets does Orbitz harbor to be among the top online travel agencies?

Orbitz, formed in 2001, was the first Internet travel company to present competing prices in an unbiased chart form.

One of its major competitors, Priceline ( PCLN), originally had customers bid for tickets but did not list prices in a way that let users easily compare them.

The other two most popular online travel agencies were founded in 1996: Expedia ( EXPE), formed as a division of Microsoft ( MSFT); and Travelocity, as a division of Sabre Holdings ( TSG). Travelocity was the first Web site that let consumers book trips without the help of a travel agent.

Experienced Hands

Orbitz was formed in 2001 by five airlines including Delta Airlines, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines; they divested when the firm went public in 2003.

It was then purchased by Cendant (now known as Avis Budget Group ( CAR)) in 2004. In June 2006, an affiliate of the private equity group Blackstone Group purchased Orbitz and sister company Travelport.

Orbitz was also the first online travel agency to have its own call center, which actually watches the skies.

This center is staffed around the clock by former air traffic controllers.

All staffers also receive certification from the National Weather Service, so they can alert customers of adverse airport conditions that could result in departure delays and emergency travel situations.

Thus, the company can keep travelers up-to-date on flight changes before they even leave for the airport.

Additionally, Orbitz has a full-time journalist covering the latest in travel warnings, says Brian Hoyt, Orbitz senior director of public relations at Travelport.

A pioneer in the industry, the company has also launched several microsites, encompassing areas such as golf getaways and travel packages for same-sex couples.

"We want to provide inventory for specific segments of the marketplace that customers are looking for," says Hoyt. The most recent microsite launch is focused on family travel.

Attention to Detail

Orbitz has launched many other unique features that not only allow the company to stay ahead of the competition but also enhance the consumer travel experience.

In December, for instance, Orbitz created a hotel notification service for its customers, lest room reservations disappear due to late arrivals or flight delays. (Hotels usually release unclaimed reserved rooms after midnight, so it's essential to give advance notification to hold a reservation.)

Once Orbitz receives permission, the agents will inform the hotels of the guest's late arrival to ensure that their reservation is honored; alternately, Orbitz can contact customers and rebook them at a new hotel.

In March 2006, the firm added to its OrbitzTLC Alert system, which now informs travelers' families of flight arrivals as well as departure delays.

The service automatically notifies as many as six friends and family members with the updated itinerary. Travelers can then rest assured that loved ones are not spending hours at the airport waiting for them.

As it's rarely possible to account for last-minute travel delays, this is a welcomed service. Travelers can also select the way for Orbitz to make contact, whether by cell phone, PDA, text messaging or email.

Not surprisingly, the company prides itself on its technology.

The search engine Orbitz uses was custom-designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the software was developed by airline and travel reservation pioneer ITA Software.

Further, OrbitzTLC mobile access gives travelers the ability to access travel itineraries, check flight status, find a hotel and contact a customer booking agent right from their cell phones.

One of the most frustrating aspects of booking trips online is not having someone to speak to in case of problems.

Orbitz has introduced a live chat to help with this common complaint: When booking vacation packages, customers can speak to trained agents via an instant message service, helping those who receive a variety of error messages, such as problems processing a credit card or a search that takes longer than usual to complete.

Travelers often need to compare hotels to discern the best choice.

Orbitz' scorecard feature offers all the pertinent information and combines firsthand knowledge from over 60,000 prior hotel customers, rating services such as amenities, maintenance, hotel staff, room comfort, location and overall value.

Accuracy of customer feedback is assured, as Orbitz contacts guests only after they've stayed at a particular hotel to ask about their experience.

Another unique feature is that these hotel reviews are filtered depending on the specific type of traveler, whether he or she falls into the business, leisure, couples or family category.

"Being able to look at reviews targeted to the specific individual helps travelers plan the trip they want faster," explains Hoyt.

What's next?

Some of Orbitz's future goals include selling more complex travel, such as whole vacation packages; building a stronger footprint on the Web; and differentiating the brand, Hoyt notes.

And while everyone is competitive on price, "price is not the only place to be competitive. It's about customer loyalty, innovation and technology," says Hoyt. "We help customers find the trip they want, and take care of them along the way."

In the coming year, it will be interesting to see how Orbitz competes for the online travel market share -- and services its customers.

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