Travel web sites send their fees on vacation


Airline booking fees charged by Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia are on vacation through May. That’s giving travelers who had avoided those sites a reason to reconsider.

The fees generally run about $7 per transaction, just enough to send many travelers to airline Web sites. But in April, first Expedia, the biggest online travel agent, and then Travelocity and Orbitz suspended airline booking fees on tickets bought through May 31. Priceline had dropped airline booking fees almost two years earlier.

That eliminates the big advantage held by airline Web sites, said Forrester Research travel analyst Henry Harteveldt.

“The airline booking processes are not necessarily any better than what you will get on a travel agency’s site,” he said. “So I think that, frankly, the airlines have now been caught with their e-business pants down because they have failed to really innovate in their planning and booking processes.”

Airlines have aimed to get customers to book directly on their Web sites with frequent-flier bonus miles and guarantees that fares elsewhere will be no lower than those offered directly by the airline. Southwest Airlines didn’t offer tickets on the travel sites at all.

The travel sites aren’t saying what they’ll do about the fees after May 31. They’ve taken pains to call the waiver temporary.

Expedia “is constantly evaluating the approach that will deliver the greatest value to its customers and to its business, and for now, booking fees will be waived on all flights booked on between now and May 31,” spokeswoman Arie Dekker said.

Travelocity believes the absence of airline fees has helped it grab more market share, said Tracey Weber, president of Travelocity North America. The privately held company didn’t provide any hard numbers on what has happened since it began waiving fees.

Orbitz Worldwide Inc. declined to talk about the fee waiver, citing the quiet period ahead of reporting its results. But on Wednesday the company upped the ante, saying it will cut booking fees on hotel rooms reserved by July 15.

Airfare expert Terry Trippler said that there are advantages to booking directly with an airline, including the chance for bonus frequent-flier miles for using its Web site. If something goes wrong on the trip, it can be easier to deal directly with the airline, he said. For complicated trips, such as those with multiple legs or multiple hotel stays, he advises using a travel agent.