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Travelers take flight to Net

Travelers are flocking to online travel sites in record numbers; American Airlines is to blame for tying up the phones.

Online travel agencies reported today that business is booming in the aftermath of a fare war started by American Airlines earlier this week and matched by most other airlines.

They say travelers are flocking to online sites in record numbers, largely because of frustrations in getting through to airline reservation agents by phone. "When reservation phone lines are tied up, travelers are logging on and purchasing their travel on the Internet," said Ken Swanton, chief executive of Internet Travel Network.

Consumers also use the sites to help find the lowest possible fare. American says the tickets offer discounts of up to 50 percent, but many travelers aren't impressed and find the offers much less enticing.

Despite the potential benefits of online booking, some travelers are complaining about delays getting onto some Web sites as well, notably American's. And some users still complain that online sites are hard to navigate. To cope with the added traffic, American said it increased its capacity online.

Internet Travel Network said it logged more than a million hits to its site on Monday and expects similar traffic all week long. By noontime Monday, the company said its traffic had increased 200 percent above normal.

Microsoft's Expedia online travel booking business said it experienced a 15 percent jump in traffic compared with one week ago. This traffic spike resulted in a record day of sales. Monday alone netted an additional 5,000 new registered members, according to Expedia executives.

Another online travel business, Preview Travel, said traffic has more than doubled since the fare ware broke out, with traffic on Monday, yesterday, and today up more than 100 percent from the previous week. Yesterday marked the second-best sales day on record for Preview.

Airlines themselves, including United, Continental, and Southwest, also reported an increase in online bookings. Southwest attributed the jump to special offers such as a "faster way to earn free tickets" by booking online.

E-commerce studies show that online travel could be the fastest-growing part of the market; some estimate $3 billion in tickets sold per year by 1999, up from some $500 million last year. In a report late last year, Salomon Brothers said real-time travel information was the "third revolution" in the airline industry after the launch of jet aircraft in the 1950s and industry deregulation in the late '70s.

Many travelers still worry about online security, however, and they prefer to deal with a travel agent. In addition, last year's $500 million worth of tickets booked online represented only one percent of airline tickets sold.