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Net travel industry booming, but surfers are fickle

Web shoppers are fickle when it comes to booking online travel, pointing to a long road for travel sites trying to build customer loyalty, according to a new study.

Web shoppers are fickle when it comes to booking online travel, pointing to a long road for travel sites trying to build customer loyalty, according to a new study.

As surfers planned summer vacations, overall travel site activity jumped nearly 60 percent from April to May, according to Nielsen/NetRatings research released this week, which included data on traffic at 46 travel sites that drew a total of 13.1 million visitors.

Travelers are single-minded when booking airline reservations: they want the best prices and they hop around to find them. Research for the month of May showed nearly 28 percent of visitors to Microsoft's Expedia Web site also surfed reservation giant Sabre's Travelocity home page, with 23 percent of the visitors to Travelocity also visiting Expedia.

Of the Preview Travel Web site users, about 11 percent left to visit Expedia and 15 percent hopped over to Travelocity. The research suggests that Preview's visitors, the majority of whom are women, are more loyal because women tend to surf less than men, said NetRatings senior analyst Peggy O'Neill. About 55 percent of Expedia's visitors are men.

The research also found Travelocity was the top visited travel site--with 2.3 million visitors last month, though users spent the most time (21 minutes) on Priceline, which went public in March. AOL's Travelfileaol.com had the least amount of traffic in May with 290,000 visitors.

For travel sites, the biggest moneymaker is airline tickets and the top three sellers are Travelocity, Preview Travel, and MSN's Expedia, according to the survey.

However the airlines themselves have been coming on strong with their own campaign to lure customers to their sites with last-minute deals and other incentives. The result is that more than half of all online bookings went directly to the airlines last year, drawing $1.6 billion in sales, according to Forrester Research.

In the future, O'Neill, who wrote the Nielsen-NetRatings report, believes travel sites will need to focus on customer loyalty to keep their customers from jumping ship. They'll do so by developing more vacation-planning content, improving customer service by tracking customer preferences as Amazon does, and building more communities as Expedia has by hosting about 40 chat rooms per week.

"Personalization and customer service are how you keep (customers) loyal and that's what all of them are investing money in," O'Neill said.