Travel Site FAIL


by Samuel Greengard

For nearly a month I've been trying to plan a vacation to South America for this autumn. And for the greater part of a month, I've found myself idling somewhere between frustrated and angry. Despite hours perusing websites for tour companies, airlines and hotels, I've been unable to book a trip.

Airline sites and travel sites such as Orbitz and Expedia make it ridiculously simple to book a flight from L.A. to New York, or purchase a packaged vacation to Hawaii or Disney World. But try to piece together multiple destinations--in my case Bolivia and Peru within a specific time window--and you wind up feeling like you're banging an empty suitcase against the wall.

I've reached the conclusion that it's nearly impossible to book any significant trip online--at least without spending dozens, if not hundreds, of hours sorting through flight schedules and details. Getting things to work is a bit like the old Star Trek Episode "Spock's Brain," where Dr. McCoy suddenly realizes that getting all the connections right is beyond his mortal abilities.

Once upon a time we had travel agents to do this. The good ones--and some of them were truly brilliant--could assemble an itinerary that would whisk you seamlessly from one place to the next, often at a reasonable price. What's more, a good travel agent knew which hotels and flights to book. And you didn't pay anything (at least directly) for all this expertise.

We've taken a huge step backwards. If someone surveyed travelers then and now I'd bet that they'd find more problems and disappointments today. There's simply no way the average person knows how to handle complicated itineraries on par with a savvy travel agent--especially if we're talking about some exotic locale like India or Bolivia. Yes, Trip Advisor and other sites provide "market intelligence," but scouring these sites requires even more time and energy.

There's a lesson learned here. Technology is smart but people are wise. Don't ever mistake the ability to uncover a cheap flight and select your own hotel room as a better way to do things. It's the illusion of progress. And as we delve deeper into technology and a self-service culture one has to wonder how often we're trading real expertise for the feeling that we're an expert.