Being your own travel agent via the internet is about to become easier through technology that will do more of the trawling for you.
STAND by for a new era of online travel research, where you can get options, prices, images and other key information with one quick search.
Google is experimenting with technology that will allow it to provide much richer search results, eliminating the need for consumers to trawl through multiple sources or cross-reference information from several sites.
Travellers will, for example, be able to look at a map and see actual prices for hotels in a given area (along with images and information on facilities and nearby attractions), with the ability to click through to make a reservation via a third-party booking site.
There will also be a new landscape for flight bookings if US regulators approve Google's purchase of software firm ITA, which specialises in the organisation of flight data.
Google is reluctant to comment on the potential of the software until the regulatory review is complete but industry commentators say the $US700 million ($725 million) purchase would change the face of flight searches. The technology would act as a "meta-search" engine, scouring the internet for the best deals and presenting the data in a way that is easier for consumers to view and compare.
Commentators say it would take on existing meta-search sites such as Kayak and Skyscanner, which search across multiple websites for fares and other travel deals.
Google has categorically stated it is not getting into the business of selling travel (doing so would jeopardise its advertising revenue) but is aiming to dramatically improve the search experience, which it believes is far from ideal.
Consumers currently need to go through several different sites to find detailed information and pricing but the ITA software would allow for much richer information at the initial search stage.
"ITA offers a lot of technology that we don't currently have and a lot of expertise in the travel sector," says the head of the travel group for Google Australia, Nikolai Pitchforth.
Pitchforth says travel-related searches in Australia are up 20 per cent and 80 per cent of these searches are for very specific queries. Whereas someone might once have searched for "Sydney hotels", they might now be looking for "boutique Sydney hotels with a swimming pool".
Consumers have become more demanding of travel suppliers and expect niche rather than mass audience information. Pitchforth says one of the biggest trends over the past year has been a four-fold increase in the use of mobile internet and applications, through smartphones and devices such as iPads.
"It's something that has been talked about in the travel arena for some time but recently we've really seen it take off," Pitchforth says. Many travel companies have created mobile versions of their websites and Webjet recently launched a full iPhone application for domestic flight bookings.
The Australian market can also expect to see much greater use of video content, map content and social media. "I think we'll see more and more travel companies trying to provide a richer source of content," Pitchforth says.
A study by market research firm TNS has found the majority of Australians are now confident making online bookings with established travel brands. One in two Australians say they book travel online because they believe it is cheaper, while nearly a third believe online travel information is more reliable than traditional off-line sources.
Only a quarter believe the service of online travel agencies is not as good as traditional travel agents, while less than 20 per cent believe online bookings are only for experienced travellers.
"Digital is for everyone these days," says the director of travel and leisure research at TNS, Carolyn Childs.
There has been much debate on the future of traditional travel agents in this environment.
Pitchforth says consumers once used the internet to supplement information from travel agents but this situation has reversed, with travel agents being used to supplement information found online.
Is the death knell sounding or will travel agents survive in a changed form?
Pitchforth says traditional agents are still very much in play for "non-routine" bookings.
"I think there might have been an assumption that people either use online sources or they use offline sources but we're seeing people using a multitude of sources, both online and offline," he says.
"I think it's more that the role of a travel agent will change, to become more of an adviser."
Expedia has rivals riled
The global nature of online travel is creating some interesting challenges around licensing and consumer protection. Webjet and other travel agencies are furious that Expedia is being allowed to operate in the Australian market without an Australian travel agent's licence and membership of the industry's compulsory consumer protection scheme.
Expedia says it is not eligible for an Australian licence or participation in the Travel Compensation Fund but industry observers note that Zuji, also foreign-owned, does comply with Australian licensing.
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