Roger Ridey: It's no holiday trying to book online

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The Independent Online

Don't tell my boss, but lately I've been spending a lot of time at work looking at travel websites. I've got a few weeks of hols coming up and, having left it a bit late, decided to see what I could find on the Web.

Don't tell my boss, but lately I've been spending a lot of time at work looking at travel websites. I've got a few weeks of hols coming up and, having left it a bit late, decided to see what I could find on the Web.

Apparently, I'm not alone. According to the internet research company Jupiter MMXI, more than 2.3 million UK net users logged on to travel sites in the week ending 15 July. And in June, some 4.5 million people visited travel sites. That's 30 per cent of the online population in the UK.

Clearly, travel is a very popular category on the Web. But I have to wonder how many of those millions of UK surfers who've logged on to travel sites this summer actually booked a holiday online? Or how many of them ended up – like I did – frustrated and very annoyed?

Time after time, on travel site after travel site, I would enter the relevant information – dates of travel, desired locations, preferred airport, type of accommodation, price range, length of stay – into search engines, only to have a list of destinations, dates and prices thrown back in my face. Example: "Crete, 29 August, Gatwick, £350".

If I wanted any more information about any of the holidays on offer, I'd have to phone up and talk to some poor call-centre slave, who would then tap the same information into a computer and come up with the same results.

Talk about the wonders of information technology! I mean, who needs the internet when you can get that very same lack of information by sitting in front of your television, flipping through the holiday pages on Teletext?

(Speaking of Teletext, I noticed while checking the holidays there that none other than Lastminute.com has several pages worth of holidays on display. What will they think of next – shops in the high street?)

Then there's the somewhat suspect nature of the travel site search engines themselves. On several sites, I entered information seeking something suitable for two adults and a toddler, and was given a selection of, wait for it, Club 18-30 holidays. Er, no thanks.

But wait, it gets worse. If I actually wanted to see what the accommodation or the resort looked like before deciding to spend hundreds of pounds, I might, if I looked hard enough, find a tiny image on the holiday booker's website. Chances are, though, that I'd be left in suspense until I arrived at the destination.

Of course, I could have had them put a brochure in the post, which would also have a tiny picture of the place and maybe a few dozen words describing what was on offer at the resort – no doubt written in a vague and ambiguous style that would make an estate agent blush.

It doesn't have to be like this, does it? Internet technology has the potential to revolutionise the travel industry. Indeed, it is doing just that when it comes to booking airline flights. That part of the online travel market works very well.

Why, then, is the travel industry seemingly still afraid of the internet when it comes to booking holidays? Why can't I enter the relevant details into a holiday booking site's search engine and get back truly useful information about the resort, with a selection of large images of the accommodation and the resort? Then, if I see something I like the look of, I should be able to check availability online, and then go ahead and book it and pay for it online.

The technology to do all this exists. If they can do it with tens of thousands of seats on airplanes that fly around the world every day, surely they can do it with a villa in the Algarve or a hotel in Chania. It seems all that's lacking is a willingness on the part of the online holiday and travel companies to make use of internet technology.

Surely they must be aware of the potential profits to be made. According to Jupiter MMXXI, online travel sites are most popular among people earning more than £45,000 a year. These are people who have neither the time nor the inclination to go to a high street shop to book a holiday. Then there's the savings to be made from not having to print and distribute brochures – or kitting shop staff out in hideous polyester.

So let me see if I've got this right. There are millions of people out there with lots of money to spend on holidays, and they want to book them online. But they can't – unless they pick up the phone or are willing to play holiday Russian roulette by paying their money and hoping for the best when they get to their destination.

Then again, perhaps the UK travel industry isn't solely to blame for the sorry state of online holiday booking. After all, they've been doing very nicely as things are, making tidy profits thanks to the "here's hundreds of pounds, now just get me the hell out of here" attitude that many people seem to have towards their holidays – combined with that very British tendency to take what you've been given without complaining.

Come next summer, when it comes time to book another holiday, I really hope that things will be different. Maybe some clever e-entrepreneur will have come up with a site that gives us all the information we need to make an intelligent choice before parting with our dosh. Somebody's bound to get it right sooner or later. And when they do, they're going to make millions.

Hey Richard, Stelios, Brent and Martha, or even you there, old Mr Cook, are you up to the challenge?

roger.ridey@independent.co.uk

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