Let your fingers make the booking

Travel dominates the internet. But we're not just just using it to buy holidays, we're trying to get a better look at the places we want to visit. Are websites rising to the challenge? Mark Rowe reports
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The Independent Travel

Those readers who prefer an element of surprise when they arrive at their destination should look away now. Travel website technology has developed so rapidly that agents, airlines and hotels are offering customers not just basic information on prices and amenities but also virtual tours of destinations. This adds up to not so much a taster of what awaits you as a three-course meal.

Travel dominates the internet: 52 per cent of all online bookings are holiday related while 19 per cent of holidaymakers book their package holiday online - six times the number in 2000.

"People have researched holidays on the internet for some time, but it's only in the past two years that we have seen a significant increase in bookings on the web," said a spokeswoman for the Association of British Travel Agents. "Broadband has made everything a lot quicker."

While many innovations are functional and practical - airline websites now enable you to make and manage flight bookings and check-in online - others are inspirational. Sovereign Holidays has introduced panoramic website images of the hotels that it uses, which prompted 10,000 viewings within the first month. The company says customers are attracted by the "no-holds-barred" medium of imaging which offers more information than a static travel brochure photograph.

"If you have a brochure you don't get the idea of size or how things fit together," explained Emma Nicol, product group manager for Sovereign. "We didn't want our customers going off looking at hotel websites, so we give them all the information they need in one place."

Such moves are in part a response by travel agents to the effect that do-it-yourself holidays, easily assembled on the internet, are having on sales. Thomson plans to offer more than 1,700 online videos of holiday destinations by the end of the year. TUI, which owns Thomson Holidays, believes half its holidays will be sold online by 2009, up from 25 per cent this year.

Airlines have also seized upon the opportunities that websites present. More than 1.5 million customers visit ba.com every week, twice as many as fly with the airline, and it sells more than 54 per cent of all its short-haul leisure fares via the website. In all, 19 per cent of all British Airways bookings are carried out online. "The internet is incredibly important to us," said Simon Talling-Smith, head of BA's product management, who feels that websites will further reduce customer involvement with traditional check-in procedures - BA was the first UK airline to enable customers to print their own boarding passes.

"Websites aren't just about booking tickets. They are a big opportunity to make the journey better and they give customers control. People are happier with the middle seat of an aircraft if they've selected it themselves rather than being given it by check-in staff.

"People flying to the United States can provide us online with the extra passenger details the US now requires. Not queuing at the airport is something we all aspire to. It doesn't mean we won't need any staff at the airport in the future - far from it. The people you meet at the airport will have different roles. They'll be freed up to help customers with problems."

Websites and the instant information they bring should also make it easier to help when things go wrong. BA is keen to avoid a repetition of the scenes earlier this year when the airline was hit by a strike over a catering dispute. "We already text and email people if flights are delayed," said Mr Talling-Smith. "Management of disruption is an exciting development and the first travel company to get that right will be remembered by its customers."