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It is a curious irony that you end up needing a holiday after trying to book a holiday online. 

I still feel that travel is an area that is lagging behind, when it comes to ecommerce and the user experience (which often leaves a lot to be desired). These sites need to work so much harder than their retail counterparts, for all kinds of reasons. 

Booking a holiday is a leap of faith if you're visiting somewhere for the first time, and the pre-customer experience is absolutely vital. Attention to detail is paramount.

But every year it's the same: I brace myself before spending countless hours researching possible destinations, knowing fine well that I'm going to encounter all manner of frustration during the process.

Here are 13 UX issues that I've come across over the weekend, while trying to a) find a hotel / villa, and b) hand over a not inconsiderable sum of money in return for c) a fantastic experience. Many of them are easy to fix. Some may seem trivial, but putting any doubt in the mind of the prospective buyer is a dangerous move.

No price information

I guess this is a business decision, but in 2013 I expect to be able to a) see prices, and b) book online. Moreover, the 'Prices and Booking' label in this expandable section suggests that there are prices to show.

There aren't. Why not show a price range, at the very least? 

Autosound / autoplay

I'd be willing to bet that there isn't a single person in the world who appreciates videos and sound that automatically start to play. I typically open up lots of tabs when researching holiday destinations, and hunting through 30 tabs to find the page that is offending my ears is the opposite of 'magnificent'.  

In addition, this page was difficult to read. Small, light grey, unformatted text against a white background is a bad choice for readability.  

No date dropdown

For reasons I cannot fathom TravelSupermarket makes you manually enter dates as text. Perplexing.

Let me choose how many nights I need

Last year the Four Seasons launched its new website, as part of an $18m investment into its web strategy. It looks stunning, but there remains some room for improvement, as far as the user experience is concerned.

A question: Do you ever go on holiday for 11 nights? I suspect the vast majority of travellers go away for either one or two weeks.

As such it makes sense to allow people to choose the number of nights they want, and automatically calculating the check out date... something I can't do on the Four Seasons site.

'Make an online enquiry'

Dodgy labelling aside, it's 2013! Again, this may be a business model issue, but we live in a world of APIs, and sites that are plugged in to booking engines are much better for those prepared to buy online.

The reliance on this sort of enquiry system makes for a disjointed, tardy experience.

Images you can't click

Those high contrast 'Our review' and 'Book now' buttons are fine, but I instinctively click on images, which are more alluring and which seem to attract my mouse pointer.

A small thing, I know, but very easy to fix. 

Isolated dates

This is all too common: date drop downs where months do not mix. If I want to check in on Saturday 27 July I need to scroll through to the next month in order to select Saturday 3 August as my check out date.

Why not show the dates in this panel?   

Stale data

This might as well say 'Last updated more than six months ago'. It may be an error, but it instills a lack of trust in the booking process. 

Thumbnail overkill

The product page on this website leads on images, as many travel sites do. When it comes to holidays, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

But I don't think this is the best implementation. I prefer to see a big image, and at least a little description text without the need to scroll. 

Truncated dates

The twentysomething of July...?

Dubious prioritisation

In this example, the booking functionality has been demoted by the 'get a quote' form. If I hadn't scrolled down, I would have assumed that I couldn't book online.

I wonder how many people leave this page without realising that you can in fact book online.

Big wheel keep on turning

It's still whirring away. Does this five-star resort always keep people waiting? 

I do have one suggestion...

This form appeared immediately after I clicked 'Offers'. Not exactly the best timing!

Yes, we see these forms on all kinds of other websites, but I encountered them a handful of times during my holiday research. 

What other common user experience issues have you noticed on travel websites? Do leave a comment below...

Chris Lake

Published 28 May, 2013 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (24)

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David Jarvis aka DJ, Business Director, London at cxpartners

Chris

It is indeed a shame that travel websites continue to set a low bar for UX. However you would be better off demonstrating the good examples (as there are fewer of them and therefore they are of a higher value).

You could write similar articles highlight negatives about the big players like Expedia (try booking a package holiday) or even Thomson and Thomas Cook. And they have the budgets to do things properly.

Achieving great online experiences within the travel industry is one of the hot topics I've covered in my blog. This article explains why great UX is so hard to achieve and why customers think that the travel industry is 'out to rip them off':
http://dcjarvis.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/dark-patterns-and-pricing-in-the-travel-indus/

I've also explained how people responsible for websites can start to change things:
http://dcjarvis.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/customer-experience-and-the-organisational-value-chain-what-every-ux-designer-needs-to-know/

over 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Thanks David. You're right: the good things are harder to find, but there are some impressive sites out there (or, bits of sites). I'll aim to compile another post as you suggest.

Some of the big sites are serial offenders. I almost featured Thompson (which lives at the top of Google for 'holidays'), which has - arguably - a labelling issue on some of its buttons.

I very much agree with your recommendations on organisational design. We're doing a lot of work around digital transformation these days. There is a lot of demand from the bigger companies, which need to push ahead with change. There is still a lot of short term thinking going on though, which leads to procrastination. No pain, no gain...

over 3 years ago

Gemma Holloway

Gemma Holloway, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

Great extensive list Chris - It made me feel worn out just reading it and certainly put me off the idea of booking a holiday online anytime soonh. Even working in Digital Marketing I am still one of those people which goes to the travel agents to book a holiday purely for the fact that I don't have the strength in me to endure this type of thing.

One key issue I find with holiday sites.. Especially when they aren't labelled clearly, is there is never just someone you can talk to for clarity. It's always an automated system or a veeeery long wait, again contributing to poor user experience. Which is about the time I tend to give up and head to the High Street.

Perhaps working in the industry has made these things more evident. It would be interesting to know if these things are as evident to others.

over 3 years ago

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Eco Beach

Funny you rag on contact forms. We recently ran a campaign where we removed our booking engine and replaced with a simple Wufoo contact form. We had our biggest 5 days on record.

Don't underestimate personal contact, it is making a comeback!

over 3 years ago

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Bronwyn White

Great post. We consistently find in our research that the travel customer / consumer is light years ahead of the actual industry. Closing the gap and bridging the disconnect is a major challenge. We find that many of these small business and even personnel in large organisations in the tourism industry lack serious marketing skills that evolve with learning. I often use the term 1 years experience 20 years over rather than 20 years experience.

You are so right in saying these problems are predictable.

over 3 years ago

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Simon

With regards booking engine vs contact form, we've found it's horses for courses: Is a simple contact form better than a poorly implemented booking tool? Probably, yes. If you only provide a contact form, will there be a significant percentage of users that are frustrated at not being able to book in real time - absolutely.

Its important to provide means of interaction that meet the needs of your users: some will want to book without the uncertainty and delays that come with sending messages; others will want to engage with you, take comfort from the personal interaction and assuage any concerns they might have outstanding.

If you don't provide both groups with straightforward, easy to find solutions, then you're leaving money on the table.

over 3 years ago

Adam Hopkinson

Adam Hopkinson, Lead Web Developer at Audley Travel

I agree somewhat with your point about 'make an online enquiry', but the screenshot you've included clearly states that the company specialise in tailor-made holidays - which by their nature cannot be linked directly to an engine without the specialist knowledge layer in between.

We at Audley have the same tailor-made business model, and it's stunning how many service providers, agencies etc cannot grasp that we don't 'sell online'. To us, a web goal is a lead which results in an open dialog with one of our country specialists.

Regarding auto-playing videos, the next release of Chrome (currently in the canary dev channel) will highlight any tab which is playing audio by showing a graphic equaliser over the favicon on the tab, making it easy to see at a glance the noisy tab.

over 3 years ago

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Rose Bates

Booking a holiday on a tablet is very frustrating. I've not got particulalry large hands, but selecting little date buttons is an endless source of frustration. I'm yet to come across a mobile optimised holiday site - are there any out there?!

over 3 years ago

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Sneha

Your examples are great Chris!! They sorted made me laugh..especially with the truncated dates and what not. But pointing out these UX flaws should really help those products..if they do keep an eye/ear out for such things. So, good job in pointing them out earnestly..and not being overly snippy about them :)

I work for a US and India based travel startup called mygola (www.mygola.com). We've recently gone live with a new version of our site that allows travelers to browse through hundreds of pre-made itineraries (from sources like NY Times, Gaurdian, Frommers, Fodors etc.) and then use our algorithm to help plan their trips in 15 minutes. Our premise has been to make trip planning less boring and not have your itinerary look like an Excel sheet (as it happens, a lot of people jot their travel plans down on a spreadsheet!!). Hopefully, in time, we can be a one stop shop for planning/booking entire trips.

It's easier said than done, but we've thankfully got some very good feedback (especially for our UI/UX). You should check mygola out. I work as community manager here..and any feedback from you would be valuable to us :)

Sneha.
User Happiness Officer, mygola.

over 3 years ago

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trololo

@Rose Bates:

Ever tried zooming in? ;)

over 3 years ago

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Carin

Great tips - your comments are very constructive. Obviously, not everyone likes a "Contact Us" form or an overload of thumbnail photos - but it really depends on your market.

My latest property is quite different from your standard hotel, so I think it's important for people to see photos of the local area as well as the accommodation and property. Furthermore, most of my guests have questions they want answered before booking, so a contact form is more effective than an integrated booking engine...But I do think that your comments are correct for 9/10 travel websites.

Take a look at my recently optimized site for Khanfous Retreat. www.khanfousretreat.com. What would you change? All comments welcome!

ps. Will definitely share this article on my blog for other independent hoteliers to read.

over 3 years ago

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Eco Beach

Good points Simon.

A larger, well known inner city resort that has 90% occupancy will require a different booking system to a smaller, lesser known remote resort with 50% occupancy.

The well known inner city resort may function fine with a dedicated online booking engine, as the users don't have too many questions.

A lesser known remote resort will have different requirements (perhaps a hybrid of a contact form and online booking), as the users will have more questions.

The way I see it Dubious Prioritisation has it right, they are covering both markets. Perhaps the author may want to make some edits?

over 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Simon / Eco Beach - Horses for courses indeed, but I stand by my point. I think the prioritisation is all wrong in the example shown. I'd still switch around the form and booking engine.

People who are prepared to book online, immediately, should be served first. Take their money, asap.

People who require a chat should preferably see a live chat tool, rather than a form. Deal with their query there and then. This example shows Skype, which is good. Could do with a bit more labelling, to set some expectations on the likely response time when they're in 'offline' mode.

A form / email represents a break in the decision-making process. Never a good thing, in my opinion.

over 3 years ago

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Eco Beach

In a perfect world yes we would love everyone to book online, however when you are talking about spending $1000-$5000 on a holiday the majority of users require more attention.

It's not a web hosting service so I don't know if the live chat option will do the job, unless you have 24/7 hour staff on hand.

The "I'm at work, so call me back later market" may prefer the contact form.

It's all dependent on your market and product.

If you do go a 100% online booking system then you better ensure you have an excellent "Reservation Recovery Strategy".

over 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Adam - You're right, but they do allow booking, so I think that should be pushed up to the top of the page. Why make people scroll / give them the impression that you need to fill in a form and wait for a response? If they want to buy, let them buy. If they have questions, then they will get in touch. Really looking forward to that new Chrome feature!

over 3 years ago

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Brandt Solovij

Hey - fun article if it's framed around a depressing reality.

That being said - its unfortunate that accessibility oversights were not mentioned. Some travel sites actually do this well, others do not. This only affects me as a developer - personally when booking travel i'm a cheap skate so the "no prices listed" really started my teeth grinding.

But accessibility is an easy thing to accomplish if it is part of the core tenets of the site design. As an afterthought its very difficult and you are isolated a huge segment of the population.

Fun article otherwise, i enjoyed the read

about 3 years ago

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Jennifer Yacenda, Manager at Starwood Hotels

I can't see any of the images - is there a PDF version?

about 3 years ago

Adam Hopkinson

Adam Hopkinson, Lead Web Developer at Audley Travel

@Chris - W&O don't allow booking direct - the prices online are suggested itinerary ideas, as they only offer tailor-made itineraries. Therefore there is no concept of a product without the clients first speaking with the company.

I completely agree with your point, but it is wrong to associate this issue with Western & Oriental.

about 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Jennifer - They're all showing up for me... ok now? I mainly use Imgur as my image host - perhaps it was temporarily offline.

about 3 years ago

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Matthew James

Great Article.

What about the calls to action?

In the sections No Price Information, Images You Can't Click and Let Met Choose How Many Nights I Need, the Book Now / Find Rooms buttons are red, when surely they should be green. Red means "Stop", whilst green means "Go".

about 3 years ago

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Shannon Green

Interesting conversation, would it be fair to say that lack of video is one of the many problems? Since it has a great ability to transfer copious amounts of information quickly, as well as creating great product recall? I do admit I have a vested interested in seeing video on travel websites, but I am deeply interested in people's video of video on travel websites as a tool to aid the travelling public? Thoughts?

about 3 years ago

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Holidayhomefan

An excellent post. Thank you. I'll look forward to the follow up where you catch people doing things right! In the meantime I'll be reviewing our site www.myfavouriteholidaycottages.co.uk to just to check that none of the issues you have raised feature on it.

One of my gripes are forms which if not completed properly, (how many times have you overlooked a small box should have been ticked), which open a page that tells you you've missed a box and then defaults back to a, now empty, form that you have to complete all over again. Arrrrgh!

about 3 years ago

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Ritchey

While there are many different software tools available via the Internet,
there are times when using an onsite repair service is in your best interest.

Most PC users install and uninstall numerous software
applications over the life time of their computer. What could be a better solution for your computer problems than sitting in home and getting everything done through a 'repair computer remotely' service.

about 3 years ago

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Arjan Bakker

My problems with online booking are;
1) What to choose first? Airplane ticket or the hotel. One is always not available when the other is. So I have to fly at a difficult time, in order to wait 4 hours until I get my room and leave my room and wait 10 hours before my flight leaves....
2) I have a child, and I select these days my hotel which is best suited for children. Some websites have many filters, but somehow none is suited to my best needs. Using filters sometimes makes the search within the site so complex and returns not enough options and when you delete a filter the site crashes or you have to start all over again.
3) Some sites really do everything to disturb you checking out...do you want this? Do you want that? etc etc etc. Stop bothering me and let me pay!

about 3 years ago

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