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Travel websites are very search-orientated, and are understandably keen to encourage visitors to key in their preferences and start their holiday search. 

So, a user-friendly search interface is vital for travel sites to maximise searches and therefore bookings. 

Here I look at examples from 25 popular travel websites, as well as some best practice tips for travel search. 

Features of good travel search tools 

  • Auto-complete. This helps to avoid misspellings and eases the workload for the user. So, if you want to go to Ust Kamenogrosk in Kazakhstan, auto-complete saves a lot of time. 
  • Flexible date settings. Sometimes searchers don't have fixed dates in mind, so allowing them to search a few days either side of the selected dates helps. This could be something provided via the form, or on search results pages. 
  • Usable calendar tools. Make it easy for customers to select departure and return dates. Little things like ensuring that customer cannot select incorrect dates (i.e. return dates before departure) will avoid hassle for users. 
  • Placement of search box. This is perhaps the most important feature on a travel site, so sites want to direct users to this straight away. Some sites have only a search box on the homepage while others devote more space to offers and promotions. 
  • Plenty of search options. There is a limit, but the more options users have before they search, the more accurate the results should be. 
  • Mobile friendly forms. Travel searches and bookings on mobile are on the rise, so make sure mobile users can access forms and use those pesky calendar tools.

Examples of travel search tools

Here are some examples, good and bad, from various travel sites, showing the range of approaches.

Some sites seem to cram as much as they can into homepages, lots of suggestions for destinations, latest offers, and even ads (Ryanair of course). 

Others take a cleaner design approach, which is more aesthetically pleasing and, since it focuses attention on the search function, perhaps this drives more searches. 

On the other hand, for the price conscious consumer, a cheap deal may well outweigh bad UX, otherwise Ryanair would have redesigned years ago. 

Lastminute.com

A simple search box for lastminute.com, taking up about a third of the screen, while the rest of the page is neatly designed and doesn't detract from the search. 

Expedia

A similar approach from Expedia...

Thomson

Thomson devotes slightly less space to search, but the tool is simple enough. 

Thomas Cook

I like the 'I don't mind' options on Thomas Cook, which allow customer to search if they are easy about the choice of airport and destination. 

First Choice

Intersting placement of search tool from First Choice, which is nice and prominent. 

Skyscanner

This site has a focus on the search tool...

Cosmos Holidays

Holiday Hypermarket

easyJet holidays

Fly.com

Nice clean design from Fly.com, which makes the search tool stand out. It also defaults to the user's nearest airport. 

Travelocity

The Travelocity and Orbitz approaches are very similar to the Expedia site...

Orbitz

Kayak

A clear focus on search from Kayak. Lots of options, and the choice of flexible dates...

American Airlines

Clean and simple, and nice photography... 

Booking.com

The colour scheme and size of the search tool make it stand out here, while the 'inspiration' tool on the right is a great idea. 

TravelRepublic

Hotels.com

Ryanair

The search tool is prominent, but there are lots of distractions on the page, then searchers will hit the captcha

British Airways

OneTravel

Virgin Atlantic

BookingBuddy

cheapOair

Hotwire

Priceline

It's got Shatner. What more can we say? 

What makes an effective search function for travel sites? Is clean design emphasising the search tool best, or should travel sites add more promotions and ideas for inspiration? 

Graham Charlton

Published 24 July, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

Avatar-blank-50x50

parus

Thanks for the compilation, Graham.

I think that with the proliferation of Google and the Google search bar more and more consumers are getting used to just typing out their requirements and this is where the search mechanism of a site like http://adioso.com/ works better with a natural language search instead of too many drop downs and radio buttons.

A side note on the use of 'CAPTCHA' on your site - you could consider using 'Invisible CAPTCHA' - to provide a better experience to those who leave behind comments.

Cheers
Parus

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Nick

I never realized how many different search tools were available to travel. I believe the calender is the most important tool. Nobody wants to get those dates confused and the calender makes it clear cut what you choose so there is no confusing.

almost 3 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Kevin

You missed BestTravelCoupon.com - It searches a lot of these sites and more. Works as a search engine and makes it easy to search many travel sites with 1 click.

Think: Better than Kayak.

In 2013 rate comparisons, BTC beat Kayak on over 95% of searches.

almost 3 years ago

Simon Wharton

Simon Wharton, Managing Director at PushON Ltd

Really could have done with editing down the article a bit. A series of screen shots of travel websites significantly waters down the value of what was shaping up to be a decent article.

almost 3 years ago

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