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A few weeks ago, Econsultancy posted a survey on what customers say they want from travel websites.
As the survey outlined, 85% of respondents use the web to research or book holidays, which underlines the importance of the web to the travel sector.
However, there are a few areas where the online user experience on travel sites could be improve, so we decided to take a closer look at what users actually do when booking holidays.
We asked several users to test two of the UK’s largest travel companies’ websites: Thomas Cook and Thomson, to look for a suitable family holiday, and we reviewed the videos of their tests and analysed the results.
The findings list behaviours that travel websites should not seek to mitigate but rather that their designs, back end databases and content should actively seek to support.
Users will look for holidays that don’t exist
This may be because of availability, or because the combination of search criteria has narrowed the options too far, but in either case the website should seek to present the user with options rather then just telling them ‘no’.
In one of our tests on Thomas Cook, the user entered details for a family holiday in Jamaica with a certain budget limit. Despite changing the budget limit, dates and resort options several times at each stage he was served up an error message and a zero results list.
This kind of dead end is not helpful for the user, and not conducive to making a holiday sale. If this was in the real world then it would play out something like this:
Customer “Do you have any holidays in resort A for Budget X please?”
Travel Agent: “Sorry, no”
Customer: “Ok, do you have any holidays in resort B for Budget X please?”
Travel Agent: “ Sorry, no”
Customer: “Er, ok, do you have any holidays in resort A for Budget Y then please?”
Travel Agent: “Sorry, no”.
Customer: “Ok, could you try the same criteria on these different dates?”
Travel Agent: “Sorry there’s nothing”.
And so on. I don’t think even the most patient of us could stand such an inflexible service in person.
If the system were better designed to match real world interaction then it would detect incompatibilities (e.g. selecting too few rooms for the number of travellers) and help the user overcome these and in other cases offer results using broader or different criteria.
For example, there may be holidays for just £50 above the stated budget which the user would be willing to consider.
They will often adhere to a holiday type but cannot be pigeon-holed
Just a few (cough) years ago I would have ran a mile from any hotel or resort touting itself as a ‘family friendly’ location. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than spending my valuable down-time surrounded by bouncing noisy children when I needed peace and quiet to sleep off a hangover.
Nowadays it’s a different matter and I avoid those previous holiday destinations like the plague, seeking out others on holiday with similar needs and timetables where I can be sure my precious offspring are not going to be treated to a drunken night time serenade from the balcony opposite.
When looking for such a holiday it’s important to be absolutely confident of what you’re getting into.
Thomas Cook did not support users as well as Thomson in this respect. The Thomson site has a browsing category heading to look up information about family resorts, and also a checkbox to select ‘family holidays’ as part of its main holiday search form.
Importantly these criteria also include ‘Couples’, ‘Diving’ and ‘Spa’ to cater for other holiday ‘tribes’.
There are times however, when you may not want to go with the flow and want to depart from the crowd. Big hotels with kids’ clubs are great but sometimes it’s nice to get off the beaten track and go for a smaller hotel in a less busy, less touristy resort.
An offline travel agent would enable you to do this easily but this is less simple online. Thomson again has recognised this need and has a category of holidays called “Small & Friendly”.
However, it should realise that this type of hotel and resort should not be mutually exclusive with other holiday needs such as taking your kids. I’m presuming that these hotels don’t have a ‘no children’ policy since there was no warning to that effect so it must be the case that families do stay in these sorts of hotels.
The information about the rooms themselves is not as detailed as it should be. The site should not assume they are going to be occupied by adults only.
For example, families need to know whether camp beds are available to fit more in a room, or if travel cots can be provided. This is all information that could be exchanged easily in an offline environment.
They need absolute reassurance about location
Some things are deal breakers when it comes to booking family holidays. For example, for young families, close proximity to the beach is something which many may see as a must.
In an offline scenario this would be very easily dealt with, and probably one of the first things you’d impart to the helpful travel agent on taking your seat in front of their desk.
The two sites we tested dealt differently with this need. Thomas Cook put it front and centre at the top of their search form as a value in the ‘holiday type’ menu. Thomson does not include this criteria so prominently.
There is a ‘Beach Club’ option if the user expands all the holiday types but this to me has other meanings in that it seems to preclude those hotels that are simply near the beach to show those that have specific beach activities.
In search results neither site caters brilliantly for this need. Both sites show a summary of each result in a list but it would be helpful if location information was given in all cases with the distance in metres that is available in the detailed view.
For resorts that are clearly not beach oriented then other information may be just as important in the summary view, for example nearest bars or restaurants. This would greatly aid users to scan the long list of results to pick out the most relevant to them.
Conflicting information does not help the user in their quests. In some cases, the description said “close to the beach”, the distance was given in a few hundred metres but clicking on the map view told a very different story.
Now it may be that the map provider’s data is incorrect but it means that the user no longer trusts the location information and with nothing further to go on may not complete their booking.
They don’t mind playing with dates
When it comes to booking a summer holiday months ahead, users can be flexible with dates. Not only that but it may benefit them to be so.
The intricacies of the algorithms behind flight pricing are thankfully beyond me but like others I do notice that some times and days of the week are cheaper. If this criteria can be ‘expanded’ up front, it makes users more confident that they are searching for the best deals and that they don’t necessarily have to repeat their searches using different dates.
Thomson fared better with this need and enables users to inform the system up front that they can be flexible either side of their chosen date and again in the booking process they can see different prices on different dates and choose their preferred option.
There is still a need for offline travel agents
The scenario we gave users to test was a relatively simple one and with one or two exceptions could be completed successfully online.
Booking a holiday is a large investment in terms of money spent and happiness returned. For many of us it is sometimes just too much to hope that a poor description of a location or room layout will live up to expectations without human confirmation.
Or, perhaps we want just something a little different from our holiday that standard search criteria or the company’s internal categorisations cannot currently help us with.
It may take some time for websites to be able to match more real world situations more closely so until then the travel agent will still be a feature of the typical UK high street.