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. 


Published 15 March, 2011 by Kathryn McDonnell

Kathryn McDonell is a User Experience Consultant at WhatUsersDo.com and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (8)

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Sam Bird

Thanks for the post Kathryn. Very useful. I totally agree in the importance of flexibility when it comes to travel dates. Users don't mind travelling longer, shorter or departing on a different date if they get a better deal, so it's vital to ensure they can see that they have that option.

over 7 years ago


Pete Duncanson

I totally agree with your findings. It is a constant battle to try to get some relevant results in front of the user no matter what search they are doing. Often though the sheer scale of the data you need to search through in the back end can make doing multiple searches for alternatives very slow and you risk them jumping off to another site due to lack of speed. Its a fine balancing act one which we have to keep reviewing for the Olympic Holidays site with every mod.

over 7 years ago


Nick Armstead, SEO + PPC Consultant at Orantec

"the website should seek to present the user with options rather then just telling them ‘no’. " - this can be adapted to all sites, weather it be the 404 page or any ecommerce search results page etc etc.
Look at how amazon and ebay try to offer related products, alternatives to seatrch results or recently viewed products, no matter what, you should find it very hard to find a page with absolutly no products on it.

over 7 years ago


Angela H

Really interesting article, particularly the comment regarding the large investment in terms of time/money, and the expected pay out in the quality/happiness of the holiday.

User reviews and peer feedback will continue to play a crucial role in this sector, to give people the reassurance that their holiday will not be a flop (based on the 2 outdated pictures and 4 bullet points accompanying the price tag on some holiday websites).

Trip Advisor seems to be the key source at the moment for this information - and I'm not sure I know anyone who has booked a holiday in the past 12 months without referring to it.

Interestingly for hotels, they also need to consider this impact as the TripAdvisor reviews often appearing higher in natural search listings than their own websites.

A well rounded engagement strategy should be supporting the more functional and development areas for improvement.

over 7 years ago


Sally Black

Great Article! The initial scenario reminded me of Carol on Little Britian..."computer says NOooooo! Vacationkids specializes in family vacations. Our staff can tell you in a heartbeat which resorts are best for babies or families with three or more kids. Often major travel websites confuse and frustrate parents.
It's true, travel agents are best when making vacation investments and matching the right vacation to the needs/wishes of clients. Has anyone ever calculated the cost of time wasted travel searching online?

over 7 years ago


Jennie Wright

Personally, if a website won't allow me to search by flexible days or grouping airports together (for example), I'll just go somewhere else. Site functionality plays a huge role for me and if I can't find what I want within 5 mins I loose patience. There's so much choice out there I don't need to waste my time on unintuitive sites.

over 7 years ago


Simon Applebaum

As always, views are my own and not those of my employer.

I've had discussions on many aspects of the above in recent times. For example, if search widening is used, how far should it go? A day, a week, month etc? Furthermore, what if departure airport is impacting price or availability. If nothing is available at East Mids, we'll show you Birmingham etc. But where should this stop? Manchester? Newcastle? London? At which point do things stop being helpful and become equally as frustrating as no-results?

The issue is that flexibility varys per user, but its already time consuming enough to enter all the parameters of a holiday search. If I have to set the "flex" within results as well, each search becomes a chore.

I think the future is in broad results and effective, quick filters.

over 7 years ago


David Burdon

I blog and speak on online travel. This article takes a new perspective and uses some industry knowledge. The problem was always one of alignment. That is flights, resorts, accommodation and budgets. In this respect an online environment is less flexible and typically slower than face to face interaction with a knowledgeable agent.

over 7 years ago

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