Comparison sites are a popular way to find good deals online but can they go the distance?

Last week’s mini heat-wave got the team here at whatusersdo.com thinking about using up annual leave on a trip to foreign climes.

A quick straw poll in the office to ascertain people’s plans revealed a wide range of holiday types and destinations.

Whereas in our parents’ day, when half the country took the same two weeks off during ‘factory fortnight’ and headed off on a package holiday to ‘The Continent’, we are much more ambitious and adventurous with our plans; indeed the possibilities are endless.  

We wondered whether the online travel comparison sites were up to the task of supporting such flexible needs. 

So we asked users to look at three comparison sites - OpodoSkyscanner and TravelSupermarket - and to look at options for booking a short break to New York including flight and hotel.  

They were asked to find a suitable option within a £1,500 budget and to go through the purchase process stopping before paying. 

First impressions

On first impressions, Skyscanner fared better with its clean design and obvious focus on the search form details.

Some users found the text on Opodo too small which made it difficult to read and others commented that the TravelSupermarket site was too busy.

Search options

Users did not linger on the home page however since their immediate attention was focussed on getting into the search for their trip and each site presented the booking options in a different way.

Skyscanner does not allow users to do a combined search for flights and a hotel whereas Opodo does, under the title ‘Flight and Hotel’ .

TravelSupermarket  also allows this combined approach but under the option ‘Holidays’. This raised an interesting question – when is a holiday not a holiday?

Some users overlooked this option completely as a way to book a flights and hotel together and were obviously thinking this meant more the sun, sea and sand type of holiday rather than a ‘city break’.

From this point therefore, Opodo was favoured as users preferred to be able to look for both elements of this trip at the same time in the same process. 

However this is where the Opodo journey ended, since it passes customers looking for a combined trip through to its partner eDreams. This transition was not offputting to users who carried on with the process happily.

Results sorting and filtering

After entering their criteria, users were then on to the important business of sifting through search results.

We each have individual criteria when it comes to holidays. Whereas I would once have happily sat through a six hour transfer at some far flung airport at 3 o’clock in the morning I would now rather pay a higher fare to avoid this.

Similarly some people may be happy to stay in a hotel nearer the airport than the city whereas others want to be in the middle of the action. It is vital therefore to be able to manipulate the search results to easily find whatever is your most important thing and the three sites provided varying levels of support for this. 

Skyscanner presents its flight results sorted by an appropriate default order (price) that users easily spotted and changed if required. In addition to changing the sort order the user can quickly remove unwanted options with useful filters like number of stops and departure times.

In the hotel side of the holiday results, Skyscanner chooses to display these sorted by popularity but again this is obviously signposted and easily changed. Its filters included a very helpful district category, so those users having some prior knowledge of the city can target their search more effectively.

The eDreams site that users are taken to from Opodo starts well. Users are presented with flight and hotel results on separate tabs from this combined search, which is great for allowing users to tweak each option separately to get the perfect arrangement.

Some users did find the results hard to differentiate from one another however and again found the text small and difficult to read.

The sorting options for the results list are clear and there is a basic location filter (distance to centre). eDreams is the only site to provide TripAdvisor review ratings although it is not possible to sort by this category.

The default sort order did not suit some, which this clip portrays.

Although users are freely able to sort and filter, there is an annoying ‘sticky’ recommended hotel result which follows you up and down the page as you scroll.

I’m assuming eDreams does have some success with this trick or it wouldn’t use it but none of our users tested clicked on it, preferring quite rightly to make their own minds up about whether a hotel was suitable or not. 

TravelSupermarket did not perform as well. Undoubtedly there are some good deals to be had in these piles of results but finding the right one is nearly impossible.

The results presented after searching through the ‘Holidays’ tab were not presented in any discernible sort order so users were required first to work out what this was, then how to narrow down the set to be more meaningful.

There are some filters including board type, price limits and star rating but in a city break the all-important location is king so users were not happy that they could neither determine the distance from centre or the district. On the flights there is no way to filter by take off times or airline.

Put together, this makes it extremely difficult to find the perfect deal.  

Accuracy of results

Allowing users to select a filter then presenting results which contravene this creates a poor experience and erodes trust, yet it is happening on Opodo and eDreams.

If the ‘Direct Flight’ box is selected on the Opodo search form (which users really liked) it seems this is actually ignored as results included those with stopovers. This process is lengthy enough without expecting users to have to redo the actions they thought they’d already done. 

A further dent in the user experience was with Skyscanner’s results which actually changed price on clicking to view further details of the offer on the provider’s website (Travel Pack).

I’m sure most people appreciate that prices fluctuate with availability but this should be reflected on the comparison site too otherwise what is the point of using it?

This clip shows the price differences between Skycanner and the KLM website. 

Viewing detailed hotel information

Viewing further information about the hotel (e.g. a description, photographs, location information) is important to be able to make a purchase decision.

TravelSupermarket makes it difficult to choose between similar options as it is not possible to view further details without being passed through to the partner booking site.

The site is so eager to boot you off that the name of the hotel – which you may reasonably expect to link to further information – takes you to the first of the three sites in the booking partner options.

This is unexpected and annoying and I can’t see how it helps their cause. Similarly, clicking on the price also takes you to the top booking site option when users really should be given control over which agent they ultimately want to book with.

EDreams fared slightly better by linking the hotel name to further information which expanded the result pod however this is not necessarily obvious to everyone.

This clip shows the user missing the fact that this information has been opened. 

 

Should users be successful in noticing it, they may still be dissatisfied with what they find as the description text is written very badly and contains little of what one would expect, focusing on distance and distance calculations as the screenshot below portrays.

Skyscanner on the other hand allows users to easily access hotel information by clicking on the hotel name and provides clearly signposted categories of information in an overlay box.

The different partner booking options are clearly signposted with ‘View Deal’ labels so users won’t get a shock when they’re transferred there. This is as it should be.

 

Booking

Booking forms were dependent on whichever partner deal was chosen so I won’t go in to that detail here however a last mention must go towards a lack of  ‘helpful upselling’.

It was very difficult for users to find transit information to be able to pre book their journey from the airport to the city. Those who don’t fancy public transport or a yellow cab  may be left wanting, as it would be very easy to offer this as an add on and I can’t help feeling the sites may be missing a trick.

Conclusion

All in all, despite the price fluctuation differences mentioned above, it seems that Skyscanner actually provides the most comprehensive and helpful features for people wanting a mini break but users may be put off that they can’t do a combined search.

This is a shame as some of what awaits them on the other sites may well put them off going on holiday at all.