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.