Flight Booking UX Review
Have you ever wondered what the differences are between Expedia, Opodo and other Online Travel Agencies? As we started analysing and understanding the steps of Travel User Journeys in the digital era in our previous article, we identified three different macro-steps: Search, Book and Plan.
Travel user journey
Online Travel Agents are the main players nowadays when it comes to booking flights or accommodation, with more than 51 billion Euros of gross booking revenues in 2016.
While in our previous article we went in depth analysing meta-search engines like Skyscanner, Kayak and Google Flights, which sit in the first “Search” stage, in this article we are going to explore and review the digital products of the major companies who play an important role in the market of online flight (and hotels or packages) booking including:
The difference between OTAs and metasearch engines
Let’s first start by understanding what the key differences are between the above mentioned OTAs (Online Travel Agencies) and the previously analysed meta-search engines like Skyscanner or Google Flights. Users often confuse websites like Expedia and Skyscanner, thinking they address the same needs, even though they are actually very different in several respects. However, we can identify two main aspects:
Search Principles, Features and Services
Metasearch engines do in fact aggregate fares and eventually let users book their flights, accommodation or car hire through Online Travel Agencies or airline companies websites.
In terms of business models, while meta-search engines produce revenues with advertisements or with commision (charging OTAs on the sales that come via their platform), travel agents generate revenues by selling tickets to the final customer and negotiating prices with travel services to get convenient deals for their customers and subsequently adjusting the price to make their margin.
In terms of features and search principles, there are major differences to take into account. When a user inputs his/her research criteria into a platform like Kayak or Skyscanner, those metasearchers direct their request to OTAs and collect all the offers they find. OTAs, on the other hand, will have overlapping results, finding the same offers but selling it at different prices. By pulling the data from all the OTAs, metasearchers are able to find thousands of flights. The metasearchers elaborate these results and present them to the users so that they can easily understand and compare the results.
So, one of the important metasearchers’ goals is to deal with complexity and make it easier for the end user to understand. Metasearchers can also search flexibly, in terms of location (search for multiple airports) and time (search for multiple dates), while OTAs do not support these search filters.
Both an online travel agency and a metasearch site will let you know of the best deal but none of them will show all the fares available (because sometimes airlines reserve certain offers for their own sites only) or all airlines that meet your requirements.
In terms of additional services, online travel agencies have call centre numbers with agents ready to help users book flights while metasearch sites don’t. This is because they don’t sell airfares directly and they direct customers to other platforms to make their bookings. At the end of the day, metasearchers are really valuable tools to compare prices, because they save users the time of not having to visit every single OTA seeking a cheaper inspiration or solution. So, if the user is not sure about what he/she wants and is price driven, metasearchers are a clever solution to get an idea of what is available. But in other cases, or for different needs, metasearchers might not be the first choice.
The difference between each OTA
All the Online Travel Agencies mainly allow users to accomplish the following actions :
Browsing deals / Package vacations
Book online and pay
By exploring the websites of the main providers, we discovered that not only do they all have a similar look but most of the time they rely on the same filters, similar structure in terms of information architecture, flows and page layout design.
So how do they differentiate from each other? Why should a user go to Expedia rather than Opodo?
What makes them different are not only factors related to the pure digital UX but their impact on the whole Customer Experience. Those differences are:
Variety / number of deals offered
Searching tools and criteria
Special features / services
But do these companies clearly leverage their differences? If yes, how do they do it?
Expedia / Orbitz
Orbitz, which was acquired by Expedia in 2015, is one of the major players in the field, and has been ranked as one of the top 500 websites in the United States. The following description is valid for both websites, which were different up until the companies merged, but now visually look the same and are largely based on the same digital user experience.
The differences between the sites are essentially related to the packages and services offered, but the interface design is consistent between both brands, even though Expedia looks more curated in the consistency of its UI elements and the overall visual aspect looks a lot more fresh and captivating.
Orbitz provides plenty of filters to narrow searches to the best options, letting the user filter flights by the number of stops, departure and arrival times and flight class. Each flight listing shows a complete itinerary, including transfer locations, time, terminal and the duration of your stopover. One of the great features of Orbitz is the loyalty program, Orbucks, which rewards customers by earning points and gaining discounts on future purchases. This is a great strategy to lock-in customers, especially if they are Frequent Flyers or need to buy group tickets.
The homepage is composed of two main significant areas: Menu and Search Tools at the top and Packages and Adverts at the bottom.
The search box tool is positioned on top of a big advert banner and is clearly divided into categories which allow users to quickly identify whether they need to look for a flight, a hotel or a combination of these (plus car, cruise or activities).
Orbitz and Expedia, just as the majority of other OTAs websites do, have two features that make travel searching easier: predictive searching and calendar-style date selection. Predictive searches save time by completing the name of your destination as you type it and calendar-style selection for dates helps you see what day of the week you’re making your reservations.
The filter set will allow you to select departure and arrival airport, refundability of the ticket and your preferred airlines. Below the fold some travel inspiration/packages and adverts are displayed to assist customers in their decision making process and provide them with deals and offers.
In our view, it would be useful to separate the vacation inspiration box and advert box into two different categories, allowing users to easily find exactly what they want. The overall page is well structured, even though there could be more attention to detail and content balancing/spacing.
The search results display all the options available in a well organised list, with clearly visible call to actions for each choice. A wide range of post-filters are displayed on top and in the left column, allowing the user to narrow their search down, while the drop-down menu at the top right corner helps to sort out the search results according to different criteria like price, duration, departure or arrival time.
Checkout / Booking
After having selected the right option, the user is redirected to the Trip Summary and Booking confirmation and later to the Checkout and Payment gateway.
Despite these pages having pretty standard forms, common in all e-commerce websites, we’d like to highlight that the design is clean and that the process quickly takes the user to finalise his/her purchase, while the progress bar on top helps them visualise the outstanding steps remaining in the process.
Opodo is a British Online Travel Agency which, among all the common features offered by the other OTAs, has additional features like:
Escaping map tool
Online check-in, to direct the user to their airline check-in process
- Opodo corporate, a separated segment which helps to specifically manage business trips
The homepage is well structured and perfectly balances clarity of information with emotional inspiration for the user’s upcoming travels. Beyond the common fields needed in the search box, Opodo provides a pre-filter option to select your preferred payment method. This allows the user to immediately get the right price and avoid small (and usually nasty) surprises of extra-fees related to the particular payment method.
At the top right part of the page we find a double menu which leads to different areas of the website. If we click on Opodo Corporate, Online Check-in and all the other labels available, we sadly find out that they lead to completely different environments, with a different look and feel and page layout…and once you get there you can’t easily come back!
In fact, none of these pages provide a way back to the original homepage and you have to retype the correct url in the browser if you need to go back.
Back again on the homepage, we have a look at the bottom part of the page, where we can find deals and inspiration. We particularly appreciate the fact that there is a good clustering of packages (Latest Offer, Top Destination, Sunshine Holidays) so that the user can easily find what they are looking for.
The search results page is well organised and structured and the information organisation allows users to quickly identify the most relevant data he/she needs to make their purchasing decision. Price (and price breakdown once you click) are clearly visible and the spaces between each flight information are enough to avoid the impression of content overload. Furthermore, the left post filter menu is very user friendly, with really big checkboxes and sliders.
Checkout / Booking
No big surprises for the booking and checkout steps. Again, clearly defined fields and information hierarchy help us to smoothly go through the purchase process.
A dropdown button always helps you to double check all the details before making your purchase and the breadcrumb on top is a valid tool to make us aware of where we are, especially as there is no progress bar as per the other websites analysed.
As per other OTAs, Priceline’s homepage components consist of search box tools on top of the page above a big image and suggested vacation packages below the fold.
So, whether the user is booking a flight, car, vacation package or a cruise, the homepage is the starting point to input all the information needed to conduct the search, including travel dates and destination. Also here is the chance to narrow down your search by airline company, but we found that using a text field instead of a dropdown menu with all the possible choices was not the best solution. Whilst there is a predictive text filling option, we found this could be a bit intimidating for a user that might not be able to come up with the name of a specific airline company at the first attempt. By providing a list of possibilities, you ensure that the user doesn’t waste time in their search process.
With regard to the overall aspect of the homepage, we found it well organised but there is a little bit of a lack of “personality”. The design doesn’t look engaging but it is really well structured: there are clearly defined categories and labels, organised in a hierarchic order, which helps to understand at a glance what Priceline’s proposition is and the offers available.
However, Priceline’s most innovative feature “Name Your Own Price” is not clearly advertised. This feature, for booking hotels, flights and rental cars, allows users to place a bid of their ideal price for certain reservations. Essentially, the user names a price and the website provides a suggested price range. The price you bid through Priceline reaches airlines who can then either accept or reject your offer. If your price is accepted, the airline and Priceline then use the payment information you gave during the bidding process to purchase the reservation.
The “Name Your Own Price” system has its advantages, but there are disadvantages in the fine print. For example, although is it possible to select the arrival and departing cities, it’s not possible to choose flight’ times. The name of the hotel you are reserving isn’t available until a hotel has accepted your offer, which can be quite a surprise, but is, of course, all part of the game and can even provide added value for certain users who are looking for a different travel experience. Using the “Name Your own Price” tool is valuable for booking flights months in advance or when travel plans are flexible, as the user doesn’t find out any times or reservation details until a hotel or airline accepts their offer…a proper gamble!
Looking into more focused UX considerations, we are also wondering why they haven’t built the overall user experience around this feature, turning it into a key differentiator for the digital booking experience. In fact, since this feature is pretty unique, it could be leveraged as a competitive advantage, instead of being relegated to a corner of the page. Sadly, it’s almost hidden at the top right corner of the search tool and might be missed by unfocused or distracted users. Moreover, when we tested the feature, we were asked to re-input some of our data (e.g. departure/arrival airport), input the price we would like to offer together with our passenger data (is it relevant to get the deal?) and click the CTA yet again to retrieve the results. We think that the process could be shorter or, at the very least, it would be possible to avoid the double CTA step to get to the results.
Flight searches on Priceline are equally easy to conduct and sort. Once you enter passenger information, Priceline provides special deals at the top of the page. These are best to look into if you’re searching for flights and hotels or want to name your own price.
Checkout / Booking
The checkout and booking pages are extremely smartly designed. Big forms, icons and plenty of space help users to visualise and correctly input their data in the quickest way.
The process of booking a flight (or more generally booking a whole vacation including hotels, insurance and car rental) can be a long process for users who are looking to find the best option or have specific needs.
Online Travel Agents should aim to accompany the user through the overall process, from envisioning their journey to paying for their trip, just as if they were real Travel Agents, which help and assist their clients in the overall process. Besides this, they should also leverage unique methodologies or features, so that they could become a reference point for users when they are about to book holidays, helping to make them loyal or at least recurrent customers.
The websites that we evaluated provide users with several features to get the best out of their online booking experience but they also sometimes miss key opportunities to make their booking journey even better…let’s recap on what the most important points are to bear in mind when designing a good User Experience of an OTA that we have learnt by analysing these websites: