Let’s say you are going to Nebraska and need a hotel — the Hilton Omaha. In late September, it is $212 a night (including tax) on Hilton.com.
But you know you can do better.
Fingers flying over the iPad, you scour all your favorite travel search sites.
You find the same room for $211.51 on Expedia and Travelocity, as well as on Hotels.com, Trivago, Venere and Booking.com. The room is $211.44 on Orbitz. It’s $209.98 on Priceline. A deal! You’ve found a deal!
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And that’s when you realize that you have wasted 30 minutes of your life to save $2.02.
In the last couple years, the consolidation, mergers and acquisitions in the online-mobile travel world have sped up to the point where all the major travel sites seem to be morphing into one giant, monolithic blob.
The reason Travelocity mimics Expedia prices? Last year Expedia took over operation of the Travelocity site in the U.S. Yahoo Travel uses Orbitz to search, so there’s no point in checking both sites. Kayak operates the airline search feature for Microsoft’s Bing Travel. And so on.
Meanwhile, a handful of very powerful companies now control most travel-related websites at the very moment that hotel prices are rising due to the highest demand since 2000 and airfare deals are becoming a quaint artifact.
As of Sept. 1, the five busiest travel websites in the U.S. were Booking.com, TripAdvisor, YahooTravel, Expedia and Priceline, according to data complied by eBizMBA Rank.
Those were followed by Hotels.com, Travelocity, Kayak, Orbitz and Hotwire. Expedia and TripAdvisor are also among the top downloaded mobile travel apps.
Like inbred goldfish, these sites are not pure competitors but have an incredible swarm of connections.
Who owns whom? Here’s a sampling. Your eyes are going to cross:
▪ Expedia, Inc.: Owns Expedia, hotels.com, Hotwire, Venere, carrentals.com, TravelTicker and a majority interest in the hotel site Trivago.
▪ Priceline Group: Owns Kayak, Booking.com, agoda.com and rentalcars.com.
▪ Sabre Holdings Corp.: Owns Travelocity (but last year farmed out its search to Expedia) and Lastminute.com.
▪ Orbitz Worldwide: Orbitz, Cheaptickets, ebookers, HotelClub and more.
▪ TripAdvisor: Was spun off from Expedia in 2011 and ironically now is its biggest competitor. Owns TripAdvisor, CruiseCritic, SmarterTravel, AirfareWatchdog, BookingBuddy, FlipKey, VirtualTourist, IndependentTraveler and more.
▪ HomeAway: Owns HomeAway, VRBO, vacationrentals.com, BedandBreakfast.com and more.
A few travel sites are still independent: airbnb, Hipmunk and the trendy ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft. But it’s probably only a matter of time before someone offers them a boatload of cash to sell out to the big boys. Or they consume each other.
With half as many major U.S. airlines as five years ago and the homogenization of travel search, finding a true airfare deal by launching a multisite search is as likely as discovering a shamrock on Ford Field. Fares these days have more to do with rigid airline fare control algorithms than which search site you use.
But, hey, I don’t want to rain on your parade. If it makes you happy to scour the far corners of the Internet for travel deals, go for it. Deals are still out there, usually last-minute opportunities, package deals or an unexpected sale, or maybe there is a glitch or misprint or promo code or a nice clerk at the hotel who likes your eloquent plea.
But your time is valuable, too. It is certainly worth more than $2.02.