Several weeks ago, the giant online travel agency Expedia bought HomeAway.com for $3.9 billion. It was another step in the death march of truly independent online travel sites.
Suddenly, Expedia owned 115,000 vacation rental listings and the sites Homeaway.com, VRBO.com, vacationrentals.com and BedandBreakfast.com.
Expedia also recently vacuumed up longtime rivals Orbitz and Travelocity. (Yes, it’s true.) It owns Hotwire, Hotels.com, the booking site Trivago.com and its own giant site, Expedia.com.
Its only arch-rival? Priceline, which owns the valuable brands Priceline, Kayak and Booking.com.
I hate to tell you, but the notion that consumers have a host of competing online travel choices is mostly an illusion. The question is, how does it affect you?
Expedia owns longtime rivals Orbitz and Travelocity as well as Homeaway.com, VRBO.com, vacationrentals.com, BedandBreakfast.com, Hotwire, Hotels.com and Trivago.com.
NO DIFFERENCE IN DEALS
Nearly every year I do an informal comparison of various hotel rates, using different booking sites to find best prices. It used to be that you could find a price difference of $20 or more, depending on which sites you consulted. Sites would throw in perks to make their offer more attractive than others. No more. Last year I found a miniscule $2 variation in rates among the big booking sites. This year? Zero.
For instance, a search for a night at the Westin in Kansas City, Missouri, in early December finds that Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, Priceline and Booking.com all show a best price of $188 (non-refundable), the same as the Westin.com’s own site. Search Yahoo Travel, which uses Hipmunk as its search engine, and you find that Hipmunk shows results only from Expedia-owned websites — all exactly $188. Search TripAdvisor, and you get the same price because most TripAdvisor results are from Expedia and Booking.com.
It’s like being caught in a loop.
A list of the 10 biggest travel sites as of Nov. 1 illustrates the issue: Priceline and Expedia own 8 of the 10.
Last year I found a miniscule $2 variation in rates among the big booking sites. This year? Zero.
What’s the point of looking at all of these sites if they give identical results? There isn’t one. Consolidation may be good business, but from the perspective of the average traveler, it stinks.
COMPARE, THEN BOOK DIRECTLY
So here is your strategy. Do not waste hours trying to compare flight, hotel or car prices online. Start with the hotel, airline or car rental firm sites themselves and check prices. Then search on Kayak, which at least shows results from both Priceline and Expedia. If you see no difference in prices or availability, book directly with the vendor.
If you are looking for a vacation package or cruise, it is possible that one big site like Expedia, Orbitz or Priceline may offer a discount or deal better than a rival if you book all the travel arrangements together. Do your homework. But I would also check with a real travel agent to compare. If something goes haywire while you’re on an expensive trip, it’s good to have a real person to talk to back home.
Do search the lodging site AirBnB.com, which is still independent — for now, anyway.
And look for even more consolidation in the travel world in 2016. Hotel chains may swallow each other. websites may be sold. Analysts even predict that it is possible that Expedia will put itself on the market to be gulped down by an even bigger player, God only knows who.
Maybe at some point every travel brand and website in entire the world will be owned by one single guy sitting in a beige office in New Jersey.
Until then, let your fingers do the searching for the increasingly rare true deals.