Expedia, Travelocity announce competing customer-experience initiatives

The neverending battle between Travelocity and Expedia, the two largest players in the online travel agency mix, took another interesting turn this week with the announcement of two competing customer initiatives.

On January 17, Expedia unveiled its new "Best Price Guarantee" (not to be confused with its older, more limited "Best Price Guarantee," of course). The details of the new guarantee are this: The agency promises its prices on airfares, car rentals, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, and destination-based activities will be the cheapest available, and if they're not, it will refund the difference and throw in a $50 travel coupon toward some types of future travel. The catch, as with most price guarantees, is that consumers still have pay attention to competing prices after booking—Expedia certainly isn't going to call attention to a lower price elsewhere.

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The move is a good one for Expedia, and in many ways it's a response to Travelocity's heavily advertised (and top-notch) "Customer Championship" initiative that has dominated the public battle between the two rivals for the past year. Not to be outdone, Travelocity this week announced an improvement of its own: Travelers can now book destination-based activities a la carte from the site, meaning tours, attractions, and other destination-specific activities can be purchased both as part of an airfare-hotel package or independent from any other travel arrangements.

I put Travelocity's activity tab to the test to see how it holds up. Suppose you're planning a Maui vacation for December 2006. On Travelocity's activities page, you can enter your travel dates and interests and see a list of tours and activities bookable directly through the site. I selected "all" for Maui and came up with 34 different options, including the popular "Haleakala Sunrise Downhill Bike Ride," listed on Travelocity for $134 per person. Good deal? Not so fast. An independent search of Maui's Haleakala tour operators took me to the Maui Downhill company, which offers an identical tour for just $99.84—about $34 less than Travelocity.

The verdict for both Travelocity's and Expedia's new initiatives? As always, keep shopping around. The best price is rarely available in the first place you look.

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