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One Giant Leap for Travel Search? Big Improvements Are on the Way

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Now that high-speed trains have taken over so much of European short-haul travel, adding rail options to an airfare search system seems like a no-brainer. Ditto allowing for a preference for premium economy in a fare search. Surprisingly, only a few search engines have so far applied these options.

TripAdvisor just added European rail to its regular search function. Although the rail capability is still in beta, it’s already fairly robust, and it’s fully integrated with its airfare search system. If you search a flight from London to Paris, for example, the resultant display contains Eurostar as well as airline prices and schedules, with rail properly ranked by price and clearly identified. You get the same result on a search from Paris to Lyon, where TripAdvisor clearly adds and ranks TGV trips. TripAdvisor pulls data from RailEurope, Deutsche Bahn, and possibly other rail sites, and it appears to be able to access local rail prices, including discount fares, in much of Europe. It includes rail in the U.K., too: A check of travel from London to Glasgow shows Virgin Trains as an alternative. For the curious, a ticket for a date in mid-September costs $77 on Virgin Trains, a dollar more than an air ticket on EasyJet, but a much cheaper trip when you factor in airport access costs.

Although the beta version is robust regarding getting the lowest fares, it still has a way to go on stations. At this point, the “airport choice” pull-down menus do not show rail stations as alternatives, so the system doesn’t work if you want to go to/from specific rail stations. An inquiry for a rail trip from Paris Charles deGaulle to Lyon/Satolas (the only option available for Lyon) returned mainly trips from Paris/Gare du Lyon to Lyon’s main downtown rail stations, but not to/from the airport stations. Presumably, TripAdvisor will adjust this problem in due time.

Kayak also includes Eurostar on cross-channel searches. But so far it does not include rail services wholly on the continent or in the U.K. And none of the other sites I checked so far includes rail options.

Overall, kudos to TripAdvisor for advancing the state of the search art. Presumably, other sites will follow. Certainly, in Japan as well as Europe, rail is here to stay as a primary option for trips under 300 miles—often the preferred option. As to Amtrak in the U.S., forget it for now—check again in maybe 10 years.

Meanwhile, slowly but surely, search engines are beginning to include premium economy as a search option. Both TripAdvisor and Kayak do so, as do Expedia and Vayama, but several important online agencies, including Orbitz and Travelocity, still do not provide this option.

Interestingly, the online agencies that do provide for a premium economy search do not include semi-premium economy options on such lines as KLM and United that provide extra legroom but still only the regular, ultra-narrow standard economy seats. When you ask Kayak for a premium economy flight from New York to Amsterdam, for example, the display returns a connecting premium economy flight on Air France but only a much higher business class fare for KLM. It’s heartening to see this degree of accuracy.

Travelers increasingly rely on these search systems to locate their best deals. Overall, they do a very good job with airline tickets, and they’re starting to get it with rail options in Europe. For now, the biggest omission is in hotel prices. No sites I know require that hotels add in any mandatory resort, housekeeping, or other separate fees in their all-up quotes. At best, you get some sort of “extra fees may apply” notice that doesn’t help anybody—except, possibly, the agencies’ lawyers. Clearly, the omission of mandatory add-on fees seriously distorts the price comparison process. The OTAs can and do provide all-up, fee-inclusive quotes for rental cars, and I can’t see any reason why they don’t do the same for hotels. Let’s hope for some progress in this area soon.


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