Travel Comparison Shopping Programs

Though recent additions to the traditional mix of travel companies, travel comparison shopping sites have quickly grown to prominence in the industry, whether you view them from a travel consumer, travel supplier or travel intermediary perspective.  More importantly, as Travel 2.0 continues to unfold, travel comparison shopping sites will grow in importance, as will their impact on the online travel industry.  Their growth will also bring additional sales and revenue opportunities to the travel affiliates that partner with these firms.

What are Travel Comparison Shopping Sites?

As is often the case in the travel industry, the terminology associated with travel comparison shopping sites – as well as their definitions – differs according to who you speak with.  In our view, travel comparison shopping sites (like kayak.com, sidestep.com, farecast.com, cheapflights, and mobissimo.com, among others) are in fact, travel meta search engines.

What, might you ask, is a meta search engine?   Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:

“A meta search engine is a search tool[1] that sends user requests to several other search engines and/or databases and aggregates the results into a single list or displays them according to their source. Meta search engines enable users to enter search criteria once and access several search engines simultaneously. Meta search engines operate on the premise that the Web is too large for any one search engine to index it all and that more comprehensive search results can be obtained by combining the results from several search engines. This also may save the user from having to use multiple search engines separately.”

By aggregating travel information from many individual travel websites, be they supplier, online travel agencies and other travel intermediaries, travel comparison shopping sites have further shifted the balance of power away from suppliers and intermediaries and into the hands of consumers, and in the process, changed the competitive structure of the travel industry.

The Players

The universe of travel comparison shopping sites / travel meta search engines is rather small; six players pretty much control this niche, of which only three offer affiliate programs.

Those That Offer Affiliate Programs

1. Kayak / Sidestep – When the 2 leading travel comparison shopping engines merged in 2007, it sent a shockwave across the fledgling travel search industry, and the repercussions have yet to subside.  According to Compete, today Kayak / Sidestep account of more than 50% of all unique visitors hitting the travel meta search sites, together generating more than 9 million uniques per month.

Kayak / Sidestep offers travel affiliates two types of affiliate programs. For sites that “have low to moderate traffic,” Kayak suggests these affiliates join their program managed by LinkShare.  Affiliates with high traffic sites (i.e., more than 500,000 searches a month.), can opt into Kayak’s program that offers an integrated travel search engine that matches the affiliate’s sites visual appearance while simultaneously enabling the affiliate to retain control of their brand.

Click here to review Kayak’s LinkShare travel affiliate program or their co-branded option.

2. Mobissimo.comMobissimo searches some 140 different air, hotel and car providers, online travel agencies OTAs and other travel web sites, which according to the Company’s website is “…the largest supplier base of any travel search engine on the Web.”  Travel Dividends agrees…their list is pretty extensive and impressive.

However, one consequence of the extensive breadth of their international content is that not all travel sites are in English. As such, Mobissimo cautions that:

“All the sites that we search have been pre-screened, but because some are in a foreign language, you may not be able to complete a transaction in English. To facilitate your search, we have added filters that allow you to search U.S. based providers.”

While Mobissimo may be one of the smaller travel comparison shopping sites in terms of traffic, their requirements for affiliates are not meager – for example, as a prerequisite for admission into the Mobissimo program, the affiliate must be able to “…generate a “minimum 100,000 unique visitors per month.”

To determine if Mobissimo’s travel affiliate program is right for you, click here.

3. TripAdvisor - Hardly anyone in the travel or affiliate marketing industries is unfamiliar with TripAdvisor.com.  Part of Expedia Inc., the 14 travel brands that comprise the TripAdvisor Media Network attract some 32 million monthly visitors, making TripAdvisor “…the most popular and largest travel community in the world.”

TripAdvisor.com’s database statistics speak volumes about why this company is a key player in both the travel and travel affiliate business world:

?   Includes more than 20 million user generated travel reviews and opinions written by travelers from around the world

?   Lists more than one million travel related businesses

?   Covers some 400,000 hotels in more than 68,000 cities around the world

?   Provides varying levels of detail about more than 90,000 travel and travel-related attractions and 551,000+ restaurants

In late February, 2009, TripAdvisor added a new feature to its suite of products and services – a flight search engine that integrates a dynamic fee estimator (Fees Estimator). Some of the features that Flight Estimator offers are pretty cool: for example, it calculates and compares the entire cost of a domestic flight – including ticket price, fees for checked bags, in-flight food service and entertainment and other ‘ancillary services’ that airlines are increasingly pricing separate from the base airline ticket cost.  Additionally, sister company SeatGuru’s content is made available in the search process and details about legroom and amenities is displayed using color-coded maps.

This meta travel search service also features a direct booking capability with most US airlines, as well as with Expedia and Hotwire (no surprise there), and Travelocity as well. To our knowledge, this represents a first for all three players to participate in this type of search model. Furthermore, TripAdvisor’s Search Engine will be the only flight display that presents side-by-side results for pricing options on Travelocity, Expedia and Hotwire together in one display.

Gregory Saks, general manager of travel at Compete was interviewed by the Boston Globe regarding TripAdvisor’s new foray, and had this to say: “TripAdvisor will be a formidable competitive threat to Kayak.”  He further added that “The most important asset TripAdvisor brings to the market is its user base. TripAdvisor has millions of people on its site that are already planning trips and shopping for travel.”

Travel Dividends agrees with this assessment, and further believes that leveraging TripAdvisor’s virtual monopoly on the hotel reviews business with their new Fess Estimator could be a game changer. It will be very interesting to see how Kayak / SideStep responds.

Regardless of the strategic maneuvering between these players, travel affiliates can take advantage of the battle between Kayak / SideStep and TripAdvisor, as TripAdvisor also has a travel affiliate program.

What a great time to be in the travel affiliate marketing industry!
Those That Don’t Offer Affiliate Programs (But Should)

4. Farecast.com – Acquired by Microsoft in 2008, Farecast has a very unique approach to meta search in that instead of simply aggregating suppliers, inventory, availability and fares to distill best price, these guys have developed algorithms that essentially look to predict whether the prices currently listed by the supplier will go up, or down. Thus, based on this prediction, Farecast provides the user with a recommendation as to whether they should buy then, or buy later.

In essence, FareCast has reversed-engineered the real-time supply and demand-driven yield management systems used by most travel suppliers to price their products. Pretty cool stuff…

Farecast won the 2008 Webby Award in the travel category and has been recognized as one of Web 2.0′s “Best Travel Sites”, one of Travel & Leisure’s “Top 25 websites” and one of PC World’s “20 Most Innovative Products”.

5. Cheapflights.com - As one of the first travel comparison search engines (launched in 1996), UK-based Cheapflights today operates additional travel meta search sites in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

Cheapflights enables travel consumers to search travel options by region, city or country based on flexible travel dates, or a search-by-date option for travelers who do not have flexible dates. In either scenario, Cheapflights will return with search results that provide “…the best deals and partner site where you can book your travel.”

6. FareCompare.com – An independent airfare shopping sit FareCompare boasts it “…processes feeds from more than 500 airlines that total more than 270,000 destinations worldwide” and access to “…cheap domestic and international flights and tickets discount airfare, discount first class airfare, the easiest air travel planning tools, and expert travel advice.”

Rick Seany, FareCompare’s CEO and founder, is a well respected and oft quoted expert on airlines and airfares, and authors a weekly column about the airline industry for ABCNews.com.  His column on FareCompare, Travel Tips, is chock-a-block full of great travel insights.

What is a ‘travel deals publisher’?

Essentially, travel deals publishers are content syndication solutions whose business model revolves around aggregating discounted products and services from travel merchants and then distributing these electronically (typically via email subscriptions) to targeted customers in the publisher’s community. Deal publishers often help the merchant develop effective campaigns, or at the least provide a comprehensive list of syndication guidelines to assist the merchant in creating travel offers that result in sales.

Once the ‘deal’ is published and received by the travel consumer, those interested in an offer can then click on the program of interest, which then will automatically connect the consumer with the merchant so that a booking can be completed.

There are a quite a few travel deals publishers, most of them are small players, though several large companies do exist, with Cheapflights, Sherman’s Travel, Smarter Travel, and Travelzoo arguably the four largest players in this space. Oddly enough, particularly when viewed in the context of the deals publisher business model – and the ideal fit we think it has to performance marketing – of these four major publishers, only Travelzoo offers an affiliate program.

Many other top brands have a deals program associated with their website; for example, Fodor’s, the venerable travel guide, has their “Today’s Top Travel Deals” page, and top tier deals publishers like Sherman’s Travel (which distributes its list weekly to more than 3.5 million members), has partnerships or syndication deals with USAToday.com, and major online brands like Yahoo!, WashingtonPost.com, and editorial licensing agreements with MSNBC.com and MSN.com.

Other players, like TravelScream, focus solely on distributing through travel agencies, online travel and lifestyle publications, or in the case of SmarterTravel and Cheapflights (who once worked with travel affiliates now), go it alone…which is why ultimately, we like Travelzoo.

?   Travelzoo.comTravelzoo’s primary business is publishing travel deals – the Company is the largest travel deals publisher on the Internet, with more than 1,000 companies from around the world listing their products on its deals program, and some 15 million consumers subscribing to its weekly newsletter.

According Wikipedia, Travelzoo:

“…has 21 offices throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Travelzoo has a global network of producers that work with travel companies to create deals for airfare, hotels, cruises, vacation packages, car rentals and shows and events. Travelzoo also has a Test Booking Center based in Chicago where “test-bookers” simulate the process of booking deals that are published on the website, in the Top 20 or in e-mail alerts. Travelzoo’s “test bookers” check for accurate prices, availability, long hold times when booking via phone and ease of booking.”  For a deals publisher, those are very impressive statistics.

In addition to its core business, Travelzoo also offers a pay-per-click travel search tool, ‘SuperSearch‘, which enables travel consumers to search multiple travel sites for travel deals.  According to Travelzoo, their current product is “…powered by 2,667,880 worldwide user ratings,” and is “…used by over 15 million travelers.”

Evidently, these boasts haven’t produced the desired results, as SuperSearch is being replaced by Fly.com, which is being built on the domain name that Travelzoo acquired for $1.8 million last year. In beta since February, it appears that the site will be limited to flight searches.

We understand that the technology powering fly.com was custom built by Travelzoo during the12 months prior to its launch.  It will be interesting to see how Travelzoo proceeds with its travel meta-search engine investment.

For information about Travelzoo’s travel affiliate program, contact Hydra Networks, their preferred affiliate network provider.

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