FW: Internet fails in the travel fringe

Sean Polay sent you a post from NewsGator.com:

Internet fails in the travel fringe

All Ka and I wanted was to trot three teen and near-teen kids over to an East Coast beach, within driving distance, for a long weekend.

Three plus two makes five, about two too many for a comfortable stay in one hotel room. Two rooms near a beach would be expensive, and no hotel will guarantee adjoining rooms anymore. So we hoped to find a condo, villa or small vacation house.

Starting the end of next week.

And that's where the fun began. Not fun as in "ha ha, look how easy," but fun as in "this @$%&*! thing is driving me insane ... maybe we should just camp in the back yard!"

What we found is the Internet becomes little better, and sometimes worse, than a remote phone book for locating a place to stay in those circumstances.

We had turned to the Internet in the first place because we knew most travel agents have no incentives to work very hard, if at all, to book lodging on itineraries where no flights or resort packages are involved.

Mainstream travel sites, including Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, Hotwire and Hotels.com, work fine for mainstream travel: book a flight on a major airline, reserve a room in a chain hotel, rent a car from one of a half dozen brand-name providers, get rewards program credit for all of the above.

But they outright break when you try to tell them a family of five wants a place to stay together, the Rev. Al Green be damned! Some of the user interfaces simply won't let you attempt a search for lodging for two adults and three children, unless you start your search assuming you will split them into two rooms. Others will, but since most of the chain hotels limit occupancy to four humans per room, they seldom return any usable results.

Hotels.com supposedly lets you focus a search on condos and other vacation rentals, but results still appeared to contain quite a few chain hotel rooms that would not be big enough.

I tried kayak.com, one of the newer travel metasites (meaning it searches across many of the other travel search sites). I like the way it works, and that trial was enough to get me to consider using it in the future. But it, too, still focuses too much on mass-market travel and not family vacation lodging.

Next stops: smaller, regional sites from local real estate companies, leasing agents and rental aggregators. These sites, without exception, were maddening in their inconsistencies, untimeliness and what I call "rotten Easter eggs" -- waiting until after you drilled several steps into the process to tell you something you really needed to know before you started.

Best examples:

  • Sites that let us put in our arrival and departure dates for a 4-day trip around a weekend, and find good-looking matches, only to get a rude alert when we tried to reserve that said the properties were available only for weekly rentals beginning on Saturdays.
  • Sites that gave us good-looking matches that, it turns out, show up as available only because the property managers have not updated or integrated their reservation calendars in months or even years.
  • Sites that simply list dozens of properties by cutesy labels, with no search at all, forcing you to browse every detail listing to find the ones that even could work -- then find they're booked up.

Perhaps, you say, we set ourselves up for this failure by trying to book a last-minute stay on busy beaches in peak season. I won't argue with that. But last-minute deals can be found -- just, apparently, not on the 30 or so Internet sites we have tried so far.

Where does that leave us? Using the "Outernet," and having better luck. We're getting recommendations and leads from friends who live, or have lived, in the areas we're targeting. We have some phone numbers of leasing agents who may have some last-minute openings. Worst case, we'll book rooms a bit off the beach, but it appears our offline contacts will beat all these online efforts Real Soon Now.

I'll keep you posted.

This episode certainly reveals a tangible Internet business opportunity in local markets with a critical mass of vacation rentals. And it is proof that technology alone, in the form of databases with search engines, can't efficiently address many human wants on the fringe without, well, human attention.

Message from sender Sean Polay: Note Jay's last paragraph. But in addition to the business opportunity, this exemplifies the kind of "make-my-life-easier" content Andrew and I have been talking about.

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