Online travel agencies (OTAs), such as Booking.com, Kayak and Expedia, offer some of the most user friendly experiences on the internet. So let’s highlight the lessons that other travel companies and non-travel retailers can learn from these companies.

The online travel market was worth $564.8 billion globally in 2017, and most sources predict further growth in the coming years.

Some travel brands, with established offline customer bases and business models, were slow to adapt to the potential of the internet, while sites like Expedia and lastminute.com were well established by the turn of the millennium.

These companies are mainly referred to as Online Travel Agents, or OTAs. They include sites which aggregate travel products, Booking.com being the most successful at the moment.

Like many online-only retail brands, a big part of the reason they have established themselves is that they are easier to use than other sites. Their success is partly down to great UX, or at least better UX than their competitors.

Many OTAs have innovated in terms of features and customer experience over the past decade or so, and there’s still much that traditional travel brands can learn from them. In a recent Google study which looked at mobile UX, OTAs tend to do better.  These are the top UK mobile travel sites for usability…

At the moment, OTAs dominate traffic related to the online travel market. In SimilarWeb’s top ten global travel sites, just two direct travel brands feature – Ryanair and IRTC.

UX lessons from the OTAs

Here are a few areas which make sites like Booking.com so easy to use. This is not to say that all other travel brands have poor UX, but often it’s easier to find examples of best practice from the OTAs.

Flexible search

Search is the starting point for most travel sites, and it needs to do a number of things for users. First of all, it should be easy to use, but it also needs to adapt to the various needs of users.

Some may have a single destination in mind on fixed dates, others may have a destination in mind, but are flexible about times, whereas others may have a week off in July and just fancy somewhere sunny.

Here, Kayak has an ‘anywhere’ flight search option which allows users to select departure airport and flight times, without specifying a destination.

This is great for inspiration, and the results page really helps by providing ideas, as well as options for narrowing the selection.

Users can choose according to budget, how long they want to fly for, and more. It’s a great way to help customers research flexibly.

Clarity of information in search results

With lots of information and options present, search results pages on travel sites can be complex, which presents a challenge to creating a great user experience.

The challenge is to make it easy for customers to digest the information available, providing filters and sorting options to help them choose.

Expedia’s results are a good example. There’s a lot to digest here, but Expedia has provided user with the tools to do so.

It offers the ability to search on a map view, so people can easily see whether hotels are near the centre of town, a decent walk from the beach, or close to other areas of interest.

Then users can sort or filter by ratings, area, price and more. This means sites can present a wide choice, but allow users to narrow this according to their own preferences.

Skyscanner helps people choose in another way. As well as having flexible search which allows users to search across a whole month, it presents calendar and chart views which can either show exact prices for each day, or plot price trends across the month.

It reduces cognitive effort required to identify the best deals, and so it can work well for sites  like Skyscanner, which attracts price-conscious travel shoppers.

Conveying key information on mobile

Booking.com excels on mobile. Its number one position on the Google chart mentioned earlier seems justified as there’s no noticeable delay in loading.

On mobile, users need the same amount of information to book, it’s just about making it easy to find and scan on a smaller screen.

So, there are still 41 images of the hotel and its rooms, and key information like review summaries. Important facilities like wi-fi and parking are highlighted too.

Further down the page, Booking.com shows more key information which can help users decide, such as proximity to major landmarks, attractions, and transport.

This clarity of information continues into checkout, with clear text to show the final price, a reminder of the dates, and reassurances that a) I don’t need to pay until I arrive, and b) I can cancel before a certain date.

Checkout UX

Checkout can be complicated for travel bookings and it’s a balancing act for sites. There’s a certain amount of detail needed both from customers, and to inform them of, but it’s also important not to overwhelm them or make the process too lengthy.

It’s about a mixture of good form design, employing user testing to identify key sticking points for example, and using design and copy to clarify any tricky fields or questions, and guide users through the process.

Clarity over prices is the first step. Travel sites have been known for added extras in the past, so a confirmation of total prices helps users to enter checkout with more confidence.

In addition, Hotels.com has guest checkout by default. You can find the link to sign in, but the site makes sure it’s no obstacle to progress.

Forms are clear and easy to use on mobile, and the addition of alternative payment options helps to appeal to various user preferences.

From a UX perspective, the addition of PayPal and Apple Pay removes much of the work around payment, which is especially important for driving mobile conversions.

In Summary

User experience is now a key differentiator for online travel, and it’s always good to learn from the best.

It’s not just about copying though, it’s learning from the way companies like Booking.com approach the design of their sites.

Booking.com, for one, designs around the customer, and learns and applies the lessons from testing and customer behaviour.

Main image by Nils Nedel

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