TripAdvisor VS. Expedia

January 27, 2012 on 3:07 pm | In Expedia, ThereArePlaces.com, TripAdvisor, air travel, personal travel, things travelers need to know, travel, travel industry, travel tips | 2 Comments

As many of you know, TripAdvisor, which was part of Expedia, was spun-out in an IPO on December 21, 2011. We found ourselves wondering what that might mean for those of you who use TripAdvisor for advice on hotels, and the like. We are not sure the news is good.

You probably know that TripAdvisor, which bills itself as the world’s largest travel site, has over 50 million unique monthly visitors and claims 20 million registered members. Due to its massive audience, it is able to publish 25 new contributions every minute and features over eight million travel photos taken by their visitors. TripAdvisor and its 18 subsidiary travel sites, operated by TripAdvisor Inc., attract more than 65 million unique monthly visitors. TripAdvisor’s subsidiaries include: www.airfarewatchdog.com, www.bookingbuddy.com, www.cruisecritic.com, www.everytrail.com, www.familyvacationcritic.com, www.flipkey.com, www.holidaylettings.co.uk, www.holidaywatchdog.com, www.independenttraveler.com, www.onetime.com, www.seatguru.com, www.sniqueaway.com, www.smartertravel.com, www.travel-library.com, www.travelpod.com, www.virtualtourist.com, www.whereivebeen.com, and www.kuxun.cn.

Of course, now that it is a stand-alone business, TripAdvisor needs a way to create revenue and does so by running ads and providing other services for its business partners. Indeed, this week TripAdvisor introduced a comprehensive Analytics Service for businesses that allow them to us a “management dashboard” to summarize the performance of their business on TripAdvisor at a glance. Hmm, we guess this specific business model means that travelers contribute independent evaluations to TripAdvisor and TripAdvisor finds a way to monetize the efforts of their visitors for the benefit of TripAdvisor. We realize that TripAdvisor need to make money, but when the companies that are TripAdvisor business customers are provided information on the ratings of their hotels or restaurants contributed by members of TripAdvisor or visitors to their websites, it feels like the contributors are being disadvantaged.

One has to presume that the reason for TripAdvisor to provide this feedback to business partners is to allow these businesses to take action and remedy ratings that do not benefit the business. Oh. Well, how will that happen? Well, honorable companies could use this information to reevaluate and improve the services they provide. Conversely, for companies looking for the quick fix might, solving the problem might be to find a way to improve the ratings without having to spend money doing so. If this case were to happen, it would appear possible that some companies could try to game the system.

Yes, we know that TripAdvisor claims to have a large number of analytical programs that root out deceptive evaluations. But the real truth here is that crowdsourced systems are just that. They reflect the crowd that is attracted to that website and the “crowd” brings all of their biases and everyday perspectives when providing an evaluation of a property or an attraction. Given the wide variety of people involved in providing evaluations at TripAdvisor, it can only be expected that reviews will evidence a wide variety of world views. Bad reviews of high-rated property or rave reviews of a previously low-rated property are not necessarily spam. They may be honest opinions. In other words, TripAdvisor may be able to catch flagrant violations of its policies, but it is likely that this in a very small minority of the cases of actual spam reviews. This is not a criticism of TripAdvisor, since it is a fundamental concern of all crowdsourced systems. What is the problem however, is that TripAdvisor has taken a crowdsourced system where people are willing to contribute their efforts without compensation to help other travelers and the company is now going to attempt to make money off their efforts.

Perhaps Expedia thinks the same thing. Recently (just after it spun-off TripAdvisor) it began providing “Expedia Verified Hotel Reviews.” In effect, when using Expedia you can read reviews for hotels in which Expedia has verified that the person contributing the evaluation both booked and stayed at the hotel in question. While this won’t solve all of the problems with people trying to tilt the evaluation system, it will make it more difficult for competitors to trash other properties and for owners of properties to tout their hotels. Good for Expedia.

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New Charges for Second Bag to Europe

June 3, 2011 on 10:41 am | In ThereArePlaces.com, air travel, luggage and packing, things travelers need to know, travel, travel industry, travel news | 6 Comments

USA Today has reported that United/Continental and Delta Airlines are increasing the cost of checking a second bag on some international flights. Greed, apparently, has no limits!

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Oh Those Travel Plans For Egypt

March 3, 2011 on 12:38 pm | In Egypt travel, ThereArePlaces.com, Travel Safety, air travel, river cruises, things travelers need to know, travel industry | Comments Off

As noted in our last blog, we were headed out on a great adventure in Egypt and Jordan, when the current political and social turmoil hit.

We were interested in adding coverage of Egypt and Jordan to ThereArePlaces, as well as to research tour packages and their providers. Although our team’s travel is usually independent (so that we can wander the places we want to research and spend the time we judge necessary to explore them), we realize that many travelers are more comfortable on tours. Honestly, none of us had never taken a formal tour and thought that this might be a great opportunity to do so and report on the results to our audience at ThereArePlaces. In addition, river cruises have been growing in popularity and we thought that combining Nile River and Lake Nasser Cruises would give us the opportunity to both see a great deal of Egypt and investigate and report about the river cruise scene.

Once we began to review companies providing tours that included Egypt + Nile River Cruises + Jordan, we noticed Viking River Cruises. Although well known for their numerous Europe cruises, they are less well-known for their cruises in Egypt. However, their itinerary in Egypt covered many of the attractions on our list and their add-on for Jordan, though much shorter, provided what we thought was a good overview of the country. So, we booked a reservation for tour starting February 17 in Cairo.

As long as we were traveling out of our usual comfort zone as independent travelers, we decided to see if we could use some of the gazillion miles we had built-up on American Airlines during our other travels for ThereArePlaces. We asked and they came up with some choice seats on short notice. However, we would be arriving in Cairo before the tour started, so we booked an advanced reservation at the Sofitel El Gezirah, close to the city Center in Cairo, which was also the hotel selected by Viking River Cruise and at which we would be staying when the tour started.

As you know, things in Egypt turned dangerous and we were uncertain that traveling in Egypt would be safe. Although we had purchased trip insurance (it was an expensive trip, at least to us), we did not want to exercise it, presuming that Viking would cancel the cruise if the tour would possibly endanger its subscribers. In fact, Viking did cancel the tour and offered to refund our total fee (including insurance) or rebook us on the same tour at a future date without penalties of any sort. Although it is our understanding that most travelers asked for the refund, we decided to try again and booked a reservation for same trip early next year. Our opinion is that Viking River Cruises reacted in an exemplary manner, putting the safety of its guests ahead of other corporate goals. In addition, the agent at Viking was great fun to work with through this situation.

American Airlines was very helpful. They cancelled the ticket on learning of the problem, deposited the miles back in our mileage bank and promptly reversed the credit card fee for the taxes on the tickets. American Airlines reacted in an exemplary manner to the situation in Egypt.

Our advanced reservation with the Sofitel El Gezirah was the least expensive and most contentious of the problems. As you can imagine, the management of the Sofitel in Cairo likely had more to worry about than our reservation during this period of turmoil. At least that is what we thought, so we contacted Sofitel’s corporate offices through their website. The first email we received from them was full of typos and misspellings and not impressive (from a high-end hotel chain), while indicating that we had purchased an Internet “special” and a refund would not be forthcoming. We wrote a second time, asking for our note to be redirected to their marketing division, indicating that we would agree that the no refund penalty should be exacted if we willingly decided not to stay at the hotel, but that in this case, there was a revolution going on in Cairo and our tour had been cancelled. The email from the corporate offices was not much better, indicating that this was a problem our own making (purchasing a non-refundable reservation), but that we should contact the management of the hotel in Cairo to see if they would be willing to provide a refund.

We have to admit that we were ashamed for the Sofitel management. They wanted us to call the management of the hotel in Cairo in the middle of a democratic revolution in order to hassle these people about a room fee! Well, we chose not do so, but did write an email to the Sofitel El Gezirah in Cairo, explaining the situation and requesting a refund. Honestly, we did not expect to hear from them and would not have been disappointed if we had not. However, one of the staff at the hotel responded to our request and promptly had the funds for the ticket returned to us. In our book, the Sofitel Hotel chain failed the test, but the Sofitel El Gezirah management in Cairo, passed it with flying colors.

We are still out of sorts about missing out on our Egypt and Jordan tour, but traveling during February would have been dicey. While we thought about going sooner rather than later, we decided that by the time the situation in Egypt might calm down, that it would be too warm to enjoy some of the attractions in southern Egypt. We thought about next fall, but decided avoid the period around the election and other travel scheduled for ThereArePlaces blew the rest of the year. Here’s to next year in Egypt and Jordan, although we really wish it could have been this one.

Ouch, just remembered that we paid for visas to Egypt and Jordan, which will expire soon. Oh well!

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TSA Expanding Use of Explosive Trace Detection

March 5, 2010 on 1:17 pm | In ThereArePlaces.com, air travel, air travel security, things travelers need to know, travel industry, travel news | Comments Off

Today, the TSA announced an expansion of its use of Explosive Trace Detection (ETD). The text of their press release follows.

WASHINGTON – The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced today that it is expanding the random use of Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) technology at airports nationwide as an additional layer of security.

“Explosive Trace Detection technology is a critical tool in our ability to stay ahead of evolving threats to aviation security,” said TSA Acting Administrator Gale Rossides. “Expanding the use of this technology at checkpoints and at departure gates greatly enhances security to keep the traveling public safe.”

Since the Christmas Day failed attack TSA has increased its random use of ETD technology within security checkpoints to screen passengers’ hands and carry-on luggage. In addition, TSA piloted the use of ETD technology in both the checkpoint queue and boarding areas for two weeks at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Orlando International Airport, and Pitt-Greenville and Coastal Carolina Regional Airports in North Carolina.

Passengers can now expect to see the increased random use of ETD technology in areas where TSA currently conducts screening such as the security checkpoint, as well as in the checkpoint queue, and boarding areas. Officers may swab a piece of luggage or passengers’ hands, then use ETD technology to test for explosives. The swab is placed inside the ETD unit which analyzes the content for the presence of potential explosive residue. To ensure the health of travelers, screening swabs are disposed of after each use. Since it will be used on a random basis, passengers should not expect to see the same thing at every airport or each time they travel.

To date, the Department has awarded $15 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding for 400 fixed ETD units. Additionally, President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget prioritizes key investments in aviation security, including $39 million to purchase approximately 800 portable ETD machines.

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Pssst Buddy – Eight Bucks For A Blanket?

February 9, 2010 on 8:29 pm | In ThereArePlaces.com, air travel, things travelers need to know, travel, travel industry, travel news | Comments Off

American Airlines announced yesterday that it is going to charge those passengers who want a blanket, $8 for a blanket and inflatable pillow that can not only can be used on the flight, but also kept for future use on upcoming flights. How gracious! American joined Jet Blue and U.S. Airways as the three major airlines that charge for blankets – and we have not seen a pillow in an economy section in a long time.

We can just see adding “Pillow and blanket” to our preflight checklist when at home preparing for another departure. How cheap can these people be?

Yes, we realize that American Airlines lost $1.5 billion over the last year. However, the reason they lost that much money has nothing to do with providing flyers with a blanket or a pillow. American has cannibalized its routes to such a degree that is it almost impossible to fly them.

Recently, we tried to fly American from Orange County, CA to San Francisco – nope, American no longer flies that route. The following week we were back in Orange County and wanted to fly to Dulles Airport in northern Virginia, but we had an afternoon meeting with an editor and needed to make the meeting. Nope, not possible from Orange County. How about LAX? Nope, not possible from LAX, unless we wanted to leave the day before and fly all night, arriving at six in the morning. No thanks, American. We took a United Flight that, although it left at 6 a.m., got us to Dulles at 1:30 p.m.

American has adopted a hub and spoke logistics concept and it is almost impossible to fly them anywhere distant if you want a non-stop in order to avoid an extra three hours in your schedule. The reason they are losing money is that they no longer offer flights and schedules that are appealing to their once loyal flyers (we have flown over one million miles on American (and other airlines as well) but do not think of American as our first choice any longer, since we can never find a schedule on American that meets our needs.

I guess the corporate wonks have divined that asking people to pay for pillow and blankets will improve their financial performance. Alternatively, maybe, the price of those pillow and blankets will cover the subsidies they are providing to JAL to remain their OneWorld partner?

And you know what is next – Yep, the Pee Fee, a trial balloon once raised by RyanAir, although no one has yet proposed the “bowel bond”. However, we think that American will take a few more small steps before charging travelers to use the toilets. Like -installing electrical sockets in the the seatbacks and charging you to plug in and view the entertainment you bring on board when your battery cannot last the trip? You haven’t seen anything yet!

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Bring Your Own Entertainment On Flights?

July 24, 2009 on 10:45 am | In ThereArePlaces.com, air travel, personal travel, things travelers need to know, travel industry, travel news | 1 Comment

We read an interesting article on Reuters today about airlines considering installing power plugs and internet connections at the expense of in-flight entertainment systems. It appears that so many travelers are now sporting their iPods, iPhones, laptops and DVD players that airlines may be considering adding power plugs and letting passengers bring the entertainment they prefer, rather than supplying in-flight entertainment systems. Apparently, installing and maintaining the in-flight systems is quite expensive, while wiring all of the seats in a plane with power outlets is more economical option.

In some ways this sounds OK, but I have mixed reactions. I am getting tired of all of the electronics that I seem to need to lug on our travels. In addition, I usually rely on in-flight entertainment to keep me up to date on all of the movies that were released but not worth paying to see first-run. On the other hand, if I could power-up my laptop during a long flight, I would likely prefer to see the movies on its quality screen rather than the cumbersome to use, low resolution 5″ seat back monitor found in many planes.

Seems like flying is becoming “do it yourself”. I suppose they will be handing out flapable wings soon. After all, this is the industry seems to be pondering whether people might be interested in standing the entire duration of a flight for a lower cost or paying to pee. Where do they get these ideas?

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Contaminated Liquor – News from Turkey

May 14, 2009 on 8:34 am | In ThereArePlaces.com, Turkey, things travelers need to know, travel industry, travel news, travel warnings, travels in Turkey | Comments Off

Yesterday, we saw an article in the Hurriyet Daily News.com indicating that bootleg booze was causing a tourism problem in Turkey.   Three young German students died last March in Kemer, Turkey as a result of consuming contaminated Vodka they had purchased at a local market.  In turn, this news has caused quite a stir in Europe and bookings have dropped significantly compared to last year (although some of this may be caused by the problems with the world economy).

Turkey is taking action to try and make sure that this issue does not happen again and we wish them luck in their efforts.

Our recommendation: when traveling exercise vigilance, especially in countries where problems with contaminated drinks have been reported.  If you ask for bottled water, check to make sure that the container looks intact, has not been re-used, and has information about the bottling company.  If you are going to drink alcohol, asks for brands with which you are familiar and ask to see the bottle.  If a server is reluctant to show you the bottle, cancel your order.  House brands are more of a problem, since you will probably not recognize them.  Our recommendation – stick with brands you know and inspect the bottle – or skip the drink.

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Under the Hood of Online Travel Companies

May 11, 2009 on 10:37 am | In online travel companies, personal travel, things travelers need to know, travel, travel industry, travel news | Comments Off

Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity are well-known Online Travel Companies (OTCs) that have revolutionized the travel industry.   These companies have created a new travel services purchasing environment  by providing the consumer with greater access to reduced rate ticketing, based on their ability to apply the practices of yield management and harvest the unused inventories of airlines and hotels, as well as those of other travel services providers. 

The profit of an OTC, in part,  is based on the difference between the rate they are charged by the property owner and the rate that the consumer is charged for the service.  In turn, the consumer purchases are also burdened with taxes and the taxes have now become a bone of contention between local municipalities and the OTCs.  It appears that the OTCs have paid taxes based on the price they are charged for the room – not the price they charge you.  Well, municipalities feel that they are shortchanged by the practice. 

Of course, there is a class action lawsuit at the heart of this issue.  Read this article from Fortune for more details.  And when you read the article, you may conclude, at least based on the example provided, that consumers are paying the full, local tax, while the differential appears to be pocketed by the OTCs.  Hmmmm.  More lawsuits?

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Avis Europe to Raise Rates Significantly

March 5, 2009 on 11:54 am | In Europe travel, Uncategorized, car rental, travel industry, travel news | Comments Off

While many travel service providers are discounting their rates to entice travelers to use their services in these trying economic times, some companies just do not seem to appreciate the consumer dynamics in this market.  Today, we read that Avis Europe is planning on raising car rental prices 10%.  Avis Europe’s Chief Executive, Pascal Bazin, said the company “…would lead the industry….”  I had  never thought of “racing” to be the first to announce price increases that would decrease my competitiveness and lead to less people using the serivces provided by my company.  If you would like to read more about Avis Europe and its plans, you can find the article in the Financial Times.

We rented from Avis during a recent research trip in Germany and the service was great.  The car included GPS at no extra charge and was an upgraded model.  It ran well, was a pleasure to drive and was well maintained inside and out.  In addition, the rates then charged by Avis were competitive. 

I am sure other reputable car rental companies will increase their rates and follow the lead of Avis.  There will be some that don’t – and those will be the ones we will examine when considering our next European car rental.

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Kashmir Travel Warning

July 31, 2007 on 7:59 am | In country travel information, travel, travel industry, travel warnings | Comments Off

An article in the Times of India reports two explosions last week on tourist buses in the Kashmir Valley  The Kashmir Valley is located in Jammu and Kashmir  and under Indian administration, while the remainder of Kashmir is administered by Pakistan and China. 

The terrorism resulted in 9 dead over two days and appears to be a campaign by militants, who hope to gain leverage in political discussions by attacking the tourism industry.  The tourism industry in the Kashmir Valley is one of the leading segments of the area’s economy.

  

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