The last thing Britta Behrends wanted to do when planning her vacation was "listen to a bunch of travel agents trying to sell me something, or spend a lot of time asking my friends for recommendations." So the overworked 24-year-old German account manager went online. She quickly surfed her way to Cabana, a German Internet travel site that launched last June. There she found hundreds of travelers like herself who'd gotten together to trade tips on the best beaches, worst hotels and cheapest plane tickets to be had. Within a few minutes, Behrends had zeroed in on her perfect vacation in Egypt. Only then did she call a local agent to book her trip.
She could've stayed online to do that, too. Travel, like books, CDs and software, is big business on the Net. Europeans spent v380 million last year just booking plane tickets online. Though that number is still a small fraction of the v155 billion European travel industry, it's growing exponentially. And everyone wants a piece of the new business. Dozens of new e-commerce companies are luring customers with innovative ways to plan vacations or capitalize on last-minute deals. But they're getting competition from established sellers, like airlines and hotels, which are setting up their own Web travel services.
Those companies have every reason to set up shop on the Web--it cuts out the 9 percent they usually pay a travel agent. Airlines like Lufthansa, British Airways and Swissair are pushing online sales hard, some with the goal of 50 percent online bookings by 2003. Low-frills airline easyJet already sells an amazing 40 percent of its seats through its own home page, using an aggressive Net marketing strategy. The London-based airline offers its customers discounts for booking online, and won't sell a ticket offline for six weeks after issuing a new flight schedule. Travelers are buying it: 4 million of them will fly easyJet this year, compared with 1.7 million in 1998. "Without the Internet our costs would soar and we wouldn't be able to handle all the people," says company spokesman James Rothney. EasyJet, which dubs itself "the Web's favorite airline," puts a bright orange Web site address on its planes.
Of course, brick-and-mortar travel agencies are clicking back. Degriftour, a major French package-tour vendor, has just switched its offerings from the Minitel to the Internet, and expects to generate v45 million in net sales over the next 12 months. Travel Overland, the Internet branch of a Munich-based travel agency, has become Germany's leading online ticket vendor. In Britain, entrepreneur Dinesh Dhanija is taking Flight Bookers, the agency he founded 20 years ago, online as ebookers.com. Leveraging the v6 million in sales he generated online last year, he's bought a French site and is looking to expand into Germany.
Still, the hottest company in the travel business right now is probably lastminute.com, which has harnessed the timeliness of the Net to offer some unbeatable deals for travelers ready to go on short notice. Proof of their success: when Microsoft's Expedia travel-booking service entered the U.K. market, they decided to partner with lastminute.com instead of replicating their efforts. "If you travel with Expedia," says cofounder Brent Hoberman, "you have to know where you want to go." On lastminute.com's site, adventurous travelers just see what's cheap this week--be it Italy, Alaska or the Amazon--and book.
Lastminute.com capitalized on Europeans' sense of adventure. EDreams, a soon-to-be-launched site based in Barcelona, will play to savvy travelers who want a unique, specialized vacation. EDreams will offer a global network of experts on everything from hang gliding to wine tasting. They'll write reviews and host chat sessions with travelers. In the future, says Jupiter Communications analyst Nick Jones, sophisticated Net vendors will go a step further, allowing you to put together a vegetarian, skateboarding wine tour through Tuscany with a few clicks of the mouse.
Meanwhile, online travel sales will continue to race ahead. By 2002, Jupiter predicts, air travel will soar into the No. 1 e-commerce niche on the Net, passing books, music and computer products. "Consumers are going to be better armed, well-informed and will not put up with sloppy travel service and bad recommendations," says Jones. For customers like Britta Behrends, that's what the Net is all about.