LOS ANGELES — It's do-or-die time for people who have scheduled time off before September but still haven't booked a vacation.
As the Fourth of July weekend sparks procrastinators' realization that they've only got a few weeks left to make plans, operators of travel sites on the Internet are ready.
In recent months, the top three travel Web sites--Preview Travel (http://www.previewtravel.com), Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com) and Microsoft Corp.'s Expedia (http://www.expedia.com) have loaded their online travel planning services with discount airplane ticket locaters.
Other services include real-time online vacation package reservations, credit card guarantees and other features to make themselves more attractive to last-minute travel planners and other vacationers.
Whatever they're doing is working. Travel Web sites have seen an enormous surge in use in the last year, as consumers who initially might have researched trips before booking tickets with flesh-and-blood travel agents are now staying online to make airline, hotel and car reservations.
By some estimates, Preview, Travelocity and Expedia now book enough travel sales to be included among the top 50 travel agencies in the country.
In the first 90 days of 1998, Preview's bookings rose to $35.9 million, from $14.1 million the previous year. Every month, 6.3 million people--including repeat visitors--check out Preview, compared with 1.3 million a year ago.
Preview next week will launch real-time vacation package reservations, allowing people to book package deals without logging off to telephone a Preview travel agent, previously the only option. Preview also recently added a Fare Finder service that sweeps through its airline reservation database four times a day and posts the cheapest fares for hundreds of destinations.
People who use Preview to book trips are mainstream consumers, not the stereotypical "25-year-old computer geek" Internet user, and their vacation tastes reflect that, said Ken Orton, president of San Francisco-based Preview Travel Inc.
"Las Vegas, Orlando and Cancun are the top three destinations online today," he said.
Travelocity was started by Sabre Group Holdings Inc., the same company travel agents use to book $1 billion annually in airline tickets. Fort Worth-based Sabre helped pioneer the online travel business a dozen years go, selling EasySabre ticket services on CompuServe and the precursors of America Online and Prodigy.
Sabre launched the Travelocity Web site in March 1996. Since the beginning of this year, the site has begun its own vacation package service--without online ordering--and added a quick booking button on its front page that lets people find air fares in two mouse clicks.
Travelocity's sales from bookings are running about $5 million a week, more than twice what they were a year ago, and the site is registering new users at a rate of 250,000 a month.
These days, sites such as Travelocity are competing with airlines, which are selling tickets on their own Web sites and cutting commissions they pay online travel services. But the competition doesn't bother Terry Jones, president of Sabre Interactive, which runs Travelocity.
"Our business is 70% leisure travel, and [vacation] travelers are looking for unbiased information and low prices. That's why they come to us, versus going directly to an airline. They know each airline will promote themselves and might not have the lowest prices," Jones said.
Rather than competing with airlines, Expedia is working with them, licensing the site's underlying technology to Continental, Northwestern and KLM.
Expedia also joins with more than 25 cruise lines, specialty tour operators and vacation packagers on a travel shopping mall on its Web site. In addition, Expedia is the sole site of the top three with its own editorial staff that reports on special fares and other vacation planning news.
This week, Expedia rolled out a credit card guarantee that protects consumers against the $50 liability credit card issuers won't pick up should someone's card information be stolen online and used. Travelocity offers a similar guarantee.
Though no such incident has ever occurred on Expedia, executives there believe offering the guarantee will help soothe the fears of consumers still reluctant to make online purchases.
Such innovations have helped push traffic at Expedia to more than 2 million visitors a month and revenue to close to $24 million a month. Not bad, considering only 7% of people who visit the site book a flight or rent a car. But that will change, said Josh Herst, an Expedia group product manager.
"We regularly survey our customer base, and almost 90% who've bought from us say they'd buy from us again," he said.