Oh, what a fickle lot we are. The Web may be the travel bargain hunter's delight, but those e-mails telling us about great deals are starting to become their bane.
A recent study by marketing research firm Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell suggests that for 92% of leisure travelers in 2003, the ability to check the Web for the lowest rates for airfare, hotels and car rentals was extremely or very desirable. Yet the same study suggested that only 47% of respondents found e-mail notices of deals extremely or very desirable, a decrease from 58% in 2002.
But now there's good news for the spam averse: Last fall, Orbitz launched Deal Detector, an e-mail notification service that allows you to name the price you want to pay for a flight. When -- and if -- that price becomes available, Orbitz will send you an e-mail. Otherwise you don't hear an electronic peep out of it.
This new feature has been well received, Orbitz says.
"We just passed the 1 million threshold in customer requests, and now see about 100,000 new searches per week," says Jeff Grant, vice president of product marketing for Orbitz.
To try it out, I matched up Deal Detector against its most similar competitor, the Fare Watcher feature at Travelocity, which has been around since 1997. For the test, I chose a flight to Hawaii from Los Angeles, departing more than three weeks out. Here's what I found:
* Airports: Orbitz allowed me to select my departure airport and others within a 70-mile radius, sometimes offering lower fares. Fare Watcher does not offer alternate airport searches, although you can select up to five Fare Watcher "city pairs."
* Departure dates: Deal Detector allowed me to select my dates and, optionally, "bonus dates," up to one day before or after both departure and return, allowing travelers who have some flexibility to take advantage of available lower fares. Fare Watcher does not offer the selection of specific dates while setting the search criteria.
* Price: Deal Detector lets you set a target price of "if price drops below X dollars per person." Fare Watcher allows you to set e-mail notification to occur when a fare "goes down by $25" or "down or up by $25" or "when a fare goes below X dollars."
* Expiration date: Deal Detector searches until the date of your trip or until you tell it to stop searching. Fare Watcher allows you to set an expiration date: indefinitely, three or six months, or until a specific date.
For my Hawaii test search, I told Deal Detector that my target price was $400, and it came back almost immediately with nine date combinations and the current fares (including taxes) displayed for each date. The lowest fare, however, was $543. I checked two days later, and the lowest fare was $443, so I did not receive an e-mail.
Fare Watcher came back with four pages of results, listing different airlines offering a range of dates. The lowest fare was $336 plus taxes, but it was offered for dates on which I could not travel. A $393 fare looked good, but when taxes were added, it was above my target $400.
Bottom line: Both tools have value. Which will work better for you depends on how you like to plan. Deal Detector is for those who have a date in mind and like the idea of a target airfare. Fare Watcher, a much more general tool, works better if you want to keep notified of fares for, say, going home to visit family when you don't have a specific date in mind.
As with all things when using the Internet for travel, do your homework first: Check current fares and, if you find one close to what you want to pay, book it. There is no guarantee that fares will hit your target price.
James Gilden can be reached at www.theinternettraveler.com.