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Battles in travel industry are worth noting

  • Published Sunday, March 20, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.

The airlines versus the Internet search engines. The motorcoach tour operators versus the cruise lines. Sometimes it seems as if the entire travel industry is at war, devoting as much attention to attacking their colleagues as to selling travel.

Two recent battles are of special interest:

American Airlines versus the online travel agents. I've written before about the apparent decision of American Airlines to stop dealing with major Internet search engines Expedia and Orbitz — which used to earn a healthy commission by advising the public of airfares and then immediately selling tickets at those airfare levels. By withdrawing its airfares and flights from Orbitz and Expedia, American Airlines recently signaled to the rest of the industry that it no longer wanted to pay such commissions (which amount to tens of millions of dollars each year) but wished instead to attract the public directly to its own American Airlines website (thus selling tickets without paying commissions).

That battle has raged for several months now, but it raged quietly, and without involving the public. That has changed. Boldly, impudently, as if it were triumphantly announcing the fact, American Airlines has now placed a message at the top of the main page of its website, advising the world that its airfares and flights are no longer appearing on Orbitz, Expedia and Hotwire (the last-named being a subsidiary of Expedia).

So we may be witnessing a sharp diminution in the importance of the three major airfare search engines, the ones that launched the Internet revolution in airfares several years ago.

For us travel consumers, it now becomes more important than ever to precede a fare search with a visit to the aggregators that list all fares (like Kayak and Momondo.com). And then, having gained a broad picture of what's available, it becomes important to go directly to the airlines' own websites, and especially to the websites of Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and AirTran (the perennial cost-cutters among airlines) as well as American Airlines.

Motorcoach tour operators versus cruise lines

Next, from one of the largest of the tour-operating consortiums (The Travel Corporation) owning Trafalgar Tours, Contiki, Brendan Vacations, Insight Vacations, Lion World Tours, African Vacations and more, some of the harshest criticism of cruises that I have ever seen. Mind you, I'm not a fan of the group motorcoach tours that The Travel Corporation operates in Europe, which have their own deficiencies.

But putting aside that difference, here are just a few of the comparisons The Travel Corporation makes (in a widely distributed news release) between Mediterranean Cruises and European Motorcoach Tours: "Mediterranean cruise ports are often industrialized and unattractive, with few cultural attractions, and shore excursions are usually expensive add-ons averaging several hundred dollars, taken on fleets of crowded buses with little personal attention to your interests or needs. Cruising can be an insulated experience, mainly catering to North Americans, and when the cities come alive at night, you are generally back on board eating in the same ship restaurants instead of discovering authentic local cuisine and becoming acquainted with Europe's exciting nightlife.

"But it's not the similarities that should be a defining reason you choose a tour over a cruise — it's the differences!... Most destinations are only seen during the day, and major sightseeing is at an extra cost. For example, a Rome cruise excursion costs $229 per person to visit the Sistine Chapel, Colosseum, St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican.

"Perhaps the most surprising difference between a cruise and a tour is the price. While cruises appear to be a great deal when you start out, after you include all the extras, you pay a lot more than you bargained for."

The release goes on to claim that the average Mediterranean cruise costs $1,000 more per person than the equivalent motorcoach tour. Obviously, the motorcoach operators are beginning to feel the competition from those increasingly popular Mediterranean cruises. If the cruise lines choose to retaliate, I'll print their counterarguments in this column.

Arthur Frommer is the pioneering founder of the Frommer's Travel Guide book series. He co-hosts the radio program, The Travel Show, with his travel correspondent daughter Pauline Frommer. Find more destinations online and read Arthur Frommer's blog at frommers.com.

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