Which Airline and Third Party Booking Websites are Most Popular? Some Surprises..

Via @Expertflyer, Tnooz has data on the most visited travel websites. Pretty interesting findings, some a bit unexpected at least by me.

Rank   Website   % of Visits
1   Expedia   13.35%
2   priceline.com   10.51%
3   Orbitz   6.87%
4   Yahoo! Travel   6.11%
5   Hotwire   6.02%
6   Travelocity   6.01%
7   CheapOair   4.71%
8   Kayak   4.28%
9   bookingbuddy   3.13%
10   Cheap Tickets   2.97%

Expedia makes the most sense. I find its booking interface to be the friendliest and easiest to use. Transactions there are just simple in my overall experience, at least compared to other travel website. Orbitz is far more powerful for cosntructing bookings segment-by-segment across multiple airlines, but it’s slower and the buying process more cumbersome. I’ve always found Travelocity to be clunky, and without many redeeming features, I’ve bought very few itineraries there over time. When not booking direct with an airline, Expedia is my preferred site (not least of which because of their new rewards program and the ability to earn cash back through sites like BigCrumbs). But I do use Orbitz for complicated itineraries. Travelocity, exceedingly rarely.

I was suprised to see how much traffic Priceline gets. Perhaps William Shatner is doing his job. Certainly the conventional wisdom is that’s the best place for deals, and people do like deals. Over time I’ve made outstanding use of their hotel bookings, and occasional use of conventional flight bookings. I’m glad, almost, that they’re no longer in the mortgage or gas businesses. I do recall when Priceline was worth more than the airlines whose seats they were selling, and when the shares of Priceline owned by some of those airlines made up the bulk of the domestic carriers’ equity. Those were the halcyon dot com days. It’s good to see them thriving, though I find that I use Priceline far less than I used to because the deals aren’t quite as striking (no more top-end hotels in San Francisco for $45 or less, or the Grand Hyatt in New York for $77), there are plenty of discount techniques booking directly through the major chains, and I’m far more tainted by loyalty program elite status than I was in my earlier days.

I am shocked to see Yahoo! Travel clock in at #4. People actually use that site?

The ranking of airline websites is also interesting:

Rank   Website   % of Visits
1   Southwest Airlines   22.36%
2   Delta Air Lines   13.58%
3   American Airlines   9.57%
4   JetBlue Airways   8.46%
5   Continental Airlines   6.62%
6   United Airlines   5.70%
7   US Airways   5.65%
8   AirTran Airways   4.47%
9   Spirit Airlines   3.31%

I suspect that many people don’t realize that Southwest carries more domestic passengers than any other airline (not me, at least since 1993). But that only hardly accounts for having twice the traffic as the number two airline site. Southwest has always been an online pioneer, I seem to recall that when they crossed a billion dollars in online sales about 11 years ago that they were one of the first five companies in any industry to do it. Their demographic presumably skews younger, their business model is simple and their website fairly clean. They’ve long managed to get a large chunk of their bookings done online. Though for some reason I still type iflyswa.com into my browser instead of Southwest.com.

I’m somewhat shocked to see the rest of the distribution, it doesn’t surprise me that JetBlue does well online relative to its size especially given its demographic like Southwest’s and also like Southwest that its historical participation in other online booking systems has been limited. But Delta having so much more online traffic than the rest of the legacy carriers? Granted, I mostly try to use their award booking portion of the site and that’s the most broken. And Delta has otherwise made large investments in IT — pimped out entertainment systems and on-board internet for instance. I’ve hardly been impressed by their website but they seem to be doing quite well there (this survey is based on traffic, not booking conversions so admittedly I don’t have a total picture).

It’s not at all surprising that United’s website “dot bomb” lags even the smaller Continental Airlines, and similarly not surprising that the combined entity is choosing to go with Continental’s web architecture. The United site just hasn’t had great functionality relative to their competitors, ever.

I supposed United.bomb is better than the US Airways website, however, they’ve only recently made actual investments there. It always seemed stuck in the year 2000, they pretty much stopped investing online when it looked like United was going to acquire them once upon a time. And then 9/11 hit and an economic downturn, a series of bankruptcies, and major IT investments were not in the offing. I’ve never once managed to get the US Airways website to e-mail me an award itinerary which includes partner airlines, and they don’t offer any functionality to search partner awards online. It’s at least more stable than it used to be and I can usually check in online!

Which airline and booking websites do you favor, and why in the world does Delta do so well online relative to the other legacy carriers?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Everything about Southwest’s site is so easy my mother can figure it out. They don’t ever seem to be trying to fool you and it’s a pleasure to use. And no gotcha fees tacked on at the end for bags!

    Kind of surprised Kayak is that low, though really they’re not a booking site anyway—they send you somewhere else each time. I still find great hotel deals on Priceline, though I agree it’s not so easy in NYC or San Fran as it once was.

  2. Whew…glad to see I’m not the only guy reading Tnooz 🙂

    Those airline website numbers make sense. In 2010, the top 3 U.S. airlines by passengers carried were:

    Delta: 162 million
    United: 145 million
    Southwest: 130 million

    Southwest has always had a larger percentage of their sales done through their website than other legacy carriers (especially since they’re not available on OTAs). It’s been a while since I’ve seen the numbers from my old research days, but I’d guess 60-70% of their sales are from their site. I’d guess Delta is closer to 30-35%.

    Multiply those percentages by number of passengers, and you get to Southwest having the largest number of visitors of any airline.

    Delta is likely so much higher than United because they’ve made pretty significant investments in their site, in mobile tools, and in technology in general. Plus, they’ve done a lot of advertising marketing those tools.

  3. One factor for the high traffic at Southwest is that you cannot book them online on any other site. Most other airlines allow you to book on expedia, etc, but Southwest is only at Southwest.com.

  4. I can’t believe fly.com doesn’t make the list. really a great site when one is looking for nearly ALL airlines to be listed, easy sorting, great for international itin building by price, carrier, legs, class of service. Probably too unknown. Not a BOOKING site, but great for finding pricing

  5. If I don’t book directly, I only use Orbitz. I don’t like Expedia at all – something about the layout, colors, etc.

    I am surprised JetBlue is that low and US is that high. I wonder if the issue with JetBlue is the way they publish schedule like Southwest, it lags eevrybody else. The US website still stinks which is one reason I use Orbitz so much – I actually do fly US – biggest carrier at my home airport.


  6. Mike has it right. Other than calling Southwest, or maybe a brick and mortar travel agency (I guess these still exist :)), there’s no other way to buy a Southwest ticket. So people go to their website to book it.

  7. I almost always use bt-store.com. I’ve found some incredible deals there for economy and business class travel. They also never hide the name of the airline.

  8. When I’m not booking direct with United, Priceline is definitely my choice. Despite their lacking customer service, they offer the best value from a cash-back perspective, IMHO.

  9. I’m thinking Delta gets so much web traffic because you have to log on so many times to get anything done there.

    Can I get an amen from my fellow DL hub captive brethren and sistren?

  10. Even though I have mid or top tier status in a bunch of programs I still use Priceline extensively for hotel’s and cars. Everyone likes to get a good deal, and using various websites you often determine what hotel you will be winning and whether you will still get your Elite benefits.

  11. Delta’s layout is pretty user friendly and offered flexibility on dates before some others did. I’ll always use either Expedia or Orbitz to get my first glance at ticket prices and then will check the airlines directly. Orbitz surprised me recently that my DL order via them was nearly immediately available on delta.com. Anymore, if someone uses only one site for research and purchasing then that person is NOT getting the best deal available.

  12. I am so glad to read your comment that UA/CO will be using the CO web interface. I had not read that up until now. I am a 1K with UA (have been for years) but only became familiar with the CO site within the past couple of months. And I love it. I was afraid that UA would continue with it’s site. I hope you are right!

  13. I’m surprised that Kayak ranks so low. I know that you can’t book flights on Kayak, but it has the best web interface,in my opinion.

    Like you, I’m shocked that Yahoo! Travel ranks so high – consumer behavior is indeed sticky.

  14. Another small thought is whether is is local US or global data – Expedia probably has the highest level of global distribution & branding – Priceline powers Agoda and booking.com (for hotels only though) – so they have some extensive international reach too – probably moreso than some of the other sites…Expedia owns Hotwire and I believe Travelocity owns CheapTickets as well…just something to think about when looking at results.

  15. Well first off if you want to fly on WN and you are booking your own tix you have to go to the WN website so that accounts for their discrepancy I feel. The other thing to consider is just what these numbers all mean. I certainly do not think you can correlate it to the success of the airline too much. For one does it include any business fares booked through corporate TA or special web portals? I suppose there is something to be said about reigning in on commissions by promoting the own site of the airline, though I don’t know how much of a deal you can really make out of it.

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