Google upgrades air and hotel search -- but not enough

Google has added and improved some features that make it one of the important contenders for a go-to airfare and hotel search engine (google.com/flights). Among its current features:

-- Airfare searches display first-screen indications about availability of in-flight Wi-Fi -- an increasingly important flight selection consideration for increasing numbers of travelers. The system also allows you to filter and rank first-screen results by number of stops, price, airline and airline alliance, departure or arrival times, duration (often duplicates results by number of stops), and by connecting hub airport. Once you make a tentative flight selection, the expanded listing also shows the airplane type, noting propeller planes, stopover airports and intervals, the sort of in-flight entertainment, if any, and the availability of power ports, with separate details for each segment of a multistep option. As with many others, you can also search for premium economy, business-class, and first-class flights, and when you look for premium economy, the display even prompts you to switch to a business-class search, if business-class fares are lower. One oddity: Although it displays seat pitch on some domestic searches, it does not show, even in the detail menu, which business-class flights have lie-flat seats.

-- Hotel searches display first-screen availability of swimming pools and free Wi-Fi, at least as important as in-flight Wi-Fi to many. You can filter by price range, hotel class (although it doesn't say whose "stars" it uses); user rating (although Google's user report database is still pretty small); amenities, including beach access, free breakfast, Internet, parking, pets allowed, onsite restaurant, laundry and several others; and location. Oddly, however, "airport" isn't one of the location filters: If you want an airport hotel, you have to enter it as your primary search target. And for airport hotels, the initial display list does not show which hotels have free airport shuttles -- a possibly important shortcoming.

As before, one of Google's big plusses is that searches are lightning fast: Results show almost as soon as you finish entering your choices -- at least if you have a fast Internet connection. And, again as before, Google links you through to individual airline websites for final air ticket booking and to either a hotel's website or whatever online travel agencies (OTAs) have the best prices. And, yes, some OTAs often post lower prices than others.

The upgraded airfare search system provides two additional innovations:

-- You can display a map, expanded to full screen, showing airfares from your originating airport to a wide range of larger airports around the world, along with a route indicator for your specified trip. It's pretty, but strictly of only passing interest to most travelers: After all, if you want to fly to Albuquerque, and the lowest fare shows at $391, do you really care if you could fly to Jacksonville for $226 or Montreal for $311?

-- Of greater interest is a graphic display of round-trip fares for travel on each of the next 30 days -- a finding that could appeal to people with flexible schedules. Keep in mind that the displayed fares are for purchase at the current time, not what you'd pay if you wait to buy.

Given the increasing importance of in-flight Wi-Fi, I find it somewhat surprising that the only other airfare search systems displaying Wi-Fi availability on the initial listing are routehappy.com and tripadvisor.com, with Kayak.com giving partial information.

Despite Google's improvements, no search system can yet provide the "holy grail" of search airfare structure: You enter your origin, destination, dates, and which extras you want, such as a checked bag, advance seat assignment, or an onboard snack, and the search returns the total cost of your trip on each airline, incorporating each line's prices for its extras.

Meanwhile, Google still lags two other contenders. TripAdvisor's initial airfare display includes not only Wi-Fi but also personal video, legroom, and baggage fees for each flight, and it's also very fast. Routehappy gives you the type of plane, legroom, Wi-Fi, in-flight video, and power plugs, but it's slower.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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