A slew of online Samaritans offer information and other aid to small-business travelers. But are the Web sites really that helpful?
For road warriors the Web is both friend and foe. On one hand, virtually every piece of business-travel information you can imagine is available online. You can find the cheapest flight from Baltimore to Kalamazoo. You can learn what equipment you'll need to hook up your laptop in Bali.
On the other hand, you may have to negotiate a maze of links and clicks to locate what you want. You may have to dig through a mound of blinking advertising and flashing banners to unearth the few gems of information you need. If the hassle is too great, the information may as well not be there at all. Rather than messing around at a site that contains overwhelming amounts of off-mark material, most people will despair and leave quickly.
The Web sites that hope to be one-stop shops for travel-related information and services face a huge challenge: how to present all that stuff in a manageable way. Inc. has identified seven of the strongest sites that cater to small-business travelers. Like the market they serve, the sites have their peculiarities. Trip.com, Biztravel.com, and Office.com all put flight-booking-and-purchasing features front and center, surrounded by tools like maps and city guides and, in the case of Trip.com, breaking news stories. ("Delta warns of delays, flight cancellations," one recent dispatch said.) RoadNews.com and Magellans.com specialize in information and essays about travel abroad. Both sites, for example, explain how to use your modem with different kinds of phones all over the world.
All seven sites are free. They make money from such things as banner ads or royalties from services they sell for others. Some are owned by big corporations -- notably, SkyGuide.net is part of American Express, and Office.com belongs to Winstar Communications and CBS. Two of the sites, RoadNews.com and Business-Trip.com, are solo efforts.
We had eight small-company CEOs who frequently travel review the sites. We didn't ask them to attempt to book flights. Nor did they test every available service, such as the features on a couple of sites that organize frequent-flier-account information online. The panelists did evaluate how easy it was to navigate each site and whether the information offered was useful. The judges were on the lookout particularly for the Three Plagues of the Web: rotten design, a muddled mission, and a one-stop destination that delivers less than promised.
Here is what the CEOs found in their journeys through cyberspace.
What it's good for: Booking flights. The site also offers frequently updated news about airports and airlines. (New York's LaGuardia "accounted for 25% of all air-traffic delays in the USA" in September 2000, noted one posting last fall.)
Don't waste your time if: You need to find information quickly. Because the site lacks a searchable database, visitors must scroll through lots of pages to ferret out price specials and other information.
What our CEOs had to say: The site was hard to navigate. "It needs a more user-friendly format to allow ease of movement through the booking processes," said one. "The personal-miles tracking has the most potential," added another CEO, "but the user interface is boring and weak." Also, text is confined to a small area at the bottom right of a user's screen.
What you should know: Biztravel.com's "FareGuard" service searches for cheaper flights after you've booked and notifies you if an alternative will net you $25 or more in savings after paying all fees.
What it's good for: Links, links, and more links to airlines, rental-car agencies, travel-related news, and city guides. Another feature: it takes but one click to check E-mail, calculate currency conversions, or track packages en route.
Don't waste your time if: You're put off by soloists. After posting his list of road-warrior bookmarks online in 1996, Michael Steinberg built the site as a labor of love. He still runs it by himself.
What our CEOs had to say: The site's design borders on the truly awful. "It's kind of ugly," said one panelist. Among the shortcomings: too many banners slow the pages' downloading, and text sometimes disappears into the left-side menu bar. Still, one reviewer overlooked the visual flaws. "It contains such a comprehensive list of travel sites that it may be easier to just bookmark this one site," said the CEO. "Chances are, it contains links to all your favorite travel sites, and it may also provide some alternatives to the old tried-and-trues."
What you should know: There's a special section for PalmPilot users.
What it's good for: Travel-related products for sale, which range from wrinkle-free clothing to modular telephone adapters. A "Travel Guides" area includes a country-by-country database of information.
Don't waste your time if: You're looking for more than rudimentary information about overseas travel. Our reviewers wanted more details about cell-phone usage abroad, customs regulations, language, and travel warnings.
What our CEOs had to say: You can easily slide from reading to buying. "I went in to find the bandwidth in Brazil and ended up buying a suitcase," reported one CEO.
What you should know: The site is the online version of the Magellan's paper catalog. The owner, Magellan's International Travel, founded in 1989 and based in Santa Barbara, Calif., is a three-time Inc. 500 winner.
What it's good for: A gateway to sites that offer things like driving directions, traffic reports, airline-ticket purchasing, and flight status.
Don't waste your time if: You already have a good set of travel sites bookmarked. This site primarily links visitors to popular sites like Priceline.com and MapQuest.
What our CEOs had to say: The site is easy to use but limited. "They seem to get it right in terms of aggregating pertinent information," said one panelist. "But why don't they evaluate the best business hotels by city, proximity to airport, price, and amenities?"
What you should know: Beware of sales pitches at every turn.
What it's good for: Helping people who travel overseas with a laptop.
Don't waste your time if: You want information quickly. The site lacks a keyword-search function, and it's replete with links to dead ends.
What our CEOs had to say: They either loved it or hated it. "A real treasure trove of information on all those hard-to-navigate technical issues inherent with changing electrical systems, Internet service providers, and local phone systems," said one. "The concept is great," said another. In contrast, one CEO asked, "Is this a Web site for people who travel but can't ask their IT department questions?"
What you should know: The page formatting is so wide that you may have to scroll left and right to see everything.
What it's good for: Heads-up on frequent-flier promotions, airport and airline-route information, and other travel tips.
Don't waste your time if: You're clamoring for an online version of SkyGuide, the pocket guide in which American Express details all manner of information about 75,000 direct and connecting flights. "I love SkyGuide and have used it a ton," said one CEO. "But why doesn't American Express put this service online for a fee? The site only lets you sign up for a print subscription."
What our CEOs had to say: The site is useful, offering news and notes "written in a great quick, informative style," one CEO observed. Another particularly liked the tips on airport business services, saying it's a "great site to check out before your layover." But one dissenter said that "it's a site about nothing."
What you should know: Timely and dated information sometimes exist side by side. Last fall, for instance, the site highlighted an array of November frequent-flier promotions. Nearby was an August survey of business travelers.
What it's good for: Alluring reading matter. Recent selections ranged from an advisory about the risks of "toting a small office" in a backpack, to a travelogue about Bulgaria. Besides including a good guide to flights, hotels, and rental cars, the site also offers a "Tools for Travel" section, including maps of airports and cities, a database of U.S. business addresses, and tables of travel deductions allowable on state tax returns.
Don't waste your time if: You expect to find something more enticing in the "marketplace" area than a handful of ads.
What our CEOs had to say: Much of what they found on Trip.com warmed their hearts. "I could envision using this site as a quick way to get the lay of the land," one said. "The presentation is very clear, ads don't interfere with the content, and the searchable database provides access to targeted information." Another CEO particularly liked the ease with which he could use the site to track an airplane's flight status.
What you should know: A lot of valuable news and information is buried in the "NewsStand" section.
The bottom line
No one site among the seven that we reviewed is likely to replace the ad hoc collection of travel-related bookmarks that many weary road warriors have already flagged. But our CEOs did pinpoint some Web pages that they considered nuggets of particular note. One was the "Tools of Travel," the practical-advice and quick-link section of Trip.com. The travel guides of Magellans.com and SkyGuide.net also drew our reviewers' applause, as did the laptop toter's bible provided by RoadNews.com.
Leslie Brokaw is a freelance writer and Web consultant living in Boston.
The savvy entrepreneur's guide to travel-aid sites
|Would CEOs go back?||What is the site good for?||CEOs' quick take||Recommended?|
|www.biztravel.com||Mostly, no.||Planning and booking a business trip.||"Has potential" but "didn't really deliver on the promise of its name."||No.|
|www.business-trip.com||Maybe.||Links to other travel sites.||"A great index file of travel information," but "too busy."||Generally, no.|
|www.magellans.com||Maybe.||Travel products and general overseas information.||"Were I traveling overseas, I'd use it to get rudimentary information."||Yes.|
|www.office.com/travel||Split decision.||Consolidated travel information, from weather to city guides.||"Nice job collecting a few travel basics on one page."||Yes.|
|www.roadnews.com||Generally, no.||Information about using laptops abroad.||"Heavily geared to international travel."||Generally, no.|
|www.skyguide.net||Split decision.||General business-traveler news and information.||"Good airport and flight information, plus frequent-flier links."||Yes.|
|www.trip.com||Yes.||A little bit of everything, including flight booking.||"A very easy to use, clean-flowing site."||Yes.|
|Ease of use||Variety||Value||Average grade|
George A. Boitano, president and CEO, Security Integration Inc.
John H. Chuang, CEO, Aquent
John R. Coleman, CEO, VIA Inc.
Michael Dorf, chairman and CEO, KnitMedia Inc.
Karen Duke, cofounder, Victorian Fireplace Shop
Patricia Garey, president and CEO, eMedia Staffing
Marla Malcolm, CEO, Bluemercury Inc.
Richard A. Maradik, CEO, Smart DM Holdings Inc.
Please e-mail your comments to email@example.com.