OTA update: Orbitz makes hotel-search improvements

By JD Rinne
October 3, 2012

In the past, Orbitz has earned our kudos in the past for its customer-friendly attitude. The company's Price Assurance program sends an automatic refund if another Orbitz customer books the same hotel room for the same night for less. And with the Enhanced Low Price Guarantee (which we blogged about last fall) travelers who find their hotel room for a lower price on another site can get a refund for the difference and a $50 discount on a future Orbitz booking. Plus, Orbitz also shows up-front prices with taxes and fees included—a particularly nice feature for us budget travelers.

Orbitz was founded as an airline-booking site 10 years ago and has lost a little ground to other huge OTAs who have focused on hotel bookings, like Expedia and Priceline. Orbitz CEO Barney Harford was quoted in the Chicago Tribune recently, saying his focus for the past year has been: "hotel, hotel, hotel."

So, it's no wonder Orbitz is working to improve its hotel search. Now, let's get to the good stuff!

What's new: Orbitz now displays its hotel search results in a pleasing, easy-to-navigate template. Each hotel has "tabs" that you can click on to get photos, a list of amenities, and a map. You can "save" hotels to go back to later, and of course you can sort all results by lowest price, star rating, or location.

Here's what's exciting, at least for a quick decision-maker like me: You can compare hotels side-by-side on the same web page, without having to navigate away. For instance, I decided to check out hotels in Paris. In the "photos" tab, I found a photo of a guestroom in each hotel. By scrolling down, I could quickly look at what my room would look like in each hotel, without having to click elsewhere (or line up different web browsers, which I have admittedly done before).

This gets even cooler when you use Google Street View. Within the same framework of the search-results page, you can click on the "map" tab and then click on "street view." Spin it around and see what the hotel environs are. I was completely in love with a hotel on the outskirts of Paris (an all-suites property that started at just $133!) until I realized, via street view, that this place was right by the airport. Like, depressingly close—I could see the airport in street view.

Naturally, Orbitz's new look and feel isn't perfect; I wish there was an "under $200" search option, which would be great for budget travelers. Also, comparing hotels side-by-side is certainly nice, but there's no way to move the hotels around within the search results, so there's still a lot of scrolling. And I couldn't figure out how to get into my saved hotels and compare those side-by-side—the saved hotels appear as just a list.

But, overall, it's great to see a huge OTA like Orbitz freshen up its look. The question is, what do you think? What else would you like to see from Orbitz in the future?

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A peek behind the scenes at Budget Travel

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Hidden airline fees to become thing of the past?

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Mark your calendar: Museum Day means free admission

On Saturday, September 25, Smithsonian is hosting its sixth-annual Museum Day, with hundreds of cultural institutions around the country offering free admission. Tickets are available now. All you have to do is go to the Museum Day site and fill out the form, and your ticket will be e-mailed to you. Print it out and bring it to your museum of choice; it's good for free general admission for two people at any one participating museum. (Note: You have to designate which museum you'll be visiting when you sign up for the ticket. And only one ticket per household is allowed.) As of right now, 940 museums have signed on, with an expected 1,500 to be taking part by the actual day of the event. Last year, over 300,000 museumgoers visited the 1,300 participating institutions. To decide where to spend your time that day, use the site's museum finder. And for the first time, this year's sponsor, Toyota, is providing on-site activities, including docent tours, interactive trivia contests, and giveaways, at five of the museums: the Dallas Museum of Art (normal admission $10); the Adler Planetarium in Chicago ($10); the Autry National Center in L.A. ($9); the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Mass. ($10); and the Tampa Museum of Art ($10). A few others you may want to check out: • The OZ Museum, in Wamego, Kans. ($7). "There's no place like" this tribute to all things Dorothy and friends. • Scotchtown, in Beaverdam, Va. ($8). No, this isn't a liquor-lover's paradise; it's the home of founding father Patrick Henry, of "Give me liberty, or give me death!" fame. • The Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio ($20). Museum Day falls as the NFL season is just getting started, and on the heels of the August 7 enshrinement of the Hall's Class of 2010, which includes Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith. • The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, in New York City ($22). Renovated just two years ago, the historic aircraft carrier is one of the best values, saving you $22! • The Atomic Testing Museum, in Las Vegas ($12). The once top-secret nuclear test site, just a mile from the Strip, offers a radiation-free simulation of what it was like to watch an atomic explosion, complete with vibrating seats and a blast of air. Bonus: If you're feeling a little more like the great outdoors, September 25 is also Public Lands Day, one of the few days during the year when nearly 150 of the country's national parks that normally charge admission ($3-$25) are free.