Viva la difference -- or so the online travel agencies hopeNewsBy Dennis Schaal | October 12, 2009Share This article was originally published on I keep being struck by the lack of differentiation among the online travel agencies, although they battle furiously to get an edge.The latest reminder was Priceline.com's introduction of a policy where people who lose their jobs after booking trips can get refunds. My immediate thought was: OK, nice twist. How long before one of the other OTAs copies it?A little while after I noticed this Priceline Trip Protection feature, I happened to run a flight search on TripAdvisor Flights, and in the metasearch grid, there was Hotwire, Expedia, Travelocity and Continental all with the identical fares.Not a buck difference.So many familiar flavors.OK, there are differences between the OTAs. Definitely.For example, Priceline recently debuted Hotel Price Maps, where consumers can pinpoint recently accepted hotel bids via Name-Your-Own Price.And Expedia.com exclusively offers, through sister company SeatGuru, travelers' opinions about seat 7D near the bulkhead.Actually, Priceline set itself apart for almost a year in mid-2008 when it reduced its hotel booking fees and nixed cancel and change fees, but most of the other OTAs have since matched. [To date, Travelocity, flying solo, has not gone along with the wave of change- and cancellation-fee removals, although it appears that it quietly has proceeded, after some hesitation, to lower its hotel booking fees.]In 2005, Travelocity introduced the Travelocity Guarantee, which I always saw as a differentiator. In addition to some pricing aspects, the guarantee ensures that Travelocity would try and relocate travelers to a different hotel if they arrive and the pool is being surreptitiously renovated or if a clanking crane is providing unexpected 4 a.m. wake-up calls.The Travelocity Guarantee is still in place, but you don't hear that much about it these days. Are consumers rushing to book with Travelocity over Expedia and Orbitz because of the Travelocity Guarantee? I doubt it.Are travelers, in this era of hotel best-rate guarantees and airfare parity, booking with Expedia over Orbitz because on Expedia.com they can peruse SeatGuru's seatmaps?I don't think so.Are they booking with one OTA over the other because of marketing efforts?More likely.Orbitz has managed to distinguish itself from the pack with Hotel Total Price and Price Assurance. Total Price, where consumers view the base rate of a hotel room plus the "taxes and fees" in initial display results, truly is a differentiator.But, I'm not sure whether Price Assurance, with its myriad restrictions, is more fluff than substance.The Price Assurance rebate checks probably come out of the marketing budget, and it's hard to tell how significant they are in dollars because Orbitz doesn't disclose how much money it is rebating.Meanwhile, the problem for Orbitz on Hotel Total Price is that it appears to be negatively impacting bookings, especially in markets where Travelocity or another OTA swoops in with lower booking fees.So, the OTAs continue to throw development dollars into finding the elusive differentiator as they chase fleeting traveler loyalty.The jury is out on whether Orbitz can get travelers to believe that Orbitz is the place to book hotels. With its relatively weak position in the hotel market compared with Expedia, this is going to be a huge challenge for Orbitz.Then again, Expedia wasn't built in a day.In the first six months of this year, after the OTAs eliminated booking fees on flights, they appeared to be taking back market share from the airline-direct channel in the U.S.And, that dynamic occurs as airline websites, like those of Delta and Air France-KLM, for instance, do everything they can to offer more OTA-like products. I think the carriers may be successful in reversing some of the OTAs' gains because the bulk of the airlines' ancillary services can only be purchased through their own channels, and that will drive consumers to airline websites, call centers and ticket counters.So, we'll learn more about the trends in the OTA versus OTA, and the OTA versus airline slugfests in the next few weeks when the publicly traded travel companies release their third quarter financial results.Meanwhile, does anyone besides me remember Priceline Groceries?