Priceline's announcement this week that it's adding free-access Zagat hotel reviews to its site is another sign of value-added escalation in the fiercely competitive online travel bookings market.

Competitive pricing remains a given--"It's what I call 'the ticket of entry,'" acknowledges Randy Wagner, CMO for Orbitz Worldwide. But while continuing to go head-to-head on pricing via a cornucopia of deals and methods, the major third-party/consolidator sites--plus a growing number of specialized and meta search sites, not to mention stepped-up branded hotel and airline sites--are increasingly employing value-added services to get consumers beyond the dollar signs and hooked on using a favorite site.

"Travel sites have become something of a commodity, so they're looking to differentiate themselves by offering savings plus additional value, in the form of services like reviews by customers and third parties, travel advisories, frequent-user programs--you name it," sums up Joel Chusid, principal in the Chusid & Associates travel consultancy and chairman of the Association of Travel Marketing Executives. "If you created a grid of these services, you'd be amazed."

Hotels' increasing limitation of inventory available to third-party sites to boost their own direct sales is contributing to both the pricing and value-added wars. (While online travel agent and hotel reservations still account for just 30% of total booking dollars, hotel online revenue growth leapt 240%, to $14.4 billion, in 2005, and now threatens to outpace online agencies' growth, which was up 400%, to $18.4 billion in '05, according to Mintel.)

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