While the majority, or 54 percent, of online travel shoppers begin travel research with an online travel agency, consumers are evenly split between travel agencies and airline suppliers' Web sites when it comes to the actual purchase of online travel, according to the latest Nielsen//NetRatings Quarterly Travel Benchmarking Survey. In comparison, 37 percent of online travel shoppers begin research at a travel supplier Web site, and 9 percent begin with a travel meta-search provider.

"The wide selection of travel suppliers drive the majority of travel shoppers to begin their research with agencies and meta-search providers before directly visiting a supplier," said Heather Dougherty, senior Internet analyst, Nielsen//NetRatings. "At that point, suppliers are in a strong position to capture a potential sale as consumers visit their sites to confirm pricing and frequent flyer benefits before making the final purchase. Additionally, the growth of travel meta-search players, such as Kayak and SideStep, provide suppliers with sales opportunities through side-by-side price comparisons with agencies."

With nearly 50 percent of airline ticket sales and reservations conducted exclusively online during the last six months, according to the Nielsen//NetRatings @Plan Summer 2005 release, online airline suppliers have a stronger foothold in conversion. Agencies fared better in drawing visitors to the site for price comparison shopping, destination searches and multi-trip bookings.

Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Delta ranked as the three most visited airline Web sites during April 2005. Southwest led with 8.1 million unique Web surfers, compared to 5.7 million and 4.9 million that visited American and Delta, respectively. Southwest converted the most lookers into bookers with a 14 percent visitor conversion rate, followed by Delta and American with 10 and nine percent.

Online travel agencies attracted up to twice the number of visitors as airlines during April 2005. Expedia led by drawing 16.3 million unique visitors to its site, with Travelocity and Orbitz ranking as the second and third most popular online travel agency with nearly 12 million each. Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity secured conversion rates of nearly five percent, four percent and three percent, respectively.

"As suppliers and agencies struggle to gain the competitive edge, supplier sites are beginning to leverage their large customer base by becoming a one-stop shop for air, hotel and car reservations. The addition of additional types of travel options elevates suppliers onto the same playing field as online travel agencies as a source for an overall travel package," continued Dougherty.