As a comprehensive travel searching and booking service, Orbitz has traditionally been my first stop online anytime I need to investigate the cost of a car rental, explore the best possible dates to take a summer holiday, or find a last-minute flight during a family emergency. On the iPad, however, Orbitz is only just now catching up to its competitors, finally extending its Orbitz Flights, Hotels, Cars iPhone app to the full sized tablet. (Previously, Orbitz’s only dedicated iPad app offered search and booking for hotel rooms only.) Officially called Orbitz Flights, Hotels, Cars (free), the app centralizes your ability to search for and pay upfront for reservations in all three categories invoked in the name. The app works quickly and fairly well, but not with quite as much finesse and fun as Kayak PRO iPad app (99 cents, 4.5 stars), our Editors’ Choice among travel search and booking apps on the iPad, and the competitor that Orbitz should watch most closely.
Orbitz’s app is more than fine—and similar to Kayak’s in many ways—but a few interface choices and lack of features make it pale slightly in comparison. For example, the Orbitz iPad app doesn’t let you explore places to travel based on the best price you can find all year long, as Kayak’s iPad app does. Nor can you find the status of a flight that you need to track as easily as you can on Kayak’s app. The one major advantage to using Orbitz is the company’s price assurance, which isn’t specific to the iPad at all.
Searching and Booking Flights, Hotels, Cars
Orbitz’s iPad app pits the trinity of travel search across the top of the screen with three main icons for hotels, flights, and car rentals. While on the full Orbitz website you can search for all three reservations in one fell swoop, they’re kept separate in the iPad app. Kayak similarly keeps the searches separate, although it displays the options along the left rail, which results in a slightly cleaner and simpler design, in my opinion.
You can jump among the three sections easily enough, and, when you do, Orbitz remembers your most previous dates and cities, and it auto-fills them into the search criteria.
The flight search appears to support one-way, round-trip, and multi-city journeys, although that last one is a farce. Click the multi-city option, and Orbitz will tell you to go to its full website instead. Kayak’s iPad app, meanwhile, fully supports multi-city journeys. Two other options from the primary flight search area let you select the number of travelers (and say whether they are adults, children, infants, etc.) and choose between economy, business, and first class fares.
The search results appear quickly, with a left panel showing a running list of flight option summaries, with filters and sorting tools accessible at the top. The main area of the screen, however, doesn’t fill in until you select one of the possibilities. That blank area doesn’t exactly draw you into the possibilities. When you do tap a summary to see more details, the use of space again feels very unbalanced, and the resulting information, when affiliated with a round-trip search, doesn’t even show all the information—it only gives you the outbound details. The reason: Orbitz lets you choose your outbound and inbound legs separately, which on the one hand gives you more flexibility in deciding exactly the flights you want, but on the other hand can drastically change the price you initially saw in the summary based on which return flight you choose.
Once you have your flights picked, you’re only one tap away from a payment page, which gets the app back on track to being a convenient and efficient tool for travelers.
Two more sections, a flight tracker and “my trips” section, which shows upcoming travel when you’re logged in with an Orbitz account, give the app even more utility, although the flight tracker needs to be more search-friendly. You can only search by airline and flight number, whereas often, people only know the time of the flight and departure/arrival cities. Kayak’s app has the additional search options, as well as the ability to save flight-tracking for multiple flights, which is especially helpful for frequent travelers or small business owners who need to watch the status of multiple employees’ flights.
The hotel section and results page work much in the same manner as the flights, with appropriate filters to help you narrow down your options. One filter called “areas” puts a much more user-friendly spin on the “distance” filter found in Kayak. Orbitz lets you choose by neighborhood name or district, which makes sense if you’re perhaps looking for a hotel in Oakland, California, but need to be near the UC Berkeley campus (just choose “Berkeley, Emeryville”).
Hotel photos, ratings, and amenities are all easy to find in Orbitz’s app. An interactive map likewise makes it simple to see where a hotel is situated. Neither Orbitz nor Kayak includes in its hotel search results alternative accommodations, such as private house rentals or apartment for let on a daily or weekly basis. For those options, try Hipmunk iPad app (free, 3.5 stars), which also has some really interesting filter options for hotels, like proximity to nightlife and being in a pedestrian-friendly area.
Searching for car rentals in Orbitz’s iPad is straightforward, too, and one helpful feature is how it displays comparisons from one select provider. Select any search results, and a preview window shows additional cars from the company, such as mid-sized sedan or SUV, and how much extra it will cost to get that option. In this context, seeing not the total price but how much more makes sense.
Oddities and Lack of Extras
One area where Orbitz could really improve its iPad app would be to add some additional exploratory features, something that gives armchair travelers a reason to launch it. Currently, the app is very utilitarian, whereas Kayak includes an entire section dedicated solely to exploring cheap flights anywhere around the world from any starting destination. Given that Orbitz’s full website includes loads of other travel ideas and deals, like vacation packages and cruises, Orbitz could and should leverage that content in the app to make it more fun. It would play well to the platform’s surfing and entertainment uses, to be sure.
Orbitz is clearly still new to the tablet app space and needs to clean up the experience a little bit. Some of its most basic functionality and layout choices just seem off. For example, what appears to be a “profile” button (the silhouette of a head and shoulders) turns out to be a logout button.
Choose Orbitz for its Additional Services, Not for its App Design
Orbitz’s strength remains its ability to help you not only search for, but also pay for, flights, hotel stays, and rental cars. And its price assurance policy is the second leg that keeps Orbitz upright. While Kayak has been adding the ability to pay for bookings as of late, it traditionally was just a search site, and thus doesn’t have a reputation for providing a soup-to-nuts experience, which Orbitz does. Customer reputation goes a long way in the travel industry.
If you’re an Orbitz customer and time permits, work through your search criteria on Kayak before buying on Orbitz. Chances are the reservation will be offered from Orbitz via Kayak, which means you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by starting on Kayak, our Editors’ Choice for iPad travel search and booking apps.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc