Study: Tablets shaping online booking habits

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Smartphone TabletTablet-computer ownership is surging among Americans who regularly book travel over the Internet, and a recent PhoCusWright study suggested that the surge is creating a growing user base that expects suppliers and online travel agencies (OTAs) to bolster both their mobile websites and interact with a broader selection of travel apps.

At the same time, the tablet surge appears to be changing the travel market in another way by fueling the increase in last-minute bookings that is associated with use of mobile devices in general, the study found.

The number of Americans who book travel online and own tablets such as the Apple iPad, Google Nexus, Kindle Fire, Microsoft Surface and Samsung Galaxy is believed to have jumped more than 40% last year, a growth rate that far outpaces that of smartphones and laptop computers.

Study: Tablets shaping online booking habitsAbout 44% of travelers who regularly book reservations online owned tablets as of late last year, up from 31% in 2012, the research firm said. While those numbers trailed the 75% smartphone ownership rate of such travelers, tablet ownership is expected to jump as high as 66% by the end of this year.

PhoCusWright (whose parent, Northstar Travel Media, publishes Travel Weekly) built its report on an October 2013 survey of about 2,200 people who described themselves as "online travelers."

The ramifications for suppliers and OTAs could be immediate, because the tablets' larger screen size and better typing functions relative to a smartphone are converting more mobile-device-toting travelers from shoppers to buyers. Specifically, tablet users are about 20% more likely to book travel on those devices than smartphone users are to book travel on their phones, the study found.

That statistic signals that travel bookings will gradually move toward mobile websites and apps and away from the kinds of traditional websites accessed by desktop and laptop computers. In fact, the percentage of U.S. online travelers who owned desktop and laptop computers actually fell last year, as people ditched traditional computers in favor of mobile devices.

The travel sector likely to feel an immediate impact of increased mobile booking as a result of greater tablet ownership is the hotel industry, which has seen the rise in mobile-device ownership fuel an uptick in last-minute bookings.

While travelers might be less likely to take their chances on booking cruises or airline tickets at the last minute, hotel accommodations better lend themselves to bookings a day or two in advance, when consumers already on the road can use their devices to shop and book. Last year, U.S. hotel revenue from bookings via smartphone and tablet more than doubled, to $2.9 billion.

"Once a traveler purchases a tablet, we're seeing their mobile Web usage nearly double, with the mobile Web accounting for 50% of time spent online," said Marcello Gasdia, PhoCusWright's consumer research analyst. "As the tablet-toting contingent of U.S. travelers continues to grow, the assumption that online travel planning usually means interacting via the desktop Web may no longer hold true."

The report reinforces another study released by PhoCusWright late last year, wich revealed that U.S. sales of travel bookings via mobile devices will have jumped more than fivefold, to $39.5 billion in 2015 from $6.15 billion in 2012. About $1 in every $8 spent by Americans on travel will be booked through a mobile device next year.

For all of 2013, ABI Research forecasted last year that device makers such as Apple and Samsung would sell about 150 million tablets, up 38% from 2012. ABI estimated that the U.S. represented about a quarter of the global tablet market.

PhoCusWright predicted that distribution channels will continue to shift as more people book travel via mobile devices. Specifically, the percentage of online travelers using OTAs and perusing travel review sites such as TripAdvisor continues to rise, while use of both general search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing as well as visits to deal-focused websites such as Travelzoo and Groupon are flattening or falling.

"Travelers demand that their mobile experiences mirror the speed, usability and breadth of the desktop Web," PhoCusWright stated in its report. "And many are counting on travel companies to enrich online travel planning with personalized and relevant offerings."

Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.
Image of person using tablet and smartphone courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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