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TripAdvisor adds flight, fare search

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / February 27, 2009
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TripAdvisor LLC went live last night with a search engine that will pull together flight and fare data from multiple airlines and online travel agencies, a move that will put the Newton website in competition with Kayak.com and others in the lucrative fare search space.

Best known for user-generated reviews of hotels and tourist attractions, TripAdvisor will now vie in the "meta-search" engine category, which includes Microsoft Corp.'s Farecast and Yahoo Inc.'s FareChase.

One way TripAdvisor hopes to distinguish itself is a fee estimator enabling customers to figure the cost of checking bags and buying food and headphones into their cost comparisons.

"Nobody else has been able to give consumers clarity about what's the true cost of travel," said Bryan Saltzburg, general manager of new initiatives for TripAdvisor. The company employs nearly 500 workers worldwide, including about 240 in the Boston area.

TripAdvisor chief executive Stephen Kaufer called it the most important prod uct launch since his company started in 2000.

Meta-search engines are used by about 10 million US consumers each month to compare fares before they book flights, according to Compete Inc., a Boston Web analytics company.

Search engine companies make money through referral fees each time they direct a customer to an airline or an online travel agent, such as Orbitz LLC, Expedia Inc., Travelocity.com LP, or Priceline.com.

"TripAdvisor will be a formidable competitive threat to Kayak," the market leader in flight meta-search, said Gregory Saks, general manager of travel at Compete. "The most important asset TripAdvisor brings to the market is its user base. TripAdvisor has millions of people on its site that are already planning trips and shopping for travel."

Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive of Expedia, the Seattle company that purchased TripAdvisor for $210 million in 2004, alerted industry analysts in a recent earnings call that TripAdvisor was moving into meta-search.

Up until now, the website directed users to the sites of online travel agencies, which are its advertising partners and where people could conduct fare searches in separate windows.

Many trip planners had preferred the single screen of Kayak and other meta-search engines.

TripAdvisor's new flight search engine was designed by a technology team in Newton and Ottawa, including Owen Byrne, who wrote the original code for the user-driven website Digg.

Kayak, which is based in Norwalk, Conn., but runs a 50-person engineering center in Concord, acquired SideStep, a Santa Clara, Calif., company that runs user-generated reviews, in December 2007. Since then, the company has added a meta-search engine to that site and worked to make it "more Kayak-y" - simpler and faster - to position it as a TripAdvisor competitor, said Steve Hafner, a Kayak cofounder and the chief executive.

TripAdvisor and Kayak have "both been top 10 travel sites doing different missions," said Paul English, the Concord-based Kayak chief technology officer.

"Increasingly, we're in head-to-head competition. We're excited about them coming into the meta-search space, and we're very excited to compete with them on hotel reviews."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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