The Traveler’s Path to Purchase


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Whether for business or pleasure, traveling is a way of life for many people, and with it comes big revenue. Even with safety concerns and the instability of various national economies, the travel and hospitality industry shows no sign of slowing down, but that also means it remains as competitive as ever. If you work in the industry, you know that sometimes it can feel like a struggle to get your share of the profits, especially if you’re not quite sure why your business is lagging behind others. Fortunately, big data can help you gain insight into your customers and their online behavior related to travel.

In order to help you better understand your customers and their booking choices, we did some digging into how and why various travelers book the way they do, how they research their trips, and what impact a loyalty program has on the final decision. Let’s examine some of the insights we found regarding the traveler’s path to purchase:

The Planning Stage

The first step on the path to purchase for a traveler is possibly the most important: deciding where they want to go. It’s easy to imagine an individual choosing a different global adventure each time they plan a trip, but our analysis of 150 business travelers and 290 leisure travelers actually revealed that a full 75% were returning to a destination that they’d already been to. While it’s to be expected that the majority of business travelers (84%) were going to a repeat destination, it’s interesting to note that 71% of the leisure travelers were returning as well. In fact, 73% of leisure travelers were absolutely certain of the destination from the beginning of planning.

This could make it difficult to change a customer’s mind on their choice of destination, but not impossible. According to our research, there’s a three-month window where 79% of travelers think about their trip before they ever consider booking it. As expected, there’s a longer window for leisure booking (4-5 months) than there is for business booking (2-4 weeks). Once they decide to take the plunge, it’s an average of 16 days from research to booking.

Looking at the flow of traffic to travel booking websites, we noticed an interesting pattern: an early rise coinciding with the start of travel research, a period of low activity, and then a steady increase in activity until booking occurs. From this, we can assume that the initial period of research was casual, followed by a break to consider, then a stronger period of concentrated research before booking.

Booking Sites and Mobile Methods

Now that an individual has decided to travel, there’s the question of booking method. In this day and age, online travel agency (OTA) websites rule the industry, and our research found that OTA sites are typically the first ones used in the early booking stages. Yet, as booking gets closer, the traveler moves more towards brand websites and loyalty sites for their research. It’s important to keep an eye on the traffic for those two types of sites in particular. When looking at weekly digital use patterns, traffic appears to dip on Fridays and weekends, especially compared to the relatively steady weekly traffic across OTA sites, search, and TripAdvisor. If you’re looking to improve the traffic to your brand website, it’s worth considering the digital use patterns and targeting various promotions on days that have the most traffic.

When it comes to booking, there’s also a large split between those who use OTA sites and those who go directly to brand websites. While travelers visit an average of 2.3 OTA websites, they also visit them earlier on in the booking phase. OTA sites continue to retain a slight lead over brand websites right up until the final week before booking, in which traffic between the two sites becomes even. Yet, the heavy initial traffic to OTA sites could lead to the hypothesis that OTAs are “gateways” to travel booking (for leisure travelers).

Finally, there’s mobile booking to consider. Travelers using mobile devices spend more time on OTA sites than PC users, using an average of 10 minutes per week to research. There was a significantly higher use of mobile web compared to mobile apps, which could mean that less focus should be spent on OTA brand apps and more on optimizing a website for mobile.

The Loyalty Factor

Given that many loyalty programs are centered on the hospitality industry, it’s natural that both leisure and business travelers are looking to cash in on accrued loyalty points. This can have a huge effect on where and how an individual books their trip, particularly for OTAs.

As we noted in our research, the main appeal of booking on an OTA site for loyalty program members is the promise of an easier, more efficient, and cheaper avenue. However, for hotel loyalty program members, it’s more common to book a visit through a brand website or loyalty program site as opposed to an OTA. This could be tied to some confusion around booking a hotel through an OTA and earning loyalty points; elite-level loyalty program members, in particular, are less willing to forego points by booking with an OTA.

Yet OTAs still come out on top in terms of cross-shopping and comparisons, as well as immediate savings on bookings. Even the majority of elite program members — a full eight out of 10 — are shown to visit OTA sites first, presumably looking for the best deal.

Getting the Best Deal
Overall, the data we collected demonstrated that when it comes to the traveler’s path to purchase, there’s a place for both OTAs (the research period) as well as brand websites (the booking period). It appears that the prospect of getting a good deal through an OTA site can even override the desire to earn loyalty program points. But given that the gap between visits to OTAs and brand sites narrows as travelers near the booking phase, there’s still the need for industry sites to provide good quality service. In the end, the website that provides the traveler with the best possible deal will inform their booking decision.

Roseanne Luth
Roseanne Luth is the founder and president of Luth Research, a privately held market research company founded in 1977 and located in San Diego, California. Roseanne's commitment to quality is evident at Luth Research, the full-service, client-oriented research firm. With over 300 highly trained and dedicated employees, Luth Research provides cross platform digital tracking, complete custom research support, telephone, focus group, field service capabilities and on-line surveying.


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