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Poor Travel Site Usability for Mobile Browsing

I recently returned from a 10-day family excursion to Florida. Our last family vacation was 2 summers ago. Florida in the summer is not a logical choice, but I’m forced to squish in something between the end of baseball season, sacrificing some soccer and being back by the start of high school football camp. We also dragged along my college daughter, whose only moment of sanity was when we got to Sanibel Island.

The plan was to visit friends and family in Kissimmee and Ft. Myers, Florida. We traveled and stayed in our Class A RV, with one slideout, so there is plenty of room for 2 adults, 3 kids (ages 11, 16, 19) and two dogs (ages 10 months and 6 years.) To help me with directions, campground reservations and routes around tunnels (RV’s can not enter due to the propane they carry), I relied heavily on the Good Sam Club web site.

As members, I have access to their service that plans your route. It’s a nice, easy to use application that I relied on often, before we ever left home. Accessing their web site from my cell phone was an entirely different experience. I was lucky to have printed out each route before hand, and emailed them to myself as backup.

One mistake I made was not writing down phone numbers for the campgrounds I made reservations with. I only had their URLs and figured that would be enough. What I discovered was that when I wanted to notify a campground that we’d be a late arrival, I could get to their web site from my cell phone (Google’s G1, with Internet access from anywhere), but the campground web sites were next to impossible to view. To find phone numbers, I needed to rely on search engines for a business listing that contained an address and phone number.

When I wanted pricing information on Disney’s Epcot, it took two of us on 2 different cell phones navigating the Disney site to find the information. When I wanted an address for several campgrounds to type into Google Maps, every campground site gave me a difficult time.

I was surprised at how each travel destination web site I went to was not designed for people who are traveling without a computer.

Another interesting thing happened.

I had booked a campground in Gettsyburg, PA. It was to be the last stop on our way home because my boys are civil war fanatics and love it there. One large campground was offering a free weekend special if you booked by using their web site. I made a reservation and received a phone call. It all sounded too good to be true and it was. We would have had to participated in a camp ground tour and agree to be marketed to. I turned it down, knowing my family would be exhausted after lots of driving and just want to rest.

I found another campground that scored nearly all “10’s” by the Good Sam Club ranking system. After I made the reservation, based on the ranking, I somehow found another site that had user generated feedback on that campground. The complaints were serious and I was very concerned. The camp ground was once family owned but now taken over by a California corporation, who raised fees. We ended up getting a great spot and not having any issues, but indeed, if you wanted to rent a golf cart to get around their enormous grounds, you had to shell out $130 for 2 days! A rental car is cheaper. We did lots of walking.

I learned from that experience to do more research about places I book. Even though one place has good things to say, it may not be current. Good Sam Club must not have been there recently to inspect the place because the campground no longer even honors the Good Sam discount.

Is web design for the travel industry paying attention to user habits? Do they understand that when we go on vacation, the idea is to not bring our laptop? If we want information, it should be offered on the homepage, right away. For cell phone browsers, this means no Flash demos on the homepage. Offer a way to get to them inside the site, for those who have access to Flash enabled devices.

Put directions or the address on the homepage, in addition to the Contact page. Every link to a new page, from a cell phone, takes a long time for both loading and increasing or decreasing views so that everything can be read.

Phone numbers should be very visible and clearly marked, such as for reservations, or office. An actual street address is needed for cell phone browsers using maps and GPS. I was heavy on the GPS and always looking for addresses.

Certainly cell phone users can not use most reservation applications. I’d love to see examples of camp ground sites that designed their online booking for those on the road who rely only on their hand held devices.

For any designer who loves Flash, animation and horizontal widths that go past 1200 pixels, I understand the thrill of seeing what’s possible. You may reject limitations. However, there are times when entertainment conflicts with practicality.

Rather than design a mobile version for travel oriented sites, is there a way to meet user needs and provide eye candy?

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