History of Online Travel Industry

history of online travel

Not that long ago in history, boys and girls, travelling started with a trip to a travel agent. You took home glossy brochures, and chose a destination, an airline and somewhere to stay. The travel agent printed you an itinerary, which was put in a folder along with your cumbersome flight ticket. It all took a very long time…

What??!! Digital natives will find it hard to believe that 25 years ago, online travel didn’t exist. The internet didn’t exist! Even for mature mid-lifers, anything other than our instantaneous, people-powered online travel experiences feel like a blast from the past, a vague memory.

Here’s a timeline of key events in the history of online travel:

1989: British computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for a system that would become the worldwide web.

1994: A site called Travelweb.com was the first comprehensive list of hotels around the world. It soon added a component to take direct bookings. This same year I was on my OE in Europe, lugging a huge book of maps and listings with me, called Let’s Go Europe.

US travel writer Jeff Greenwald became the first travel blogger. He wrote a 1600 word article, ‘One Hundred Seconds of Solitude’ for the Global Network Navigator, the first commercial web publication, from a tourist bureau in Mexico.

1995: From a basement in Palo Alto, a company called the Internet Travel Network, oversaw the first airline ticket sold over the web, from San Francisco to Las Vegas. Viator Systems (still going as Viator) began selling destination tours and excursions on-line.  Lonely Planet, a major player in printed guide books, moved some of their business to the web.

couple using a tablet

1996: Now we are talking! The internet travel business gathered momentum. Microsoft, the biggest tech player of the time launched its online travel agency, Expedia. Larry Page and Sergy Brin work out a way to index pages based on their popularity with other users and websites. They called this ‘Google’.  Airlines such as Ryanair, EasyJet, and Southwest introduced the low cost airline model. The concept centred on buying fares online, direct from the airlines.

1998 – 2000: Saw the development of last minute travel sites, such as lastminute.com, and the introduction of comparison sites such as Travelocity and Farechase.

2000: The launch of Trip Advisor, from above a pizza parlour in Massachusetts. This concept was unpopular with hotels, but loved by punters, as it allowed travellers to leave reviews of hotels and attractions.

2001: We can’t really talk about global travel without talking about 9/11. The USA travel industry was seriously disrupted in the twelve months following the World Trade Center bombings. This paved the way for travel e-commerce businesses to come into the market to sell under-booked flights and empty hotel rooms.

2003: VroomVroomVroom launched in Australia, to fill a niche in the online travel sector for car rental reservations.

Friends using social media

2004: The start of Facebook, and the following other social networking sites added a new dimension to travel. No longer did you need to invite your neighbours over for a slide show of your recent holiday, now you could bore all your friends at once! We also started using the term, ‘Google it’, for running an internet search.

2007: The launch of the Apple iphone brought mobile internet accessible to many more people, and made it sexy. Travel related apps were developed as smart phone use rocketed.

2008: Peer-to-peer accommodation site AirBedAndBreakfast, which soon changed its name to Airbnb was the next move in the travelling public becoming more connected with the places they travelled to; by renting a rooms, apartments or houses from local people. It is all arranged through a website.

2011: One of the most popular travel apps this year was Trip It, a travel organizer that linked to your email and picked up every confirmation number that came into your inbox, so that all your travel documents were easily accessible.

2013: I returned to Europe for another OE. My flights were booked direct with the airline through the internet. Reminders of flight times arrived unbidden to my smartphone. Our accommodation was booked through a website called holidaylettings.co.uk. Each morning I checked on Google Maps to see the best way to get our attractions. Theatre bookings were completed online, often at the last minute while checking real time availability. “Wow,” I remember thinking, “How did we used to do all this?”

Where to next for online travel?

2016: Innovation for online travel hasn’t stopped. There is a constant push for faster, easier ways to capture travellers’ business. The new battleground is around mobile devices and apps. For instance, Silvercar, a rental car startup in the US, will let you unlock your (Audi) rental with just your phone by scanning a QR code via the app in the driver’s side windshield; new phone models can even use Bluetooth Low Energy to connect to, and unlock a rental car. The customer effectively skips the rental desk, making for a truly seamless rental experience.

2017: The launch of the VroomVroomVroom app last March made it easier for customers to book a car hire while on the go. It features a “geolocation search” which allows users to find the closest car rental depot either by turning on their device’s GPS or by entering a specific location (e.g. street, airport or landmark).  The app is currently compatible with iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Apple Watch. Click here to download the new VroomVroomVroom iOS app.