A booking engine fuels the distribution of travel products online. Without this software component, you can neither sell nor buy airline tickets or hotel reservations through the Internet.
Trip-related companies employ different types of booking engines to run core processes instead of human personnel. Let’s explore what they actually can do and how their functions and tasks vary across travel businesses.
Internet booking engine: its key functionality and main integrations
In a nutshell, the Internet booking engine (IBE) acts as a go-between for travel consumers and travel providers. “On the one side, this program module connects with customer interfaces to accept search requests,” Andrey Chebotarev, travel technology practice leader at AltexSoft remarks. “On the other side, it integrates with systems used by suppliers — airlines, hotels, car rental companies — to control and distribute their inventory.”
By customer interfaces we mean a travel provider’s website, mobile application, or chatbot that links with a booking engine via an API layer, enabling consumers to search and book flights, hotel rooms, holiday packages, insurance, and other travel products.
The key systems on the suppliers’ side are:
- Global Distribution Systems (GDSs),
- bed banks,
- airline consolidator databases,
- hotel property management systems (PMSs), and
- airline reservation systems (ARSs).
A booking engine connects to these systems through travel APIs to search products relevant to a customer’s query, check their availability, get prices, and, finally, make a booking — or, in other words, inform the system that a particular product is reserved for a particular date by a particular customer. After the system confirms the reservation, the booking is considered complete. Finally, the IBE generates a confirmation document with reservation details and emails it to a customer.
Besides their core functionality, modern booking engine modules typically include the following features aimed at driving sales.
Travel content mapping. When booking engines extract information from multiple channels (which is usually the case), they inevitably face the problem of duplication in search results. It happens because of data inconsistency across different suppliers — GDSs, bed banks, consolidators, hotels, etc. So, the same room or other inventory may be listed under several different names. To resolve this issue, booking engines have to process inventory lists with built-in or external mapping tools.
Dynamic packaging. It allows a customer to combine different travel products — flights, rooms, car rentals, attractions — within the same booking flow.
Integrations with payment gateways. A booking engine doesn’t process reservation payments. To enable secure, online transactions during the booking process, it integrates with multiple payment gateways. Upon selection of a travel item from the returned search results, the IBE redirects a customer to a payment gateway.
Multi-language support. Considering that many travel businesses sell their services globally or, at least, across several countries, they need to accept and process queries in different languages.
Booking management. It includes the ability to modify reservations like changing dates, adding extra products after booking, and making cancellations.
Ostensibly, all booking engines do their job the same way. Yet, behind the scenes, their workflow may differ significantly, depending on various factors.
- Customized business rules. Among other things, business rules define where exactly a booking engine makes its search and how it prioritizes results displayed for a consumer.
- Pricing rules. Usually, they are set and tweaked by a revenue manager or other expert who decides on service fees charged on top of net prices.
- Suppliers a booking engine works with. Each of them has its own business logic and specifics that influence the internal workflow.
- Additional functionality and customizations. As there is no limit to perfection, any average booking engine has to be fine-tuned to meet the needs of a particular company.
Since booking engines are not created equal, in the next sections, we’ll explore how IBEs vary based on
- business model (B2C, B2B, and B2E),
- type of a travel company (direct supplier or reseller), and
- specifics of products offered (flights, hotels, car rentals, etc.).
IBE business models: B2C, B2B and B2E
Depending on the business model, IBEs fall into business-to-customer (B2C), business-to-business (B2B), business-to-enterprise (B2E) types.
B2C booking engines for OTAs and leisure travelers
In the B2C sales model, travel products are booked directly by end users. Booking engines of this type empower airline and hotel websites, hotel booking systems, online travel agencies (OTAs), and other retailers. On top of the above-mentioned functionality, typically all IBEs support the following features important for success in the B2C sector:
- mobile-friendly UI,
- integrated shopping cart,
- promotion of travel products based on a passenger’s search and booking history, and
- notifications sent to the client upon the booking confirmation.
B2B booking engines for wholesalers and OTAs
B2B booking engines are employed by travel wholesalers (bed banks, consolidators), destination management companies (DMCs), or large OTAs with huge inventory (like Expedia) to sell products and services in bulk to other businesses — smaller travel agencies or corporate clients. Buyers benefit from specially negotiated rates unavailable in the B2C scenario, and some additional functionality like:
- flexible mark-up and commission settings,
- ability to make bookings without instant payments, within a credit limit, and
- generating PDF documents for booking confirmation with a reseller’s logo.
B2B clients — smaller agencies — reach GDSs using credentials of the IBE’s owner (host agency), and this way save on the expensive contracts. They also don’t need to spend money on the ARC (Airline Reporting Corporation) or IATA accreditation authorizing companies to issue flight tickets. The host agency will do it on the client’s behalf.
Corporate or B2E booking engines for TMCs and business travelers
Corporate IBEs meet the requirements of travel management companies (TMCs) and their customers — enterprises. A platform powered by a B2E booking engine enables employees to book business trips at negotiated prices on behalf of their corporation. Business rules are set up according to the organization’s travel policy and may include spending and other restrictions depending on the employee status.
Multi-channel booking engines
Many companies leverage two or even three business models on top of the same booking engine. After registration, end users, travel agents, and corporate clients get access to specific interfaces, features, and rates. For example, a hotel website can show different prices on the same rooms to individual travelers and businesses, who generate large sales volumes.
No matter the business model, IBEs for direct travel suppliers (airlines and hotels) will differ from those for travel middlemen — consolidators, OTAs, DMCs, and other third-party distributors.
Booking engines for direct suppliers
IBEs allow travel suppliers to sell products via their own websites to individual users (B2C model) or other businesses (B2B/ B2E models). Thus, airlines and hotels can take more control over their inventory, create personalized offers for frequent customers, differentiate prices, and save on commissions charged by middlemen.
Air / flight booking engines
An air IBE is a component of an airline reservation system and the whole passenger service system (PSS), but it can also be a separate module that integrates with any ARS via an API. Besides performing its key tasks — to search available flights matching query criteria in the ARS, process results, confirm a booking, and email PNR/itinerary/ticket information to a passenger — an advanced airline IBE also:
- connects to bed banks, hotels, GDSs and other travel suppliers to combine flights with third-party products;
- allows passengers to choose seats;
- offers ancillaries during the booking process;
- customizes a booking flow and deals based on a client’s data; and
- supports frequent flyer programs.
The crucial feature to seek in a flight booking engine and the whole airline IT system is NDC connectivity. It enables carriers to deliver rich content about their products and sell flights and ancillaries directly to multiple travel companies, omitting mediation of GDSs. Here’s the list of providers with NDC-enabled IBEs for airlines.
- ISO Software Systems developed its SKYfly Sell booking engine in accordance with IATA NDC 4 level and ONE Order standards.
- InteRES presents a PSS-agnostic Airline Retail Engine that also enables airlines to uncover the potential of NDC and ONE Order.
- Pribas’s AirBroker Airline Distribution Platform, based on One Order concepts, includes a booking component to sell flights, ancillaries and third-party products.
- Airlines Technology (AT) pairs its B2B booking engine with a PSS adapter that converts all offers generated by the PSS into NDC-compliant standards. The booking engine integrates with OTAs, TMCs, and other IATA and non-IATA resellers, creating a direct distribution network.
Hotel booking engines
A hotel booking engine is a piece of a complex puzzle known as a property management system (PMS) and often comes as an integral part of a channel manager — a module that controls all hotel reservations made via OTAs, GDSs, bed banks, and other distribution channels.
The main purpose of the hotel IBE is to capture and process direct online reservations, coming from a hotel’s website. Other important functions of the hotel booking engine are:
- integrating and syncing with the hotel’s social media pages;
- cross-selling (promoting extra services) at the time of booking;
- managing discount and promo codes;
- displaying best available rates against prices available on OTAs; and
- sending emails — confirmation, pre-arrival, and post-departure.
There are many providers of hotel software offering a booking engine as a separate module that can be integrated into an existing PMS or website, including:
- Beds24 (best fit for small-to-mid-size hotels, B&Bs, hostels),
- SiteMinder (for hotels of different sizes, from small hostels to giant hotel chains),
- InnQuest (for hotels from five to 5000 rooms),
- Clock (for medium-sized and large properties and hotel groups),
- HotelRunner (for small hotels. hostels, villas, B&Bs), and
- NetAffinity (for independent hoteliers).
Booking engines for travel resellers
Though the development of the Internet allows airlines and hotels to reach their customers directly, third parties — consolidators, TMCs, wholesalers, travel agencies, OTAs, and tour operators — still play a key role in the distribution of travel products and services. In turn, the success of travel middlemen depends largely on their online presence and the efficiency of their booking engines. “The smarter a booking engine, the more success it brings to the business,” Andrey Chebotarev emphasizes. You can learn more about how a booking engine works in an online travel agency from our video:
Similar to IBEs for suppliers, engines designed for middlemen can use one of three business models (B2C, B2B, B2E) or combine them, applying different settings and offering different conditions for users from each category.
Depending on the products provided, IBEs for travel companies fall into the following categories:
- flight booking engines communicating with GDSs, air consolidators, low-cost carriers (LCCs) and other air providers via flight APIs;
- hotel booking engines using different hotel APIs to reach GDSs, bed banks, global travel marketplaces, and hotel extranets for directly negotiated contracts with hotels;
- car booking engines linking to different car rental APIs;
- transfer booking engines with access to bus and rail booking APIs;
- cruise booking engines integrated with river and ocean cruise lines as well as with cruise consolidators;
- activities / sightseeing booking engines working with tour and attraction providers; and
- compound booking engines, combining several products.
Most OTAs and tour operators employ compound booking engines, enabling their customers to buy the entire trip in one place. But small agencies can start with one module — say, air booking — and then add hotels, cars, and other components as the business grows.
Building complex booking engines from the ground up can take months and years. However, travel companies may significantly cut time to market for their online projects by using existing solutions, customizable for specific requirements. Here’s what AltexSoft and other travel software providers can offer to OTAs, tour operators, and other resellers right now.
Travel search and booking platform by AltexSoft
When creating a customizable solution for online booking, the AltexSoft team considered the key pain points of our clients — OTAs and other travel companies. Based on their primary needs, our engineers built a modular platform pre-integrated with GDSs and flight content suppliers. Search results are mapped by a travel domain data model that converts miscellaneous information coming from different sources in a single format. The booking engine can be tailored to the client’s unique needs, allowing choices from numerous available services.
The booking platform comes with a website featuring navigation elements, a drop-down calendar, and a text-based chatbot. Its minimalist design can be adjusted for a particular brand and its specific requirements.
BlazeBE booking engine by IT4T Solutions
BlazeBe, the core product of IT4T Solutions, is a customizable travel booking engine that brings together flights, hotels, car rentals, transfers, sightseeing, and cruises, allowing for the dynamic packaging of multiple products. The cloud-based application offers interfaces for B2C, B2B, and B2E sales. So, it can meet requirements of almost every sector of the travel industry including travel agencies, OTAs, DMCs, consolidators, and niche travel companies.
IRIX booking engine by DCS+
An NDC-enabled booking engine by DCS+, a global software provider for the travel industry, ensures seamless XML-based access to GDS air content, hotel wholesalers, car rental companies, transfer, and activities providers, cruise lines, and insurance companies. It supports both B2C and B2B selling channels and fits travel resellers of any size, from TMCs and consolidators to small, single-site travel agencies.
Clients can integrate the booking engine with their own websites, third-party white label solutions or branded DCS+ software for tour operators, DMCs, TMCs, OTAs, professional conference organizers (PCOs), and other travel businesses. The company also offers a content mapping tool that integrates with IRIS or a client’s booking engine.
Booking engine modules by KEYforTravel
A set of travel-dedicated IBEs by KEYforTravel includes flight, hotel, car rental, rail, insurance, and special products (tours and attractions) booking engines. A separate dynamic packaging module can combine flights, rooms, cars, and insurance within the same booking flow. All engines integrate with B2C, B2B, and B2E interfaces. The company also has special solutions for group travel and students.
Booking engine modules by Odysseus Solutions
The primary focus of Odysseus Solutions is a cruise booking engine that integrates with about 30 river and sea cruise lines. But it also has air and hotel IBEs in its IBE suite. All engines allow for B2C and B2B sales. For companies that don’t have their own websites, Odysseus offers white label solutions. To combine different travel products, the software provider developed a separate packaging solution that supports dynamic and predefined packages.
Travel portals by TraveloPro
One of the world’s largest travel technology providers, TraveloPro offers booking engines for flights, hotels, cars, transfers, sightseeing, cruises, and holiday packages. Due to integrations with multiple GDSs, consolidators, and wholesalers, the company’s IBEs feature search options from 50,000+ hotels and 900+ airlines worldwide while allowing for car rental in 190+ countries and sightseeing in 50+ countries.
Custom solutions: if none of the options is perfect enough
Despite the wide range of travel software products available in the market, chances are that none of them will exactly fit your current needs, as all businesses and situations are unique. What steps are to be taken? Rather than adapt your strategy to limitations of existing technologies, take advantage of custom development based on extensive expertise in the travel domain. In the long run, a personalized approach addressing a narrowly defined set of requirements will win over an off-the-shelf solution. Let’s see how AltexSoft has solved some specific challenges related to the search and booking process.
Our long-standing client, a US-based OTA selling flights, hotels, vacations, and other travel products worldwide, had issues with its old booking engine. The module had a clunky interface and was technically outdated which made the entire booking process somewhat cumbersome. AltexSoft completely redesigned the IBE’s frontend and backend. Among other things, we integrated the booking engine with Amadeus GDS and added the Amadeus Master Pricer feature, enabling website users to see predicted fares while searching for flights.
Another OTA headquartered in the USA asked us to revamp their flight search module which was the core of their online business. Our experts upgraded key search algorithms, which boosted the efficiency of the engine. It was estimated that the quality of results grew by 70 percent while the quantity increased by 60 percent.
A large OTA needed to implement flight search, flight status, and flight information widgets on their website. After studying the architecture and functionality of the existing platform, the AltexSoft team designed dynamic elements fitting into the original style of the website. Our engineers also built the backend of the solution, having integrated widgets with several data sources containing information on routes, airlines, ratings, and flight status.
Enhancing regular booking with data-driven tools
US-based online travel agency Fareboom decided to enhance customer experience with an innovative fare forecast tool built on top of the existing booking engine. The feature’s target was price-sensitive travelers wanting to predict when they could book the cheapest airline tickets.
Our data scientists processed millions of search results from Fareboom’s booking engine to study fluctuation in airfare prices over the past several years. Based on revealed patterns, they built a predictive algorithm, that is constantly improved through machine learning. The smart predictor significantly increased the OTA’s website conversion.
IBE for new adopters: how to go online
Travel companies that are going to adopt their first booking engine for online sales have several options to do so. The choice will depend on available resources, specific requirements, and the level of control over the booking process you set your sights on.
Use a white label solution. White label solutions are ready-to-use travel booking platforms that can be customized to reflect the unique look and feel of a particular brand. They fit the needs of small companies with no resources for building complex systems and legacy travel businesses feeling the urgent need to bring their business online as quickly as possible. The major drawbacks center around a dependence on the white label solution provider regarding adding new features or integrations.
Integrate your existing website with a SaaS booking engine. Companies who already run a website and use specific software systems have an option to integrate software-as-a-service booking engine solutions into their interfaces in the form of widgets. As a rule, SaaS software providers carry out maintenance and deliver support services. The downside is that your options will be restricted to features and integrations of the selected booking engine.
Integrate your existing website with content aggregator APIs. Rather than connecting with each travel supplier separately, you may use travel APIs aggregating content from hundreds of sources. For example, Direct Connect XML API by TravelFusion gives you access to content from 240+ airlines via a single touch point. “In this scenario, you use TravelFusion’s booking engine,” Andrey Chebotarev explains. “But you need help from tech experts to provide integration with your system and design a part of a booking engine module that will be built into your website.”
Develop a unique booking engine on top of a ready-made solution with basic functionality. If you seek the highest level of flexibility and customization, we recommend that you build your project on top of an existing minimalistic program module and connect it with the particular travel providers, omitting excess integrations. This way you’ll reach the golden mean between uniqueness and practicability.
Originally published at AltexSoft tech blog “Travel Booking Engines: Types, Functionality, and Integrations”