In the past, when a college student forgot to make holiday travel plans in advance, they could count on being jammed into a packed car with their classmates for a long, slow ride home.
Online student travel agencies have changed all that.
Now, harried students can make plane reservations a few days before they leave, and not have to use all their tuition money to pay for it.
The 11-month-old Watertown, Mass.-based StudentUniverse.com and the 2-year-old Web site of Los Angeles-based Student Travel (www.sta.com) are the only ones exclusively devoted to meeting the needs of student travelers ages 18–33 online.
StudentUniverse.com and STA also compete with Council Travel, which also caters to students but does not allow purchase of tickets online. They provide all the functions that other travel Web sites like Travelocity.com provide, but they also have some tickets priced exclusively for students.
To purchase tickets, a customer must provide their birth date and college.
Rob Egan, StudentUniverse.com’s vice president of marketing, said the company does verify the information and notes that passengers must show ID at the airport.
Hard Part Is Finding Routes
The biggest risk seems to be not finding a student rate for a particular route.
Of five domestic routes — Boston to Los Angeles, New York to Los Angeles; Chicago to Dallas; Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C; Boston to San Francisco — none of them came up with a student rate for a departure date of Dec. 22 and return date of Jan 8.
International flights fared much better. A flight from Boston to London, which cost $853 on the USAirways Web site, cost $396.80 on StudentUniverse; a flight from Los Angeles to Paris was priced at $681. The same ticket went for $1,384 on Delta’s Web site.
But customers on StudentUniverse.com don’t discover what airline they are flying on until they purchase the ticket.
STA Travel had a better success rate — and identifies the airline before its customers buy a ticket.
StudentUniverse.com, which originally was called Prism Tours, has been around for 10 years and has been online since January. In that time, it has sold 7,000 tickets with a total value of $5 million.
Spreading the Word
Still, the company said one of its hurdles is getting the word out about its service.
“There is very low awareness among college students that they are eligible for these discounts,” Egan said.
Student Travel has been around for 30 years and has over 200 offices around the world. Although the company would not release sales figures, Stapleton said STA did “about 250 times what we did last year” in online sales.
Ken Nilssen, the sales administration manager for Scandinavian Airlines System, an airline which has arrangements with both student travel companies, said that student travel sites allow SAS to sell seats that otherwise might remain unsold.
He said SAS gets an additional benefit by enrolling student passengers in a frequent flyer program to encourage airline loyalty.
“The people who are traveling as students are our future business class passengers,” Nilssen said.
Jason Meritt, 23, a May 2000 graduate of Ithaca College, bought tickets for himself and his girlfriend using StudentUniverse.com. The pair plan on traveling to Iceland and then to England for eight days in January. He paid $292 round trip for each ticket.
He said he had no problem with the idea of buying airline tickets online — especially when they were $75 cheaper than any others he found.
“I’ve bought other stuff online. I buy concert tickets online all the time,” he said. “If I can trust that, I could trust [this Web site].”