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Travelocity overtakes Expedia in annual satisfaction survey

Squeezed between travel providers on one side and meta-search sites on the other, it seems online travel agencies (OTAs) have one ace in the hole: Consumers still like using them.

That’s the upshot of a new American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report released on Tuesday. Focusing on Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity, the report rated overall satisfaction with the sites at 78 on a 100-point scale last year, matching the record high set the year before.

“A score of 78 is good,” said Larry Freed, CEO and president at ForeSee, which helps produce the Index. “We consider 80 the threshold for a great performing site and they’re bumping up right against it.”

While the aggregate score was unchanged, individual results showed more fluctuation. After nine years in the top spot, Expedia slipped 3 percent, from 79 points to 77, losing its crown to Travelocity, which climbed from 77 to 79.

Orbitz and Priceline also posted better numbers, rising from 75 to 76 and 73 to 76, respectively.

Speaking anecdotally, Freed says Travelocity may have gotten a boost after it redesigned its homepage last summer.

“It’s a bit more of a guided navigation — Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 — as opposed to just filling out a form,” he told msnbc.com. “We don’t know explicitly if that’s the reason it improved, but it’s definitely a fresher, cleaner look.”

Changes at Priceline may also explain that site’s improved rating. In recent years, the company has gradually moved away from its opaque, “Name Your Own Price” focus toward a more traditional OTA model. (In January, the company even went so far as to kill off the Priceline Negotiator, the celebrity spokesman played by William Shatner.)

“They’re now more in sync with everybody else,” said Freed. “Knowing what you’re getting is probably a little more palatable for a larger base of consumers.”

Still, as a group, the OTAs face fundamental challenges because they all serve a similar role as middlemen to the travel providers whose inventory they sell.

“Loyalty is an issue,” said Diane Clarkson, e-business analyst with Forrester Research Inc. “In a sense, the OTAs have replaced search engines. So many travelers will start with an OTA for their research but then book on a supplier site.”

To counter that, Clarkson expects the OTAs to get increasingly proactive toward customer service through the use of newer technologies. More and better use of virtual agents and live chat, for example, may help keep users from clicking over to Budget, Marriott or United when it’s time to buy.

Another option would be to provide more benchmark data to alleviate price anxiety, says Carroll Rheem, director of research at PhoCusWright. “A lot of travelers still feel the need to shop around to make sure they’re really getting a good deal,” she told msnbc.com.

To alleviate some of that anxiety, Rheem points to the way financial companies display info: “They show historical prices, averages against the competition, things that give people a sense of the lay of the land.”

Generally speaking, though, she agrees that the OTAs are doing a good job of satisfying their customers.

 “We’re not seeing very high percentages for frustration factors,” she said. “It’s more about the tweaking and fine-tuning at this point.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.