A Which? Travel investigation has found some online travel agents are luring holidaymakers in with ‘too-good-to-be-true’ deals, before ramping up prices.
In some cases, prices have rocketed during the booking process. In others, customers have complained of being called the day after a booking only to be told that, if they don’t pay more money, their booking will be cancelled.
Kam Hughes told Which? Travel that she needed to book a flight urgently when her mother was taken ill in Vancouver. The cheapest offer she could find was with a company called Checknfly. But the day after booking, the company sent her a message asking her to call and ‘confirm her flight’.
As she’d already paid, she thought she had confirmed. But when she phoned Checknfly she was told that if she didn’t pay another £79 her flight would be cancelled. She refused and booked a flight direct with British Airways instead.
When we approached Checknfly it told us that it wasn’t its fault and that the price had increased by £160 while she was making her booking. ‘We were ready to bear half the loss and requested that Mrs Hughes pay £79 in order to secure the flights,’ it said. ‘When she refused we processed the full refund back onto the card she paid from.’
Stranded at the airport
Another unsuspecting holidaymaker had an even worse experience. John-Michael Clow found a flight to India with Gotogate that was almost £200 cheaper than anywhere else.
Unfortunately, when he got to the airport, Thomas Cook airlines told him that his ticket was not valid. Thomas Cook had already informed Gotogate that there was a problem with the ticket at the time of booking, but Gotogate had failed to inform John-Michael. He called Gotogate, but it insisted that it hadn’t done anything wrong and wouldn’t help. Even when he finally got a refund from Gotogate, the company deducted £17 as a ‘refund fee’.
Only after Which? Travel got in touch did Gotogate admit that it had made a mistake ‘due to human error’. It refunded the cost of booking a second flight and added compensation of just over £300. ‘We have many customers and, of course, make mistakes now and then,’ it told us. ‘When that happens, we try to correct the mistake as soon as possible and compensate if necessary.’
Flight comparison websites
John-Michael had found Gotogate through Skyscanner. The price comparison site told us that it takes responsibility for the behaviour of agents that it lists. ‘We log complaints, which then form part of the provider’s quality rating,’ it said, ‘We will take action against providers who breach our strict thresholds, or have consistent patterns in negative feedback.’
The extreme situation of being left without a flight is, fortunately, rare. However, one reason some online travel agents are able to sell ultra-cheap tickets is because they sell unnecessary add-ons as well.
Gotogate has a whole list of ‘extras’, 11 in total, that customers are offered before they can finally pay. These include £19.90 for a ‘platinum support’ package to guarantee it will respond to customer queries quickly.
It also offers a bag tracking service through a company called Blue Ribbon – £9 to guarantee that if a customer’s bag goes missing for more than 96 hours they’ll be awarded $1,000 (£755). But the same service is available direct from Blue Ribbon for $5 (£3.80).
One of the worst value products is the £39 we found it charging for the US visa-waiver scheme Esta. Bought directly from the US government, it costs just $14 (£11).
‘Our business is based on offering our customers the cheapest available air fare,’ Gotogate told us. ‘We then offer several add-on products so they can customise their trip.’
Sneaky luggage charges
Other agents appear to offer cheaper fares than the airlines but make up the difference by charging a supplement for taking luggage. One flight to New York with Norwegian Air cost £362 return with Edreams and £369 with the airline itself. However, Norwegian charges £35 each way for luggage, while Edreams adds a surcharge of £13, bringing the price up to £48 each way.
Edreams admitted that it does have a surcharge on luggage and told us: ‘The prices we advertise via aggregators are always achievable but, of course, might increase depending on the additional services added to a booking.’
Better to book direct?