Plane rip-off: Travellers warned over ‘bargain’ flight fares offered by online travel agents, as hefty fees for bags and seat choice can make it cheaper to pay the airline directly, says Which?
- Which? carried out price checks on flights to popular routes with online agents
- It says travellers are ‘often unaware’ of the premium they may be paying
- MORE: Travel expert reveals the do’s and don’ts of seat swapping on planes
Travellers are being warned to take seemingly bargain flight prices advertised by some online travel agents with a pinch of salt, with research by Which? revealing that their deals can be over £100 more expensive than booking directly with airlines due to ‘eyewatering’ rates for extras such as luggage and seat selection.
The watchdog carried out 28 spot price checks, comparing the amount travellers would pay on popular routes when booking directly with an airline and with online travel agents (OTAs) eDreams, Gotogate, Kiwi and Opodo.
In all cases, it was cheaper to book directly with the airline if adding on extras such as hold luggage or making a seat selection, despite the headline prices offered by OTAs often being marginally cheaper.
Which? says: ‘Worryingly, travellers are often unaware of the premium they may be paying with OTAs.’
When the watchdog carried out a survey in October of last year to understand consumers’ experiences with online booking sites, 60 per cent of those who’d used a third-party booking site to book a flight in the past two years said they were unaware that these sites could charge more for luggage than airlines do, Which? reveals.
Which? has found that certain online travel agents are charging travellers hundreds of pounds for flight extras such as luggage and seat selection, making paying the airline the cheaper choice
In one example, Which? was quoted £556 by OTA eDreams for a return flight from London Gatwick to Orlando, flying with British Airways. This was the cheapest price on offer for the route, just £2 less than if a traveller booked with British Airways directly.
Once Which? added hold luggage and chose a seat, the price quoted by eDreams shot up by £258, to £814. The same flight booked directly with BA, with the same extras, would have been £712 – a saving of £102, Which? reveals.
Similarly, a Ryanair flight from London Stansted to Athens was priced at £104 via Opodo, £3 cheaper than with Ryanair.
Once researchers added one 20kg hold suitcase, one 10kg cabin bag with priority boarding, and chose a seat, the price quoted by Opodo more than doubled, coming in at a grand total of £261.
Booking with Ryanair and making the same selections, Which? was quoted £195 – £66 less.
The watchdog notes that Ryanair has repeatedly complained about OTAs selling its flights, saying that without a commercial agreement in place, such sales are in breach of the terms of its website. In 2021, it tried to stop passengers who had been issued boarding passes by Kiwi.com from boarding, citing that to ‘comply with public health, security and safety regulations’, passengers should check themselves in personally rather than via an agent.
Today, it charges OTA customers 35 cents (31 pence) to check in online and verify their identity, or asks that they arrive at the airport early to complete verification.
In terms of stopping OTAs from selling its seats in the first place, Which? notes that Ryanair has had mixed success – last year the Paris Court of Appeal upheld a judgement to prevent the French arm of Lastminute.com selling the airline’s flights in France, but other courts have not always found in favour of the airline, often on the basis that removing the right of third parties to sell flights would be anti-competitive.
Which? carried out 28 spot price checks – one of which is pictured – comparing the amount travellers would pay on popular routes when booking directly with an airline or with online travel agents
Which? discovered that a Ryanair flight from Stansted to Athens was £66 cheaper when booked with the airline, rather than via online travel agent Opodo
That they offer the consumer more choice is certainly one of the arguments OTAs themselves would use, the watchdog notes.
In their responses to Which?, many of the OTAs explained that they allow passengers to look at flights from different airlines at the same time, and also add hotel bookings or other services.
However, Which? says that as well as charging inflated prices, there are countless reports of OTAs offering substandard customer care, with the consumer champion hearing from numerous travellers who have had issues accessing assistance when things go wrong.
In its recent survey of flight booking sites, no company achieved more than three out of five stars for customer service.
Zoe Sharp, a customer of TravelUp, only had her issues resolved once Which? Travel intervened on her behalf – and that was despite paying £75 for its ‘gold service pack’, which according to TravelUp’s website, carries its ‘preferential customer service’.
Which? says that Sharp had booked a JetBlue flight for herself and her family from London to New York and was due to fly in December last year. While JetBlue’s terms and conditions allow for a credit refund when cancelling up to 24 hours before departure, TravelUp informed her it was not possible to receive a credit if she opted to cancel. Sharp insisted TravelUp cancel, but by the time they did, it was less than 24 hours until she had been due to depart, the watchdog reveals.
Only once Which? Travel advocated on her behalf did TravelUp finally agree to credit Miss Sharp’s account.
Which? says that TravelUp is far from alone in charging customers extra to access a standard of customer care, however.
It reveals that Kiwi.com charges approximately £17 per person to access higher caller priority and email support, among other perks such as free trip changes. If you choose not to pay, you’ll be low priority when calling, and could face additional charges of up to £30 for any additional services, compared to £10 if opting for the ‘plus services’ option, Which? says.
Meanwhile, Trip.com is among the OTAs selling AirHelp Plus, a £9 service which is advertised as ensuring you receive compensation in the event your flight is delayed or cancelled, the watchdog reveals. It says that while this could prove useful in some countries, anyone flying on an EU or UK carrier to or from the EU or UK could, depending on the length of their delay, be legally entitled to compensation regardless, with no need to pay any kind of fee.
Which? notes: ‘The way Trip.com presents AirHelp’s service suggests that passengers wouldn’t get their compensation without it – something which is untrue, and could potentially be unlawful under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.’
Commenting on the research, Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: ‘It’s easy to be tempted by headline airfares from online travel agents that save a few pounds but you are always better off booking directly with the airline. Not only is it likely to work out cheaper in the end, but in the event that something should go wrong, it will be clear where the responsibility lies.
‘If you’re looking to find the best value prices, flight comparison sites will always be the preferable option for finding the cheapest seats. Likewise, if you’re keen to book as a package and add accommodation to your flight booking, Which? would always advise using a reputable package holiday firm.’
A spokesperson for both Opodo and eDreams, as the two companies are operated by the same brand, said: ‘The difference between booking direct and with an OTA is clear – customers using Opodo will actually have been offered numerous different price options for their trip and will have been able to make savings by combining different providers within one same booking, as opposed to being limited to book the only option given by one single provider. ‘
Which? found that London to Orlando booked directly with BA was £102 cheaper than when booked via eDreams
Which? was quoted £556 by eDreams for a return flight from London to Orlando, but once the watchdog added hold luggage and chose a seat, the price shot up by £258
A TravelUp spokesperson said: ‘TravelUp book in excess of 2,000 passengers a day through its package, flight only and hotel only offerings and we do this by offering competitive prices and a good level of customer service. When things do go wrong, we use all available means to try and rectify the situation as in the case of Miss Sharp.’
Trip.com said: ‘Trip.com understands that customers are entitled to refunds and delay compensation in certain circumstances in the UK. AirHelp is a third-party service we offer in response to customer demand for support in securing refunds they are entitled to due to airline-borne cancellations or delays.’
A statement from Airhelp noted: ‘At AirHelp we would never want our service to be mis-sold or misunderstood by the consumers, so we will review the text with Trip.com to ensure that every air passenger is informed properly that our service lies within handling the entire process of claiming compensation and providing additional assistance and information.’
Finally, a representative for Kiwi.com said: ‘Kiwi.com’s standard service average response times for customers wishing to call is just 14 seconds and all for the cost of a local call.’
They add: ‘At Kiwi.com, the intention of the variable levels of customer service comes from a place of understanding our customers and bringing choice – we have a predominantly young customer base who are digitally savvy and manage their lives through apps. We look at all ways to strip out costs for those customers.
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