Which? is warning travellers to take bargain flight prices advertised by some online travel agents with a pinch of salt, as new research from the consumer champion reveals they are often more expensive than airlines due to eye-watering rates for extras like luggage and seat selection.
Which? carried out 28 spot price checks, comparing the amount travellers would pay on popular routes when booking directly with an airline or with online travel agents (OTAs) eDreams, Gotogate, Kiwi, Opodo.
In all cases, it was cheaper to book directly with the airline if adding on extras like hold luggage or making a seat selection, despite the headline prices offered by OTAs often being marginally cheaper.
Worryingly, travellers are often unaware of the premium they may be paying with OTAs. When Which? carried out a survey in October 2022 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 last two years said they were unaware that these sites could charge more for luggage than airlines do.
In one example, Which? was quoted £556 by OTA eDreams (part of the same group as Opodo) 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.
Similarly, a Ryanair flight from Stansted to Athens was priced at £104 via Opodo, £3 cheaper than 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.
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 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, 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 it favour of the airline, often on the basis that removing the right of third parties to sell flights would be anti-competitive.
That they offer the consumer more choice is certainly one of the arguments OTAs themselves would use. 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, 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 their ‘gold service pack’, which according to TravelUp’s website, carries its ‘preferential customer service’.
Miss 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. Only once Which? Travel advocated on her behalf did TravelUp finally agree to credit Sharp’s account.
TravelUp is far from alone in charging customers extra to access a standard of customer care, however. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.”
Notes to editors:
Flight prices were collected on the same day, for flights departing between 11-18 March 2023. Prices were for return flights and rounded to the nearest pound. For standard seat selection, Which? researchers selected the cheapest seat available on the airline’s site and matched it accordingly.
British Airways flights include hand luggage costs in the upfront price.
Rights of Reply:
A spokesperson for Opodo/eDreams 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.
“Our 17 million customers clearly value the service we offer and see the benefits OTA’s provide in terms of value for money, convenience, choice and flexibility.
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 Ms Sharp. We strongly recommend that people do take the option to upgrade to one of our service packs as we believe they offer great value for money.
Trip.com: 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. The display of this service is in line with our responsibilities under UK consumer law.
AirHelp: 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.
We support passengers in receiving the airline compensation they’re entitled to, which does address existing customer entitlement. Nowhere does the text online suggest that only by purchasing the AirHelp Plus service might one acquire those rights.
Kiwi: 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.
Ryanair is required to ensure that passengers are on notice of relevant flight security and safety regulations. We do this by requiring passengers to confirm their compliance with these regulations during check-in.
Verification enables us to ensure that a passenger on the booking (and not a third-party travel agent) has completed check-in. Customers can verify in a number of ways, including by paying 35c to use the online facial recognition tool. Please take note that Ryanair does not benefit commercially from this.
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.