After months of virus chaos, families are now daring to dream of a holiday abroad next year.
Comparison site Skyscanner reported a 37 per cent jump in bookings last month after Pfizer announced its vaccine was 90 per cent effective.
Yet a Money Mail investigation today reveals that holidaymakers need to watch out for costly catches when booking flights with online travel agents.
Travel plans: Our investigation reveals that holidaymakers need to watch out for costly catches when booking flights with online travel agents
We found some websites were charging more than double what you would pay if you went to the airline directly.
Others hike baggage and seat reservation fees and add on costly ‘service’ or ‘agency’ fees. Some will even take a hefty chunk of your refund if the flight is cancelled.
An online travel agent (OTA) is supposed to make it easier to compare flight prices. But unlike comparison sites that simply signpost you to the best deals, online agents make the booking on your behalf – and charge you to do so.
Money Mail readers also routinely complain that online agents try to pass the buck to the airline if there is a problem.
Just this month online agent Lastminute.com was ordered by the competition watchdog to refund £7 million for flights cancelled because of Covid. And LoveHolidays has also now agreed to refund 44,000 customers more than £18 million.
Tickets take off with extra fees
There are around 1,000 OTAs, with 4,000 different brands, which are members of trade body Abta.
However, there are many more which are not members, including eDreams, Opodo and eSky, and which are not held to its code of conduct.
Abta says its members must be transparent on pricing and should not amend any charges made by an airline.
They can charge an administration fee to cover their costs, but this should be made clear at the time of booking.
In some cases online agents are more than doubling prices.
A Ryanair flight from London to Edinburgh on January 1 costs £32.99 on Lastminute.com – a 138 per cent increase on Ryanair’s advertised price of £13.84.
Two Jet2 return flights from Birmingham to Tenerife departing on January 3 cost £130 directly compared with £218 – including a £38 ‘agency’ fee – also via Lastminute.com.
Online agent eSky proved more expensive, too. A couple flying from Luton airport to Lanzarote on January 3 and returning four days later would pay around £245 compared with just £174 with EasyJet – a mark up of more than 40 per cent.
Another website, eDreams, hiked the cost of taking a bag on board a Ryanair flight from Birmingham to Malaga in January from £24 to £30.10.
Because online agents book flights using company accounts, they will say they must wait for the airline to refund them before they can pass on any money – many deduct hefty fees
Baggage packs a nasty surprise
Pensioners Sybil and Neil Hall had booked flights to Verona, Italy, through online agent eSky earlier this year.
They came across the firm while searching the internet for flights and saw it offered a good deal for a ten-day trip.
At the time of booking they paid around £280 to include reserved seats and two check-in cases on both legs of the journey.
But when they arrived at Stansted airport in September, Ryanair said it had not received payment for the luggage and charged them a further £80.
And when the couple, who run a property renovation business, complained to eSky, the firm was adamant it had paid the airline.
Sybil, 69, from Northumberland, says: ‘We shouldn’t have to pay for our luggage twice.
‘We have confirmation from eSky that we paid and a receipt from Ryanair. So it follows that either eSky or Ryanair must be responsible.’
It was only when Money Mail intervened that eSky admitted its mistake and offered a refund.
‘British’ site, but based abroad
Experts also warn that while customers may assume an online agent is based in the UK because its website address ends ‘co.uk’, the business could be run from overseas. For instance, eSky.co.uk is, in fact, based in Poland.
So if you book a package deal with an agent based abroad, you will not have Atol protection, which ensures you get your money back if a travel firm goes bust. Call centres overseas may be also more difficult to contact.
Go2Gate also has a ‘co.uk’ website address, but is based in Sweden.
If you book a package deal with an agent based abroad, you will not have Atol protection, which ensures you get your money back if a travel firm goes bust
A struggle to land a refund
Using a third-party booking website also complicates matters when it comes to claiming refunds.
Because the online agent booked the flights using its company account, the agent will say it must wait for the airline to refund it before it can pass on any money — and many deduct hefty fees.
Go2Gate takes a £30 cut if your flight is cancelled, while Kiwi.com charges €30 (£27).
Online agents Flysharp and TravelTrolley scrapped their £75 admin fee for processing refunds in the summer.
But experts say you can avoid similar charges by claiming directly from the airline.
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, says: ‘Which? has received a disproportionate number of complaints about online travel agents, many of which have failed miserably when it’s come to their handling of cancellations and refunds in recent months.
‘Several have also been found charging admin fees to process refunds if their booking is eventually cancelled, so our advice at the moment is to generally avoid any sites charging these fees and book direct instead, or if you have had a cancelled flight and are chasing a refund from an OTA, to bypass it and go straight to the airline.’
Andrew McConnell, of watchdog the Civil Aviation Authority, says: ‘When searching for flights and holidays online, consumers should always shop around as prices can differ depending on whether they book direct or through an online travel agent.’
A Ryanair spokesman warns: ‘These websites overcharge customers with ridiculously high hidden mark-ups on flights and extra products. We call on customers always to book directly.’
ESky claims its flight prices are generally in line with what airlines offer directly. It adds that airlines can occasionally offer cheaper deals because they use dynamic pricing that fluctuates according to demand.
Lastminute.com did not comment on why its prices are more expensive, but says its service simpifies customers’ ability to compare prices.
A spokesman says: ‘We appreciate that some airlines would like to limit the available options consumers have to book their flights and force them to book only on the airline website, to exploit their market share, but we strongly believe that this would only limit competition in the market and ultimately damage UK consumer.’
EDreams did not respond to requests for comment.
THIS IS MONEY’S FIVE OF THE BEST HOLIDAY MONEY DEALS
Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.